November 21, 2018

Geneva is not Munich, and President Obama is not Neville Chamberlain

If I could wave a magic wand, I would ask the Jewish community to stop using Holocaust analogies. They simply don’t work. We are different and the world is different.

Permit me a simple example. No one disputes that Israel has second-strike capacity and that anyone who contemplates a nuclear attack on Israel must take into account Israel’s retaliatory capacity, its ability to attack its attackers and to deliver its own weapons of mass destruction with devastating results. Such a capacity did not exist at Auschwitz. Then, only the imaginary power of the Jews, what C. Wright Mills termed the myth of omnipotence and the myth of impotence, posed even a limited restraint on the German exercise of its complete power over the Jews.

Nazarian: ‘This deal is not the last step’]

The fact that Israel has the power not only to retaliate, but also to initiate actions, makes all comparisons to the Holocaust vacuous. 

Iran poses its own threats to Israel, to Jews and to the United States, but they are not the threats of Hitler and Nazi Germany. It is no compliment to say that the ayatollah is not Hitler, no tribute to his virtue, but merely the recognition of reality.

I hear similar vacuous comparisons to the Munich Accords of September 1938, in which British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and his French counterpart ceded the Sudetenland — a part of Czechoslovakia with a not insignificant ethnic German population — to Hitler less than six months after his incorporation of Austria in return for his assurance that this was Germany’s last territorial demand. Chamberlain went home with an exaggerated sense of his achievement, calling it “peace in our times.” His agreement is now considered the paradigmatic example of appeasement. Within 60 days, the Kristallnacht pogrom broke out in Germany. Within six months, all of Czechoslovakia fell. Within a year, Poland was attacked.

In contrast, I was struck by how restrained President Barack Obama was at his news conference last week. After the brouhaha of the “historic agreement,” his claims were modest. The ways to an Iranian nuclear bomb were being blocked. The agreement was not based on trust or confidence but on robust inspection and verification. He implied President Ronald Reagan’s famous axiom “trust but verify.” The agreement was not based on Iranian good behavior. Bad behavior was expected — it would be easier to contain without nuclear weapons. Were such a change in behavior to happen, it would be a long way off and the United States would continue to oppose Iranian actions in support of Hezbollah, continue to fight against Iran’s support of Syria and not join forces with Iran in its battles with ISIS. These were not the words of a man who was expecting peace in our time. They were the words of a realist.

In interview after interview, Obama was acutely aware that the consequences of this agreement will not be seen during his administration, but will have to be judged from a time when he is no longer in power. He said: “My name is on the agreement.” His legacy is at stake, and he knows it. There is no expectation of immediate achievement, but he is playing the long game, and his reputation will be judged in a substantial way by how this agreement turns out. 

I know some Jews will say, “But Israel’s survival is at stake, which is far more important than Obama’s legacy.” The security analysts I met with in Israel believe that Israel, with American support, has the power to determine its survival. In certain respects it has never been stronger.

If you are looking for historical comparisons, the more apt one in circulation is between the Iran agreement and President Richard Nixon’s trip to China. Recall that the United States was still at war with Vietnam, China’s ally; that Mao was fiercely anti-American, bent on exporting revolution; and that China was in the midst of the Cultural Revolution, which was anything but a model of stability. Its record on human rights was abysmal, and no fundamental change was expected and none happened, at least not for a time. America was ending its strong allegiance with Taiwan, but recognizing the reality that Mao was in control of China and not the Taiwanese. 

It is intriguing to watch those who belittled sanctions as an effective tool to pressure Iran now sing sanctions’ praises. They neglect to mention that it was the Obama administration that imposed the sanctions and gained the consent and the support of its partners — including China and Russia — for those sanctions. 

Many of those who oppose the agreement, such as Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), also have changed their minds on the interim agreement, which has kept Iran’s nuclear program constrained and the sanctions in place while the talks went on. This process could not continue indefinitely and was predicated only on the negotiations reaching an agreement.

Is this appeasement? In a technical sense, every agreement involves appeasement in one sense or another of the term. The United States was appeased, its Allies were appeased and so were the Iranians, otherwise they would not have come to an agreement.

Is this Munich? I have seen no compelling arguments to justify this unhelpful comparison.

Will it work? 

We do not know, but all the military options that existed previously will still remain available. The United States is unbelievably far more powerful than England and France were in the 1930s. Israel is also far more powerful, and Iran is a long way off from achieving such power.

Two further observations: 

Let us judge this agreement on its merits or lack thereof, not on fallacious historical analogies.

Second, it is clear to me that the Jewish community is divided. The Jewish establishment and its Jewish organizations are fighting this agreement with all of their resources. The Jews  I speak to are far less inclined to fight the agreement and far more wary of the consequences of what a failed agreement would bring: an impotent, repudiated, lame-duck president; an end to sanctions (support for sanctions among many of the partners would end if the U.S. does not carry out its agreement); and an end to all constraints on an Iranian nuclear program. 

I suspect that the Jewish community will become only more polarized by this fight: Republicans and neocons as well as the Orthodox against liberal, Democratic and even moderate Jews. Jewish organizations will become further alienated from younger, more liberal Jews who don’t feel the call to arms. Relations will be more fractured, and unity more difficult to come by, especially if the battle is fought without the awareness that we have to work together on the morning after.


Michael Berenbaum is professor of Jewish studies and director of the Sigi Ziering Center for the Study of the Holocaust and Ethics at American Jewish University. Find his A Jew blog at jewishjournal.com.