Paris, Argentina, Iran: An Opportunity for Obama?
“In the warmest of hearts there’s a cold spot for the Jews.” Irving Howe wrote these words to me in 1972 in a letter (actually, a postcard) of bitter reflection about the fact that A Treasury of Yiddish Stories, the great work of literary salvage that he and Eliezer Greenberg had published in 1954, “never got reviewed in any American literary magazine.”
Those words returned to me as I read the shocking report of the death on Jan. 18 (in highly suspicious circumstances) of Argentinian federal prosecutor Alberto Nisman. In 2006 he had indicted seven Iranians, who are still at large, and a Lebanese suspect (now dead) for the massacre of 85 Argentinian Jews in the 1994 bombing of the Buenos Aires Jewish Community Center. Nisman had also concluded that the Iranians were responsible for the 1992 attack on Israel’s Buenos Aires embassy, which killed 29 and wounded 242. Nisman was scheduled to present, on Jan. 19, evidence that Argentinian President Kirchner and her Foreign Minister Timerman had entered into a secret agreement with the Iranian government to release the killers in exchange for an Iranian oil agreement to purchase Argentinian grain.
Moreover, as Lee Smith has convincingly argued (in Tablet Magazine, Jan. 23), “what distinguished Nisman’s investigation was the motive he attributed to the Iranians—to punish Buenos Aires for first stalling and then cancelling [under pressure from the Clinton White House] bilateral agreements on nuclear technology.” The bombings exemplified the Iranian regime’s long overseas outreach to murder Jews, both as an immediate end in itself and as a means to pursue its nuclear ambitions, whose ultimate end is the destruction of Israel, where over half of the world’s Jewish population now lives. In Lebanon, for example, Hezbollah acts on behalf of Iran in waging war against Israel. (In France the Iranians pay the salary and living expenses of the antisemitic comedian Dieudonne Mbala Mbala, whose main contribution to French culture is a Gallic version of the Nazi salute. )
The dismal news from Argentina followed hard upon the early January murders in Paris and converged with the long-running melodrama of America’s nuclear negotiations with Iran, otherwise known as Obama’s version of détente. What has this torrent of misfortune revealed about the Jewish condition apart from the obvious– that the second erasure of Jews from Europe in less than a century is well under way, and that Jews in many other countries (as well as in Israel) are a constantly beleaguered people? Does it, for example, tell us whether the heart of Barack Obama (whose White House is a very different place from the aforementioned Clinton White House) harbors a cold spot for the Jews?
Since Jewish voters invariably, and by huge (if diminishing) majorities, vote for him, the question seems absurd. But is it? Obama, during his first campaign for the presidency, was the first candidate for that office to campaign in Europe as well as the United States, as if his popularity there would redound to his credit here. In July 2009, before a Berlin crowd of 200,000 people, he called himself “a citizen of the world” and an ardent advocate of “global citizenship.” Although European civilization had, between 1933 and 1945, destroyed its Jewish minority, Obama kept offering “apologies” for American misbehavior all over the globe. He promised, for example, that he would be more respectful of Europe than President George W. Bush had been. Could Obama have been thinking of the fact that, unlike Bush, who at London’s Whitehall Palace (November 2003), vigorously warned European leaders to cease tolerating Jew-hatred, he did not express unmannerly disapproval of Europe’s resurgent hatred? Nor did Obama return to the (not very distant) past to remind European leaders that the world of European Jewry came to an end in the ashes of Auschwitz and Maidenek at the time and place where European civilization itself collapsed.
By 2009 several critics of the new administration had begun to call Obama “the first anti-Israel president.” His appointments favored people who detested Israel or could not mention the word “antisemitism” without equating it with that imaginary phenomenon called “Islamophobia.” Jewish leaders who met with Obama in those days reported that he very much wanted to “change the way the Arabs see us” by putting “space” between America and Israel; and his public utterances displayed a hammering insistence on the need to “respect” Islam. His first presidential grand tour of the old continent took place a week or so after the Religion of Perpetual Outrage had been expressing its outrage over Israel’s actions in Gaza by staging violent pro-Hamas demonstrations throughout the old (and increasingly post-Christian) continent. The worst riots took place in Turkey, where they were orchestrated by PM Erdogan. Yet this did not prevent Obama from telling Turkish audiences that America is not and “never will be” at war with Islam, or from declaring, repeatedly, that Recep Erdogan, Europe’s most antisemitic head of government, was his favorite European political leader.
When, in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo and Hyper Kasher murders of early January, an estimated two million people took to the streets of Paris to declare “Je Suis Charlie,” there were two notable absences: France’s Muslims and the president of the United States. Speculation about Obama’s absence still abounds. Could even the self-fascinated bunglers who comprise his inner circle of security and public relations advisors have been so incompetent as to be blind to the importance of the presence of “the leader of the free world” alongside other world leaders? Was Obama nervous about the fact that he had, in the not so distant past, excoriated cartoonists, including those of the French weekly, who “mock The Prophet” and said they would have no part in the future? Did he perhaps fear getting photographed next to one of the three or four marchers (among the millions) whose signs read “Je Suis Juif” rather than “Je Suis Charlie”? Did he, as Jerold Auerbach has suggested, stay home because of his dual loyalty problem—i.e., torn between the world of Islam and that of non-Islam?
Having six years earlier failed to criticize European leaders for their indifference to the continent’s resurgent antisemitism, he now found himself lagging behind even such time-servers as French president Hollande by failing to condemn it publicly. (As for the journalists, they deigned—well over a decade late—to notice its European “return,” but only because the murders of the Jewish grocery shoppers coincided with that of the “Charlie Hebdo” staff members. Neither did any of the ones I read or heard think it worthy of mention, in a story about Jews murdered because they were shopping in a kosher grocery, that the outlawing of kosher ritual slaughter has been an obsession of European do-gooders, with Germans in the lead, for years.)
And while all this was going on the charade of the endless (and repeatedly extended) negotiations with Iran over that country’s development of nuclear weapon delivery capacity dragged on, its length uncertain, but its conclusion entirely predictable. It is hardly a secret that the Obama administration has rejected the dubious principle of “My country, right or wrong,” for a still worse one: “The other country, right or wrong.” Lest we forget what détente with the Iranian mullahs will make the first order of business once Iran acquires its bomb, “The chief of Iran’s Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC) says the elite forces will continue to help the anti-Israeli axis of resistance in the Middle East region until full obliteration of the Zionist regime. The IRGC will continue and deepen its support for the Muslim combatants and fighters in the region until full removal of this very epitome of evil from the geopolitics of the region, Major General Mohammad Ali Jafari said in a statement on Tuesday” (January 20). This was only a slight variation on Ahmadinejad’s mantra—”Israel must be wiped off the map”—but its timing, in the midst of Obama’s tempestuous quarrel with John Boehner over the latter’s invitation to Prime Minister Netanyahu to address Congress, was impeccable.
The trading of undiplomatic and indecorous blows between President Obama and the Republican-controlled Congress appeared to begin on January 16, when the president took it upon himself virtually to endorse David Cameron in the United Kingdom’s pre-election competition, thereby infuriating England’s Labor Party opposition. London’s Daily Telegraph reported that “Cameron received a significant pre-election boost on Friday, after Mr Obama said Britain’s economic recovery is evidence he ‘must be doing something right.’ He went on to describe Mr Cameron… as a ‘great friend’ and one of his ‘closest and most trusted partners in the world.'” But, during their joint news conference, it became clear that Obama had previously conscripted the British Prime Minister to lobby American senators to oppose the enforcement of penalties upon the Iranian regime for its latest skulduggery in the nuclear weapons charade. Obama was fulfilling his side of a sordid bargain. John Boehner then retaliated by inviting Prime Minister Netanyahu, without Obama’s approval, to address the Congress on just why Israel takes it amiss that Iran should be allowed (if not actually encouraged) to pursue its acquisition of nuclear weaponry. This enraged Obama and Secretary of State Kerry who, weeks earlier, had taken it upon himself to declare that Israel, which has been under siege, living with a constant burden of peril, for 67 years, was “not interested in peace.”
Given the convergence and interconnectedness of the Paris murders, the return to prominence of the (Iranian organized) Argentina massacres of two decades ago, and the crisis in the Iranian nuclear negotiations, a president with imagination and the desire to show the world that he really is serious about crime and punishment, the iniquity of Islamist terror, and the sanctity of Jewish lives, would now insist that, as a precondition of further negotiations about matters nuclear, Iran turn over the killers of 1992 and 1994 for extradition to face trial in the Republic of Argentina. But will he? A president with a sense of history (and a less prickly ego) would recognize in Netanyahu not an insolent, unmannerly, and “undiplomatc” rival but the voice of a people that, within the memory of many of us, lost well over one-third of its number between 1939 and 1945, and now faces the very real prospect of a second Holocaust.
Irving Howe, a few years after he lamented to me that “cold spot for the Jews…in the warmest of hearts,” lamented its presence in a far more important place than literary magazines: the White House. In World of Our Fathers (1976) he wrote about President Franklin D. Roosevelt (whom Obama considers his spiritual predecessor) and the Jews as follows: “The record of [FDR’s] administration in helping to save or admit Jewish refugees was not at all a good one … the truth is that, with regard to the Jewish refugees in Europe, the record…was shameful …And the Jewish organizations lacked political leverage with the Roosevelt administration precisely because the American Jewish vote was so completely at the disposal of the president.”
Edward Alexander’s book Jews Against Themselves is forthcoming from Transaction Publishers.