I think people were very surprised by Kerry over the Gaza conflict because there was clearly an alignment between Israel and the Egyptians and the Egyptians were working on a cease-fire plan and then Kerry upended it by endorsing a Qatari-Turkish proposal. But Kerry’s actions make sense if the U.S. is drifting away from traditional allies like the Israelis and Egyptians and exploring cooperation with powers like the Iranians.
Last year, a popular right-wing author argued that we shouldn’t view Iran as an implacable enemy of the U.S. in light of the fact that Iran was staunchly pro-West before 1979. Assuming for a second that Iran’s nuclear threat could somehow be neutralized, do you think the U.S would, in fact, be wise to view Iran as a potential ally?
I think that’s too much of a hypothetical. As long as Iran is the “Islamic Republic of Iran,” you are going to have a nuclear issue.
The necessary condition between any decent relationship between America and Iran is the removal of that regime. And in that sense, the portents are encouraging. Iranians are not Arabs, they’re Persians; Iran is actually a much more multi-ethnic country than people really understand and you’ve always had this tension between Arab Muslims and non-Arab Muslims. I think particularly amongst educated people in Iran there is a much more positive disposition toward America than you would find perhaps in some of the Arab countries.
So I think if some of the liberal currents in Iran were to emerge as a serious force, the relationship would be transformed. But an Islamic regime with a nuclear program? Forget it.
In a recent article in The New York Times, opinion writer Seth Stephens-Davidowitz argues that anti-Semitism seems to defy rational explanation. He examined tens of thousands of profiles on America’s most popular hate website but could find no consistent or logical pattern. Many members were actually rather educated and financially stable. Do you believe that anti-Semitism is essentially irrational?
No, I don’t think that at all. I think if we say anti-Semitism is something irrational, which we can’t understand or control, we might as well give up fighting.
But aren’t at least some forms of anti-Semitism irrational? How else do you explain Jews being blamed throughout history for contradictory offenses – for being both capitalists and communists, for example?
Look, Holocaust denial is irrational because it’s obvious that there was a Holocaust and it’s obvious that anybody who says there wasn’t one is predisposed to believe that before they’ve looked at the facts. So in that very small narrow sense, it’s irrational.
But you have to remember that anti-Semitism is an idea that is not just restricted to one sector of political opinion. You have it among Islamists, you have it among communists, you have it among Nazis. It’s also a global phenomenon.
So when you’re dealing with a phenomenon that is this widespread, I think it’s dangerous shorthand to say it’s simply irrational with the corresponding implication that there’s nothing we can do about it. I think if the aim is to persuade anti-Semites to stop being anti-Semites, then yes, we might be up a blind alley with that one. But I think our goal has to be to marginalize the influence of anti-Semites, to isolate them as much as possible, and to win back the intellectual battleground for Zionism and for Israel.
You dedicate your recently published collection of articles on anti-Semitism to your “beloved grandfather, Haham Dr. Solomon Gaon.” Who was your grandfather?
He was a great man. “Haham” was his title as head of the Spanish and Portuguese Jewish community in the British Commonwealth. He was a Bosnian Jew. Most of his family were either murdered during the Holocaust or fought with the partisans in Yugoslavia. He later moved here and became the head of Sephardic studies at Yeshiva University.