One component of Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech to Congress that really seemed to get under the skin of many Obama loyalists was his contention that the Jews were facing another 1938. And, of course, the historical analogy is imperfect because historical analogies are almost always imperfect. The problem for the Jews is that, in this case, there simply isn’t a better one.
Across the media, Netanyahu’s reference to the greatest tragedy in Jewish history was treated as some kind of political stunt. It was kind of like … well, I guess, like questioning a president’s patriotism.
“At the end of it, when I think he really veered off into political territory, don’t know if it was on a delay at that point, but when he sort of raised the specter of the Holocaust and ‘Never again’ and Elie Wiesel—there was this great—Ari Fleischer could have done this great political speech,” explained Gloria Borger on CNN.
And James Fallows, who’s taken over Andrew Sullivan’s Israel-antagonist beat, was also put off by the idea of comparing Iran to Germany, arguing that to make such a comparison a person must first answer a a question: “Whether the world of 2015 is fundamentally similar to, or different from, the world of 1938.”
The answer is yes. The world is fundamentally different and similar.
This part of the speech would be very relevant if the year were 1938.
— James Fallows (@JamesFallows) March 3, 2015
Ayatollah Khamenei, the Iranian supreme leader, is a theocratic revolutionary and anti-Semite. His beliefs reflect a deep scriptural and political animosity towards Jews prevalent in Iran’s institutions. So if you were a Jew living in the same neighborhood as a nuclear Islamist state—a nation where leaders are persistently threatening to carry out a Jewish genocide while, at the same time, denying that a Jewish genocide took place in the past—you too might be anxious.
Yet, Netanyahu’s argument, Jonathan Chait wrote, was “a mix of genuine threat and a crude historicism infecting large segments of the Jewish community worldwide.” It’s fair to say that the Holocaust plays an oversized role in contemporary Jewish life. Not every skinhead is working to rebuild the Schutzstaffel. Not every instance of anti-Semitic graffiti portends a new Holocaust in Europe. And Hamas may think like Nazis, they may wish they could be like Nazis, but they lack the clout, ingenuity, or society to threaten an annihilation of the Jewish people.
Historicism, Chait argues, is often “blinding and debilitating.” I think so, but for very different reasons. Many Jews conflate their historic liberal partisanship with Jewish values. But as much as liberals admire Barack Obama and dislike Netanyahu, there is only one prospective menace to Israel’s existence, the pairing of fundamentalist Islam and nuclear weapons—whether it happens in 6 months, 10 years, or 25 years. That doesn’t necessary mean that Iranian mullahs—radicals by any standard, including their own—will begin laying waste to the region as soon as they break the threshold. But for the first time in a long time a force that unambiguously menaces the lives of millions of Jews will possess a weapon that allows them to take a shot at it.
So I’d say it’s as good as any time to bring up 1938.
Ian Bremmer once asked on Twitter: “Q to Netanyahu: If Iran nuclear program poses existential threat, why is it safer for Jews to live in Israel than in Europe?” Because the Israeli government feels an overwhelming responsibility to protect Jews.
Interfaith conferences, education, and the hard work of P5 + 1 nations are all nice, but “Never Again!” has only worked in the region because of F-16s, Tomahawk missiles, and genuine red lines. It’s worked because of the Begin doctrine, likely still in effect, which is the idea that a preventive strike against enemies that possess weapons of mass destruction is the moral responsibility of the Jewish state. This is why there is no Osirak reactor in Iraq and no al-Kibar nuclear facility in Syria.
Yes, Netanyahu’s been warning for many years that Iran will soon possess centrifuges for uranium enrichment and be on the threshold of a nuclear arsenal. We probably don’t know when. But most commentators have stopped pretending it won’t happen. Instead, Max Fisher, like Fallows and others, argues that it’s likely that most Iranian leaders “are just as rationally invested in self-preservation as anyone else.” The Iranian political system couldn’t be this complex “without being shrewdly self-interested,” he contends. That sounds like a lot of projection with a potentially disastrous downside.
It is always Munich, 1939. Always and forever.
— Christopher Hayes (@chrislhayes) March 3, 2015
Despite the seer-like ability of American pundits, there is always the chance that Iran means what it says about the Jews. But I suspect many American progressives like the idea of another nation effectively checking Israel’s regional power. A nuclear Iran, though, can protect allies, proxies, and terror groups, all of which destabilize both Israel and Sunni neighbors without having to worry at all about the threat of retaliation. That itself is nightmare. But what if 20 years down the line the Iranian government takes on an even more radical and apocalyptic disposition? What if there’s another revolution? Will Islamists give back nuclear weapons?
So, though imperfect, the 1938 analogy works well enough. It’s probably the stark moral clarity of the analogy that makes progressives most uncomfortable. Some regimes, like the Iranian state, are authoritarian, backwards, and evil. I don’t have any answers as to how to stop them. And perhaps the Israeli government has exaggerated the speed in which it will be able to obtain weapons. But United States is now on a path that will enable a force that openly threatens Jews, to become far more powerful and dangerous. Which seems—like another event I can think of—unconscionably irresponsible.