When my parents were teenagers in Eastern Europe, the steady drumbeat of Jewish persecution in Europe was making its way to their hometowns.
“Why didn’t your family flee before the Nazis came?” I often asked them when I was a youngster in the 1960s, trying to understand the passivity and ultimate tragedy of their family’s decision.
My parents lost their parents, their brothers and sisters, and many other relatives to the Nazi onslaught. My parents were fortunate survivors, who came to America to start life anew. But some of their surviving relatives went to Israel to start their lives over in the new land of milk and honey.
As we approach Passover this week, it is a fitting time to put today’s existential threat from Iran into a broader historical context. Let’s not forget that Iran is not just a threat to Israel, but to the whole world (including, specifically, the US), as we have seen its ability to arm proxy terrorist organizations in recent years.
Jews have been vilified and persecuted through the ages, dating back to the long period of bondage in Egypt. Some lowlights in history include the evil Haman and his plot to kill the Jews of Persia (his failure was celebrated last month on Purim), the Spanish Inquisition, the Russian pogroms, and the most evil and unthinkable period, the Holocaust of the 1940s, which killed six million Jews, including dozens of my immediate family.
Out of the ashes of Europe, the state of Israel arose, phoenix-like, in 1948 as a safe haven to Jews not just in the Middle East, but worldwide. As my father often pointed out to me as a child:
As long as we have Israel, we have a place to flee in case anti-Semitism rears its ugly head again.
To my father and his generation of Holocaust survivors, Israel represented the only vindication for the horrors they suffered; any threat to Israel’s existence, and there have been many in the last 64 years, was a threat to all of world Jewry.
I am about to go to Israel for Passover with two of my children. I do so with the full knowledge that sitting not far from Israel’s borders is a country, Iran, whose leaders have vowed to destroy it if it could. Israel has been warning the world about Iran for 15 years, and some countries have only just recently woken up to this threat and imposed sanctions that may be too little, too late.
This is not the first time that Israel’s many foes have vowed to wipe it off the map and out of existence. First came the 1948 War of Independence, then the 1956 Suez conflict, the 1967 Six-Day War, the 1973 Yom Kippur War and the intifada of the 1990s. All these conflicts proved that Israel is basically a good country in a hostile neighborhood, as my father liked to characterize it.
In 1981, the summer after my freshman year in college, I went to Israel for the summer as a young idealist seeking a simpler life on a kibbutz. While there, in June, Israel surgically attacked Iraq’s nuclear power plant and destroyed it without any lives being lost.
That night, as I watched President Ronald Reagan on television wag his finger at Israel for this attack, I heard the wise words of my Israeli aunt saying to me: “The Americans are angry with us now, but in 10 years they will thank us.”
She was prophetic. A decade later, the Gulf War would have turned out differently, of course, had Saddam Hussein been in possession of a nuclear weapon.
A few years ago, Israel pulled off another tactical strike to prevent Syria from getting a nuclear weapon. The instability in that country today could be much worse if President Bashar Assad had nuclear capabilities.
The new existential threat to Israel is Iran’s seeming rush to develop a nuclear weapon. Israel soon may be at the point where failing to preemptively destroy Iran’s capabilities could endanger its future.
Sometimes, the events of recent history can lead to the wrong lessons. America’s rush to attack Iraq over WMDs that didn’t exist has made many wary of a rush to presume nuclear weapons are being created. The failed intelligence of the Bush administration that led to the attack in Iraq has led some to question Israel and America’s presumption that Iran is close to nuclear weapon capabilities.
This complex issue does not necessarily have a right or wrong answer. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, an old-school politician whose main mission is to preserve Israel’s existence and keep his citizens safe, has a very difficult decision to make. The upcoming American election this November may affect the Israeli timetable for addressing this. No one can actually know how heavy the crown weighs on Netanyahu’s head.
This Friday, I will be sitting at a Seder in Tel Aviv, celebrating an exodus from Egypt thousands of years ago that has inspired generations of Jews to appreciate their freedom. I will ask my Israeli relatives about the Iranian dilemma as well as the prospect for peace with the Palestinians. I will travel across the country and listen to divergent points of view about where Israel should go from here.
But most of all, I will pray at the Western Wall, that the Iranian threat is different from all other threats. That in the coming year, through strong sanctions and reason, this threat will dissipate and not require a military strike from Israel.
But if this strategy does not work, I will hear my late father’s words about the Holocaust reverberate in my head: “Never again.”