Every Purim we are bombarded with comparisons of Haman and the modern radical Iranian regime – to the point that it has become an oft-repeated cliché. However, as we celebrated Purim this year, the analogy with Haman deserves another look. Our situation today vis-a-vis Iran is profoundly different than in the past. The world seems eager to ‘turn a new page’ with Iran. Sanctions are slowly being removed, international corporations are quick to sign deals and everywhere there seems to be hope that the conflict is being defused. There’s one major flaw in this global attitude: while the Iranian regime may present a possibly less hostile face to the world powers and international institutions, the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has been stepping up his spewing of hatred, incitement, indoctrination and vitriol at a frightening pace.
Explanations abound as to why he has increased this dangerous rhetoric, however, one thing is clear: this hateful speech is dangerous and cannot be ignored. For the past few months I have been tracking Khamenei’s incitement with Professor Elihu Richter, founder of the Jerusalem Center for Genocide Prevention. Dr. Richter, an epidemiologist by trade, has been building on previous work on using models originally developed to track and predict the outbreaks and spread of epidemics, to develop models predicting ‘outbreaks’ of genocide and mass killings. Instead of identifying hazardous exposures (such as air and water pollution), he identifies “word pollution” – the inflammatory rhetoric that precedes such horrific eruptions of violence. How can words be so dangerous? Richter describes incitement as discourse that dehumanizes, delegitimizes, demonizes, spreads lies through disinformation, glorifies those committing terror (as with the case of the Palestinian Authority) or consists of genocide denial (the ‘5 D’s’). This rabid indoctrination forms the basis of a hateful society – effects that are inter-generational and widespread.
So what have we found in the past months of incitement research? Following the signing of the JCPOA nuclear agreement between Iran and the International Powers, we have seen an explosion of inflammatory rhetoric from Khamenei. For example, In 2015 (before the signing of the agreement, when the full sanctions were still in place), we found only two cases of rhetoric by Khamenei that fall under the category of explicit dehumanization and delegitimization. In the year that followed (2016), that number jumped to 12. We are continuing to track the indoctrination and incitement and already are seeing the trend continue in this new year.
Interestingly, the incitement now is different – less crude and more cagey. Iranian officials no longer call simply for the outright destruction of Israel because they know that such threats constitute a crime against humanity. Instead, they threaten massive retaliation to Israeli ‘crimes’ (including the “flattening” of Israeli cities) while praising the day the “cancerous tumor” that is Israel will be mysteriously “closed”. The Iranians take pains to tone down their anti-Semitic diatribes, instead opposing Israel and the “evil network of Zionism”. Does this trend point to a moderation of Iranian stances? Far from it. The Iranian regime is simply employing increasingly sophisticated mechanisms of hate, metaphorically heating the water to a simmer without boiling. The regime is attempting to walk the line between aggravating the world powers (and suffering the wrath of sanctions and other retaliatory actions) while still maintaining its hegemonic role as the protector of the Islamic nation (and incitement against Israel is clearly one way to publicly dramatize and preserve this role). Unfortunately, this tactic seems to be working. Countries around the world are eager to embrace the Iranian regime and its vast cash reserves. Meanwhile, the regime continues to suppress human rights, execute dissidents, export terror, and ferment hate via incitement and indoctrination. We cannot shut our eyes to this persistent trend. Generations of young Iranians will continue to be schooled in hate, believing that the Jewish state is a cancer that needs to be destroyed. One can only imagine with dread the terrible consequences of such brainwashing upon the future generations.
So what can be done? The Jerusalem Center for Genocide Prevention has been tracking Iranian incitement since 2000. They have shown associations between between the reduction of sanctions and political resolve to counter Iran’s nuclear program and a rise in aggressive incitement. Conversely, when the countries of the world toughened their stance, the Iranian regime toned down their incitement. (Moreover we have found similar correlations with the number of executions by hanging and civil rights suppression by the Iranian government.) Too many movers and shakers around the world would like to ignore this persistent incitement. They risk being bystanders. As the primary target of this vitriol, we cannot keep silent. On this Purim, we must be reminded of the violent and frightening road that hateful speech and ideas can lead to. Incitement in and of itself remains a threat even if the Iranians are supposedly no longer developing nuclear weapons. We must remind the world that incitement can lead to genocidal mass-murder and terror.