Are we broadening the Iran debate – or narrowing it?

Friday, August 7th, 2009

Look at the Iran talking points major Jewish groups provide to their own activists, and one point is always spelled out explicitly:  Iran isn’t just an Israeli or a Jewish issue.  Make that a central part of your activism, the pro-Israel troops are instructed.

But recent conversations with two European analysts made me wonder  how effective that effort has been.

In both cases, the people I was talking to fall onto the dovish side of the spectrum on Israeli-Palestinian matters.  They oppose Israeli settlements, they sympathize with the Palestinians – and they are really, really worried about Iran.

Both were surprisingly hardline on the subject – not in a “bomb ‘em now” sense, but still extremely vehement that stopping Iran from going nuclear is a critical priority for their countries.

Their concern wasn’t primarily Israel; it was how Iran’s ability to do mischief in the region and in Europe will be enhanced if it gains the additional leverage of a nuclear arsenal. They were worried about the obvious fact that Iranian missiles will soon be able to hit their countries.  They emphasized concerns about Iran-sponsored terrorism in their own neighborhood and their view that pressuring Iran to stop would be much harder once it was able to wave a nuclear bludgeon.

In other words, they have a lot in common with those Jewish groups that insist Iran is not strictly a Jewish issue.

But I don’t think that message is getting through, and part of it is our own fault.

I’ve heard David Harris’ radio commentaries, and the AJC leader makes a calm, articulate case about that broader danger. But most of what you hear isn’t that; it’s “they are determined to destroy Israel.” Or “ Ahmadinejad is the new Hitler, and he wants to complete the job of the Holocaust.”

Even some Jewish leaders who understand the broader argument sometimes get caught up in the rhetorical one-upsmanship.

To be honest, I suspect most Americans roll their eyes when they hear that kind of thing. And potential allies in the Iran fight probably wince.

Some of that may be bias against Israel or  against Jews, but an awful lot of it is that the Jewish community is perceived as always geshreing about some new existential threat.

It’s not wrong for Jews who care about Israel to be most concerned about the threat Iran poses to the Jewish state, but tactically, the perception that that’s the only thing driving the movement to stop Iran from going nuclear, and the  rhetorical extremes of some of our leaders, can only undercut the goal of a broader effort.

The Hitler analogies may work fine to rile up the Jewish groups and get their donors to open their wallets, but it ’s probably a turnoff to the rest of the world, and it buries the sober, rational arguments you read in the talking points of so many Jewish groups.

To an extent, the fight to broaden the effort to  contain Iran may be falling victim to our inability to curb our own tongues.

The problem is exacerbated  by American and Israeli politicians, who have little interest in nuanced, sober messages.

Go to an AIPAC policy conference and in the workshops you’ll hear all kinds of policy wonks describing just how broad the Iran threat really is. But go to the big plenary sessions and what you hear are the pandering politicians – American and Israeli – with their strident claims that nuclear Armageddon is just around the corner, and the Jewish organization leaders vying with each other to sound the scariest note about the threat to Israel.

Guess which get reported the most, the wonky analysis or the “Israel’s gonna get nuked” screamers?

The results, I suspect, include a narrowing of the Iran effort even as we say we want it broadened. One of the Europeans I was talking to was genuinely puzzled by what he saw as the inability of American Jewish leaders to recognize the broader threat, and how it is motivating potential allies around the world.

In fact, they do recognize that threat, but it gets lost in the static of those with a narrower, more apocalyptic message.

About the Author
Douglas M. Bloomfield is a syndicated columnist, Washington lobbyist and consultant. He spent nine years as the legislative director and chief lobbyist for AIPAC.