Time to take a hard look at threat posed by Iran

Rabbi Seth D Gordon serves Traditional Congregation and is a member of the St. Louis Rabbinical Association.


When threatened, responsible leadership, whether in the community or in the home, often necessitates navigating between alarmism and under-preparedness. Iran is a threat – for America a serious problem, for Israel a mortal threat. If Iran were to realize its ambitions, another Holocaust would occur in minutes. 

Many Americans are somewhat attuned to the threats posed by Iran, but time has the effect of blunting the sharpness of a threat. Time may matter now more than ever. A current article in the Atlantic Monthly by Jeffrey Goldberg may make Iran’s aims more real, and more frightening, even for those of us thousands of miles away from the theatre of war.

According to Goldberg, who has extensively interviewed key officials for many years, Israel is more likely than not to strike Iran within a half year. Iran is near enough in its nuclear capability, and fanatic enough in its ideology, and the U.S. and Western nations are so war weary, that unless sanctions persuade Iran to abandon their aims, theoretic possibility will become catastrophic reality.

My purpose is neither to address military issues (as I have zero significant understanding about how that works), nor to address what the U.S. and Israel should do (as the choices are really hard, and in any case, there are many voices more qualified than mine to articulate the pros and cons of every choice). Instead, I will address what I believe is the grossly under-prepared Jewish community in the event that Goldberg’s (and others’) scenario actualizes.

Now is the time for Jews to talk to each other about which scenarios may result, affecting Jews here in St. Louis, throughout the U.S. and Canada, and throughout the world. Jews must prepare themselves not only for the physical threats but also for the verbal assault that underlies the conclusions of our enemies, with an eye to those who might be persuaded one way or the other.

If history is any measure, it is likely that passionate voices will vociferously blame Israel for getting the world into another war, especially in the aftermath of two American wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and amidst hard economic times. Indeed, there were many high officials in the Truman Administration and the State Department who argued that American support for a Jewish State would eventually result in alienating the Arab world. Israel, and, by extension, Jews, would be blamed for deaths and misery, the swell of new military radicals, global economic harm and polarization between cultures and peoples. How will Jews then respond?

Jews need to know the answers to the following questions:

1. Why do Arabs, Muslims, and others intensely hate Israel? Is it primarily because the Jewish people and the State of Israel have committed terrible crimes, or because of long-standing Arab and Islamic religious and cultural attitudes and political opportunism?

2. Is the State of Israel essentially a foreign (European) creation as a result of the Holocaust and therefore the Zionists are interlopers, or are Jewish claims to the land historically and religiously longer, broader, and deeper?

3. What do various people mean by the term “occupation”?

4. Is Israel justly likened to an apartheid state? What has been Israel’s treatment of Arabs and Muslims (and others), and how does it compare with Arab and Western treatment of others – and is a comparison relevant?

5. What have Israel and the Arab nations done for peace and what haven’t they done?

The answers to these questions – and dozens more – may affect us profoundly. Jews who have no answers because they do not care enough to learn or because they will not make the investment, do so at their own peril.

Those who have come to hard conclusions, justifiably or not, may not be persuaded, but there are many others who simply do not know and will form conclusions based upon what their peers think. If Jews cannot answer these questions intelligently, then it is reasonable to expect that attitudes toward Israel and Jews will change for the worse. If your name is Jewish sounding, if you appear Jewish, if you associate Jewishly, you may well be affected. Collectively, we are responsible for each other, and if not us, then who?

As we approach Rosh Hashanah, religious themes, I believe, should be pre-eminent. But these days are also a time of Jewish peoplehood, when we gather together with family and friends around a table celebrating our new year, and with our fellow Jews at services.

If Goldberg is correct, there is no issue that more immediately affects the health and well-being, psychologically and physically, than this one.

As more than five million Jews and millions of non-Jews in the area have their lives threatened by Iran, we are obligated to do what we can to help them protect themselves. And we need to be prepared here, too.

The prophetic words from Isaiah 54:17 chanted recently as the third Haftarah of consolation, “Any weapon formed against you shall not succeed, and any tongue that arises against you in judgment, you shall defeat,” provides strength and hope.

The special Psalm we have begun reciting, evening and morning, from the month of Elul through Sukkot, includes the words, “Even if war should arise, I would still trust in God.”

Both are bold statements of faith and comfort. But the Talmud pithily teaches us, “We do not rely on miracles.”

Our true hope is that somehow intervention, divine or human, will move Iran’s leadership to abandon its evil ambitions to destroy Israel, and that Goldberg’s article (and mine) will fade into history, irrelevant. But, at this juncture, it would be foolish and grossly irresponsible to be under-prepared.

Rabbi Seth D. Gordon serves Traditional Congregation.