I had dinner with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on Tuesday night in New York, along with dozens of other peace activists. This is an annual event, and I've taken part in it more than once.
There's some divergence of opinion on Ahmadinejad. The New York Daily News on Tuesday called Ahmadinejad "a pure evil crackpot Holocaust denier who wants to see Israel obliterated from planet Earth."
In contrast, a Jewish lawyer addressing the dinner gathering said that a friend had told him not to come on Yom Kippur when he should be home atoning for his sins. "I'm going to go," he said he told his friend, "and atone for the sins of Israel."
The media tells us that Ahmadinejad is "an existential threat to Israel." Let's consider that.
I start from the assumption that an existential threat to a human being is a greater concern than an existential threat to a government. Denying a past existential threat to millions of human beings is offensive and dangerous. Creating a new existential threat to millions of human beings is worse -- is, in fact, the danger we try to avoid by properly remembering the past.
President Barack Obama said on Tuesday that no speech, not even a video attacking Islam, should be censored, and no speech can justify violence. But the absence of speech, in Obama's view, can justify war. The Democratic Party Platform calls for war on Iran if Iran does not cease violating the nonproliferation treaty. Obama declared on Tuesday that if Iran were to develop nuclear weapons it would destroy the nonproliferation treaty. It would start a nuclear arms race. Iran would be, or rather it already is, a threat to Israel's existence.
But how exactly can Iran stop violating a treaty that it is not violating? What can it say to prove it does not have what even the U.S. National Intelligence Estimates say it does not have and is not working to produce? How can Iran prove a negative? Many of us still recall that impossible task being assigned to Iraq in 2003.
As Ramsey Clark, the U.S. attorney general at the time the nonproliferation treaty was created, argued at the meeting with Ahmadinejad, the United States is itself violating the treaty -- a treaty that would be better called the nonproliferation and elimination treaty, as it requires the elimination of nuclear weapons. Iran is a party to the treaty and in compliance with it. Israel has refused to sign the treaty or to allow inspections. Iran received its nuclear power technology from the United States, which also gave it the plans to build a bomb -- this through a CIA project that might fairly be characterized as pure evil crackpotism. The United States has also spread that technology to India and Pakistan. The nukes in Western Asia are in Israel and on U.S. ships off the coast of Iran.
U.S. and Israeli forces have Iran surrounded, and are threatening war in violation of the U.N. Charter. Israel and the United States have attacked Iranian computers, assassinated Iranian scientists, flown drones over Iran, imposed sanctions on the Iranian people (including cutting off oil supplies and clean energy technologies). The United States has organized a massive military exercise off the coast of Iran, and has just taken the terrorist label off an Iranian terrorist group, opening the door to funding its operations. The very real threat of war on Iran is an existential threat to millions of human beings, a threat -- in other words -- of mass murder.
What kind of threat is Iran to Israel? According to Ahmadinejad, his religious and political leaders have made the possession or use of nuclear, chemical, or biological weapons a terrible sin. When attacked by Iraq with chemical weapons -- some of them supplied by the United States -- Iran refused to use such weapons in response. Iran, which remembers chemical weapons as an argument for peace in the way that Japan remembers nuclear weapons, makes a distinction between defensive weapons and weapons that indiscriminately kill the innocent. The latter are forbidden. Iran this month persuaded 120 nations of the world to back a plan to do exactly what the nonproliferation and elimination treaty requires: eliminating nuclear weapons.
Talking about the nuclear question, Ahmadinejad told us, has grown tiresome and repetitive. Iran is in compliance with the law and has put the IAEA in charge of inspections. The root cause of U.S. aggression toward Iran, he said, has nothing to do with nuclear weapons. Why did the United States back Saddam Hussein in a war against Iran? Because the Iranian people had overthrown a U.S.-backed dictatorship. Why has the U.S. imposed sanctions on Iran in the past, he asked, when nuclear enrichment was not an issue? In the past year, he noted, the United States has sold over $70 billion in weapons to nations in the Persian Gulf, while Iran spends less one-fifth that amount. How, he asked, is Iran the aggressor?
When U.S. headlines tell us that Ahmadinejad will destroy Israel, we picture Hiroshima, or Dresden, or Fallujah. That's how we think of a nation ceasing to exist. We think of its people destroyed from above. But Ahmadinejad says he wants to end killing and injustice. He speaks of peace and love, fairness and kindness. How does this make sense? Well, look at what he says on Israel:
"During a historical phase, they [the Israelis] represent minimal disturbances that come into the picture and are then eliminated."
The Wall Street Journal follows that paragraph with this: "Note that word -- 'eliminated.' When Iranians talk about Israel, this intention of a final solution keeps coming up. In October 2005, Mr. Ahmadinejad, quoting the Ayatollah Khomeini, said Israel 'must be wiped off the map.' Lest anyone miss the point, the Iranian President said in June 2008 that Israel 'has reached the end of its function and will soon disappear off the geographical domain.'"
But in fact, when pressed on this, what Ahmadinejad has said is: "Our proposal is for everyone to allow people to freely hold elections and choose their governors. It's been 6 ½ to 7 decades during which the people of Palestine have been dislodged from their homes. And their territories are under occupation, and an occupying regime has been bullying them and forcing them into the current conditions. If such a fate would have come into the lives of ordinary Americans, what proposal would you have had for them? I am sure you would propose for their elimination of international bullying and occupation. Imagine in your mind that the occupation of Palestine has come to an end. What would there remain? So this is the essence of what we are saying."
In other words, were Palestine freed of apartheid and occupation, were all of its people permitted to freely determine their future, that future would not include a government that gives superior status to Jews. Such a future could be horrible, or it could be more democratic and respectful of individual rights than Israel is, or than Iran is, or than the United States is.
"If there are other inhabitants there," Menachem Usshiskin said of Jewish plans for Palestine in 1930, "they must be transferred to some other place. We must take over the land." The occupation of Palestine is not so much an existential threat as an existential fait accompli. The state of Israel was created through ethnic cleansing. It was created as a state to privilege one religious group, something that states should not be.
But two wrongs cannot make a right. Evicting Israelis from their homes, inside or outside the Green Line, is not a solution. Much less is killing them a solution or anything that Ahmadinejad is proposing.
Yehouda Shenhav's new book, "Beyond the Two State Solution: A Jewish Political Essay" tells the story of Israel's creation. The language of the Green Line, Shenhav writes, is "a language through which Israel is described as a liberal democracy, while the Arabs (and Mizrahi and religious Jews to boot) are described as inferior and undemocratic. This is the language of someone who came to the Middle East for a short while, not to integrate but to exist here as a guest. The position it expresses is not only immoral with regard to the Palestinians, but also potentially disastrous for the Jews. It commits them to life in a ghetto with a limited idea of democracy based on racial laws and a perpetual state of emergency."
This is an Israeli suggesting that the worldview of Israel agrees with Ahmadinejad's prediction for Israel. Israel is not behaving as if it means to settle down and become part of the region it inhabits. Shenhav wants to restore awareness of 1948, but not to try to reconstruct the world of 1948. He does not propose eliminating Israel. He does not propose uniting the people of Israel and Palestine into a single nation. He does propose allowing Palestinians to return to their homes in a manner least disturbing to Israelis already living in those villages or buildings, including with compensation paid to residents evicted by an agreement with returning refugees. He proposes a bilingual society, with a fragmented political federation. He expects this to be very difficult, while preferable to any other approach. And he rightly sees the first step as recovering honesty with regards to not-so-distant history.
Another book just released by Brant Rosen, a Rabbi in the United States, is called "Wrestling in Daylight: A Rabbi's Path to Palestinian Solidarity." Here we have a brand new genre: the transformation of a website, including blog posts and the comments under them, into a work of literature on the printed page. Here we have an example of civil discourse, of diplomacy, of people with the views of the New York Daily News and the views of the Iranian government ceasing to speak past each other, coming to understand each other, realizing that neither wants to destroy the other. I highly recommend reading it and emulating it.
A Mennonite speaking at Tuesday's meeting with Ahmadinejad said he wished others could travel to Iran, and that more Iranians could visit the United States. He said that after decades of visiting Iran frequently, he not only viewed Iranians as friends but understood the source of tension to be the Iranian government's insistence on remaining independent of U.S. control. As if to prove the value of his recommendation for personal interaction, the next person to speak, an evangelical pastor from Texas named Bob Roberts said that he used to be afraid of Muslims. Then he met some in Afghanistan, and they became his friends.
Exiled critic of the Iranian government Shirin Ebadi released a message on Tuesday worth reading and signing on in suppo....
I discussed these matters on New York's WBAI on Tuesday. Here's that audio.