Four years ago, French President Jacques Chirac saw the Iraq disaster looming and openly warned against it. It was by far the best thing he ever did in his political life, and he is not to be allowed to do it again.
Today another, potentially even greater disaster is looming as Israel and the United States ostentatiously prepare to bomb Iran on the pretext of preventing “a second holocaust”. But this time around there is a curious absence of the public opposition and mass protest demonstrations that preceded the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
It is as though the enormity of events and the comforts of daily life have caused the Western world to give up thinking about grave matters and to take refuge in officially inspected and approved platitudes. Debate is replaced by an alarm system that sends up cries of scandal at any deviation from the accepted discourse.
In France, where people pay a lot of attention to words, the denunciation of verbal heresy even goes so far as enacting laws punishing politically incorrect speech.
But the more commonplace type of censorship was illustrated this week by an essentially trivial incident. During a presidential press briefing at the Elysée palace devoted to the Paris conference on climate change, a New York Times journalist changed the subject to ask the French President about the Iranian nuclear threat. Chirac began with the standard official “International Community” line, namely that Tehran’s refusal to give up its uranium enrichment program was “very dangerous”. But then, Chirac (thinking, he explained later, that he was speaking off the record) gave in to the temptation to speak honestly. For Iran to have a nuclear weapon was not really so dangerous, he said. To make his point, he asked rhetorically what good it would do Iran to have a nuclear bomb, or even two. “Where would it fire that bomb? At Israel? It wouldn’t have traveled 200 meters through the atmosphere before Tehran would be razed.”
The real danger was nuclear proliferation, he added.
Chirac even went so far as to suggest that Iran had a motive for its nuclear research, including its fear of being “challenged or threatened by the international community. And the international community, who is that? It’s the United States.”
The alarm bells went off. The “scandal” of Chirac’s politically incorrect remarks was the top front page news story in both U.S. and French newspapers.
In themselves, Chirac’s remarks hardly merited such a fuss. But the reaction was significant.
First of all, it showed that the French President, a lame duck in the midst of an election campaign to replace him, is too isolated to be able to oppose war against Iran as he opposed war against Iraq. The media are there to shoot him down before he gets off the ground, first of all the newspapers that continue to enjoy the label “leftist”, “left-leaning” or “center-left” — mainly Libération and Le Monde — but which in reality have become the guardians of Atlanticist orthodoxy (devotion to a “European unity” closely tied to the United States). Chirac’s own political party was snatched away from him by his ambitious enemy Nicolas Sarkozy, who has publicly criticized Chirac’s departure from the American fold over the war against Iraq. Sarkozy’s demonstrations of devotion to Washington and Tel Aviv have won him the enthusiastic support of the organized Jewish community, increasingly inspired by the U.S. pro-Israel lobby.
Deeply distrustful of Gaullism, the French Jewish community has traditionally been close to the Socialists. It was indeed a Socialist government whose secret cooperation with Israel’s nuclear program was discovered, and terminated, by de Gaulle when he took office in 1958. But Ségolene Royal was not the Socialist Party candidate favored by major Jewish organizations (they preferred the very pro-Israel Dominique Strauss-Kahn) and will have a hard time competing with Sarkozy for their favors on the Middle East issue, even though she has declared that Iran has “no right” not only to a nuclear bomb, but even to civilian nuclear power plants.
The Socialists can find nothing better to do than to crow over Chirac’s “blunder”. The French left in general has never seen the point of supporting Chirac’s action in keeping France out of the Iraq quagmire. From the viewpoint of the sectarian left (and the French left, in its countless splinters, is incurably sectarian), what matters is not to do the right thing but to do whatever one does for the right motives — and a conservative politician like Chirac is by definition incapable of doing anything for the right motives.
Four years ago, there were huge demonstrations against the impending war against Iraq. Today, as Israel and the United States gear up to attack Iran, nothing.
Four years ago, the German Chancellor was Social Democrat Gerhard Schroeder who did the right thing, for whatever motives, so that the core of “old Europe” (Germany, France and Belgium) was able to take a united stand against the U.S. war plans. Today, the German Chancellor is Angela Merkel, who is as devoted to Washington as she was to Moscow when she began her political career in East Germany before the wall came down.
No debate on Iran
Not only is there no audible or visible movement of opposition to war against Iran, there is no real debate or discussion that does not rest on the officially approved assumption that Iran’s nuclear program is a “threat”. If there were such a discussion, it could include reference to the following elements:
1. Possible Iranian motives for nuclear development other than unleashing a holocaust. These would be similar to those of the late Shah of Iran, an ally of Israel, who was eager to develop nuclear power. Iran might well wish to use its oil revenues to prepare for power needs once the oil boom is over. This is all the more plausible amid recent reports of declining output in the Iranian oil industry. And today, faced with global warming, nuclear power, like it or not, can be defended as ecological.
2. The role of nuclear deterrence. Chirac’s remarks were merely a reminder of France’s own nuclear defense doctrine: deterrence. The old Cold War doctrine of “mutually assured destruction” (MAD) was never a popular favorite, but it nevertheless worked. Since Israel possesses a considerable nuclear arsenal, if Iran had nuclear weapons too, Israel would lose its advantage, but the result would reasonably be merely another case of mutual deterrence. That is what Chirac was driving at. But this cannot be discussed.
3. The significance of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s “threats to Israel”. This has two sides, the actual meaning of Ahmadinejad’s words, and the way they are exploited by Israel and its champions.
(1) The first part has been thoroughly analyzed by the Iranian artist Arash Norouzi, a political opponent of Ahmadinejad, on his web site The Mossadegh Project. The statement and its word for word English translation are as follows:
“Imam (Khomeiny) ghoft (said) een (this) rezhim-e (regime) ishghalgar-e (occupying) qods (Jerusalem) bayad (must) az safheh-ye ruzgar (from page of time) mahv shavad (vanish from).”
So, Ahmadinejad was quoting a statement made by his mentor Imam Khomeiny, who died in 1989 without ever lifting a finger to destroy Israel. It should be obvious that the statement is an opinion, not a threat, and addresses not the people who live in Israel but the Zionist “regime” which occupies Jerusalem. Coming from a Muslim religious leader, this opinion is doubtless based on objection to Jewish monopoly of a city considered holy by all three of the Abramic monotheisms.
Ahmadinejad seems to enjoy verbal provocation, but words, however offensive, are only words. The fact is that Iran has not attacked another country in over 250 years and shows no interest in doing so. As for the United States and Israel…
(2) Now to the second part: the receiving end of these “threats”. Ahmadinejad is portrayed as the latest “Hitler” determined to wipe poor little Israel off the map in order to kill all the Jews and then, who knows, conquer the world. A little bit more uranium enrichment, and we’ll all be dead.
It is difficult to believe that anyone takes this seriously, but just about everyone in public life in the West feels obliged to act as if this were real.
A cynical answer could be that U.S. and Israeli leaders are looking for another pretext to start another war aimed at renovating the Middle East in ways that ensure eternal control of petroleum resources as well as the regional supremacy of Israel as the only country in the neighborhood still left intact.
A dangerous persecution complex
This may be a factor, but there is another factor, less material and more psychological, that increasingly invades political life in Europe and the United States: a certain spreading pathology of persecution in what is called “the Jewish community”, meaning a part of the Jewish population, and in particular the organizations that claim to represent it. The Jewish population of France, which has played an important role in the country’s intellectual, economic and political life for centuries, has been shifting politically from the left to the right, mainly because of its attachment to Israel. Given the community’s vitality and influence, this has an impact on the political life of the country as a wholeThis mutation is noticeable at all levels of society. It is a cause for concern among many who do not dare to mention it, for fear of being stigmatized as anti-Semitic. But is it “anti-Semitism” to try to tell Jewish people that they are not hated, that they are appreciated and even loved, and that the notion that non-Jews are just waiting for the next opportunity to exterminate them is both unjust to others and harmful to themselves?
The hysteria over Iran, which may lead to a disastrous war that will be lost by everyone, reminiscent of the First World War of 1914-1918, is visibly fed by the dominance within the Jewish community, and indeed beyond it in the West as a whole, of the “duty of memory”, meaning, to be precise, a constant, repetitive recollection of the holocaust as the defining moment of the twentieth century, and perhaps even of human history.
It is enough to attend a meeting of moderate, middle class Parisian Jews to perceive this transformation. The same sort of educated, well-to-do people who not so long ago were at the forefront of universal social concern, are now centering their political preferences on the question: what is best for Israel? The terrible irony is that the more brutal Israel’s policies become, provoking growing hostility to Israel, the more these good people feel not only that they must defend Israel tooth and nail, but that every criticism of Israel is a threat against themselves.
This is dividing French society itself. The vast majority of the non-immigrant French population, especially on the left, feel close to Jewish friends, admire the many outstanding Jewish people in all fields, consider Jewish people so much a part of France that they usually neither know nor care who is Jewish and who is not — and if ever they retain an atavistic trace of ancestral anti-Semitism, this is extinguished by reminders of guilt for the holocaust.
Reminders of guilt abound. As a recent example, although the majority of French Jewish children were saved from Nazi deportation, plaques are being placed on schools as a reminder of the number of Jewish children who were deported. In these same schools, the commemorations of the annual holocaust day become increasingly elaborate.
What is the effect on the children? This sets Jewish children apart in a way that is likely to give them a sense of insecurity and distrust. As for the children of immigrants from African and Arab countries, this stimulates an unhealthy competition in victimism. The reflection is almost inevitable: so Jews suffered over sixty years ago, but today, Arabs are suffering in Palestine and in Iraq, and who cares? Why are some people eternal victims while others don’t count?
As the official Jewish community has moved to the right, the right has moved toward the community. On the far right, the “vieille France” candidate Philippe de Villiers attempts to outdo Jean-Marie Le Pen by denouncing “the Islamization of France” and ardently courting the Jewish community, whose right wing also benefits from the flattering attentions of Le Pen’s daughter and possible successor Marine. Such positioning stimulates anti-Jewish resentment among immigrant youth in the disinherited banlieues. One form of paranoia leads to another.
What is the danger?
To get back to the supposed threat to Israel from Iran, a most interesting comment from Israeli Deputy Defense minister Ephraim Sneh was cited by Seymour Hersh in his November 21, 2006 piece in The New Yorker on the possibility of a U.S. attack on Iran. Expressing skepticism about the possibility of influencing Iran by diplomatic means, Sneh said:
“The danger isn’t as much Ahmadinejad’s deciding to launch an attack but Israel’s living under a dark cloud of fear from a leader committed to its destruction… Most Israelis would prefer not to live here; most Jews would prefer not to come here with families, and Israelis who live can live abroad will… I am afraid Ahmadinejad will be able to kill the Zionist dream without pushing a button.”
This is truly an amazing statement that deserves careful attention. The Israeli official is suggesting that a war should be launched against a country, not because of what it may do, but because the fear of what it may do risks “killing the Zionist dream”. This suggests that the fear of another holocaust, which has been the main argument for Zionism for half a century, is turning around to destroy Zionism itself.
But are we to plunge the world into war to “save the Zionist dream”? Isn’t there some other way for Jews to live in the world without fear of genocide? Indeed, hasn’t Zionist Israel become the greatest threat to Jews, by attaching them to the fate of a brutal state which is arousing the growing indignation of the world by its treatment of the Palestinians?
For a long time, there has been an unwritten law that only Jews (at risk of being called “self-hating”) may criticize Zionism. But things have gone too far. This aggressive paranoia of Israel is not just a “Jewish question”, it is dragging the whole world into disaster. Those of us who are not Jewish also have to speak up and say to our Jewish friends:
“We don’t want to kill you, but we don’t want to die for your Jewish State either. We are all human beings, and we refuse to plunge the world into war to preserve distinctions of identity that may mean a lot to you, but don’t mean much of anything to us.”
DIANA JOHNSTONE lives in Paris. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org