The Bum’s Rush

Published September 26, 2007, issue of September 28, 2007.
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If Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Iran’s fire-breathing buffoon of a president, had any doubts about the contempt and loathing he inspires in America and the West, his reception in New York this week should have cleared things up for him. Should have — but probably did not.

No, Ahmadinejad probably left New York more confirmed than ever in his warped image of an American society in the thrall of malign forces. He may even imagine that he proved himself in the eyes of the world as a fearless warrior for truth and justice, that he showed himself ready to march into the very belly of the beast and suffer humiliation and worse at the hands of Zionist bullies. Worse still, it’s possible that observers at the United Nations and in front of television screens around the world were left with that same image: Ahmadinejad in the lions’ den.

The pity is that the people of New York had an opportunity to show the world the true face of the man, but they — we — flubbed it. With the whole world watching, we could have put our democratic values on display. We could have demonstrated the difference between a society of tolerance and free inquiry on one hand, and ignorant fanaticism on the other. We could have handed Ahmadinejad the rope to hang himself. We could have held him up for the bullying thug that he is.

Instead, we put on a display of undisciplined rage, and the Iranian leader was given an opportunity to cloak himself in the mantle of victimhood. Head held high, he now proclaims far and wide how he came to the capital of the world to participate in the United Nations General Assembly, as is his right as a head of state, and he was greeted with all the civility of a street mob. Images are being played and replayed around the world of Iran’s president visiting a great university to participate in a world leaders’ forum, and being welcomed with a 10-minute litany of insults. Nations that have good reason to fear Iran’s terrorism and nuclear ambitions must now wonder if New York is the right city to house the U.N.

We could have confronted the Iranian leader with crowds of demonstrators representing a cross-section of Americans, Jewish and gentile, black, white and brown, standing together to protest his and Iran’s very real record of abuse at home and abroad. We could have linked hands with spokesmen and representatives of other nations that hate and fear Iran’s threat to peace and stability — with voices from France, Germany, the Arab world and even China, all of them nations that condemn Iran’s terrorism and nuclear ambitions.

Instead we chose to rise up as a Jewish community, insisting on proclaiming our identity and our special pain. We emphasized the specific and extreme danger that Ahmadinejad’s Iran presents to Israel. We placed the Iranian leader in the long line of tyrants who threatened the Jewish people through history. We called him a new Hitler.

And in so doing, we separated ourselves from the global community that fears Iran. Instead of reminding the rest of the world that its fears and ours are the same, we shouted that our fears are distinct. We all but invited our neighbors to stand back, to refrain from identifying with us.

Moreover, we misstated our case. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is a bigot and bully. Iran is a threat to the safety and stability of the Middle East, and potentially a mortal threat to world peace. But Ahmadinejad is not Hitler, and Iran is not Nazi Germany.

Hitler ruled with an iron fist over the world’s greatest industrial power, and he mobilized a war machine that conquered most of Europe before he was stopped in a world war. He was fanatically dedicated to killing every Jew in the world, just for the sake of killing Jews, and he very nearly succeeded. Iran is a third-rate power that can hardly feed its own people and barely survived an eight-year war against Iraq, a country one-third its size. It is ruled, ineptly, by a clerical junta operating through a weak civilian government headed by a weaker president.

Ahmadinejad’s predecessor, Mohammad Khatami, was a relative moderate who tried to reach out to the West and to cool Iran’s rhetoric on Israel. Friends of Israel tended to deride his efforts as meaningless, reminding others that Iran’s presidency is virtually powerless. We have forgotten all that. It was two years ago.

Words matter, as we have insisted over and over. We have a strong case for the world’s sympathy and cooperation, and the world is not entirely indifferent. But we must speak truth, not sink to the behavior of those who despise truth.

Sixty years ago, Jews were alone and friendless, mistrusted by most Americans and hated nearly everywhere else. When Hitler came to kill us, nobody cared. Today our position is vastly different. We are full citizens of most countries we call home. We can and do hold positions of great influence in the world’s only superpower. There is a Jewish state with a powerful army and voting membership in the United Nations. Our deadliest enemy happens to be a pariah to most of the world.

We have gifts our ancestors could scarcely dream of. We dare not squander them.

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