In calling the Holocaust “a myth,” as he did last week, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has drunk from the bloody cup shared by the malevolent enemies of equality and justice, the ultra right-wingers and haters who live in history’s shadows.
Need it be said, again? The gas chambers, the bureaucratic system of murder, the efforts to sever an entire people from their place in this world, did happen, did exist and remains a unifying cause for those who choose justice, now and forever more.
This latest outburst gives the Bush administration a second opportunity to send a strong message in support of Israel and of the global community, and to make a clear statement against bigotry and hatred. This time, President Bush should not let the moment pass — as he did after Ahmadinejad called for Israel to be “wiped off the map” in an October 28 hate-filled speech.
Ahmadinejad’s denial of the Holocaust and his denigration of an important ally and close friend of America was an outrage. But so, too, was the tepid American response.
The Bush administration — which so often answers challenges with confrontational language — took this occasion to whisper. With the exception of America’s ambassador to the United Nations, John Bolton, who denounced the remarks as “pernicious and unacceptable,” the Bush administration explained those comments as if they had been uttered by a crazy relative — and then returned to its talking points on Iran’s nuclear weapons program.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice noted widespread condemnation of the remarks, but did not offer condemnation of her own: “When the president of one country says that another country should be wiped off the face of the map in violation of all of the norms of the United Nations… it has to be taken seriously…. There has been widespread condemnation of this statement and it only demonstrates why we’re working so hard to keep Iran from getting technologies that would lead to a nuclear weapon.”
The State Department’s spokesman, Sean McCormack, anemically noted that Ahmadinejad’s statement “reconfirms what we have been saying… and I think it underscores our concern as well as the international community’s concern about Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons.”
President Bush’s press secretary, Scott McClellan, told reporters matter-of-factly that, “Many leaders in the international community have spoken out about the comments that were made.”
But Bush was not among them. Not a single word of disapproval passed the president’s lips.
The lesson of the last century and more is clear: Acts of hatred often follow words of hatred, and the best way to head off hideous deeds is to respond swiftly and with certainty. Instead of explaining away Iran’s behavior, or scoring minor tactical points, it is time to let the antisemites know that Americans will not tolerate their calls for violence or especially grievous insults to history.
Let me explain my outrage. I grew up under a dictatorship, in Mozambique. Grown-ups could not speak out against the repression and injustice that surrounded us. But since leaving, I have demonstrated and marched against tyranny and hate.
I began my formal work against antisemitism in 1977, when I joined the Congressional Wives for Soviet Jewry, a group I would later co-chair. It was an honor to meet and stand with Refuseniks like Ida Nudel, Judith Rattner, Vladimir Slepak, Natan Sharansky and so many others. I visited Russia many times, and met with people who had been systematically and sometimes brutally repressed. I learned from them that when we say “never again,” we have to mean it.
Jonathan Sacks, the chief rabbi of Great Britain, has compared antisemitism to a virus, surviving through millennia by mutating: religious anti-Judaism into racial antisemitism, and now antisemitism morphing into anti-Zionism. Whatever the rationalization its adherents hide behind, though, antisemitism has always had at its heart the same things: bigotry and hate and fear.
The only way to prevent the virus from surviving and spreading is to attack, killing it with the strongest possible condemnations before it has a chance to mutate and spread. In October, Bush missed a chance to do that. Now he has a second chance to speak out. I hope he will take it.
It is time for Iran to be confronted by a unified, outraged and outspoken Bush administration, an administration that feels and dispenses the cleansing heat that such virulent words deserve.
Teresa Heinz Kerry is the wife of Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts.