Should we bomb Iran? At the 13,000+ AIPAC conference, the question dominated the speeches, trailed through the halls, engaged almost all the attendees. President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu made it the centerpieces of their respective talks. Analogies to the Holocaust were rife and suspicion of President Obama’s ultimate resolve was a thin but persistent undercurrent.
But careful listening and measured reflection are more helpful guides than the cheering of thousands. There is something in crowds that inhibits thought. Nuance does not flourish in throngs. Yet this is a terribly difficult question. To bomb Iran means first, to assume that such a military campaign can be successful. Second, that the fallout will be bearable. That fallout will not only be directed at Israel. America, which has already attacked two major Muslim countries, will inevitably be seen as a co-conspirator or perhaps, if the president orders participation, as the principle antagonist.
Yet what if we do not attack and Iran succeeds in obtaining a nuclear weapon? All the calculations about prudence seem misguided when speaking about a regime that denies the Holocaust, threatens repeatedly to destroy Israel and seems guided by religious fanaticism as much as by statecraft. Anti-Semitism in Iran is not an ugly sideshow; it is a virtual state policy. Can we be sure that even if Iran itself did not attack, that it would not hand nuclear devices over to its proxies such as Hezbollah? And would Iran’s neighbors not seek to acquire nuclear weapons as well, beginning a frenzied arms race in the middle east? The first job of a leader is to ensure the safety of his or her people. What if you were responsible for the security of Israel?
What I searched for among the people who attended AIPAC was fear and humility. This is a terribly frightening prospect. It is possible that inspections and diplomacy can avert a crisis. This is our desperate hope. But no one can know the ‘proper’ answer here; inspections are rarely foolproof because human beings are not flawless. And the world cannot afford to get this wrong.
Leaders, if they are wise, combine decisiveness with self distrust. They know that decisions must be made, but no one is granted the kind of certainty that difficult decisions require. So the conference was in one sense quite beautiful and affirming: Here in the United States of America, thousands of upon thousands of supporters of the state of Israel, Jews and non-Jews, can gather to express their views. In Jewish history such an event is epochal and wonderful. Yet there is, there must be, an undercurrent of unease. The threat is real, the solution is messy and dangerous and even the time left to decide is uncertain. For anyone who would rush in or decisively turn away there are potentially catastrophic consequences. What if we get it wrong? As Eliot wrote, “After such knowledge, what forgiveness?”
This week is Purim. It is the week Jews all over the world celebrate being saved from a Persian despot. The symbolism is almost too exquisite. What can one say of a people that thousands of years later still find themselves locked in a struggle against those who would destroy them? Perhaps this: Learning the right lessons from history is never easy. In these perilous days however, it is quite literally a matter of life and death.
Named the No.1 Pulpit Rabbi in America by Newsweek magazine, Wolpe is the rabbi of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles and currently teaches at UCLA. He is also an On Faith panelist.