There’s nothing American Jews love more than Israeli soldiers, except perhaps, Israeli spies. Go to American synagogues—especially Orthodox synagogues—and you’ll find boys wearing green-and-yellow skullcaps bearing the Israel Defense Force’s Hebrew acronym. A central element of the Birthright Israel program, which aims to instill a love of Israel and Judaism in young American Jews, is their mifgash, or encounter—often R-rated—with Israeli soldiers. For my Bar Mitzvah, I was given a tome celebrating the exploits of Israel’s external and internal spy agencies, the Mossad and Shin Bet. My 6-year-old son recently came back from the library of his Jewish school carrying a volume entitled Keeping Israel Safe: Serving the Israel Defense Forces.
So perhaps American Jews should start noticing that an astonishing number of Israel’s top soldiers and spies are warning against bombing Iran. It began last summer, when Meir Dagan, fresh from a highly successful, eight-year stint as head of the Mossad, called attacking Iran “the stupidest thing I have ever heard.” He noted that while in office, he had joined with Yuval Diskin, director of the Shin Bet, and Gabi Ashkenazi, chief of staff of the Israeli Defense Fund, to block this “dangerous adventure.”
Since then, a throng of current and former security officials have issued similar warnings. In December, Dagan’s successor at Mossad, Tamir Pardo, suggested that an Iranian nuclear weapon was not an existential threat. This month, another former Mossad chief, Efraim Halevy, declared that “it is not in the power of Iran to destroy the state of Israel.” Former IDF chief of staff Dan Halutz added that “Iran poses a serious threat but not an existential threat” and that bombing would mean “taking upon ourselves a task that is bigger than us.” It’s remarkable, when you think about it. Almost every week, Israeli security officials say things about Iran’s nuclear program that, if Barack Obama said them, would get him labeled anti-Israel by American Jewish activists and the GOP.
The struggle between Israel’s civilian and military leaders eerily evokes the struggle inside the Bush administration over war with Iraq. Like Dick Cheney, Benjamin Netanyahu has only one mode: apocalyptic. His idols are Winston Churchill and Revisionist Zionist leader Vladimir Jabotinsky, both men famed for having foreseen the Nazi menace when others looked away. And throughout his career, Netanyahu has plugged virtually every adversary Israel faces into the Hitler role. In 1993, when then–Foreign Minister Shimon Peres brokered the Oslo Accords, Netanyahu compared him with Neville Chamberlain. In his 1993 book, A Place Among the Nations, reissued in 2000 as A Durable Peace, Netanyahu compared the Palestinian effort “to gouge Judea and Samaria [the West Bank] out of Israel” to the Nazi effort to force Czechoslovakia to cede the “Sudeten district.” In a CNN interview with Piers Morgan in 2011, Netanyahu analogized negotiating with Hamas to negotiating with Hitler. And in 2006 he told an American Jewish audience that “it’s 1938 and Iran is Germany.”
The point is not that an Iranian nuclear weapon poses no threat to Israel. An Iranian nuke would shift the regional power balance in Iran and Hizbullah’s favor, and potentially trigger a frightening arms race in the Middle East. But shifting power balances and increased threat levels are a far cry from Netanyahu’s language of existential destruction, a vocabulary that equates the defenseless European Jews of 1938 with contemporary Israel, a country with dozens, if not hundreds, of nuclear weapons.
Sympathetic observers of Israel may be tempted to conclude that Netanyahu’s Holocaust imagery is the natural response of a Jewish leader faced with threats from gangsters like Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. But that’s not true, as evidenced by the insistence of top Israeli security officials that Iran does not represent a Nazi-style existential threat. In truth, Netanyahu’s taste for the apocalyptic flows less from his Jewishness than from his conservatism—a conservatism learned during his close association with the Republican right while he served as a diplomat in Washington and New York in the 1980s. His insistence that Israel launch a preventive war on Iran before it gains nuclear capacity echoes right wingers like James Burnham, who urged the U.S. to wage preventive war against the Soviet Union to prevent it from building an atomic bomb in the late 1940s. And it echoes men like Cheney who spread panic about the Soviets in the 1970s and 1980s, about China and North Korea in the 1990s, and about Iraq after 9/11.
Israel today is witnessing the same struggle that Washington witnessed in 2002 and 2003, a struggle between people who think practically and people who think ideologically, between people trying to soberly assess a given adversary and people who can view that adversary only by analogy with the mightiest, most demonic powers the world has ever known. One of the most appalling features of America’s invasion of Iraq was how ignorant top policymakers turned out to be about the country they set out to conquer and remake. Netanyahu doesn’t seem much better. According to The New York Times, he has been telling visitors that the Iranian people may welcome being bombed by Israel. No wonder Meir Dagan is scared.
We all know how the Iraq debate turned out: Skeptics in the military, State Department, and intelligence agencies were sidelined or cowed. Similarly in Israel, Dagan has had his diplomatic passport revoked, and Netanyahu’s allies have pushed legislation to prevent former security officials from speaking to the media.
The most valuable thing American Jewish leaders can do to influence Israel’s internal struggle is to stop equating being pro-Israel with being pro-war. American Jews have long basked in the wartime prowess of Israel’s soldiers and spies. Perhaps it’s time we started admiring their aversion to war as well.