On Iran, U.S. Jewish leaders will defend Israel down to last drop of our blood

If you think Israeli leaders are hawkish on Iran, listen to what some of these American Jewish leaders had to say at their get-together in Jerusalem.

The number one team of machers (big-time operators) in organized American Jewry – the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations – were in Israel this past week, and just for a hate fix, I went to a panel discussion on Iran – not to listen to the Israeli panelists, but to the machers. There were about 100 of them in Jerusalem’s Inbal hotel, and as expected, the ones who spoke up were much, much more gung-ho than the Israelis onstage.

The best question came from from Rabbi Basil Herring, executive vice president of the (Orthodox) Rabbinical Council of America. Noting the difficulty in destroying Iran’s underground nuclear installations, Herring asked if Israel would consider “the use of tactical nuclear weapons in areas that aren’t so populated, or in the open desert? To show the Iranians that their lives are on the line, that Israel won’t go quietly?”

Before anyone could answer, the Israeli moderator, eager to keep the discussion sane,  jumped in and said that since Israel doesn’t acknowledge having nuclear weapons, this was an awkward question for the panelists, better left alone.

The panelists – Uri Lubrani, an old Iran/Lebanon hand; Sima Schein, an Iran expert from the government; and David Menashri, an expert from academe – agreed that Iran shouldn’t be allowed nuclear weapons, but they were also very wary about starting a war. Their preferred solution (mine, too) was that the Iranian reform movement oust the regime. Menashri, especially, said some good things.

“A military attack on Iran may take longer that we think. It won’t be over in six days. What if it lasts two or three months? Israel cannot go into a big war,” he said.

He didn’t like the constant references to Iran’s nuclear program as an “existential threat” to Israel, either, or all the comparisons of Iran to Nazi Germany and Ahmadinejad to Hitler. “Kaddafi was Hitler, Arafat was Hitler, Nasser was Hitler and now Ahmadinejad is Hitler,” he pointed out.

This didn’t go down well. Ken Abramowitz from American Friends of Likud insisted that there was no such thing as overstating the case for Iran’s being an existential threat to Israel, the U.S. and everyplace else. Then came Jeffrey Wiesenfeld, the New York political fixer who tried last May to stop playwright Tony Kushner from getting an honorary doctorate because of his views on Israel. Comparing Iran to Nazi Germany and making sure everyone knew that he was the son of Holocaust survivors, Wiesenfeld said, “The Iranians can’t sell their oil, they have no consumer goods on their shelves, the mullahs are fighting with each other, so now’s the time they gotta kill the Jews.” Then some man whose name I didn’t catch asked in this irritating, arch tone: “Is it a fact or an aphorism that no Israeli prime minister can live with a nuclear Iran? Is it a fact or an aphorism that Israel cannot rely on another country to ensure its survival?”

The only line from the panel that got any applause was from Lubrani, when he said, “I’ve given up on America” since it didn’t help the masses of Iranian protesters knock over the ayatollahs three years ago. The applause, I’m pretty sure, was not for the Iranian protesters’ cause, only for the idea of giving up on America under its current president.

In the lobby afterward, I asked Wiesenfeld, a loud, glad-handing, Yiddish-sampling New York type, if I could interview him. (When it comes to hating American Jewish chickenhawks, I am a stone junkie.)

He starts telling me that it’s not enough for Israel, or America, or Israel and America to bomb Iran’s nukes. “Israel can’t go on living with 200,000 missiles pointing at it,” he said – they had to be destroyed, too. I saw no use in mentioning Israel’s deterrent power, or questioning the morality of war as a means of arms control, so I asked Wiesenfeld how Israel could survive the wars that would follow its attacks on Iran, and Syria, and Lebanon, and Gaza, and the other countries that have missiles aimed our way.

“It’s going to happen sooner or later,” he replied.

And when the missiles are falling on Israel, would he come here with his family and sit it out?

“At that point,” he said, “Jews will be targets all over the world. There won’t be any difference being in Tel Aviv or Times Square.”

One of the very few liberals in the group told me he knew of three organizational leaders who sounded like they wanted to use tactical nuclear weapons on Iran “right now.” A number of them think Netanyahu is being too soft on the Iranians. As a whole, he said, the visitors were a little shocked at all the relatively dovish talk they were hearing from some of the Israelis on these panels.

He said that when he was leaving the hall after the presentation on Iran, he overheard a few people complaining that Lubrani, Schein and Menashri had been too cautious about using military force. The Americans, said their liberal colleague, were making the point that bombing Iran “is like selling a stock – you want to sell right when the stock is at its peak, just before it starts to go down, but if you try to cut it too close, you may be too late.'”

How can you not love these people? The most gratifying words came from the permanent macher of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, Malcolm Hoenlein, who assured me that if and when the war starts and missiles are falling on Israel, the group will return for a solidarity mission.