Many wonder why Israel as a nation appears to be so aggressive, to invade Gaza and Lebanon when attacked, to bomb Syria, Iraq and possibly now Iran when threatened by the Iranian nuclear bomb program. In general many question the way Israel violently reacts to provocation.  The answer may lie in the sad history of the Jewish people. Growing up Jewish, one of the 15 million in a world of 7 billion people, is growing up feeling like a survivor of so many historical massacres, lucky to be alive and stay alive. Given our history  it is not surprising that there would be a slight “paranoiac” tone to the experience on real or perceived threats.  And this is not to always justify Israel’s behavior, as I think that Israel as a nation is not doing itself a favor with some of the most aggressive intervention.  For example I personally support having bombed the Iraqi nuclear reactors but not attacking the Turkish ship headed to Gaza when just towing it away would have sufficed.  And historically many innocent people have died as a result of Israel’s quick trigger reactions.


Yellow badge Star of David called "Judens...

Yellow badge Star of David called “Judenstern”. Part of the exhibition in the Jewish Museum Westphalia, Dorsten, Germany. The wording is the German word for Jew (Jude), written in mock-Hebrew script. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Still, contrary to what many believe, Jewish-Arab conflicts have killed far fewer people than Muslim-Muslim conflicts. For example the civil war in Syria these days, or the Iraq Iran war, or the Lebanon civil war or many other Muslim against Muslim conflicts that have been far more lethal than Israel’s conflicts. Just looking at the Wikipedia casualty lists of these wars I estimate for every Muslim killed by a Jew there are 100 Muslims killed by other Muslims. And there are many more Muslims killed by US and EU armies than by Israel as well. But still even one non combatant death is too many and should be avoided, so let’s try to understand why Israel responds so violently to aggression, sometimes crossing acceptable boundaries.

Israel is so aggressive because the history of Judaism is a history in which us Jews get killed for being Jewish again and again. And the few times we were spared, we celebrate it as a holidays. As one Jewish friend put it, a Jewish holiday can be summarized as “they tried to kill us, we won, let’s eat”. So we have Passover for when we saved ourselves from the Egyptians, and today, February 24th, we celebrate Purim, another survival celebration. This time we celebrate how we prevented a holocaust in Persia when Jews were deported from present-day Israel to present-day Iran. But then of course there was the very sad time we did not win, and that was the Holocaust, a systematic elimination of Jews, where nobody saved us and around a third of the Jews of the world were massacred by the Nazis. As a result, while the population of the planet has tripled, there are the same amount of Jews now as there were in 1900. And this is very much in the mind of the current generation of Israeli leaders who grew up right after the Holocaust. These leaders are haunted by the ever present question of why Jews didn’t defend themselves effectively in the Holocaust, by a conviction that if we don’t defend ourselves nobody will.  And that’s why they see that their primary mission as leaders is to prevent a new Holocaust. This mission is not helped when Israel’s Sharon returns Gaza hoping for peace and Hamas who has a stated mission to eliminate Israel wins the local elections and starts an ongoing conflict with Israel. Or when Iran itself says that Jews should be thrown out of their country or exterminated. As these events unfold, Israeli leaders think “never again” and act, sometimes judiciously, sometimes not.

So given the history of the Jewish people, which could be summarized as the history of a people who tried to stay alive among Christians and Muslims and did quite poorly, a history of a people that are now only one in 500 of humanity as a whole, not one in five as Muslims or one in three as Christians, the Israeli fear is more understandable. Especially in a world in which other nations like the USA go much further in committing what I would call human rights violations (i.e use of drones) in order to defend itself. The intervention of Europe and the USA in the Arab world in the last few years in Afghanistan and Iran has resulted in far more deaths than all the Israel wars with Arabs combined, yet even these invasions seem more accepted by general public opinion around the world than Israel’s policies. So as Jews, myself included, celebrate Purim today, I hope this commentary helps to put the issue in perspective and helps non-Jews understand why Jews will always be quick to react to attacks like the rockets Hamas frequently fires into Israel.

Map showing ethnic and religious diversity amo...

Image via Wikipedia

I am Jewish and I can’t understand why attacking Iran over the threat of nuclear is a great idea. It’s not that I believe what Iran says. Of course they will develop nuclear weapons, but also Pakistan has nuclear weapons. And Pakistan is a very unstable country and we live with them and their weapons. And India, a country which most of us find easier to live with, has had to live with Pakistan, their weapons and their terrorists.

Pakistan is a country ruled by people who like us but populated by people who mostly hate us, and I don’t mean hate Jews, but the whole West, India and China. Polls show that in the mid 00s most Pakistanis liked Bin Laden as a leader. And some clearly liked him enough to give him shelter for so many years. And this is a country has nuclear weapons and we tolerate it. And Israel and maybe EU and USA are planning to go to war with Iran because they may have nuclear weapons and be where Pakistan is today. Going to war with a country because it will have nuclear weapons is hardly a way to increase world security. Why didn’t USA go to war with USSR when they developed nuclear weapons? Why didnt we go to war with North Korea whose lunatic leadership is far worse than the Iranian leadership. In each of those circumstances we estimated the cost of war to be greater than the cost of preventing nuclear proliferation. North Korea for example, could already wipe out a third of South Korea with conventional artillery, in the face of that threat, we let them go nuclear. I am sure the South Koreans would prefer another neighbor, but they do what they can given the circumstances. Even after a nuclear Iran, Israel’s situation won’t be as bad as that of South Korea at war with a nation that borders it and can destroy it with conventional and nuclear weapons and threatens to do so very frequently. Plus Iran is a threat to Israel already through its proxy armies of Hezbollah and Hamas. But Syria was partners with Iran and another serious threat to Israel under the leadership of Bashar Al Assad and look at where he is now, exterminating his own people, hated by his own people. Qaddafi said there was going to be a Middle East without Israel and we ended having a Libya without Qaddafi. I think there is enough evidence that Iran is going in the same direction. Preventive warfare is flawed. It’s a doctrine that says that because you may not like war in the future you start a war now. We squandered trillions of dollars of USA and EU money with this doctrine, and precious human lives, and achieved nothing. Anyone doubts that Saddam Hussein would have survived the Arab uprisings? If we intervene we should so so to tip the balance, not to go as an invasive force trying to conquer, police and rebuild a nation for a decade. It’s wrong and we can’t afford it.

Nuclear weapons have this weirdly positive aspect to them that their utilization is so serious, so incredibly harmful, that those who have them so far in history have stayed put. It’s as if their owners developed a deep sense of nausea just about having them. The only exception in history, is of course USA, who whether we like it or not, was the only nation brutal enough to overcome their nausea and use them. Probably because nobody had used them before and the images of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were not on anyone’s minds.

I think that we should all put more hope in the people of Iran. Iran is the opposite of Pakistan, a country ruled by people who hate us but populated by people who are fed up with them and like us and our lifestyle. Every protest in Iran seems to be about people who want to be free and a government who puts them down. So we should not give these freedom seeking people who almost overthrew Ahmadinejad, a real reason to hate us. And let’s remember that under attack everyone becomes a nationalist and sides with whoever is the dictator who rules the country. From a Jewish point of view, now that the Muslim world is finally focused on their problems attacking Iran would be to go for the limelight at the worse possible moment.

We should accept that this situation is ugly, confusing, tough to deal with and there no easy answers. And for Israel attacking Iran a country of 80 million people that is twice as big as France and far away is a daunting task, nothing like the Operation Babylon of 1981. Israel, USA, EU, should continue with covert operations and other tactics that are short of war, and put all sorts of pressures to show how great life would be for all if Iran stops. But at the same time we have to learn to live with our fears, accept that Iran may go nuclear, and focus on promoting a change of leadership that is more aligned with the Iranian people and our interests.

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Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is the current President of Iran. Benjamin Netanyahu is the Prime Minister from Israel. Both leaders are disliked by many of their own citizens and people around the world. But then very much liked by some as well. What follows is a poll focused on their image outside of their countries. The question is which leader do you trust more or dislike least for the region.

Based on what you have seen on the press, blogs, TV… everything you know about these leaders, if you had to choose between them, who would you like more or dislike least?

Polldaddy seems to be working poorly right now but votes are being counted.

HAVANA, CUBA - JANUARY 21:  In this handout im...
Image by Getty Images via Daylife

Yesterday I had lunch Fernando Sulichin, a pretty successful Argentine movie producer. Here is his   filmography in IMDB. During our brunch I found out that Fernando Sulichin has made a career among other things out of producing movies based on interviews with an unusual collections of world leaders. Indeed during lunch Fernando told me that over the last year he had met with Rafael Correa, Cristina Kirchner, Evo Morales, Hugo Chavez, Fidel Castro and Ahmadinejad.  In the majority of cases these meetings took place as part of interviews together with Oliver Stone and Sean Penn. As those leaders happen to be a group that I particularly dislike and as we are both Argentine Jewish you can imagine that our discussion was intense. The high point was when Fernando told me he had seen Ahmadinejad more than 10 times in his life and described him as a “humble” person. I think it is relevant to state that both Fernando and I are Jewish as many of these presidents have expressed negative opinions towards Jews, starting with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad who finances two armies, Hezbollah and Hamas whose stated objective is not a home for the Palestinians which I greatly support but the destruction of the State of Israel. Moreover Ahmadinejad questions the holocaust (today is Holocaust Memorial Day), is in favour of other Islamists of women’s dilapidation and denies the existence of homosexuality in Iran.

Now I am not saying that we didn’t agree on anything with Fernando as there were many areas in which surprisingly, we thought alike. When we spoke about Bush’s 8 year government we agreed that his politics were bad for world peace and increased confrontations between anti-north American troops and the USA. We also agreed that Iran´s policies towards women and gays are repugnant. We agreed that it is true that Latin American leaders many times confront ruthless multinational corporations that have been accused of bribing. We also agreed that Israel itself was too aggressive and its invasions of Lebanon and the Gaza strip could turn out to be counter productive even for Israel´s objectives of self preservation. It is interesting that while Fernando frequently meets with enemies of Israel he does not hide the fact that he is Jewish and is in favor of the survival of the State of Israel.

But where we strongly disagreed is that Fernando truly believes that Hugo Chavez is a democrat just because he won the election. I instead insisted that democracy should be understood from the bottom up, democracy it is not just an election but the distribution of power throughout society: independent legislators, independent judges, honest mayors and governors, cities and state legislatures, freedom of the press. I was appalled when Fernando argued that the Venezuelan regime was akin to that of Norway. I was also very surprised when Fernando argued that we can be tolerant with corruption of the leaders he frequently visits as all presidents steal while in government. I said that I did not believe that Aznar or Zapatero, to name two Spanish presidents had Swiss bank accounts where they deposited the money they stole while in government while I was almost sure that his favorite global leaders did have them.

Having said all this it was a very interesting lunch and I guess the world can only be a better place if we not all agree. And in the end we were both hopeful that Obama and Hillary Clinton together are maybe able to pull off a miracle here and a new relationship develops between left wing Latin America, the Muslim World and USA.

Nuclear weapons make me nervous. Ideally I would like to see all the megatons in the world converted to megawatts, peacefully generating electricity for all of us for years to come. Yes, I am in favor of nuclear energy and I prefer a world of cheap megawatts than of dangerous megatons. Now on to Iran.

In a neighborhood in which Israel, Pakistan, India, Russia and many others have nuclear weapons, I tend to understand that the Iranians want to have them as well. Still, it does make me especially nervous to see nuclear weapons in the hands of fundamentalists. To me there are mainly two kinds of religious people: those who are simply religious and believe in a perfect God followed by imperfect human beings, and those who are fundamentalists and believe in a perfect God followed by perfect human beings who got it right (while everyone else got it wrong). The Iranians make part of the latter group. So does Al Qaida.
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