Netanyahu's war must be stopped now: The real story behind his speech to Congress

While the media covers politics and personalities, a much more dangerous game around Iran unfolds offstage

Published March 3, 2015 3:45PM (EST)

  (Reuters/Nir Elias)
(Reuters/Nir Elias)

The media has focused attention on the rude way that Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu made his appearance in the U.S. this week, as though the real issue is hurt feelings between him and President Obama. This is a mistake that misleads many into thinking that the problem is about respect for our president or concern that Netanyahu is using this trip to promote his election chances in Israel, where “standing up to Obama” might enhance his electoral chances when the Israeli public chooses a new Knesset in two weeks. Watch as the media's next angle becomes a sigh of relief when Netanyahu makes apologetic sounds about that rift.

The real story is far more worrisome.  Netanyahu is here to push the U.S. toward another Middle East war in which the U.S. would be the proxy for what Netanyahu (mistakenly) thinks is Israeli interests. And Americans are going to have to stand up and say “NO” both to Netanyahu and to the militarists in both parties who are all too happy to generate another war, this time against Iran.  If Netanyahu succeeds, it will be a disaster for all Americans, and an even greater disaster for American Jews.

Let me explain.

Netanyahu’s strategy is to frighten the American public with images of a nuclear armed Iran that will, in his estimation, use those arms against Israel. Using Hitler and the Holocaust as his rhetorical foundation, he insists that allowing Iran to develop its nuclear capacities for peaceful purposes will only be a cover for them developing nuclear capacity for armaments that could be quickly assembled. To stop that, he urges the U.S. to escalate sanctions against Iran rather than enter the deal that Obama and Secretary of State Kerry have been trying to negotiate that would allow the Iranians to develop nuclear energy to replace quickly depleting and earth-polluting energy supplies for their rapidly growing Iranian population.

There are many in Iran who don’t trust the U.S.—and they have good reason. The U.S. overthrew the democratically elected government in 1953, then installed the Shah and his brutally repressive regime, and stuck with it even when millions of Iranians were demonstrating against it. The close U.S. relationship with Israel was a sore point for many Muslims, in large part because of the obvious suffering that Israel has caused to the largely Islamic-oriented Palestinian people. And Israel has taken a variety of militaristic steps against Iran, including assassinations of Iranian nuclear scientists and cyber warfare against the Iranian regime.

Using quotes from the last prime minister of Iran, who talked about wanting to eliminate the “Zionist regime” from the earth, ignoring that that Iranian prime minister had his supporters severely defeated in the last Iranian elections, ignoring the fact that their supreme leader seeks to avoid confrontation with both Israel and the U.S. and says that it is a sin against Islam for anyone to use nuclear weapons, Netanyahu evokes the great guilt that many Christians feel about the way that Jews were demeaned by Christianity for 1,700 years and then abandoned to the genocidal acts of the Nazis. He uses that as an argument for why the Iranians must be stopped from developing any nuclear capacity, even for transparently peaceful purposes.

The irony here is that the escalation of sanctions at this point would strengthen those in Iran who do not wish to make any accommodations to the U.S., which it quite reasonably sees as mostly doing Israel’s bidding in the Middle East.  If we escalate the sanctions, there are two predictable consequences: A.) The anger that many Iranians feel toward the oppressive regime of the mullahs would be redirected against Israel and the U.S., thereby strengthening the Islamic extremists as national pride replaces concerns about democracy and human rights, and weakening those who, I hope, will someday be able to non-violently overthrow the human-rights denying regime of the mullahs; and B.) Iran would move quickly to escalate its nuclear capacities and turn them toward military use, understanding the deepening sanctions as an act of war that might soon be followed by military attacks either from Israel or the U.S. (in short, actually creating the situation that Netanyahu says he fears, but which does not currently exist).

Now Netanyahu and his cheerleaders in both parties of the U.S. Congress are no dummies. They can see this same plausible outcome. So why would they be advocating it?  Sadly, the answer is that they actually want another war, this time with Iran. For some Israelis, a war led by the U.S. against Iran would be a perfect way to get rid of a state that has been funding Islamic groups closer to Israel like Hezbollah (though Iran has actually been attacking supporters of ISIS—the self proclaimed Islamic State whose barbarism rightly frightens most civilized people). For some American capitalists, the securing of Iranian oil reserves will give Big Oil several more decades of flourishing. For some right-wing Christians, fighting a war to rid the Middle East of Israel’s most significant competitor for regional influence is a way of alleviating their guilt from past failures to save the Jews. And for still other right-wing Christians, a war that decimated Iran would be a major step toward the Apocalypse that they hope will yield a return of their messiah to earth.

We’ve already seen what this kind of a war looks like—we just barely are ending the Iraq war, which cost us a trillion dollars and led to the emergence of the ISIL/Islamic state. The dismantling of the regime in Iran (if not done, as I hope it someday will be, by a powerful internal Iranian movement just as the Soviet Union was dismantled by its own people and not by an invasion by the U.S.) would likely yield power to forces even worse than the current Iranian regime and more likely like the Islamic state in Iraq . It is unwinnable, and it will lead to the loss of many lives, the possibility of terrorism being spread to the U.S. as many people around the world see and resent the U.S. once again intervening in a country that is not intervening here in the U.S.

And this will be a huge disaster for the Jewish people. Americans will quickly see that the resulting war was brought about by those who wanted to put the supposed (though mistaken) interests of Israel above the interests of Americans. The outcome could well be a new flourishing of anti-Semitism in our society that has, since the end of the Second World War, managed to keep our home-grown anti-Semites out of positions of power. As American casualties increase, and Iranian terrorists strike inside the U.S., the anger will almost certainly explode against Jews, whereas it should be only directed at the militarists who once again lead us into war.

What if Iran actually did develop nuclear weapons? Is there any reason to believe that they would use them against Israel or the U.S.?  The Iranian mullahs are willing to torture and oppress their own people and pursue policies I deplore toward Baha’I and other religious minorities. But they are not a self-destructive lot. They managed to end the hostage crisis in 1980 in a deal cut by America’s militaristically inclined Reagan regime, and they have backed away from wars with other countries. They will continue their attempts at subversion, just as the U.S. continues to try to subvert governments we don’t like (most recently in Venezuela, but in many other places around the globe as well). But they do know full well that a nuclear strike at Israel would lead to Israel using its current stockpile of 200 nuclear weapons to completely wipe out Iran. The mullahs want to preserve their Islamic regime and spread it, not end it in one spasm of death and destruction.

That’s why, even if the Iranians did develop nuclear weapons, they would only be joining a world where the U.S. has ten thousand of these or more, and where India and Pakistan also already have these weapons. The Soviets under Stalin were just as much a threat to our security, talked about “burying the U.S. and capitalism,” but of course never used their nukes because they knew the consequences. It is only the U.S. that has ever used nukes, and that was before we realized others could have them too.

I hope we won’t have to live with that situation. The Obama Administration is moving in the right direction to try to avoid it, creating safeguards and serious inspection regimens for Iran. But they may fail as long as Iranians feel that the U.S. is under the sway of Israelis like Netanyahu. Obama is offering something to the Iranians, but my fear is that it is too little, too late. Netanyahu and the Israelis who support him are not the only paranoid force in the Middle East.

What is really needed is a dramatic break from the way the U.S. (and Israel) have dealt with those whom we believe do or might threaten us. For 5,000 years “the realists” have preached war or other forms of domination and power-over others as the path to security. And it hasn’t worked. Over and over again those who believe that whoever they’ve decided is “the enemy” of the day can only be dealt with by force (economic, diplomatic, cultural but ultimately military) have ended up in devastating wars.

But is there an alternative? We, at Tikkun and our interfaith and secular-humanist-welcoming Network of Spiritual Progressives, have become advocates for a Strategy of Generosity. We’ve developed the details of a Global Marshall Plan that would:

Have the U.S. lead the other advanced industrial countries in each dedicating 1-2 percent of their Gross Domestic Product each year for the next twenty to once and for all end both domestic and international poverty, homelessness, hunger, inadequate education, and inadequate health care and repair the global environment;

Overturn all the trade agreements (and stop the TPP currently being negotiated in secret by the Obama administration) that have favored the interests of Western globalized capitalist firms while undermining local economies and impoverishing tens of millions of small farmers in the global south and east who are then forced off their lands and into the big cities where they live in slums and become attracted to a politics of resentment;

Create local community-based economies outside the control of national governments or large corporations to make sure that this doesn’t turn out to be another pointless give-away program but instead becomes a program of genuine empowerment of local communities around the world.

Approach the peoples of the world with a spirit of humility and a genuine desire to learn from their cultures and experiences. That does not mean suspending our ethical values (we need not tolerate abuse of women or children under the guise of multiculturalism). But it does mean ridding ourselves of the false notion that having more material things and being richer than other societies is somehow a sign of being better or wiser. In fact, we need to open ourselves to the wisdom of those who may be poorer in things but richer in their cultural resources and in building communities in which people care for each other.

The GMP proposed by Tikkun (read the details by downloading the whole proposal here) requires that we engage in this activity not only because it is in our interests, but also because of a genuine caring for the well-being of everyone else on the planet. Fostering that attitude is a precondition for any such program to work. Yet believe it or not, there are tens of millions of Americans who already have this part of them that would love to live in a world based on mutual caring and generosity. Why don’t they create it? Because each of us is beaten down by the voice of “the reality police” that tells us that no one else really wants this kind of world, and hence that it is unrealistic, naïve, foolish, self-destructive, even dangerous. It is these voices inside each of us that keep us from building the kind of world most Americans, and most people on the planet, actually want. Instead, we allow ourselves to be intimidated by the voices of those who say “You don’t really know what these other people are like—they are really hateful, crazy, hurtful and they will do terrible things to you unless you scare them back and get power over them.”

It is this cynical voice that Netanyahu seeks to strengthen in each of us. It is tragic for me as a rabbi to see the representative of a state that claims to be “the Jewish state” talking the language that Hitler popularized, giving Hitler an ultimate victory by popularizing fear and demeaning of others. And of course, as people act according to the logic of that fear, it becomes self-fulfilling, because everyone else thinks that they too have to protect themselves against us, whether that “us” is the U.S., the Western societies, Israel, or U.S. Jews.

That same self-fulfilling dynamic would make the strategy of generosity work if we were to take it seriously. The more the U.S. and other advanced industrial societies acting in a genuinely generous and caring way while abandoning its overt and covert attempts to dominate and control the world, the more that others would respond in kind. This is not Kumbaya-style naivete, but rather a proven fact of history. We’ve seen these kinds of consciousness transformation happen over and over again in the past fifty years—the ending of segregation, the emergence of women’s equality in politics and economics and in family life and social life, the ending of legal discrimination against gays and lesbians, all modern miracles made possible because these people refused to be realistic and instead mobilized for the world they really wanted.  But this can’t happen with a weak backbone—one must be powerfully for love and generosity, not fearfully and apologetically.

That’s why we’ve created the Network of Spiritual Progressives as a “consciousness-change” organization to fight the logic of Hitler and the dominators, to affirm the possibility of a world based on love, kindness, generosity, environmental sanity, economic and political justice, and transcending the tendency to take a utilitarian attitude toward other human beings or even toward the earth itself (“how can I use them or the planet for my purposes”) and instead respond to other human beings as embodiments of the sacred, and to Nature (and the universe) with awe, wonder and radical amazement at the grandeur of all that is. You don’t have to believe in God or be part of a spiritual tradition to be a Spiritual Progressive—you only have to want to build a world based on love, justice, and generosity. And that path is the best path not only for the U.S., but for Israel as well. It has been at war with surrounding Arab states since 1948. It will only be able to move beyond that when it adopts a new consciousness of love, justice and generosity. That, not manipulating the US into a war with Iran, is the path to Israeli security.

So that’s why we at Tikkun put a full page ad in the New York Times on March 2 and in The Hill newspaper on March 3 in time for Netanyahu’s talk to the Congress. We say clearly in those ads: “No, Mr. Netanyahu, the American people do not want a war with Iran, and American Jews do not support your efforts to undermine the Obama Administration’s negotiations with Iran.” More than 2,600 people signed these ads and donated generously to make them possible. I invite you to also sign the ad (at and then to actually join us as members of the Network of Spiritual Progressives ( We will try to take the message to Israeli media as well as U.S. media—but we need your help.

By Michael Lerner

Rabbi Michael Lerner is editor of Tikkun Magazine and author of "Embracing Israel/Palestine" and the forthcoming "Revolutionary Love: A Political Manifesto to Heal and Transform the World." (University of California Press, October 2019).

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