The Obama administration has repeatedly commented on its desire to engage Iran more constructively. And while the possibility of success can be debated, it seems that failing to try would only guarantee the current unacceptable status quo. The New York Times’ Roger Cohen returned from a trip to Iran and reaches similar conclusions, but for very bad reasons — ones which suggest the acceptability of racial and religious bias which should never be acceptable.
Cohen is correct about both the failure of what he calls Green Zoneism, advancing Middle East policy based on the conditions and partners we wished existed instead of those who really do. But basing his conclusions on his experiences in Esfahan’s Palestine square could not be more wrong. He reports on the lives of Jews who admit that they live, in their own words, as a “tolerated” minority. Hardly something which either Mr. Cohen or anybody else should find comforting.
Jews in Iran live as a permanent underclass who must constantly prove their loyalty to the nation in which they live by shouting the loudest about the actions of fellow Jews in other countries. They are like German Jews in WWI, who were especially proud of the French and English Jews they killed because it demonstrated that they were “really” German. That’s tragic. It’s shameful to see it repeated in the 21st century and hardly the basis upon which to build a new and smarter foreign policy.
It’s not that I believe Cohen’s informants were insincere in their comments to him; simply that they were coerced, either overtly or more subtly. That kind of subtle coercion is the by-product of toleration as opposed to genuine equality.
To be sure, Iran’s Jews are not prisoners there. They choose to stay. And there is, as Mr. Cohen points out, a big difference between being a Jew in Iran and being a Jew in the Arab world. But making that distinction is akin to claiming that it was better to be a Jew in 19th century Germany than it was in 19th century Russia — neither was without its problems, to say the least.
As for those who would compare the lot of Jews in Iran with that of Palestinians living under Israeli control, we should be clear. No more people would choose to live as Jews in Iran than would choose to live as Palestinians in Israel and that should not be ignored. Israeli Arabs have the right to protest, publish and politic at will. This includes the right not only to critique the state in which they live, but to call for its end. Can Iran’s Jews do the same?
If our eagerness to move past one form of Green Zoneism simply invites another, then we will have moved forward not at all, and may have actually taken a giant step backward. We do need change, but not kind.