BY ALI ALFONEH and REUEL MARC GERECHT, Weekly Standard—
Antisemitism has never been an easy subject for America’s foreign-policy establishment. Read through State Department telegrams and Central Intelligence Agency operational and intelligence cables on the Middle East and you will seldom find it discussed, even though Jew-hatred—not just anti-Zionism—has been a significant aspect, if not a core component, of modern Arab nationalism, Islamic fundamentalism, and what usually passes for critical thought among sophisticated Arab elites.
Western scholars, too, generally avoid the subject. The Israeli-Palestinian imbroglio is an omnipresent and divisive issue in the academy, and academics who might be inclined to explore antisemitism among Muslims could risk their reputation among colleagues who view such study as tendentious, even bigoted. And those with the languages to appreciate this distemper are often inclined to downplay its importance precisely because of its commonness. The threshold for what constitutes shocking Jew-hatred, as opposed to routine hostility, has gotten pretty high in the Middle East in part because Western leftist sympathy for Israel has been declining. Middle Eastern intellectuals are still influenced by the preferences and vicissitudes of the European left. However, former Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s exuberant, Holocaust-denying antisemitism crossed the line. He played a not insignificant part in changing the atmospherics about Iran within Europe by amplifying elite European fear that Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu might strike Tehran’s atomic program. The European oil embargo, designed to punish the clerical regime for its nuclear aspirations—the single most forceful diplomatic action ever by the European Union—rose up in the summer of 2012 in Ahmadinejad’s antisemitic wake.
However, his Jew-hatred was no uglier or less menacing than that of the supreme leader, who has far greater power and influence than an Iranian president. Yet Ali Khamenei’s obsession has received far less attention, especially after President Barack Obama’s nuclear diplomacy kicked into high gear with the presidential election of Hassan Rouhani in June 2013. With the notable exceptions of the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg and the Washington Post’s Richard Cohen, who both support the president’s nuclear accord, prominent left-leaning journalists have downplayed Khamenei’s rampaging antisemitism, usually by balancing it with more optimistic assessments of Persian culture, Rouhani, and the American-educated foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif. (Such optimists inevitably cite the irenic Jewish holiday tweets of Rouhani, who once remarked to CNN’s Christiane Amanpour that Holocaust denial was a subject best left to historians to debate.)
The president and senior administration officials, except when they are answering Goldberg’s questions, have preferred to talk about other things, like the utility of “snapback” sanctions, Israel’s nuclear deterrent, or the possibility of future Iranian moderation. Seriously discussing the ruling elite’s antisemitism could lend too much credence to the deal’s critics. However fierce Khamenei’s Jew-hatred may be, it is more abstract for many than the fear of American preemption against Iran’s nuclear sites. Commentary that could reinforce an argument for military action isn’t commentary worth making.
Yet it is a good idea to revisit the antisemitic mainspring of Khamenei’s thought. Unless he soon drops dead from cancer, he will determine Iran’s atomic future. He has assiduously backed the growing power of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, which oversees the country’s nuclear and long-range ballistic missile programs, serves as the regime’s expeditionary force in Syria and Iraq, and has primary responsibility for liaison work with foreign Islamic militants. This organization’s incessant anti-semitic rhetoric mirrors the supreme leader’s conspiratorial rants. Given that Khamenei controls the Assembly of Experts, the body designated to choose his successor, there’s no reason to believe the Islamic Republic will become less antisemitic in the coming decade.
President Obama wants to believe that the supreme leader’s economic and strategic “rationalism,” and by extension the ratiocination of the Revolutionary Guards and other senior revolutionary mullahs who have a thing about “global Jewry,” sufficiently mitigates the irrational mentality that embraces antisemitism as an explanation for the evils of this world. Irrespective of the details of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, a nuclear agreement with clerical Iran can thus make sense even if Holocaust-denying mullahs and guards firmly believe that the “Islam-destroying” Jewish-led West is trying to hamstring the mullahs’ four-decade-old nuclear project. The whole point of acquiring nuclear weapons for Iran is to protect the most important Muslim country from Western conspiracies.
However logically strained, the president’s gamble is not without some historical comfort: The clerical regime has long possessed chemical and biological weapons, and it has so far chosen not to release these arms to its favorite terrorist offspring, the Lebanese Hezbollah, or to Sunni radical outfits, like Hamas and al Qaeda, which Tehran has abetted. If these groups had these weapons, they would likely use them against Israel (and in the case of al Qaeda, against the United States). Khamenei and the Revolutionary Guards—or Rouhani—haven’t yet revealed any ethics that would discourage jihadists from killing Israelis; it’s reasonable to conclude that the Iranian regime has not delivered such lethal weaponry to these holy warriors because they don’t wish to risk Israeli reprisal. At a minimum, the regime’s antisemitism hasn’t switched off the kind of self-interest that fears nuclear retaliation.
And yet antisemitism is a derangement with a history. Westerners in the Middle East, especially those on a goodwill mission, are unwise to glide over and excuse its constant eruptions, which among Islamic fundamentalists certainly won’t be solved by a Zionist state with its capital restricted to West Jerusalem. One needs to be attentive to the disease’s genesis and metastasis. European history tells us how antisemitism can mutate rapidly, even within countries considered open and tolerant towards Jews. As Richard Cohen pointed out, antisemitism can grow savage in fundamentally decent societies through the machinations of wicked elites. Historically, the Islamic lands—unlike Christendom, where antipathy towards Jews often arrived at the baptismal font—didn’t have “bottom-up” Jew-hatred. Muslim antisemitism has always been nastiest among the better educated, among those most absorptive of and reactive to the ideological maelstrom of the West. Those who see the Israeli-Palestinian/Arab clash as part of a great collision between two civilizations have been the most likely to embrace antisemitism with conviction. Throughout the Middle East, fundamentalists have been on the cutting edge of this titanic struggle. Looking more closely at the evolution of Khamenei’s Jew-hatred allows us a window not just into how the most anti-American ruler in the Muslim Middle East thinks, but how militant Muslims in general see Western power.
The rise of an antisemitic mullah
References to Jews and Israel in Khamenei’s speeches demonstrate a near-pathological obsession. Two important Persian-language sources for such references, as well as for Khamenei’s actions toward Jews, are Hedayatollah Behboodi’s biography of Khamenei, Sharh-e Esm (The Elucidation of the Name), and Saeed Solh-Mirzaei’s Felestin Az Manzar-e Hazrat-e Ayatollah al-Ozma Khamenehi (Palestine from His Holiness Grand Ayatollah Khamenei’s Perspective), a compilation of mentions of Israel in Khamenei’s speeches from 1979 to 2011.
Every Christmas, Iranian state television shows Henry King’s 1943 movie The Song of Bernadette, the story of a young French girl (later Saint Bernadette) who kept seeing the Virgin Mary in Lourdes. Also obligatory at Christmas is a filmed encounter of Khamenei visiting the parents of Vahik Baghdasarian, an Armenian Christian draftee killed in 1984 in the Iran-Iraq war (1980-88). The supreme leader thanks the parents for their son’s “martyrdom.” The regime is always eager to depict the tolerance and magnanimity of mullahs. But Khamenei has yet to visit families of Jewish martyrs of the war. Presidents Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, Mohammad Khatami, and even Ahmadinejad all took pains to embrace representatives of Iran’s ever-shrinking Jewish community (now approximately 10,000 people). Ahmadinejad also made a highly publicized point of visiting the anti-Zionist, pro-Palestinian rabbis from Neturei Karta International in New York. The Neturei Karta has accepted Iranian invitations to attend Holocaust-denial gatherings in Tehran. Khamenei has never met them.
Khamenei appears to avoid any personal contact with Jews, treating them in practice as if they were a rung or two up from the untouchables, the Baha’is. These last commit the worst religious crime in Islam by recognizing prophets after Muhammad, notably, Bahá’u’lláh, the 19th-century founder of the Baha’i faith. By contrast, Jews, Christians, Zoroastrians, and Sabians (a mysterious people who have disappeared since the 7th century) are the Koran’s ahl al-kitab, or possessors of divine books, and therefore “clean.” On his official website, Khamenei condemns the Baha’is as “enemies of your religion and faith.” They are najis, religiously impure. Muslims should always avoid physical contact with them and seek ritual purification in case of accidental touching. Jews, Christians, and Zoroastrians may not be sought out by devout Shiites, but they are not untouchables.
Khamenei is different. He thrived on Western literature in his youth, only to become a devoted admirer of Sayyid Qutb (1906-1966), the Egyptian theorist of jihad, in his adulthood. The roots of his antipathy for Jews and Israel lie in the crisscrossing religious and political currents in his hometown, Mashhad, in the 1950s and ’60s. In the literary salons that Khamenei frequented, Marxist and nationalist currents depicting Israel as an instrument of Western imperialism were common; concurrently, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, a rising star among the religiously militant, attacked “Jewish influence” in the royal court. Khomeini also railed against Western imperialism, Israel, and Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi’s ambitious reform program, “the White Revolution,” which, among other things, nationalized the lands of religious endowments and gave voting rights to women. The young Khamenei was not a member of the close circle around Khomeini, but he claims that in May 1963 he carried a handwritten letter from Khomeini to religious authorities in Mashhad. The message read: “Prepare for the fight against Zionism. . . . Israel is in control of the country’s economic and political affairs.”
Little is known about Khamenei’s personal views at that time, but fragments of the sermons the young cleric delivered in small religious gatherings were reported by informers of the SAVAK, Iran’s prerevolution intelligence service, and are reproduced in Behboodi’s book. Reflecting on the Six-Day War in his sermon at the Al-Javad Mosque in Tehran in March 1969, Khamenei attacked the shah’s regime for not aiding Arabs in the wars against Israel and concluded his sermon with the call: “Gentlemen! Jihad is needed in Iran. . . . May God plant the rebellion of Hussein in our body,” referring to the third imam of the Shiites, who chose martyrdom rather than pledging allegiance to an Umayyad caliph in Damascus.
By March 1973, Khamenei was a frequent lecturer at the Imam Hassan Mosque in Mashhad. There he presented his interpretation of Al-Baqara (The Cow), the second and longest surah of the Koran, in which the Prophet Muhammad among other things discusses the relationship between Muslims, Jews, and Christians in a Muslim polity. According to reports compiled by SAVAK informers, Khamenei discussed “the characteristics of the Jewish tribe” and praised “the Jews who helped His Holiness Moses,” who according to Islamic theology was a hanif, a Muslim prophet before the coming of Muhammad; but he condemned “some present day Jews who are like the lackeys of the Pharaoh.” In the same lecture series, Khamenei also discussed “the nature of the opposition of the Jews to the prophet ,” “the greed of the Jews,” and “the black arts of the rabbis,” which finally led SAVAK to dissolve the class. The SAVAK’s closure of the class must have made a deep impression on Khamenei, who after the revolution referred to the incident as among the “hardships” he endured under the shah: “From a political point of view, life was hard. . . . I used to talk a bit about Judaism and the Israelites. During the interrogations, they accused me of having spoken against Israel and the Jews. This is how the political situation was back then!”
The freedom and power to hate
Both anti-Jewish and philo-Jewish sentiments were common in prerevolutionary Pahlavi Iran, and they often centered on a similar assessment: Jews were well educated and commercially successful. Religious suspicion of Jews, always present in Muslim society, could be counterbalanced even among the devout with an appreciation for Jewish antiquity and for the intimate integration of Jewish life into Persian culture. The revolution of 1979 changed all that, just as it put an end to Khamenei’s “hardships.” Antisemitism, once an underground political current, was elevated into a state ideology. What Khamenei had preached at the modest Imam Hassan Mosque in Mashhad, he now declaimed from the pulpit of Friday prayers at Tehran University.
Khamenei’s August 5, 1980, Quds Day sermon, which is quoted in its entirety in Solh-Mirzaei’s book, clearly builds upon the mullah’s 1973 lectures. This sermon set the tone and has defined the vocabulary of his commentary on Jews and Israel until today. “The Iranian nation is the vanguard of the struggle for the liberation of Palestine,” Khamenei said. “Iran’s revolution reached victory within the borders, but we should not be content thinking we have achieved final victory. As long as an infectious sore, a filthy tumor called the usurping Israeli state in the heart of Arab and Islamic lands exists, we can’t feel victory and can’t tolerate the presence of our enemy in the usurped and occupied lands.”
Khamenei recited “The Night Journey,” or the Bani Isra’il surah, of the Koran, as proof of divine promise of “the second defeat of the Israelites.” “And We decreed for the Children of Israel in the Book: Ye verily will work corruption in the earth twice, and ye will become great tyrants. So when the time for the first of the two came, We roused against you slaves of Ours of great might who ravaged (your) country, and it was a threat performed.” He then turned to the plight of Palestinian refugees and “the crimes of the Fascist government” of Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin, whom Khamenei accused of “imprisoning Muslim youth, subjecting them to torture, and even tapping their blood with syringes to save in their blood banks for mercenary Israeli elements.” According to Khamenei, it was “the imperialists” who “planted this filthy cancerous tumor . . . in our Islamic and Arabic fatherland” who created “division amongst Islamic states.”
Khamenei distinguished Zionism from Judaism—“We do not consider Zionism a part of a religion and do not consider it a part of Judaism”—but simultaneously claimed Israel was a place where “a bunch of antihuman criminals have gathered and engage in nothing but conspiring against revolutionary nations and states.” Like most Islamic militants, Khamenei has a difficult time locating a time and place when Jews have not been a threat to the Muslim body politic. Iran’s Jews—few, subject to Islamic law, and extremely careful not to give offense to the authorities—are tolerated. On his website, Khamenei the jurisprudent finds commercial dealings with Iran’s Jews to be permissible. Synagogues while not thriving, are open. But, following his heroes Ayatollah Khomeini and Sayyid Qutb, Khamenei connects the Jewish enemies in the Koran with Israel. As Princeton’s Michael Cook has put it:
Fundamentalism also assists with the . . . demonization of enemies. Generally, it can work to erode the legitimacy of later accommodations between Muslim and non-Muslim populations by invoking the values of an earlier age in which Islamic dominance was clear-cut. Specifically, it highlights confrontation with Christians and Jews. . . . The Jewish case is more dramatic. The Jews were intimate enemies at the beginning of Islam by virtue of their opposition to Muhammad in Medina, and through a remarkable turn of modern history they are once again intimate enemies by virtue of their establishment of the State of Israel.
Who is to blame? According to Khamenei, “Arab regimes that are satisfied chanting the slogan of supporting Palestine” and “imperialist powers” which they alleged had “planted Israel” in the midst of the Islamic world. What was to be done? The “liberation of Palestine” and “annihilation of Israel.” How? By the ways of “sacrifice,” “martyrdom,” and “miracles.” Quoting Khomeini, Khamenei counseled that “if each member of the one-billion-large Islamic community of believers throws a bucket of water at Israel,” Israel will be drowned by the flood, and should each one throw a stone at it, “Israel will be buried.”
The themes, and even exact words, of this sermon are reflected in Khamenei’s later commentary on Jews and Israel, but there are also antisemitic innovations reflecting the times. In the wake of the Iran-contra affair, in February 1990, Khamenei went to great lengths to dismiss rumors of Iran importing Israeli arms. “In order to reduce the Islamic Republic’s influence among the nations, they whisper a rumor about a deal, claiming someone has procured something from someone and has sold something in return,” the mullah affirmed. “These rumors are spread by those who themselves have secret liaisons with Israel.”
In June 1991, Khamenei started attacking Jewish migration to Israel from the Soviet Union, Ethiopia, and India. In December 1994, he attacked Palestine Liberation Organization chairman Yasser Arafat and denounced Arab states negotiating peace with Israel as “traitors.” In March 1999, in a Persian New Year’s address, he endorsed, it appears for the first time, the Holocaust denial of Roger Garaudy, the French Communist convert to Islam. In an April 2001 speech, however, Khamenei moved away from total denial, saying, “Zionist propaganda exaggerates the number of Jewish victims,” and dwelling upon “the proof of Jews cooperating with the Nazis.” In April 2001, he described the conflict in Palestine as a “continuation of the Crusades,” either unaware or not acknowledging that the Holy Land’s Jews, like some Jews in Europe, also fell victim to Latin Christendom’s effort to reconquer the Near East for Christ. Occasionally, Khamenei offers practical guidance on how to achieve his goal of annihilating Israel. In an April 2001 address, he touted “reverse migration from Israel because of sustained Arab resistance.” In May 2002, he praised the use of suicide bombers as a means to provoke Jewish emigration.
Contradictions do abound in Khamenei’s statements about Jews and Israel. At times Khamenei claims the United States is controlled by Israel, in particular “Zionist capitalists.” But the cleric simultaneously asserts that Israelis “are instruments in the hands of the United States” and the “poisonous dagger in the side of the Muslims,” which helps the United States “gain a foothold from the Nile to the Euphrates.” Khamenei calls Israel “the chained dog of America” and “a microbe, which grows well protected by the United States.” Khamenei does not see any peaceful solution to the Israel problem—only a “military solution” is possible—and claims “Iranians are ready to fight Israel on Palestinian soil.” He does not find current circumstances, however, “expedient” for Iranians directly to enter the fray. “The Palestinians should do the fighting,” Khamenei advises. The cleric emphasizes that Iran can’t send arms or soldiers, but should send money. He insists that it is the duty of all Islamic states to arm the Palestinians, but at the same time says Iran can’t do so at the moment. Khamenei is certain that the United States and Israel will go the way of the Soviet Union. He claims that Palestinian resistance has nothing to do with Iran, but simultaneously claims supporting Lebanon and Palestine is the Islamic duty of Iranians and has been Tehran’s strategy since the Islamic revolution.
The Islamic Republic has certainly produced some dissent from Khomeini and Khamenei’s vision of Iran as a vanguard against the Jewish state. A strong supporter of the Lebanese Hezbollah’s war against Israel, Khatami, the former reformist president, nevertheless remarked that “we can’t be more Palestinian than the Palestinians.” The pro-democracy Green Movement’s taunt against the regime—“Neither Gaza nor Lebanon, let my life be sacrificed for Iran!”—cut to the heart of an imperial Islamist-Iranian vision, which still holds sway with the inner circle around President Rouhani. Rouhani has ardently backed Islamic militants in Gaza, Lebanon, and Iraq, as well as the barrel-bombing Assad regime in Syria. But the regime’s real dissidents who wanted to break from Khamenei’s fierce antisemitism and anti-Zionism have all been pummeled: The students and disillusioned revolutionaries who drove serious critiques of theocracy under President Khatami and powered the even more convulsive Green Movement have gone quiet, gone into exile, or are languishing in prison.
The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action hasn’t moderated Khamenei’s views on Jews and Israel. It appears to have provoked a new wave of speeches against Israel. This ought to serve as a reminder and litmus test for those assessing 36 years of religious revolution: An Islamic Republic that does not take its antisemitism seriously seems more than ever an oxymoron.
Ali Alfoneh and Reuel Marc Gerecht, a contributing editor, are senior fellows at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.