In Woody Allen’s Sleeper, the hero wakes up from cryogenic sleep to find out a war has wiped out the world as he knew it. “Over 100 years ago,” a doctor tells him, “a man named Albert Shanker got a hold of a nuclear warhead.”
Allen knew this incredibly specific joke would kill in 1970s New York, where it was easy to imagine that Armageddon would be launched by the fiery, bespectacled, Jewish leader of the New York City teachers’ union.
The joke came to mind when I read how casino mogul, Jewish benefactor, and Republican bankroller Sheldon Adelson suggested that in order to send a message to the Iranians, the United States should drop an atomic bomb in their desert.
Adelson was speaking last week at a forum titled, alarmingly, “Will Jews Exist? Iran, Assimilation and the Threat to Israel and Jewish Survival,” hosted by Rabbi Shmuley Boteach. According to a videotape of the event, transcribed by The Atlantic, Adelson was asked about the effectiveness of negotiations in thwarting Iran’s nuclear weapons ambitions.
“What are we going to negotiate about?” replies Adelson. He has a better idea: dropping a ballistic missile in the “middle of the desert, that doesn’t hurt a soul. Maybe a couple of rattlesnakes, and scorpions, or whatever. And then you say, ‘See! The next one is in the middle of Tehran. So, we mean business. You want to be wiped out? Go ahead and take a tough position and continue with your nuclear development.”
Some in the audience, at Yeshiva University, applauded. Nevertheless, I suspect Boteach sensed trouble as soon as Adelson dropped his, um, bomb. After Adelson’s comments, Boteach comes to the rescue and suggests that what Adelson meant to say is that there should be a “tremendous demonstration of American strength.” (A journalist might have asked, “Are you being serious about a nuclear strike, or using hyperbole?”) Adelson agrees with Boteach and they move on.
Nonetheless, Adelson’s remarks inspired a number of critical or at least quizzical news reports. In a news release sent the next day, Boteach seemed to be scrambling to defend Adelson from charges of Strangelovianism. Boteach asserts that “Adelson made an innocuous comment,” adding, “I would hope that those who seem alarmed by Sheldon’s overstatement on the extent to which the United States should go to stop Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon will at least protest that much more loudly against its actual development.”
Adelson’s remarks would be a footnote if not for one thing: As one of the largest single contributors to the Republican Party, he has more influence on the political process than the average businessman with an opinion. Or maybe two things: As one of the largest single contributors to Jewish philanthropies, Adelson has more influence and a higher profile than the average Jewish philanthropist.
Such visibility comes with responsibility — in this case, a responsibility not to make Jewish leaders look like war-mongers, a charge that arises with depressing regularity. In trying to thwart Iran, responsible Jewish organizations have urged a program of sanctions backed by a credible threat of military action — a threat, mind you. For a summary of the “mainstream” view of the current negotiations, see a recent op-ed in the Washington Post by Michael Singh, managing director of the firmly but not ostentatiously pro-Israel Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
In his op-ed, Singh sees “two distinct paths to a nuclear deal with Iran”: relieving sanctions should Iran put strict limits on its nuclear activities, or requiring Iran to dismantle its nuclear program in exchange for any relief from sanctions. Although, like many observers, Singh is skeptical of Iran’s talk of moderation or transparency, he acknowledges that the sanctions have put Iran under severe strain. What’s more, “if Iran tried to ‘break out’ for a nuclear weapon, the United States and Israel have made clear that they would strike a devastating military blow.”
Singh served three years on the National Security Council, including as its director for Iran. As for Adelson’s foreign policy qualifications, Boteach’s news release also quotes a spokesman for Adelson, saying, “As one of the country’s most successful entrepreneurs, Mr. Adelson was using hyperbole to make a point that — based on his nearly seven decades of experience negotiating business deals — actions speak louder than words.”
I think Adelson’s spokesman speaks to a deeper truth: “As one of the country’s most successful entrepreneurs…” is another way of saying, “As someone with no experience in statecraft, diplomacy, or military strategy….” The problem, of course, is that dilettantes do end up exerting tremendous sway on the system, through their deep-pocketed funding of politicians or think tanks that press their agenda.
Adelson isn’t the only Jewish leader spitting nails on Iran, and their frustration over Tehran’s genocide-friendly rhetoric and track record is understandable. But even if Adelson’s remarks were meant to “goad his more liberal critics,” as Boteach suggests, they might have just the opposite effect: painting the pro-Israel community as irrational or unreliable, and making it easier for the administration and its supporters to dismiss a community’s legitimate warnings.