The lead story on the April 19, 1985, evening news has been indelibly etched into my mind. Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel, a recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, had just received the Congressional Medal of Achievement from President Ronald Reagan in a ceremony at the White House. At the end of his remarks, Wiesel turned to the president and implored him not to go to Bitburg, Germany, where he was planning to place a wreath at the military cemetery which included the graves of 49 members of the Waffen-SS.
Despite pressure to not confront or embarrass Reagan, Wiesel pleaded with him. “That place,” he told the president during the nationally televised ceremony, “is not your place. Your place is with the victims of the SS.”
Reagan’s decision to go to Bitburg created one of the most acrimonious rifts between any U.S. administration and the American Jewish community. The Bitburg episode appears to be re-inventing itself in another rift brewing between many American Jews and our current president.
On Tuesday, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is scheduled to address a joint session of Congress. The invitation came from House Speaker John Boehner without consulting President Barack Obama. The president announced that he will not meet with Netanyahu during his visit. Vice President Joe Biden, who usually sits in the chamber when a head of state addresses Congress, will be conveniently out of the country.
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Pundits continue to debate the motives behind Boehner’s invitation as well as the prime minister’s reasons to speak to Congress two weeks before elections in Israel. Netanyahu sees no other choice but to use the grand stage on Capitol Hill to convey why a bad deal with Iran over the production of nuclear materiel is dangerous.
Efraim Inbar, director of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, seems to concur. In a recent op-ed for Arutz Sheva, an Israeli media network, he wrote:
“This is precisely why he does not want Netanyahu to speak in the U.S. Congress. Obama fears that Netanyahu’s speech could become a catalyst for a public debate about his own dangerous policy toward Iran. He does not want undue publicity for his dangerous foreign policy gambit. The last thing he needs is a gifted orator such as Netanyahu pointing out the glaring deficiencies in the American approach toward Iran.”
Reagan sent the wrong message by going to Bitburg. Obama is sending the wrong message that he will try to implement any deal he can with Iran, including the suspension of sanctions originally imposed by Congress.
Hal Stein, a member of my congregation who has family in Israel, told me: “If Obama is truly on a negotiating path with Iran that would reverse Iran’s progress toward nuclear weapons development, then he and Netanyahu would be on the same page. What Netanyahu and others fear is that Obama is prepared to announce a done deal with Iran that would suspend sanctions, yet not require Iran to completely reverse its weapons development progress, which was the original purpose of sanctions.”
In its latest report on Iran’s nuclear program, the International Atomic Energy Agency, the U.N.’s nuclear watchdog, says that it “continues to have serious concerns regarding possible military dimensions to Iran’s nuclear program. Iran has stepped up uranium enrichment, denied inspectors access to the Parchin military testing site near Tehran and has not resolved outstanding questions about past charges of weapons-related work.”
When Wiesel’s conscience drove him to confront Reagan, it was regarded by many observers as a moment when, in the words of Wiesel, “truth was spoken to power.” Now, Wiesel feels that he must again speak the truth to the most powerful leader in the world. In a full page ad Feb. 14 in The New York Times, Wiesel pleads with Obama, Biden and members of Congress:
“As one who has seen the enemies of the Jewish people make good on threats to exterminate us, how can I remain silent? I plead with you to put aside the politics that have obscured the critical decisions to be made. Surely it is within your power to find a solution that will permit Israel’s prime minister to deliver his urgent message. Will you join me in hearing the case for keeping weapons from those who preach death to Israel and America?”
Experts who have knowledge of Iran’s nuclear capability agree that it is past time to more stringently implement international sanctions that would be punitive enough to convince the Iranian leadership to abandon their pursuit of nuclear weapons. In the absence of such sanctions, or if they are shown to be ineffective, a joint military response, as undesirable as it may be, seems likely to be the only other option.
If our president cannot clearly see the danger, the alternative may be for Israel to take care of business as it did in 1981, when it shocked the world and destroyed the Osirak nuclear plant in Iraq. As then, the world will publicly condemn Israel’s attack on nuclear Iran and privately applaud Israel’s actions.
In 2009 Obama said, “When I came into office, the world was divided and Iran was in the driver’s seat.” Six years later it appears that the world is still divided and Iran is still driving the bus. The president would be wise to heed Elie Wiesel’s pleas and accept that Iran’s nuclear ambitions are not only an existential threat to Israel, the Middle East and Europe, but to the entire world. And that threat needs to be stopped now, before it is too late.
Rabbi Reuven Taff, a past president of the Greater Sacramento Board of Rabbis, is rabbi and spiritual leader of Mosaic Law Congregation. Contact him at email@example.com.