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The American Jewish Committee and Iran


Today I received an e-mail from the American Jewish Committee (AJC). The AJC says it "has worked since 1906 to safeguard and strengthen Jews and Jewish life worldwide by promoting democratic and pluralistic societies that respect the dignity of all peoples". Their objective is laudable and sensible, and indeed has much to commend it. The AJC has chosen an objective that is both pragmatic and stirring. I support their stated idealism. Life is difficult, injustice is pervasive, and genuine peace so often seems elusive. As a minority population, the Jewish people have been acutely aware of this for thousands of years. Their history makes a compelling case for their goal—their idealism is firmly rooted in the knowledge that when the dignity of all peoples is respected, everyone benefits, especially minorities. Their idealism is grounded in realism.

How strange it is, then, that their e-mail contained a video produced by them which could hardly do more to contradict their ideals. The video highlights alleged and actual Iranian government acts, encouraging viewers to take action to stop Iran acquiring nuclear weapons. These acts include the 1994 bombing of a Jewish Center in Argentina (an act for which no one has yet been proven guilty in a court of law, which the video does not mention), public hangings within Iran, and recent Iranian government action against protesters. The public hanging scene is extremely disturbing, showing the twitching legs of a man in the last moments of his life. The method the video uses to convey its message is intriguing. It combines the familiarity of everyday things—trucks, motorcycles, and cranes, as well as homely music—with sights that are meant to be perceived as grotesque and jarring. Here it draws upon Sigmund Freud’s idea of the uncanny. In this video, the Iranian government is familiar, yet monstrous. It is like us, but unlike us in the most awful ways imaginable. Given the frequency with which the uncanny occurs in cultures worldwide, Freud was onto something, which the producers of the video cleverly exploit.

The AJC is hardly alone in producing a video of this character. Naturally, videos and e-mails are commonly produced by individuals, organizations and governments that highlight what they see as monstrous acts by the Israeli government. An abundance of imagery exists of large numbers of civilians being killed by not only Israeli military weapons, but everyday things like bulldozers. An Israeli soldier once told me a story about some of his colleagues who were convicted for playing football with a Palestinian boy’s head. They had made a video of themselves doing it. Important, influential intellectuals within Israel, such as Yehezkel Dror, openly advocate the use of Israel’s nuclear weapons in the case of a "sufficiently grave" threat.

What I find so strange is that the AJC is so willing to give us simply more of the same. It thus gives the appearance of being nothing more than a partisan in the midst of a propaganda war that it is determined to win. How refreshing it would be if the AJC mustered the imagination to do something different. For example, the AJC could make a video that showed the effects of violence on ordinary people regardless of their nationality or religion, and then demonstrate how this is ultimately a threat to everybody’s well-being. That would be keeping with their stated ideals.

Jewish men Muslim children

Tragically, Israel and Iran have been both victims of mass violence, heavily marking the psyches of their peoples. But they have both been perpetrators of it too. It would be courageous if the AJC were to acknowledge the violence inflicted by the Israeli state, and the ongoing pain and injustice this has caused for its victims. It would be wise if they were to advocate for a truth commission to examine the many varieties of violence in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories—violence that strips away the dignity of everyone living there, regardless of religion, race, gender, age or nationality. The AJC could vigorously campaign for for a world free of nuclear weapons, including Israel’s. That would certainly respect all people’s dignity.

Is the AJC ever likely to do any of this? I remain hopeful. Conflict between and among peoples is inevitable, and can even be healthy. But mass violence is neither inevitable or healthy. To work toward its own objective, the AJC needs to practice conflict transformation, not contribute to the world’s already overflowing cesspool of manipulative propaganda.

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