Analysis from Israel

As I noted yesterday, many world leaders seem to be stuck in a time warp, in which any new information that contradicts paradigms conceived decades ago is simply filtered out. But in their defense, the same is often true of two of the main sources they rely on for information: think tanks and the media.

A salient example is a study recently published the Rand Corporation, one of America’s most prestigious think tanks and a frequent consultant to U.S. governments. In it, author Alireza Nader concludes that containing a nuclear Iran is feasible, because Iran’s nukes wouldn’t threaten either America or its Middle Eastern allies; Tehran wants them mainly for defensive purposes. “Iran does not have territorial ambitions and does not seek to invade, conquer, or occupy other nations,” Nader asserted.

That might have been a tenable theory 25 years ago, when Iran was still licking its wounds from an eight-year war with Iraq that the latter started. Since then, however, Iran has effectively taken over Lebanon and is now seeking to do the same with Syria. And it isn’t using peaceful suasion, but force of arms.

The takeover of Lebanon was completed in 2008, when Iran’s wholly-owned Lebanese subsidiary, Hezbollah, staged an armed occupation of Beirut to reverse two government decisions (the government had planned to dismantle Hezbollah’s independent telecommunications network and dismiss an airport security official who facilitated Iranian arms shipments to the organization). Hezbollah removed its troops only after the government signed a power-sharing deal that effectively gave the organization a veto over all government decisions.

Now, Iran is trying to annex Syria. As Lee Smith noted in the Weekly Standard, not only is it arming and training President Bashar Assad’s forces, both regular and irregular, but it has also sent Hezbollah, Iranian-backed Iraqi militias and units of its own Revolutionary Guards Corps to join his fight against the Sunni rebels. Add in the billions of dollars it has given Assad to prop up his regime, and it’s clear that if he survives, Syria will be another wholly-owned Iranian subsidiary.

Nor does Iran hide that this is its goal. As one senior Iranian cleric helpfully explained in February, “Syria is the 35th province [of Iran] and a strategic province for us. If the enemy attacks us and wants to take either Syria or Khuzestan [in western Iran], the priority for us is to keep Syria….If we keep Syria, we can get Khuzestan back too, but if we lose Syria, we cannot keep Tehran.”

Yet Rand’s analyst simply ignored all these developments, blithely asserting that Iran “does not seek to invade, conquer, or occupy other nations” even as it has already effected an armed conquest of Lebanon and is pouring in troops in an effort to do the same in Syria.

The Rand paper is a particularly egregious example of an all-too-common phenomenon. Media reports, for instance, still frequently assert that Hezbollah’s main mission is fighting Israel, making its role in the Syrian civil war a surprising departure. Fifteen years ago, that was a reasonable theory. Yet by now, it should be obvious that Hezbollah’s main mission is furthering its Iranian master’s interests–which often means fighting Israel, but currently means fighting Syrian Sunnis. Seen from that perspective, Hezbollah’s role in Syria isn’t the least surprising.

Scholars and journalists are supposed to help leaders understand world events. But by clinging to outdated paradigms, they often end up obfuscating events instead. 

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In today’s world, Orthodox and Conservative Jews should be natural allies

Jewish tradition holds that the Second Temple was destroyed by baseless hatred. Since we’re currently in the annual three-week mourning period for the destruction of both Temples, which culminates in the holiday of Tisha B’Av, it’s a good time to consider a particularly counterproductive bit of baseless hatred: that between the Orthodox and Conservative movements.

Orthodox Jews tend to view Conservative and Reform Jewry as indistinguishable, lumping them both together as “non-Orthodox.” But in reality, there’s a yawning gap between them. The Conservative movement officially maintains that Jews must follow halachah (traditional Jewish law), including by observing Shabbat, kashrut, the Jewish holidays and so forth. The Reform movement rejects the very idea of binding halachah. Thus on the fundamental issue that has preserved the Jewish people for millennia—the binding nature of halachah—the Conservatives are formally on the Orthodox side of the divide.

Admittedly, most Conservative Jews don’t practice what their movement preaches, so one could legitimately ask what value this formal commitment to halachah has if most of its members ignore it. Moreover, this failure to produce and sustain observant communities has led many Jews raised in committed Conservative homes to switch to Orthodoxy (I’m one of them), and if the most observant continue leaving, I wonder how long even a formal commitment to halachah will survive.

But right now, the Conservative movement still contains a traditionalist faction that’s committed to observing halachah as the movement defines it. And because of this commitment, traditionalist Conservatives have far more in common with Orthodoxy than Reform.

Granted, Conservative interpretations of halachah diverge from Orthodox ones in nontrivial ways. But that strikes me as a less serious problem, because radically divergent interpretations of halachah have been common throughout Jewish history.

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