Yom Kippur and the Iran Deal
After my last two blogs, some readers may have come to the conclusion that I have lost my critical faculties. I have not. This blog is not written to demonstrate that, but it is written to encourage Rabbi Yael Splansky either to stick to religion, for she is truly a rabbi of faith, or to use directly accessible expert advisers like David Dewitt and Stephen Toope when she strays into international relations strewn with landmines.
On Yom Kippur, after the three hour morning service in synagogue, there is a break. Before the afternoon, evening and remembrance services between 3:30 and 7:30, the after-morning break is followed by an assortment of events which congregants can attend if they do not wish to go home and get a nap. The events vary from participating in Yiddish singing to listening to learned talks on theology and politics.
I attended the most popular event of all, one that almost filled the Eisendrath auditorium. Stephen Toope, the new director of the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto, spoke about the Iran nuclear deal. Stephen is a noted international scholar with a very impressive academic record. He received his PhD from Trinity College, Cambridge (1987) after obtaining degrees in common law (LL.B.) and civil law (B.C.L.) with honours from McGill University (1983), and an undergraduate degree in History and Literature from Harvard University (1979) where he graduated magna cum laude. He served as Law Clerk to the Rt. Hon. Chief Justice Dickson of the Supreme Court of Canada in the late eighties and was dean of the McGill Law School in the nineties. He came to the Munk School after a very successful four year role as President of the Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation and a nine year stint as the President of the University of British Columbia. In addition to his very weighty scholarly output on issues of continuity and change in international law and the origins of international obligation in international society (with Jutta Brunnée, Legitimacy and Legality in International Law: An Interactional Account), he has been involved in the practice of diplomacy, such as representing Western Europe and North America on the UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances from 2002-2007.
In his talk, he also made clear that he had attended Yom Kippur services. I assume that is because his wife is Paula Rosen and they have three children who, I believe, are being raised as Jews. I do not know if this son of an Anglican minister ever converted, but I suspect not. He gave no indication that he knew of Rabbi Yael Splansky’s talk on the subject of the nuclear arms deal on 25 July 2015, Tish B’Av.
That Jewish holiday is akin to Yom Kippur in many ways (fasting not wearing leather shoes, abstaining from sex), though, unlike Yom Kippur, it is not observed by the majority of Jews. Perhaps that is because it has some extra obligations – refraining from laughing or even smiling, for it is a day when Jews lament and pray as they remember the destruction of the First and Second Temples of Jerusalem and other historical calamities that have befallen the Jewish people, including the expulsion of the Jewish people from England in 1290 and from Spain in 1492.
In July, Rabbi Splansky offered a lament, but could not help but add a number of hopeful possibilities given her sunny disposition. On Yom Kippur, Toope offered the opposite, a very reserved and very qualified celebration of the deal. Though the two evaluations were clearly at odds, neither had taken an extreme position. Toope’s presentation was both very informed and yet very clear and precise, both comprehensive without losing the audience in a thicket of detail. Splansky’s analysis on that day of mourning was even more terse and concentrated, but not on any of the details of the agreement – for she admitted she was neither an expert on international affairs nor a scholar of science who understood the difference between uranium and plutonium. She focused on the intent of the agreement.
She began with two starting points. The first was a reference to the novelist, Jonathan Safer Foer. Splansky offered a summary or a quote on the theme that Jews have a sixth sense. In Everything Is Illuminated, Foer wrote: “Jews have six senses – touch, taste, sight, smell, hearing…memory. While Gentiles experience and process the world through the traditional senses, and use memory only as a second-order means of interpreting events, for Jews memory is no less primary than the prick of a pin, or its silver glimmer, or the taste of the blood it pulls from the finger. The Jew is pricked by a pin and remembers other pins…when his mother tried to fix his sleeve while his arm was still in it…when Abraham tested the knife point to be sure Isaac would feel no pain – that the Jew is able to know why it hurts. When a Jew encounters a pin, he asks: What does it remember like?”
She could have quoted from his book, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close to the effect that a Jew’s sense of hope and belief in the future countered the propensity to read the contemporary world in terms of the past. Depending on your outlook, maintaining hope and keeping despair at bay may be a delusion. “Why didn’t I learn to treat everything like it was the last time. My greatest regret was how much I believed in the future.” On the other hand, Splamsky could have quoted another passage from Everything Is Illuminated that suggested that living with an acute sense of memory, as if the past were integral to experiencing the present, reduced one to extreme loneliness and melancholy.
He awoke each morning with the desire to do right, to be a good and meaningful person, to be, as simple as it sounded and as impossible as it actually was, happy. And during the course of each day his heart would descend from his chest into his stomach. By early afternoon he was overcome by the feeling that nothing was right, or nothing was right for him, and by the desire to be alone. By evening he was fulfilled: alone in the magnitude of his grief, alone in his aimless guilt, alone even in his loneliness. I am not sad, he would repeat to himself over and over, I am not sad.
For Splansky, through remembering a Jew knows why it hurts. She could also have written that, through memory, “I think and think and think, I‘ve thought myself out of happiness one million times, but never once into it.” If a Jew through remembering knows why it hurts, it may also mean that through memory, the Jew is unable to see how one can escape that pain. Living so deeply in that memory of pain may not yield knowledge – even of pain – but results in what Foer called “ignorance bliss,” “the cancer of never letting go.” The pain comes from too much thinking about the past, not so much from sensibility, as an immersion in the ignorant bliss of sorrow. “I don’t know, but it’s so painful to think, and tell me, what did thinking ever do for me, to what great place did thinking ever bring me? I think and think and think, I’ve thought myself out of happiness one million times, but never once into it.”
Splansky’s second introductory springboard was to refer Lamentations, a requisite on Tish B’Av. How solitary sits the city that has become like a widow. Bitterly does she weep at night. “Among all her lovers, she has no one to comfort her; all her friends have dealt treacherously with her, they have become her enemies.” The pain, the lamentation about the possibility of the past repeating itself, may not arise from a sixth acute sensibility, but an overload of thinking which ends up reading the past into the present
Splansky claimed that in the Iranian negotiations, things had gone, not from bad to worse, but from “good to bad.” The result for Splansky: the deal was really a terrible one. Toope argued that in the case of Iran, with the deal things had gone from worse to bad and, therefore, the deal was better for us. Was it better to look at the Iran deal through a lens of Jewish memory, as Splansky had done, or through a lens of empirical and detailed knowledge and analysis? One of the questions asked after Toope gave his talk was from a friend sitting next to me who informed me that his gut, not his knowledge, told him that it was a bad deal. He quoted selectively from the service that morning where it referred to the evil of appeasement and asked Toope whether the Iran deal was such a case.
Toope replied that there were virtually no similarities between Munich in 1938 and the Iran deal. The 1938 Munich deal advertised itself as “Peace in our Time.” The Iran deal, on the other hand, was based on continuing distrust and a tough regimen of inspections. There were neither monitoring or inspection measures set forth in the Munich agreement. Further, the Munich deal gave away part of another country. The Iran deal covered only the issue of the capability of Iran to produce nuclear weapons. The deal itself provides for the most extensive and intrusive inspection and monitoring regime ever in international diplomatic history. The two examples could not seem to be further apart. So the question is why anyone would conflate them.
One explanation attributes the error to poor and illogical thought. It is one thing to make the error of inferring from some similarities between two situations to a basis for deducing a further similarity. It is quite another to presume two things are even similar when they are clearly and distinctly different. A second explanation attributes the mistake, not to illogical reasoning, but to a misguided effort to score points, but as we know from any study of spin, if you can associate one characteristic often enough with a particular event or person, no matter how inappropriate, there is a stick factor having nothing to do with any justification for the characterization. I myself think that although both of these kinds of exercises in illogic were probably at work, the deeper explanation belongs to what Rabbi Splansky referred to as a Jewish sixth sense. The problem is that such a sense, if it exists at all, can be, and often is, misleading. It may yield illusions, and frightening ones, because the result is often mindblindness, an unwillingness, even inability, to countenance another explanation and account of what is being characterized.
Thus, when Rabbi Splansky, even though she admittedly was not an expert on the deal or on international diplomacy, said that the result was based on poor negotiations and was full of dangerous loopholes, one can see where reliance on a sensibility that often produces illusions and delusions is not a reliable source. Most – though admittedly not all – scholars who study and have worked on international diplomacy, do not consider that the deal was a result of poor negotiations. So why would someone who is not familiar with the intricacies of international diplomacy as she confessed, venture to characterize the deal as a result of poor negotiations? How could she conclude that the agreement was full of dangerous loopholes. I cannot test her conclusions because Rabbi Splansky offered no examples of either poor diplomacy in this case or of dangerous loopholes.
Anyone familiar with the deal can tell you that Iran can abuse the intentions and terms. Given Iran’s past record, there is a strong suspicion by many that Iran may try. But that is not a loophole. That is the premise of the deal. That is why all the provisions have been made for monitoring and making sure the IAEA has enough funds to undertake the job of inspections. The presumption is made that Iran may try to cheat and the whole regime created by the treaty is designed to detect precisely that and to prepare allies which are part of this agreement for an appropriate response. There is no guarantee that states will respond to their commitments about any deal. One can only provide as good conditions as possible for ensuring such a response and proving the best conditions for reacting responsibly.
Viewing the deal through Jewish memory is not only dangerous, leading to misleading conclusions about the Iran nuclear deal, but can and has lead to dangerous behaviour. It need not. In the case of Rabbi Splansky’s talk, that danger was mitigated somewhat by her admonition to focus on how to use leverage to minimize the damage. However, when the portrait painted of the situation is very poorly done and the deal is characterized as resulting in “a very bad, grave situation,” there is a clear risk that some of the steps proposed will be poorly thought out.
First, Splansky was correct that the scope of the negotiations was narrow. They focused only on considerably reducing Iran’s capacity to produce nuclear weapons, which, as I will argue in subsequent blogs, the agreement did achieve. The “Framework for Cooperation Agreement” (FCA) commits all parties to cooperation “aimed at ensuring the exclusively peaceful nature of Iran’s nuclear programme through the resolution of all outstanding issues that have not already been resolved by the IAEA.” The negotiations were not intended nor did they cover the issues of Iran’s extensive and horrible record of human rights violations, of Iran’s sponsorship of terrorism, of Iran’s refusal to recognize Israel. This was the list Rabbi Splansky offered. It could have been longer and included characterizing Israel as the little Satan as a satrap to the U.S., the big Satan, by expressing a determination to eliminate Israel from the map of the Middle East and by predicting that in the not too distant future, Israel would exist no more.
Rabbi Splansky asked the question: “Will the proposed deal protect the security of Israel and her allies?” She answered “No.” What she left out was that the deal was not designed to do any such thing. The deal was designed to significantly reduce the prospect of Iran becoming a nuclear threat. That it did. Rabbi Splansky not only misrepresented the goals of the deal but the permitted outcome. She said there was relatively little relief from the danger since the deal “entitled Iran to have nuclear arms in 15 years.” This, as I will show, is categorically false. As Professor Toome noted, the deal does buy 15 years of intense monitoring and inspections, but nowhere indicates that Iran is permitted to acquire nuclear arms after that date. As I will show, the opposite is the case.
Rabbi Splansky indicated that the worst part of the deal was an “acceptance of Iran’s evil ways.” Nonsense! That is not part of the deal at all. In fact a small aspect of Iran’s bad behaviour, though far from its worst, is the secrecy, deceit and trickery practiced for almost a decade as Iran developed its nuclear program. The nuclear deal no more indicates an acceptance of Iran’s support of terrorism and determination to wipe out Israel than the recognition that the U.S. gave to China in the ping pong diplomacy and Nixon’s trip suggested any support for China’s wicked ways, or the international nuclear treaty with the U.S.S.R. mitigated at all the cruelty of the Soviet dictatorship. In each case, it could be argued that those deals helped to contribute to the moderation of those two enemies, but in the case of Iran, I personally would not count on it.
And the deal does not. After all, immediately after the deal was signed, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the Supreme Leader, published a 416 page book, Palestine. “The book carries one central message: the urge to annihilate the state of Israel and establish the state of Palestine in its stead” using three key words: “nabudi” (annihilation),” “imha” (wiping), and “zaval” (effacement). Abraham Joshua Heschel is certainly correct that, “We are tired of expulsions and of extermination threats.” But the object is to ensure they cannot be carried out. Reducing Iran’s capacity to make military nuclear weapons does just that. It does not eliminate or even reduce Iran’s hegemonic ambitions. In fact, just over two weeks ago on 9 September, Khamenei explicitly disabused anyone’s expectations that the nuclear talks could be a first step towards a broader peace agenda. Khamenei asserted, “We agreed to hold talks with the Americans only on the nuclear issue.” In other areas, “I have not authorized negotiations and [we] will not hold talks with them.”
As for the $50-150 billion dollars Splansky alleged would be released to Iran by the deal
- The amount of total assets held in foreign banks by Iran is estimated to be $150 billion, but only $50 billion was impounded through the sanctions regime
- Of Iranian assets abroad, most are owed to creditors, like China, to pay debts that were delayed by the sanctions
- The money belongs to Iran from Iranian sales of oil and other goods and is not a signing bonus
- The money was impounded until such time as Iran complied with the requirement of proving the nuclear development was and remains peaceful
- The latter is important because if there is any evidence of Iran straying from that commitment, the impounding of Iranian dollars in foreign banks kicks in automatically
- Any release of the money will take time
- The condition for release comes only after Iran has demonstrated compliance with the terms of the deal
- It is true that Iran could use the money to foster even more terrorism, but there is a huge pent-up demand for infrastructure and other domestic uses that suggests that only a small part will be diverted in that direction, especially since the party currently in power under President Hassan Rouhani ran on a platform of improving the dismal state of the Iranian economy
Splansky was much stronger when she shifted from the deal itself and its implications to the issue of how to exert leverage through the wise use of the next fifteen years, through the access gained and through the necessity to develop increasing solidarity among the parties that signed the deal with Iran.
So how valid is Splansky’s or a Jewish sixth sense? Any analysis suggests that you not rely on your kishkas or some imagined sixth sense. In the case of Rabbi Yael Splansky, it is a serious distraction of her power as a truly religious figure who leads with her heart, with her head and her soul.
How do we answer the question she asked of what can we do and what must we do? First, we must get the context and our facts right – see the remainder of this week’s blogs. We ought not to support CIJA’s plea to sign their petition to put pressure on Iran and enhance support for Netanyahu. He is the biggest example of using hyperbole, to missing any opportunity he had to get things right, and using the most inopportune times to sabotage Israel’s crucial alliance with the U.S. Urging Canada to keep sanctions is a joke. U.S. sanctions alone would not work without the cooperation of its partners in the deal. Splansky suggested we use leverage. Canada has absolutely no leverage – and that is another story.
Share solidarity with Israelis. Certainly! But not by helping enhance their fears and pricking their bad memories – they have more than sufficient resources to do that on their own. Do NOT share fear. Do not use Tish Ba’av to go in absolutely the wrong direction. Share analyses. Share hope. Share support. There is so much we can really share that will be invaluable. Solidarity is not a unity of views, as Rabbi Splansky herself indicated in her erev Yom Kippur sermon.
Tomorrow I will begin to demonstrate that by writing about the historical context.