Iran’s Anti-Semitism Can’t Be Reasoned With

4 minute read
Wolpe is the Max Webb Senior Rabbi of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles, the author of eight books and has been named one of the 50 most influential Jews in the world by the Jerusalem Post.

As Passover approaches, the Jewish world has yet to fully turn its attention from the earlier holiday of Purim. Purim recalls the efforts of a Persian anti-Semite to kill the Jews. Sound familiar?

This is a time to remind ourselves of the power of irrationality. Perhaps many Americans, as exemplified by the Barack Obama administration, do not understand a certain darkness in the soul. Let me explain.

The other day I gave a lecture on anti-Semitism and was asked for the thousandth time, “Why?” What is the source of this hatred? It has its origins in “otherness” — people who are different arouse our suspicion and often our enmity. For much of Western history, the Jew was the symbol of the person who is unlike the majority. But that is not a sufficient explanation. Nor is any historical or sociological circumstance enough to explain why less than 1% of the world’s population arouses more than 50% of its crazy hatreds. Anti-Semitism is not about Jews; it is about anti-Semites.

When the leader of Iran tweets about wiping Israel off the map, our instant reaction is that he isn’t serious, and that the message was just for domestic consumption. Rationality has a hard time comprehending unreasoning hatred. The sober man won’t believe the drunk can’t simply control himself.

The deception lies with the idea that one who is mad in one thing must be mad in all things. Many anti-Semites are supremely sensible about things other than anti-Semitism. So you can sit across the negotiating table and hear them speak quite rationally about scientific data and power relations and believe, “This person is essentially like me.” That is a natural assumption and a deep delusion.

That same person will also believe, in the face of all evidence, that Jews control the banks, or that the Mossad brought down the towers on 9/11, or that the Holocaust was a fraud, or that every depredation and misfortune that that person, or their people, has suffered is somehow the fault of the Jews. And if only the world would be rid of Israel, then the Sunni and Shiite would lie together as the biblical lion and lamb.

So is it surprising when a defector from the Iran nuclear-deal negotiations claims that Iran is getting just what it wants? Of course the negotiators will not demand that Iran recognize Israel or cease its encouragement of terror; one might as easily ask the tiger to be a vegan. You cannot expect nations or individuals to abandon part of their raison d’être.

Now we have the news that Iran, which had promised to ship its stockpile of uranium to Russia, has reneged on that portion of the deal. This is a negotiating tactic with which we should be familiar: As the deal gets close, and the sides have a greater investment in it being consummated, the Iranians will take pieces off the table. Not enough to blow up the deal (there are “other ways” to deal with the material, according to the New York Times), but enough to make it less effective, less comprehensive, and more manageable when finally signed. To the conspiratorial mind, every concession is not an advance to a solution but a tactical triumph.

As I have written before, an Iranian bomb combines the two great taboos of the 20th century, Auschwitz and Hiroshima. It is a nuclear bomb in service of destroying the Jewish people. The drive to acquire one will not be derailed by appeals to Iranian self-interest. We all recall the military vehicles diverted to concentration camps despite the desperate need for them at the German front, because the urgent task of killing Jews could brook no interruption. That entire nations could hate Jews to their detriment is no surprise to Israel’s prime minister: After all, his father wrote a noted history of the Spanish Inquisition.

The dark, relentless, and unsparing hatred that swirls about is evident every single day in broadcasts, tweets, and speeches from clerics and political leaders all across the Middle East. We are accustomed to saying that it is our values, our way of life, our history, or something else that others hate. When it comes to anti-Semitism though, it is not about Jews, it is about anti-Semites. It is a derangement not susceptible to rational analysis or rational deterrence. We are about to strike a deal with people who harbor an implacable hatred. Iran may seek leverage for all sorts of regional, hegemonic goals as well. As long as the current regime holds power, however, there is one unwavering, non-negotiable goal. And unlike the sunshine of reason, deep hatreds are patient.

Read next: Lincoln and the Jews

Listen to the most important stories of the day.

More Must-Reads From TIME

Contact us at

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary on events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. Opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of TIME editors.