10/02/2012 04:21 pm ET Updated Dec 02, 2012

A Fading Jewish Voice in the Middle Eastern Wilderness

At this time of the year, the Jewish holiday calendar moves nearly as quickly as our 24/7 global news cycle. So Yom Kippur, the major holiday where Jews, like their Muslim cousins during Ramadan, fast and ponder self-improvement, is SO last week. This is, fortunately, like the issue of Israeli and American sabre-rattling around Iran, which, at least for the moment, is gone from the headlines.

Yet I had a chance to link these two events during my Yom Kippur fast. My synagogue honored me by asking me to chant in Hebrew the Book of Jonah, which is always read in the late afternoon when congregants are at their most hungry. The book is strange, especially if you only know it for the big fish, not actually a whale, which swallows the title character. In fact, in trying to dramatize the book for my religious community, I was reminded of how relevant the story still seems.

Jonah, a citizen of (the pre-modern kingdom of) Israel flees God's commandment to deliver a prophecy that the non-Jewish city of Nineveh (in present-day Iraq) should repent its evil ways. As a result, God causes a huge fish to swallow Jonah. He sits in the belly of the big beast, prays to God, gets spat out, and changes his mind about refusing to do what God asks. In Chapter 4, we learn Jonah's reason for trying to resist God's mission; he was concerned that the residents of Nineveh might actually heed God's call to be better people. He says this directly to God at the end of the book, adding that he was so angry that God spared the lives of the Ninevites that he would rather die than live. At the end of the book, God shows Jonah that he was wrong, and that compassion towards other living things is desirable.

So here I am, an American Jew, chanting for my entire synagogue one of the central texts of a holiday whose holiness is defined by the charge of trying to move beyond the gap that exists between our hopes for ourselves and our actual behavior. And the text says that we should not give in to our own potential tendency to be overwhelmed by hostility towards another (Middle Eastern) people. This was Wednesday, Sept. 26. The next morning, the Prime Minister of the modern state of Israel spoke at the United Nations about his country's intent to attack a nation rather close geographically to ancient Nineveh, Iran.

Now I have a doctorate in political science and am trained as an attorney to think pragmatically. So I'm not naïve about the contemporary Iranian government, and appreciate that Israel cannot simply ignore the vicious statements and funding for anti-Israeli militants that come daily out of Tehran. Indeed, as someone who has spent significant time in Israel, I understand how easy it is for people there to feel threatened by other governments in the Middle East, not to mention Palestinians. I am as adept as any trained scholar at reciting all the reasons contemporary conflicts in the region have festered.

Still, it troubles me that a fundamental, traditional message of a sacred Jewish holiday seems to fall on deaf ears among Israeli policymakers, so that the country's top politico drew red lines on a global stage, with an underlying threat of military attack, the morning after the religion that he believes he is defending cautioned against unrelenting enmity towards a perceived enemy.

I have no simple policy answer to the perceived threat of Iranian nuclear weapons, and the evident regional ambitions of the present Iranian government. I can, however, offer several observations that cut in favor of at least considering an approach to Iran that seems more like Jonah's God than Jonah:

(1) Much doubt still exists about how close Iran is to building a nuclear device, let alone whether it would use one. On this latter point, the absolute lack of doubt that Israel does possess nuclear weapons should function as a deterrent to Tehran's current government, as little as I personally like nuclear deterrence.

(2) There is very little doubt that Middle Easterners remember, and have strong feelings against, militaristic dominance by outsiders of their country. The anti-American pieces of the 1979 Iranian Revolution had a lot to do with the role of the US in overthrowing a more democratic Iranian government in 1953, and subsequently supporting the repressive Shah. Most Arabs are clear and consistent today that Israel's highly coercive control of the Palestinians, as opposed to something about Jews generally, is the thing that makes them angry at Israel, and the US role in supporting it military.

(3) Many Iranians have manifested overt and oblique opposition to the excesses of their current government. If the increasingly harsh global economic sanctions don't have the effect of rallying these Iranians back towards support for their beleaguered government, an external military attack certainly will, which is why many unsentimental Israeli sources have been mobilizing against such an attack. Israeli grass-roots movements also exist that have let go of broad anger towards Iran ,

(4) The slow, but steady, rise to prominence of American Jewish groups, like the Tikkun network and JStreet, that both care about Israel and want Judaism in Israel and elsewhere to stand for something other than military domination and mean-ness to Palestinians, is ample proof that smart, thoughtful Jews find the message of the Book of Jonah realistic.

In the book of Jonah, the title character was both imperiled and damaged by his desire not to go to Nineveh, in order to have nothing to do with its possible redemption from its perception as evil. Before the fast-moving calendar and news cycles take us too far away from Yom Kippur (and Ramadan), it seems to me that holding on to suspicion and anger towards an entire people may be more damaging and risky than trying another way, as it clearly damaged Jonah.