Last Tuesday I organized an event in New York City at Yeshiva University that addressed the two existential threats confronting the Jewish people worldwide: a nuclear Iran in the Middle East and assimilation in the West. The event, the full video of which is available here, was organized in response to President Obama's recent overtures to Iran and the Pew Research study that painted a devastating portrait of the declining state of American Jewry.
The discussion, featuring the world's leading Jewish philanthropist, Sheldon Adelson, Pulitzer-prize winning Wall Street Journal Foreign Affairs columnist Bret Stephens, and Yeshiva University President Richard Joel, was widely reported on and attracted scores of press. But one comment in particular made global headlines and lit up the blogosphere.
In response to my question as to what the United States should do to show Iran that we are serious about preventing them from getting a nuclear device, Sheldon said that an atomic bomb should be detonated in an empty Iranian desert as a warning to the regime of the lengths to which we will go to stop them from obtaining nuclear weapons. The nuclear demonstration in a desert wasteland should "not hurt a soul, except for a few rattlesnakes," but should serve as a shot across their bow.
Asked the next day how earnest Sheldon had been, Ron Reese, his spokesman, said, "As one of the country's most successful entrepreneurs, Mr. Adelson was using hyperbole to make a point that -- based on his nearly seven decade-long experience negotiating business deals -- actions speak louder than words."
But whether media commentators saw Sheldon as being serious or purposefully using exaggeration in order to make the larger point that the United States must go to extremes to ensure that Iran never gets a nuke, I found the reaction to his statement illuminating as to the double standards that are often employed on matters relating to Israel.
In 2005 when former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad suggested that Israel must be wiped off the map, with the murder of the six million Jews who live there being the precondition of such erasure, he somehow managed to get invited to speak at Columbia University and, repeatedly, from the rostrum of the United Nations where he reiterated his genocidal intent against the Jewish state. And yes, Ahmadinejad's comments of course provoked outrage. But his stated intention of perpetrating a second holocaust still did not get him barred from receiving prestigious invitations from the likes of the Council on Foreign relations.
Sheldon's glib comments about nuking rattle snakes seemed to rattle many of the bloggers who were at our event even more than Ahmadinejad's threats.
And let's not fool ourselves about Iran's genocidal posture toward Israel even post-Ahmadinejad. As recently as this March, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the true power in Iran, threatened to "destroy Tel Aviv and Haifa." Last August he said that "the fake Zionist [regime] will disappear from the landscape of geography," adding that the "cancerous tumor" Israel had to be removed, expressing the hope that the Arab spring would inspire an Islamic "awakening" that would ultimately fulfill Iran's goal of annihilating Israel.
Indeed, when I sat with Sheldon on the podium and heard him make his remark, my initial thought was that his purpose was to goad his more liberal critics into attacking the policy so that their double standards on nuclear threats against Israel could be exposed. Would they show outrage at Sheldon's comments about a nuke in an empty Iranian desert, but not be at least as enraged by Iran's continued threats of annihilation of the Jewish state?"
Why is the government of President Rouhani of Iran being treated as moderate when it has yet to repudiate the genocidal aspirations of both Ahmadinejad and Ayatollah Khamenei? Why is President Obama calling Rouhani on the phone and trying to shake his hand at the UN while he is still enriching uranium to build a nuclear bomb? Should there not first be the demand that Iran at least stop?
When I read of the holocaust I often ask myself how Hitler was allowed to rise to prominence in the first place. After all, the world bore continuous witness to the hatred and venom that spewed from his speeches and writings against the Jews. So why didn't they stop him?
But in light of Ahmadinejad being invited to address Ivy League universities and the most prestigious think tanks in America amid his stated goal of exterminating the Jewish state, I now understand. Whatever Hitler said, nobody took him seriously. They treated his rantings as a tasteless form of benign political posturing. They found him darkly amusing. And it took the incineration of six million Jews and the destruction of much of Europe to discover that ultimately the joke was on us.
I would hope that the alarm engendered by Sheldon's statement on the extent to which the United States should go to stop Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon will at least engender a much stronger protest against its actual development. And if so, then at least, whatever the disagreement with Sheldon's hyperbolic comments, he sure got your attention.
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, whom Newsweek and The Washington Post calls "the most famous Rabbi in America," is the Founder of This World: The Values Network, which regularly stages large-scale, values-based debates on the leading issues of our time. He is the author of "Judaism for Everyone." Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.