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Five Minutes to Midnight: Sheldon Adelson, Nuclear Diplomacy, and the Threat to Jewish Survival

Sheldon Adelson,wealthy casino magnate and generous supporter of conservative political causes in both the United States and Israel, was invited by This World, an organization promoting Rabbi Shmuley Boteach and his vision of Jewish values, to speak at Yeshiva University late last month. Adelson joined Boteach, Yeshiva University President Richard Joel, and Bret Stephens, foreign-affairs columnist for the Wall Street Journal and former editor-in-chief of the Jerusalem Post, for a panel discussion moderated by Boteach on the subject of the future of the Jewish people. Ominously titled “Iran, Assimilation, and the Threat to Israel and Jewish Survival,” the panel was intended as a response, in Boteach’s words, “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.”

Why these two purported threats to the future of our people should be conflated, Boteach did not say.

Boteach did claim that “American Jewry are slowly disappearing (sic)” and referred to the recent Pew survey of American Jews as “devastating, catastrophic,” as if to suggest that indeed, the forces of assimilation deserve to be placed in the same category as apocalyptic visions of an Iranian nuclear weapon falling on Tel Aviv. This vision should further haunt anyone supportive of President Obama’s diplomatic efforts to resolve the issue of Iranian uranium enrichment, Boteach made clear in an op-ed he penned for the Daily Beast’s “Open Zion” blog following the panel. Christmas trees in the homes of American Jews, tension between Iran and the international community led by the United States over Iranian nuclear ambitions, and the specter of physical destruction of half the Jewish People—these threats so disturbed Rabbi Boteach that he felt they deserved to be addressed in “a public forum.” (Apparently, the mainstream American media, even the entire breadth of world Jewish media, were not sufficiently public for Boteach.) Moreover, to Boteach, these three issues belonged together. They could be superimposed one on the other, as equal dangers to Jewish survival, equal evils befalling world Jewry. This, despite the fact that the notion of Jewish assimilation and intermarriage, however unfortunate, as a “Silent Holocaust” has been labeled a form of Holocaust trivialization, and thus a subset of Holocaust denial, by the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.

Yet, Boteach’s choice of subject for his panel was not the most memorable inanity of the evening. Not to be outdone, Adelson took the honor for himself.

First came Adelson’s expert advice, distilled from six decades of business negotiations, on the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks: “[The Palestinians] haven’t taken one millimeter-step towards the Israelis…to show they truly want peace. If they truly want peace, it’s very simple to say to all their henchmen, ‘Uh, lay off the terrorism for five years.’ ” Apparently, no one in the audience cared to remind Adelson that there has not been a single major terrorist attack carried out by West Bank Palestinians or by Palestinian Israelis since 2008, or that the last suicide bombing in an Israeli city occurred in 2006. More importantly, the internationally-recognized representative of the Palestinians, the Palestinian National Authority, fields a security force trained by the US Army under a program developed by the Bush Administration and sanctioned by agreements with Israel, and this security force has cooperated with the IDF on a daily basis since 2007 to keep order in Palestinian-administered portions of the West Bank and to prevent terrorism. To remain willfully ignorant of this cooperation, or to attribute Palestinian terrorism to the “henchmen” of some imaginary Palestinian hegemony, undermines that cooperation and endangers the prospects for peace. Such ignorance is also singularly impressive for a man as personally concerned with matters of Israeli security as Mr. Adelson.

Adelson’s impressive display did not end there. A firm believer that “war is too important to be left to politicians,” Adelson continued to offer his foreign-affairs expertise, recommending his preferred negotiation tactic vis-a-vis Iran. Rather than organize severe sanctions of the Iranian economy or conduct nuclear talks with Iranian leaders, the United States ought instead to warn Iran from pursuing enrichment with a nuclear strike on the Iranian desert. Amazingly, these comments received applause from the audience at Yeshiva University, but unsurprisingly, collective shock from the rest of the Jewish world.

The lunacy of Adelson’s suggestion almost deserves no response. Most foreign affairs journals, even the occasionally jocular Foreign Policy magazine, paid it no heed. Nevertheless, when lunacy speaks in the halls of a university whose mission is to “bring wisdom to life” by means of “the finest, contemporary academic education” combined with “the timeless teachings of Torah” and to confer “knowledge enlightened by values,” when such lunacy receives applause from representatives of the premier institution of Modern Orthodox Judaism in America, some response is warranted.

The prospect of a nuclear attack by the United States under any circumstances is extraordinarily rare, for good reason.

First, the cost of a nuclear detonation, anywhere in the world, cannot be overestimated. The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists has monitored the threat of nuclear weapons since its establishment in 1945 by scientists and engineers of the Manhattan Project. According to Kennette Benedict, the Bulletin’s executive director, even a small nuclear explosion in Iran’s Great Salt Desert would spread deadly radioactive fallout and smoke from burning vegetation far beyond uninhabited areas into surrounding villages, disrupting local agriculture and causing cancer in those exposed. The electromagnetic pulse of a nuclear explosion would by itself severely damage electrical and communications equipment over a much wider area, perhaps beyond Iran’s borders.

Studies by the Union of Concerned Scientists and the RAND Corporation into the specific effects of a US nuclear strike on Iranian targets, such as the nuclear reactors at Isfahan or the deeply-buried uranium enrichment facility at Fordo, support these predictions. They indicate that a ground-burst detonation would scatter tremendous amounts of fallout—in addition to the utter physical destruction at ground zero brought on by the blast effects, including firestorms, earthquakes, and projectile damage. In 2005, the UCS investigated the Bush administration’s proposed Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator, an atomic “bunker busting” weapon with a yield of 1.2 megatons, 100 times more powerful than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. It concluded that the RNEP would be insufficient to destroy facilities deep underground, but would release radioactive material capable of drifting thousands of miles across Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India. A megaton ground explosion would produce enough fallout to kill 3 million people within two weeks and expose ten times that number to cancerous radiation.

Nuclear strikes against Iranian cities like Tehran, which Adelson would threaten as a follow-up should an attack on the desert not achieve compliance, would kill thousands instantly, and depending on the size and character of the explosion, kill and injure millions more as a result of residual effects, including long-lasting radiation and the collapse of emergency services. Loss of life from a nuclear explosion in a major urban area, taken together with destruction of property and infrastructure, could amount to $1 trillion in damages.

Moreover, any use of nuclear weapons, even the threat or the mere appearance of their use, could be disastrous. Throughout the Cold War, superpower policies of nuclear deterrence relied on the theory of Mutually Assured Destruction, because the idea of “limited nuclear war” was deemed impractical. The risk of any nuclear exchange escalating to full deployment of strategic forces, which would result in unimaginable devastation and hundreds of millions of deaths on both sides, was simply too high. Moments of crisis bringing nuclear powers close to direct confrontation, even with conventional arms, filled the world and its leaders with dread for that very reason. And in those dire moments, diplomacy was never conducted with explicit threat of nuclear attack, much less threat of a preemptive nuclear strike.

The horrific consequences of such scenarios ought to render them unthinkable. At a meeting of the Rabbinical Council of America in 1983—coincidentally the year the world came closest to nuclear war—RIETS Rosh Yeshiva and Professor of Jewish Law and Ethics at Cardozo, Rabbi J. David Bleich declared “nuclear warfare, such as occurred at Hiroshima,” which knowingly results in “annihilation of innocent combatants (sic),” to be both “theologically odious and morally indefensible.” Lord Jakobovits, former Chief Rabbi of the British Commonwealth, ruled the use nuclear weapons forbidden by halakha in situations that risked mutual destruction.

Even Iran’s Machiavellian Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khameinei, has had the sense and the dignity to declare the use of nuclear weapons anathema to Islam. While fooling no one, this declaration invites serious dialogue over Iran’s nuclear ambitions, and throws cold water on the belief that these ambitions are essentially messianic rather than political. For the United States—in its role as the “indispensable nation,” with the goal of reining in Iran’s nuclear program for the safety and security of the world—to act against all historical precedent and initiate nuclear war to prevent the rise of a nuclear state would destroy American moral credibility and seriously impair its power of deterrence.

To any informed and impartial observer, Adelson’s suggestion of preemptive nuclear war is atrocious. To affiliates of the American Jewish community generally, or of American Orthodoxy in particular, the applause received at YU for his foolhardy, morally bankrupt comments are a profound embarrassment.

Adelson’s ill-informed comments on Iran followed from his ill-informed assertion, subtly seconded by Boteach, that Franklin Roosevelt “could have prevented the Holocaust” or “significantly reduced” its severity. How could he have done so? By using America’s “unlimited leverage” over Great Britain at the outset of World War II to convince the British “not to sign” the White Paper of 1939. Never mind that the White Paper was signed six months before the outbreak of war and two years before the advent of Lend-Lease, or that it was vehemently but unsuccessfully opposed by Winston Churchill, hero of Adelson’s friend and beneficiary Benjamin Netanyahu, even after Churchill took the reins of government. Or that the White Paper had separate provisions allowing Jews with refugee status, especially children, to immigrate to Palestine. Or that most Jews fleeing Hitler did not or otherwise could not choose to flee to Palestine, preferring Western Europe or Poland and the USSR, or that many Jews and non-Jews alike remained unconvinced of the horrific fate of European Jewry until emigration was simply no longer feasible.

Arguments such as Adelson’s, including Netanyahu’s mistaken belief that Allied air forces could have saved thousands of Jews from extermination in Poland later in the war, contribute to the popular yet dangerous notion that the greatest tragedy in Jewish history could have been easily prevented, and that its recurrence, which is forever just around the corner, can likewise be prevented, indeed that the very future and security of the Jewish people depends on a few key decisions by leaders with the courage and the foresight to act—preferably, it would seem, through the use of force—with little consideration for the complexities of the problem or the unintended consequences of their actions.

Faced with the ultimate bugaboo of a second Holocaust, the mind can no longer reflect carefully on the implications of proposed measures for preventing it. Such a dangerous manner of thinking about a problem as difficult and fearsome as a weapon of mass destruction in the hands of an enemy will produce only sophomoric solutions at best, akin to the anachronistic and ahistorical “bomb Auschwitz” trope, or deranged nonsense like Adelson’s call for spiking the nuclear football as a show of strength. Indeed, this may be the wrong orientation. Perhaps the best solutions produced from the panic and subsequent bravado induced by the traumatic memory of the Holocaust are the outrageous ones. The more precarious, insidious results of fear-driven problem solving may be the less obviously preposterous proposals, those which cannot be easily dismissed.

This is the reason we cannot afford to ignore Sheldon Adelson—or Shmuley Boteach, who defended Adelson’s comments as mere hyperbole, intended to expose the hypocrisy of those who advocate a careful and measured approach to Iran, an approach both Boteach and Adelson equate with surrender. More credible pundits, like Bret Stephens, who have also taken issue with the Obama administration’s attempts at diplomacy vis-à-vis Iran may appear more sensible sitting next to Adelson than they might otherwise appear in a truly serious discussion of pressing issues facing world Jewry. Their views, which do not necessarily come from any more direct experience with international relations than those of Adelson or Boteach, may sound reassuringly firm and reasonable, rather than infused with an underlying fear of Jewish vulnerability or spun to score political points against the President. They may be accepted uncritically over the views of more seasoned analysts whose nuanced understanding does not allow them to pander to the insecurity and pride of their audience.

Critical examination of views expressed on complex problems, particularly those involving statecraft and the path to war, is absolutely essential. The politics of fear and confrontation, if unchecked by circumspection, lead people in power and those who support them—at the polls and in the press, in synagogue pews and university auditoriums, or in the case of Adelson, where it all too often seems to count the most, via the pocketbook—to hastily advocate and implement dangerous, potentially disastrous policies, at the expense of more prudent alternatives. This is undoubtedly true for the delicate, multi-layered problem of deterring Iranian nuclear weapons development, with its associated risks to Israel and the United States. It is no less true of the sensitive problem of resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, with its implications for the ambitions and the suffering of both peoples, things Sheldon Adelson seems to understand very little about.

There is of course room for legitimate debate over the correct course to follow in dealing with Iran, or over the necessary steps towards a lasting peace between Israelis and Palestinians. But wildly uninformed, outrageously bellicose rhetoric is wholly irresponsible. Its shameful acceptance by Adelson’s audience at last month’s panel, as much as Boteach’s obtuse inability to distinguish assimilation from annihilation, belies a dangerously careless attitude towards genuine threats we face as a religion and a people.

The very willingness to entertain such irresponsible figures and thereby give fuel and shelter to lazy, morally retarded thinking constitutes a very real and comprehensive threat of its own, not just to the security of Israel and the Jewish people, but to the survival of the Jewish mission so appropriately sacred to Yeshiva University.

Thankfully, by not living in a world governed by the Adelsons among us, Jews will endure physically, and in all likelihood avoid a repeat of the horrors of the Holocaust. Yet, if the spiritual vibrancy and the moral wisdom of our people, if the redemptive value of our Torah and tradition are indeed precious to us, if these values are to survive with us, our community and its institutions will need serious soul searching—even visible penitence—for touting Adelson and Boteach as representatives of our intelligentsia and for turning to them for answers to our concerns for the future.

Ira Tick teaches Jewish and American History in Philadelphia and is pursuing a Master of Science degree in Jewish Education from Azrieli.