If you had walked in halfway through Dr. Reza Aslan's discussion with Rabbi David Wolpe on Iran, Israel and the U.S. at the palatial Sinai Temple, you would have to ask yourself if you were in the right place. For an event with the intention of bridging communities through a collaborative dialogue, it was surprising when Wolpe prefaced Aslan's introduction with something to the effect of "many of you aren't going to like what our speaker has to say tonight." Remarkably and expectedly, however, Aslan prevailed and triumphed, and commanded, much like a ringleader at the center of a three-ring circus.
In his lecture Dr. Aslan attempted to illustrate Iran's perspective as a regional superpower in the Middle East, while being careful not to condone or support the actions of the nation's leaders. He noted that it is essential we understand the Green Revolution that took place during the summer of 2009 if we want to understand Iran today, for that movement delegitimized the Iranian government. The public became aware that Iran was neither Islamic nor a Republic. Popular sovereignty was lost when an election that required the evaluation of 50 million hand-written votes, was called in only ninety minutes. The foundation of Islamic moral values was also sacrificed with the regime's militarization of politics including the use of torture, rape and murder.
Aslan talked about demographics such as literacy (Iran's women having literacy rates equal to that of American women, 90%), poverty rates, Iran's foreign policy, its reliance on unsustainable subsidies (one third of Iran's annual budget goes to subsidies) and finally, Iran's interest in and motivations for acquiring nuclear weapons. He contended that the Iranian government perceives itself to be surrounded by a "ring" of U.S. military installations, including three military aircraft carriers stationed in the Persian Gulf itself. He hypothesized that the fear and insecurity that this situation engenders within Iran is the motivating factor behind Iran's voluble bluster regarding its nuclear program, not that it intends to use the nuclear weapons on Israel.
Aslan concluded that we simply do not know where Iran's nuclear program stands and that most if not all hypotheses made by analysts and governments alike have proven to be wrong time and time again.
Up until this point you could hear a pin drop in the hall. People even seemed to be raising their eyebrows with interest, as if thinking, "I didn't know that about Iran." It was only at the moment when Aslan uttered the word "Israel" that you could feel the tension billowing into the room. Voices from all over the audience began shouting out in anger when he said that Iran would not use its nuclear weapons against Israel (his support for that statement being that Israel will not use its weapons on Iran either to avoid involving countless other nations and waging a possible global war). "If there is one thing we have learned over last six decades of the state of Israel's existence" said Aslan "is that it has the most powerful, richest military in the Middle East...that can utterly crush [potential threats]."
Perhaps Aslan's most cogent point—one that momentarily silenced even the most passionate voices from the audience—was that the real threat to the State of Israel is an internal demographic problem, one concerned with the fact that within the next decade or two, there will be more Palestinian Muslims and Christians in the region than there will be Israeli Jews. In order to deal with both Iran and its own internal strife, Israel will need to deal with Palestine.
Rabbi Wolpe opened the Q & A portion of the evening by choosing questions from the audience that were unbalanced at best such as, "Is there anti-Semitism in Iran?" without providing follow up such as, "Is there anti-Muslim sentiment in Israel in the Jewish community?" as one might expect of a moderator. When Wolpe admonished Reza for not having opened with his belief that Israel has a right to exist, the audience went wild cheering him on. Overcome with disbelief, Aslan argued that is it unfortunate that we are at a place where every conversation about Israel must be prefaced by "Yes, Israel has the right to exist." It became clear that he was plainly laying out inconvenient truths for an audience who, for the most part, had no interest in the facts. I couldn't help but wonder if anyone who may have been unsure of Aslan's stance on Israel's right to exist had been listening to the lecture. The question of Israel's right to exist is practically irrelevant to the discussion because Israel does exist. In fact, does not the title of the discussion, "Iran, Israel and the U.S.: Conflict or Cooperation" support that reality?
In the audience was Jewish Voice for Peace's Estee Chandler who, unable to stay silent amongst the uproar about Israel's right to exist shouted out, "Rabbi, do you believe Palestine has a right to exist!?" When he acknowledged the question but didn't answer, other members of the audience also demanded he answer. Finally, Rabbi Wolpé replied, "Yes, of course I do," a questionable response barely heard throughout the disorderly hall.
The real problem lies within the fact that anything involving Israel inherently turns in to an emotional uproar about Israel's right to exist, which then devolves into the infinite argument about Israel and Palestine.
The true "progress" of the evening or lack thereof was most evident with the final comment of the night presented by a member of the audience, stating that Aslan had merely been upholding "taquia" in his comments about Israel. However, this individual incorrectly defined taquia as "falsehoods Muslims will tell to pacify the West, but it is not what they really mean." This was a completely distorted view of taquia which, as a method of dissimulation, allows Muslims to deny their faith if their life is threatened. Rather, it became a clear sign that misconceptions and stereotypes were not eradicated in this dialogue as one would have hoped.
The general disrespect and disregard for Dr. Aslan's valid points was nothing short of embarrassing. Are we not able to discuss pressing social and political issues with respect and willingness to listen and learn? Is not the purpose of public forum to discuss and exchange thoughts and ideas to become better informed and perhaps mold the social and political climate in which we live? Is the situation in the Middle East not dire and grave enough that we must put aside our emotional loyalties and face the facts that things need to change? Finally, is it not the responsibility of a community leader and the evening's moderator, Rabbi Wolpe, to use his position to facilitate progress and understanding rather than sit back while his angry guests let their emotions get the best of them? Whatever the answers to these questions are, Reza Aslan once again proved that he is on top of his game by being poised, eloquent and prepared for battle.
When Wolpe offered him a chance to make a closing statement, Aslan suggested, to the amusement of the audience, that it would be a good time to dance—"Let's Dance!"
The above event was sponsored by Sinai Temple with support from the Levantine Cultural Center.
Estee Chandler, Nicole Tellier and Susan Seely contributed to this report.