Why hasn't prevention of a nuclear-armed Iran become a priority of the highest order for the American Jewish community? Many national agencies have long urged more activism, but the intensity at the grass-roots level is missing.
One hears many reasons for the low-key response, including an overwhelming media focus on the domestic and global economic crisis. Iran does tend to be underplayed in the press. The story about a Chinese businessman being indicted for using New York banks to buy Iran materials to make nuclear weapons was buried deep inside The New York Times.
The Iraq "syndrome" has also had a chilling effect on any possible U.S. intervention in the Middle East.
Some in our community maintain that the Iranian threat just doesn't seem "real." After all, they say, "we have been hearing warnings for many years, and nothing has happened yet. Even if they get a weapon, they would never use it, fearing an Israeli nuclear reprisal."
Some things are so dreadful that we just don't want to think about them. In a short fiction piece in the November/December 2008 edition of Moment, titled "Three Dreams" by Andi Arnovit, the author describes in detail the consequences of Iranian nuclear-tipped rockets slamming into Tel Aviv, Haifa and Jerusalem:
"In Haifa, entire freighters were swallowed up in the fire in the water, incinerating and drowning at the same time. The light was so strong, so blinding, that millions of people died without knowing what it was … they disappeared, leaving thin, accurately drawn traces of their silhouettes on cement walls, floors, things that remained standing. Every single leaf on every single carefully tended and manicured branch on every single tree in the Bahai garden burned off in an instant."
A pre-emptive Israeli military strike on Iran's nuclear facilities is also something uncomfortable to think about. But along comes a study by Abdullah Toukan and Anthony Cordesman at the Center for Strategic and International Studies exploring the feasibility of such a strike and the potential consequences.
One prediction in it: "Attacking the Bushehr Nuclear Reactor would release contamination in the form of radionuclides into the air; most definitely Bahrain, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates will be heavily affected; any strike on this reactor will cause the immediate death of thousands of people living in or adjacent to the site, and thousands of subsequent cancer deaths or even up to hundreds of thousands depending on the population density along the contamination plume."
Persuading the Tehran mullahs — who may not behave with the restraint shown by the Soviets during the Cold War — to step back from their current course will require a sustained international effort led by President Barack Obama. The president has asserted that Iran's acquisition of nuclear-weapons capability is "unacceptable." He is pursuing a diplomatic engagement strategy, unlike President George W. Bush, who chose to "quarantine" the Iranian leadership. Whether this approach will be successful remains to be seen. But one thing is clear: There is precious little time left before the threshold to such capability is crossed.
Recognizing the dangers not just to Israel but to the entire Middle East and beyond, the administration is moving to address what it perceives as a threat to fundamental American national security interests.
The American people can play a vital role in reinforcing U.S. leadership, and it must start from the Jewish community, whose commitment will help galvanize like-minded allies in the broader community.
How can individuals express their deep concern about the prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran? Write and call the White House, the State Department and congressional offices — not just once, but repeatedly. Publish letters to the editor and op-ed pieces; encourage the convening of forums in synagogues and communal organizations; ask stockbrokers whether they have terror-free investment options and support divestment initiatives; discuss with and send e-mails to your friends, neighbors and business associates; sign the petition on the Web site of United Against a Nuclear Iran (www.unitedagainstnucleariran.com) and join its Facebook group.
As unpleasant as it may be, we have an obligation to think about the unthinkable and to do everything within our power to try to prevent it from coming to pass. There is no time to waste. Let's get busy.
Martin J. Raffel is the senior vice president for the Jewish Council for Public Affairs.