One aspect of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's speech to Congress that really seemed to get under the skin of many Obama loyalists was his contention that the Jews are facing another 1938. And of course, the historical analogy is imperfect because historical analogies are almost always imperfect. The problem for the Jews is that in this case, there simply isn't a better one.
Across the media, Netanyahu's reference to the greatest tragedy in Jewish history was treated as some kind of political stunt. It was kind of like … well, I guess, like questioning a president's patriotism.
"At the end of it, when I think he really veered off into political territory, don't know if it was on a delay at that point, but when he sort of raised the specter of the Holocaust and 'never again' and Elie Wiesel, I mean, there was this great—Ari Fleischer could have done this great political speech," explained Gloria Borger on CNN.
And James Fallows at The Atlantic argued that to make such a comparison, a person must first answer "whether the world of 2015 is fundamentally similar to, or different from, the world of 1938."
The answer is yes. The world is fundamentally different and similar.
Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the Iranian supreme leader, is a theocratic revolutionary and an anti-Semite. His beliefs reflect a deep scriptural and political animosity toward Jews prevalent in Iran's institutions. So if you were a Jew living in the same neighborhood as a nuclear Islamist state—a nation where leaders are persistently threatening to carry out a Jewish genocide and, at the same time, denying that a Jewish genocide took place in the past—you, too, might be anxious.
It's fair to say that the Holocaust plays an oversize role in contemporary Jewish life. Not every skinhead is working to rebuild the Schutzstaffel. Not every instance of anti-Semitic graffiti portends a new Holocaust in Europe. And members of Hamas may think like Nazis and may wish they could be like Nazis, but they lack the clout, ingenuity, and society to threaten an annihilation of the Jewish people.
But there is a prospective menace to Israel's existence, and that is the pairing of fundamentalist Islam and nuclear weapons—whether it happens in six months, 10 years or 25 years. That doesn't necessarily mean that Iranian mullahs—radicals by any standard, including their own—will begin laying waste to the region as soon as they break the threshold. But for the first time in a long time, a force that unambiguously menaces the lives of millions of Jews will possess a weapon that allows them to take a shot at obliterating them.
So I'd say it's as good as any time to bring up 1938.
Interfaith conferences, education, and the hard work of P5+1 nations are all nice, but the Jewish call of "Never again!" has only worked because of F-16s, Tomahawk missiles, and genuine red lines. It's worked because of the Begin doctrine, most likely still in effect, which is the idea that a preventive strike against enemies that possess weapons of mass destruction is the moral responsibility of the Jewish state. This is why there is no Osirak reactor in Iraq and no al-Kibar nuclear facility in Syria.
Yes, Netanyahu's been warning for many years that Iran will soon possess centrifuges for uranium enrichment and be on the threshold of a nuclear arsenal. We probably don't know when. But most commentators have stopped pretending it won't happen. Instead, most argue that it's likely that most Iranian leaders are rational and concerned about their own self-preservation. That sounds like a lot of projection with a potentially disastrous downside.
Despite the seer-like ability of American pundits, there is always the chance that Iran means what it says about the Jews. But I suspect that many American progressives like the idea of another nation's effectively checking Israel's regional power. A nuclear Iran, though, can protect allies, proxies and terrorist groups, all of which destabilize both Israel and Sunni neighbors, without having to worry at all about the threat of retaliation. That itself is a nightmare. But what if 20 years down the line, the Iranian government takes on an even more radical and apocalyptic disposition? What if there's another revolution? Will Islamists give back nuclear weapons?
So though imperfect, the 1938 analogy works well enough. It's probably the stark moral clarity of the analogy that makes progressives most uncomfortable. Some regimes, such as the Iranian state, are authoritarian, backward, and evil. I don't have any answers as to how to stop them. And perhaps the Israeli government has exaggerated the speed at which it will be able to obtain weapons. But the United States is now on a path that will enable a force that openly threatens Jews to become far more powerful and dangerous. Which seems—like another event I can think of—unconscionably irresponsible.