Why We’ve Lost to Iran And What We Can Learn from Them

by: Jay Lavine, M.D.

The tide has been shifting against Israel for some time, and now, with the signing of the accord between Iran and the major Western powers, it appears to have taken on the character of a small tsunami. How do we respond? Do we play the victim and blame it on anti-Semitism and on anti-Israel sentiment, or do we take a chesbon hanefesh, an accounting of ourselves, and try to learn where we went wrong and what we can do about it in the future?

In Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers) 4:1, Ben Zoma teaches: “Who is wise? He who learns from all [emphasis mine] people.” All people, not just learned, accomplished, upright individuals? Indeed. It is a Jewish teaching that we can learn even from the worst of people. For example, as much as Judaism deplores idolatry with its immoral practices, we can even learn from idol-worshipers. How? We can look at the zeal with which they follow their idolatrous ideology, and we can imagine all the good we could accomplish if we had the same zeal for living the Jewishly prescribed way of life.

I recall reading that Ahmadinejad, the former president of Iran, followed a simple, modest way of living in terms of his dress, hotel accommodations, and so forth. At the same time, I would read about certain Israeli officials, some of them corrupt, who were living lives of luxury in both their personal lives and in their capacity as public “servants.” Can we not learn from this? Ahmadinejad’s reportedly minimalist lifestyle actually exemplifies the Jewish value of histapkut bamuat, satisfaction with having just a little. This important teaching had its heyday under the musar movement (observant lifestyle emphasizing ethical behavior) but seems to have become forgotten by many.

In the nuclear energy negotiations, Iran held all the high cards. It faced opponents who were desperate to reach an agreement – any agreement – and Iran knew it. The West had already played its cards, mainly, economic sanctions, which created hardship in Iran but did not cause it to cave in. We were seeing a clash in ideologies. The West worships the god of materialism. Its leaders promise its people prosperity: a chicken in every pot and eternally rising stock and housing prices to be propped up if necessary at any cost to society. It assumes that everyone it deals with has the same motivations and that it can twist arms with the threat of austerity. But real ideologues are not so easily moved. Their ideology is primary in their lives, and they are willing to undergo deprivation because of it. So the West had already employed what it thought were its aces, and all Iran had to do was sit tight.

We hear a lot about so-called Islamic ideology, but what of Jewish ideology? Is there such a thing and does it play any role in the thinking of most Jews? We may have some hesitation in asserting that Judaism has an ideology because ideology has taken on the connotation of a rigid, dogmatic way of thinking. But if we simply define ideology as a collection of beliefs and standards consistent with one’s worldview, then of course Judaism has an ideology (or, if we want to be pluralistic, ideologies).

Many people, especially those who have a religious or spiritual void, adopt a political ideology such as liberalism or conservatism that fills in that spiritual void. Which way they go depends on their personality. The liberal personage revels in knowing what a good person he or she is because of being so progressive. The conservative personage receives gratification from group loyalty (such as patriotism) and from maintaining a traditional way of doing things.

Where does that place Jewish ideology? In neither camp exclusively; Judaism is its own ideology. Most conservatives, including those who became religious because it satisfied their need for group loyalty and for adherence to tradition, would cringe at the thought of wealth redistribution and leveling of the playing field by the remission of debts every seven years and by the restoration of real property to the original owners every fifty years, not to mention the price controls and the safeguards to insure the poor were provided for that were a feature of Jewish communities after the Exile. It all screams socialism! And many liberals would be discomfited by the strict moral guidelines of the Torah, which they might view as unfair and narrow-minded.

Earlier I used the alliterative expression “idolatrous ideology.” When people become attached to an ideology, it assumes the status of an idol that becomes an extension of themselves. The idol demands obeisance. The ideological idol becomes an end unto itself because it provides self-validation. The result may be consequentialism, the “ends justify the means” form of normative ethics that often allows rationalization of one-sidedness and deceit in order to achieve one’s ends.

Judaism, of course, is anything but consequentialist. It is primarily deontological, that is to say, requiring observance of its statutes and commandments whether one understands (or agrees with) the reasoning behind them or not. How many people are able to submit to the Jewish way of life completely, even if it means going counter to their own instincts and psychological profile, being liberal in some instances and conservative in others? Very few, I would maintain.

We’ve now gone full circle and are back to Iran. We have seen what their adherence to their ideology has done for them. It has provided them with a tremendous advantage in dealing with the West, which has become inured to the good life and which thinks economic incentives, either positive or negative, are the way to bring others around to their way of thinking. Imagine what the West, including Israel, could accomplish if it were more willing to make sacrifices to support an ideology of goodness and did so with the same zeal that the Iranian regime manifests in pursuing its distorted ideology. It would overcome its real enemy, the decay from within, which is a much more potent force than the enemy from without. As Tisha B’av, the major fast day commemorating the destruction of the Temples, approaches, let us shift our focus inward, to ourselves, so that we learn to stop being our own worst enemy.