By Mark A. Schwartz | Guest Columnist
Fatefully we arrived in Vienna on July 13, the last full day of the P5+1 Iran nuclear talks. Our Congregation Etz Chaim group had spent the previous week in Warsaw and Krakow, Poland — the images after our visit to the death factories of Auschwitz and the ghettos of Warsaw and Krakow freshly etched in our memory. After Poland and just before Vienna, we spent the weekend in Budapest, where we learned about the equally dismal plight of Hungarian Jews as the Nazis escalated their timeline to kill as many Jews as possible before their assured loss to the Allied powers during the war’s final days.
While we were in Budapest learning about the Nazis’ Jewish genocide, Iranians were celebrating Quds Day. Quds Day is held the last Friday of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan as an international day of struggle against Israel and for the liberation of Jerusalem. Israeli and U.S. flags are burned as the Iranian crowds chant their all-too-familiar “Death to America, death to Israel.”
The Nazis’ systematic final solution to the Jewish question had resulted in two-thirds of Europe’s 8.8 million Jews being slaughtered. Even today, the worldwide Jewish population is not at the level it was before World War II. Never again!
Arriving in Vienna, I appreciated the significance of the Iran nuclear talks and thought about the Munich Conference of 1938. Hitler’s Germany was appeased. Neville Chamberlain proclaimed, “Peace for our time.” More recently, in 1994, I remember President Bill Clinton triumphantly hailing the 1994 nuclear deal with North Korea: “Today … we have completed an agreement that will make the United States, the Korean peninsula and the world safer. Under the agreement, North Korea has agreed to freeze its existing nuclear program and to accept international inspection of all existing facilities.”
Sadly, neither of these agreements resulted in their intended objective — at least for the negotiating party I was aligned with.
During the contentious, extended Iran nuclear negotiations, we read reports indicating that the United States had capitulated on many of its original core positions. Some suggested that President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry were determined to get a deal done, even if it meant going against stated principles, for the sake of their legacy. They should be reminded that Neville Chamberlain also has a legacy.
Our synagogue group, 34 of us in all, was small in number but loud in voice. We felt compelled to let our feelings about the nuclear talks be known. We gathered outside the Palais Coburg, the venue of the final meetings, and chanted, “No deal, no deal.” The prodigious media assembly approached us. We shared our concerns, and an Iranian blogger tweeted about our protest. Not surprisingly, his tweet was answered with anti-Semitic comments about us.
The next day, the deal was finalized, and the text of the agreement was made public. Many of the terms were even worse than what we had anticipated. Iranians celebrated the agreement as supreme leader Ali Khamenei vowed to defy American policies in a speech punctuated by chants of “Death to America” and “Death to Israel.”
Kerry said the speech was “very disturbing … very troubling,” seemingly surprised at the rhetoric. I’m not surprised. History has a way of teaching us — if we let it.
As our trip wound down, we were grief-stricken after visiting so many relics of Nazi evil and destruction. We were dismayed that American leadership believes that the Iranian deal will stop the spread of nuclear weapons in the region and make the world safer. We wanted to believe.
It was Saturday night, July 18, the last night of our two-week sojourn. We were in Prague. After a group dinner, we gathered outside the restaurant at a busy intersection. Our rabbi led us in Havdalah — the Jewish ceremony that marks the symbolic end of Shabbat and ushers in a new week. The Havdalah candle was lighted, and we joined one another, arm in arm, forming a ring, and sang the Havdalah prayers.
We felt safe. There were no anti-Semitic rants. The rounding up of Jews on these very streets only a few generations ago seemed incomprehensible.
Toward the end of Havdalah, two young women from Germany, walking by, stopped and joined our ring, concluding the service with us. The irony that they were German was not lost on me.
We finished our prayers, brought in the new week and met our new friends. We wanted to believe.
For now, anyway, there is hope.