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Iranian Rhetoric and the History of the Cancer Analogy

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waging-war"Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere." - Martin Luther King, Jr., April 16, 1963

"If we become just and moral, I do not know where we will end up." - Shmuel Dayan, Member of the Knesset, 1950

The rhetoric used in recent speeches by top Iranian officials has garnered much attention in the mainstream media.  In addition to the outrage expressed over the statement that the Israeli governmental system and guiding Zionist ideology is an "insult to humanity," comments that the "Zionist regime" is a "cancerous tumor" have also met fierce condemnation.

The Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs has compiled a list of recent reported statements made by Iranian officials.  National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor told the press that the United States government "strongly condemn[s] the latest series of offensive and reprehensible comments by senior Iranian officials that are aimed at Israel," adding, "The entire international community should condemn this hateful and divisive rhetoric."

Rabbi David Wolpe took to the pages of The Los Angeles Times to specifically condemn the cancer analogy.  Wolpe incidentally did so by presenting a litany of outrageous statements of his own.  He writes that the "state of Israel" is 3000 years old, thus absurdly conflating an ancient Biblical minority community with a modern, settler-colonial nation-state.  He insists Israel is not expansionist, a claim that doesn't stand up to even the most cursory awareness of basic facts, the historical record and current aggressive Israeli policy.

Wolpe also states that the cancer analogy "leads inevitably, inexorably, to the prospect of genocide," which he obviously follows up by invoking the Holocaust and asserting that "Iran eagerly pursues nuclear weapons," thereby ignoring the consistent conclusions of U.S. intelligence and IAEA inspections.  He concludes by suggesting that, were Israel not to maintain such a destructive military capability, segregationist occupation infrastructure, rampant legal discrimination, and a two-tiered justice system, the result would be the "wholesale slaughter" of Jewish Israelis, presumably by vengeful Arab hordes.

Such a characterization recalls the ludicrous fears that beset the vast majority of white South Africans just years before Apartheid ended, many of whom were consumed by "physical dread" at the prospect of equality and their loss of racial dominance and superiority and foresaw a future full of "violence, total collapse, expulsion and flight."  Even in 1987, as Apartheid was becoming increasingly untenable, about 75% of white South Africans feared that their "physical safety...would be threatened" as a result of "black rule."  Nearly 73%, including over 85% of Afrikaners, believed "white women would be molested by blacks."  Incidentally, as recently pointed out in Ha'aretz, in 1987, "Israel was the only Western nation that upheld diplomatic ties with South Africa" and was one of the last countries to join the international boycott campaign.

Southern whites in the antebellum United States nurtured the same irrational apprehension, fearful that the violent and successful 1791 slave rebellion in Haiti would be replicated across the Gulf of Mexico, especially in states like South Carolina where slaves outnumbered whites two to one.  Following emancipation, and in reaction to the Civil Rights Act of 1866, southern states enacted "black codes" restricting the voting, land ownership, and speech of former slaves.  Whites feared that their loss of racial dominance and an enslaved labor force would not only ruin the southern economy, but also that the newly-freed black population would seek revenge on their masters and rape white women; this led to numerous race riots and the rise of the Ku Klux Klan that same year.

In April 1868, Alabama newspaper editor Ryland Randolph praised the Klan for opposing what he called the "galling despotism" of the federal government over the southern states, which he "deemed a fungus growth of military tyranny" with the goal of "degrad[ing] the white man by the establishment of negro supremacy."

Forrest G. Wood writes in Black Scare: The Racist Response to Emancipation and Reconstruction:

Although white men certainly feared for their jobs and income, they were more alarmed by the threat to their physical safety that the "savage African" presented...Pointing to the absence of an advanced (by Western standards) African civilization, extremists described the Negroes as primitive, barbaric, and cruel...Freedom, the white supremacist now asserted, would stimulate the black man's worst passions, leading him to crimes of arson, murder, and rape.

Newspapers often deliberately published grossly exaggerated or wholly fictitious stories of criminal acts and violence committed by blacks, stoking even more fear in the racist white population.  For these white supremacists, rape was "the most frightful crime which negroes commit against white people" and the accusation of sexual assault (or even consensual interracial relationships) was a surefire way to spark a lynch mob.

Just this past Spring, Israel's Interior Minister Eli Yishai said that many Israeli women have been raped by African migrants and refugees, "but do not complain out of fear of being stigmatized as having contracted AIDS," insisting that "most of the African infiltrators are criminals."   At an anti-African rally, Tel Aviv resident Carmela Rosner held a sign that read: "They rape girls and elderly women, murder, steal, stab, burglarize. We're afraid to leave home."

Yishai said that Africans, "along with the Palestinians, will bring a quick end to the Zionist dream," while Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned that the growing population of African immigrants "threatens our existence as a Jewish and democratic state," as well as "the social fabric of society, our national security and our national identity."  Palestinians in Israel along with their actual and potential offspring are regularly referred to as a "demographic threat" and a "demographic bomb," a racist construction that exposes the discriminatory and supremacist nature of Zionism itself.

Due to such incitement against minority communities, pogroms, race riots, and violence against non-Jews have become commonplace.

The Israeli Education Ministry is currently attempting to overturn a district court ruling that "migrant children...be fully integrated in the municipal school system and not be taught in a separate school."  The state appeal in favor of segregation claims that the education of Israeli children will suffer if done alongside the children of African immigrants.  Meanwhile, extremist Jewish groups continue to try to "rescue" Jewish Israeli girls who date Palestinian men and threaten Palestinians with violence if they flirt with Jews.

In 2008, a Jewish Israeli woman filed a police report after discovering that a man she had just had consensual sex with was Palestinian and not Jewish, as she had assumed.  After spending two years under house arrest, an Israeli court convicted the man of "rape by deception" and sentenced him to 18 months in prison.  A former senior Justice Ministry official was quoted as saying, "In the context of Israeli society, you can see that some women would feel very strongly that they had been violated by someone who says he is Jewish but is not."

This is to be expected, as The Palestine Center's Yousef Munayyer explains: "An ideology that seeks to build a society around a certain type of people defined by ethnicity or religion is inevitably going to feature racism, supremacy and oppression—especially when the vast majority of native inhabitants where such an ideology is implemented are unwelcomed."

Unsurprisingly, commentators who routinely denounce cancer analogies when they come from Iranian officials blatantly avoid addressing the use of the identical rhetoric by Israelis themselves when referring to the growing presence of non-Jewish communities within areas controlled by Israel.  When IDF chief Moshe Ya'alon referred to Palestinian babies as "cancerous manifestations" and Likud Knesset member Miri Regev called African migrants and refugees "a cancer in our body," they were silent.

While calling the government and founding ideology of a state a "cancerous tumor" is certainly not a nice thing to say and supporters of that state's policies have every reason to take offense to such a description, it is quite obviously a political statement.  Iranian rhetoric attacks a political entity, namely the "Zionist regime", which systematically discriminates against and oppresses people based solely on their ancestry and religious affiliation.  In contrast, Ya'alon and Regev's statements employ the cancer analogy to defend the concept of ethnic-religious exclusivity and have everything to do with people, whether Palestinian or African, who somehow threaten the continued dominance of a deliberately demographically engineered and maintained state.

To be sure, regardless of its intended target, this kind of rhetoric is purposefully harsh and often gratuitous.  Yet, like Ahmadinejad's "insult to humanity" line, the cancer analogy is neither new nor original.  While Iranian officials have been employing it since 2000, it has long been wielded for the express purpose of condemning a political system or ideology one vehemently opposes.

In the 1820s, former president John Adams wrote to Thomas Jefferson that "slavery is a cancer to be isolated."  On October 16, 1854, in an stridently abolitionist speech in Peoria, Illinois, Abraham Lincoln likened the Constitution's vague references to slavery to a "cancer," hidden away, which an "afflicted man...dares not cut out at once, lest he bleed to death; with the promise, nevertheless, that the cutting may begin at the end of a given time."

A New York Times article from September 8, 1863 quoted then-Tennessee Governor Andrew Johnson as telling a Nashville crowd in late August, "Slavery is a cancer on our society, and the scalpel of the statesman should be used not simply to pare away the exterior and leave the roots to propagate the disease anew, but to remove it altogether."  Johnson endorsed the "total eradication" of slavery from Tennessee.

In the final chapter of the first volume of Das Kapital (1867), entitled "The Modern Theory of Colonization," Karl Marx excoriated British politician Edward Gibbon Wakefield for his efforts "to heal the anti-capitalistic cancer of the colonies."

The 1968 platform of Bermuda's first political party, the Progressive Labor Party, proclaimed, "No government can be either responsible or democratic while under the rule of another country, " adding, "Colonialism is a cancer."

A February 23, 1962 article in Time Magazine profiled U.S. General Paul Donal Harkins, the commander of a newly created U.S. Military Assistance Command in South Vietnam, which is described as "the first step in a more broadly based anti-Communist campaign."  Harkins is quoted early in the piece as defining his mission as "doing all we can to support the South Vietnamese efforts to eradicate the cancer of Communism."

In early June 1983, just a few months after Ronald Reagan delivered his "Evil Empire" speech in which he declared his belief that "Communism is another sad, bizarre chapter in human history whose last pages even now are being written," Illinois Representative Henry Hyde told the House Foreign Affairs Committee that, because "Communism is a cancer," Congress should support covert action and assistance to Contras and anti-Sandinista forces in Latin America in an effort to "fight for freedom."

Hamas reportedly used "Communism is a cancer inside the nation's body and we will cut it out" as a political slogan in opposition to Fatah soon after its establishment in the late 1980s.

Perhaps most applicable, however, are the comments made by South African Reverend Allan Boesak who, in 1983, formed the United Democratic Front, a legal umbrella organization for hundreds of anti-Apartheid groups.  In his opening address to the UDF, Boesak stated:

Apartheid is a cancer on the body politic of the world. A scourge on our society and on all human kind. Apartheid exists only because of economic greed and political oppression maintained by both systemic and physical violence and a false sense of racial superiority. So many have been forced into exile. So many have been thrown into jail. Too many of our children have been shot down mercilessly on the streets of our nation.

In the same speech, Boesak called Apartheid "a thoroughly evil system" that "can never be modernized or modified, it must be totally eradicated" and, in 1985, denounced the white South Africans who continued to support Apartheid as the "spiritual children of Adolf Hitler."

In 1988, Jim Murray echoed Boesak in the Los Angeles Times, writing that "apartheid is a cancer on the world body politic--to say nothing of its soul. You combat it the best way you can."

Just as many others, including numerous Israelis, have described the state of Israel as practicing Apartheid, Boesak himself has endorsed such a comparison, and has gone even further.

In a November 2011 interview, Boesak reaffirmed his statement that the oppression of and discrimination against Palestinians by Israel is "in its practical manifestation even worse than South African apartheid," adding, "It is worse, not in the sense that apartheid was not an absolutely terrifying system in South Africa, but in the ways in which the Israelis have taken the apartheid system and perfected it, so to speak; sharpened it."

He cited the physical barriers, travel and employment restrictions, and the "two separate justice systems" for Palestinians and Israelis in the West Bank as examples of why "in many ways the Israeli system is worse."  He offered his wholehearted support for the Palestinian civil society call for boycott, divestment, and sanctions to impel Israel to comply with international law.

When asked whether Palestinians could ever be expected to recognize Israel as a "Jewish State," Boesak replied:

They can't. There is no such thing as a specifically Jewish state. You can't proclaim a Jewish state over the heads and the bodies and the memories of the people who are the ancient people who live there. That is Palestinian land we are talking about. Most of the Jews who are there come from Europe and elsewhere and have no claim on that land and we mustn't allow it to happen to the Palestinians what happened to my ancestors who were the original people in this land (South Africa) but now there are hardly enough of them to be counted in the census. That is Palestinian land and that should be the point of departure in every political discussion.

Similarly, official Iranian state policy maintains that the international community must "allow the Palestinian nation to decide its own future, to have the right to self-determination for itself" and that in "the spirit of the Charter of the United Nations and the fundamental principles enshrined in it...Jewish Palestinians, Muslim Palestinians and Christian Palestinians [must] determine their own fate themselves through a free referendum.  Whatever they choose as a nation, everybody should accept and respect."

Hysteria over Iranian phraseology (rhetoric with a long political history) relies solely on the presumption - repeated ad nauseum by politicians and the press - that the nation's leadership has threatened to attack Israel militarily and wipe it off the map.  But Iran has never made such threats.  Quite the contrary.

Speaking to Wolf Blitzer in April 2006, Iran's representative to the IAEA, Ali Ashgar Soltanieh directly addressed claims that Iran seeks the physical destruction of Israel (whatever that means).  Blitzer asked, "Should there be a state of Israel?," to which Soltanieh replied, "If Israel is a synonym and will give the indication of Zionist mentality, no.  But if you are going to conclude that we have said the people there have to be removed or they have to be massacred, this is a fabricated, unfortunate selective approach to what the mentality and policy of Islamic Republic of Iran is."

In a June 2006 letter to The Washington Post, a spokesman for the Iranian Mission to the United Nations wrote, "Iran's position is very clear: We have not threatened to use force nor have we used force against any country or government in the past 250 years. We've never done that in the past, and we'll never do it in the future," adding, "We wonder whether Israel or the United States can make the same statement."

The letter also noted that, the same month, Iranian leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei declared that "We have no problem with the world. We are not a threat whatsoever to the world, and the world knows it. We will never start a war. We have no intention of going to war with any state."

In October 2006, President Ahmadinejad stated, "Nuclear weapons have no place in Iran's defense doctrine and Iran is not a threat to any country...We are not a threat to anybody; even our solution to the Zionist regime is a referendum."  The following year, Ahmadinejad was asked by the Associated Press whether Iran "would ever make a first strike against Israel." He replied, "Iran will not attack any country," and insisted Iran has "always maintained a defensive policy, not an offensive one" and has no interest in territorial expansion, something Israel could never seriously claim.

In a 2008 CNN interview with Larry King, Ahmadinejad stated bluntly that "we don't have a problem with the Jewish people," and added, with specific reference to Israel, "We are opposed to the idea that the people who live there should be thrown into the sea or be burnt."

The same year, at a news conference during the D8 Summit in Kuala Lumpur, Ahmadinejad told reporters that because he believes the Zionist enterprise of ethnic cleansing and colonization is "inherently doomed" to failure, "there is no need for Iranians to take action" to hasten the inevitable political outcome in Palestine.  He also assured the press, "You should not be concerned about a new war."

He also made his position clear in an NPR interview, saying, "Let me create an analogy here — where exactly is the Soviet Union today? It did disappear — but exactly how? It was through the vote of its own people. So therefore in Palestine too we must allow the people, the Palestinians, to determine their own future."

During an October 2011 interview, Ahmadinejad told Al Jazeera that Iran "will never enter any war against the U.S. or against any other country. This is our policy...We have never attacked anybody. Why should we do that? Why should we start a war?"

This past July, Mohammad Khazaee, Iran's ambassador to the United Nations said, "We will react if there is any provocative act from the other side.  We will not initiate any provocative steps."

Official assessments by both Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and Lieutenant General Ronald Burgess, Director of Defense Intelligence Agency have affirmed that "Iran is unlikely to initiate or intentionally provoke a conflict or launch a preemptive attack."

The alarmism that inevitably follows boilerplate speeches by Iranian officials serves an agenda of decontextualized demonization that paints the Islamic Republic as a genocidal, eliminationist aggressor and Israel as a victim, just one spinning centrifuge away from eradication.  In fact, it is Israel that consistently threatens Iran with an illegal military assault, not the other way around. 

But it is not a military attack that actually threatens the future of Israel, it is exactly the kind of struggle undertaken by those like Allen Boesak, who courageously stood against an unjust system of ethnocentrism and supremacy and prevailed.

Were Israel to finally respect international law, put an end to decades of racism, occupation and Apartheid, and begin to consider each and every human being as equal and worthy of the same human rights and dignity, freedom of movement and opportunity, it would no longer be subject to the harsh analogies that have for so long been directed at the most oppressive and inhumane ideologies the world has ever known.


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