Secretary of State John Kerry's warning that Israel will be "blamed" if Congress opposes the Iran agreement conjures up troubling memories of other instances in which Israel or Jews were warned they might be blamed for international conflicts.
Secretary Kerry made his remark in an address to the Council of Foreign Relations on July 24. He appeared to be not merely predicting that Israel might be blamed, but hinting that the Obama administration itself might do the blaming. And since the administration has repeatedly claimed that rejection of the agreement will lead to war with Iran, the implication of Kerry's statement seems to be that Israel, the Jewish state, would be to blame for such a war.
The possibility that the blame would be extended to Israel's supporters in the United States has already been raised by President Obama himself, in his warning that unnamed "lobbyists" and "money" were trying to block the Iran deal.
One unfortunate comparison brought to mind by this kind of talk is an episode involving the pundit and unsuccessful presidential candidate Pat Buchanan. In the months preceding the first Persian Gulf war, Buchanan charged that "there are only two groups that are beating the drums for war in the Middle East—the Israeli defense ministry and its 'amen corner' in the United States."
In another broadside, Buchanan named four prominent supporters of war with Jewish-sounding names as being part of "the Israeli Defense Ministry's amen corner in the United States." He accused them of planning to send "kids with names like McAllister, Murphy, Gonzales and Leroy Brown" to the Persian Gulf to do the fighting.
New York Times columnist A.M. Rosenthal described that remark as a "blood libel," and Anti-Defamation League director Abraham Foxman called Buchanan's statements "an appeal to anti-Semitic bigotry."
Such blame-the-Jews rhetoric was all too common on the eve of World War II.
The U.S. ambassador to Great Britain, Joseph Kennedy, reportedly warned one Jewish leader in 1939 that "if the United States is dragged into war with Germany there might even be a pogrom in the U.S.A. itself."
Kennedy addressed a meeting of Hollywood notables, many of them Jews, in November 1940, shortly after the release of Charlie Chaplin's anti-Hitler film, The Great Dictator. According to the actor Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., who was present, Ambassador Kennedy warned them "that the Jews were on the spot, and that they should stop making anti-Nazi pictures"--and if not, "we all, and the Jews in particular would be in jeopardy" for allegedly pushing the U.S. to go to war.
The most infamous attempt to blame Jews for encouraging war was the speech by aviation hero Charles Lindbergh in September 1941. "Instead of agitating for war, the Jewish groups in this country should be opposing it in every possible way, for they will be among the first to feel its consequences," Lindbergh menacingly declared. "Tolerance is a virtue that depends upon peace and strength. History shows that it cannot survive war and devastation."
President Obama is no Charles Lindbergh, and Secretary Kerry is no Pat Buchanan. But they and their advisers should be aware by now that using terms that are often codewords for Jews ("lobbyists," "money") and suggesting that Israel or its supporters will be "blamed" for war will inevitably remind many American Jews of profoundly unpleasant episodes from the past.
The debate over the Iran deal needs to be conducted on its merits, and should not be clouded by this kind of inappropriate rhetoric.
Rafael Medoff is the founding director of the David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies, and coeditor of the Online Encyclopedia of America's Response to the Holocaust.