Obama administration must stop appeasing Iranian hate speech against Israel

History has taught a bitter lesson when it comes to government hate speech.

Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei at NAM 390 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei at NAM 390
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Last week, in the middle of tense negotiations over the Iranian nuclear program, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei called Israel the "dirty rabid dog" of the Middle East.  It remains to be seen whether the interim deal with Iran is a good or bad one, but the Obama Administration’s response to Khamenei’s intolerable statement was nothing less than appeasement for the sake of the negotiations. 
The Khamenei attack was not an isolated outburst to placate a domestic audience.  It was the latest in a string of poisonous diatribes by Iranian leaders against, not just the State of Israel, but its Jewish population. Last year, Khamenei declared that there is “justification to kill all Jews,” and then-President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad called “Zionists” (his description of Jews in Israel) “cancerous tumors,” saying that “not one cell of them will be left”  because they “will soon be finished off.”
In response to the “dirty rabid dog” statement, however, the Obama Administration initially equivocated by saying, through an unidentified “senior US official,” that it “hoped” that neither US nor Iranian leaders would use “rhetoric” that would add to “decades of mistrust.” By contrast, the French government immediately called the remarks “unacceptable.”  Following  criticism of the administration’s morally wishy-washy response, US Secretary of State John Kerry characterized Khamenei’s remarks as “inflammatory” and unhelpful to the negotiations over Iran’s nuclear weapons program, but still fell short of the French condemnation.
Iranian government venom towards Jews surpasses anything seen since the demonic ravings of Adolph Hitler and the Nazis. Iranian leaders have called Jews “blood-thirsty barbarians,” “cattle,”  “wild beasts,” the “filthiest criminals,” defective human beings,” and a “filthy people” who are the source of The Plague and typhus. Yet, the current State Department Human Rights Reports on Iran, while briefly describing a few such statements, and calling them “anti-Semitic,” avoids the legally significant term “hate speech” and fails to condemn them as an international human rights violation. 
In fact, a considerable number of  international law experts, including several of the UN’s top genocide experts, have concluded that Iranian hate speech against Jews violates the UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.  By dehumanizing Jews and calling for their extermination, Iran’s leaders are engaged in incitement to genocide.  Moreover, Iranian hate speech is a crime against humanity because the Iranian government is simultaneously aiming racist invective at Jews and sponsoring terrorist attacks against Israel’s civilians by organizations such as Hezbollah.  The latter’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, has warned: “It is an open war until the elimination of Israel and until the death of the last Jew on earth.”  
History has taught a bitter lesson when it comes to government hate speech. In Nazi Germany, Yugoslavia,  Rwanda, and most recently Kenya, government hate speech directed at political, religious or ethnic groups paved the road to mass murder and genocide by destroying the humanity of, and enraging a population against the targeted group. Typically, that group first suffers stigmatization, then economic and political discrimination, followed by arrest, confinement and torture, and finally mass murder, if not extermination. The argument is sometimes made that, because Israel is the most powerful state in the Middle East, hate speech cannot produce these consequences.  But of course the capacity of terrorist-supporting countries, especially Iran, to build nuclear weapons, only means that the late-stage steps to genocide are dispensable.
The Obama administration needs to do three things.  First, it needs a policy on government hate speech with clearly defined prohibitions that will serve as notice to countries like Iran. Second, through its annual human rights reports the State Department should report on government hate speech in each country, including naming those responsible, and where such speech violates international human rights norms, saying so. Third, American officials cannot hesitate in the face of hate speech by foreign governments, especially those with nuclear weapons capacity; they must respond immediately with both vigorous condemnation and, where appropriate, sanctions.
Ultimately, the United States either takes an unequivocal stand against government hate speech -- regardless of the diplomatic context -- or it violates its obligations under the Genocide Convention to act at the earliest signs of potential genocide, forfeits its moral stature as a nation committed to the rule of law and human rights, and damages core American values.
Gregory J. Wallance is an attorney in New York City, the veteran of multiple human rights fact finding missions on behalf of, among others, Amnesty International and Helsinki Watch, and the author of America’s Soul in the Balance:  The Holocaust, FDR’s State Department, and the Moral Disgrace of An American Aristocracy.