Most popular stories from USA TODAY

  1. HF Test1072.18:47:02.6140061
Iran's rhetoric casts pall over Jewish holiday
Posted 9/26/2012 9:58 PM ET

NEW YORK -- Murray Wasserman, 69, a retired restaurant owner, stepped out of B'nai Jeshurun synagogue on the first day of Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year for Jews, to add more money to a parking meter.

"Nobody wants to start another war. On the other hand, we know from (Adolf) Hitler that when people start talking about destroying another nation, it can happen," Wasserman said, before returning to the synagogue.

Bnai Jeshurun is a bastion of liberalism in New York City. Even here, there is much angst over whether President Obama's policy of sanctions against Iran's nuclear program will work against a country whose president denies the Holocaust while issuing threats that make it appear as if he is planning another.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad arrived Monday in New York to address world leaders gathered for the opening of the United Nations General Assembly. Last year, he used the opportunity to declare the Holocaust an "excuse to pay ransom or fine to Zionists." He has said Israel should be wiped off the map and, more recently, that it will soon cease to exist because it has "no roots" in the region.

Obama told the General Assembly on Tuesday that the United States "will do what we must to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon." On Wednesday, Ahmadinejad said Iran has the right to pursue nuclear technology for peaceful purposes.

The U.S. State Department alleges Iran is enriching uranium to a level that approaches what could be used for bombmaking and is well beyond what is needed for energy.

Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who will address the gathering Thursday, has called for Obama to clearly communicate to Iran how far the United States will allow its nuclear program to progress. Israel has said time for diplomacy is running out and time to take action to eliminate an existential threat is nearing.

Israel, which came into existence six months after a 1947 U.N. vote to partition Palestine into Arab and Jewish states, is pushing the international body to prevent Iran from developing the means to destroy it.

Wasserman agreed with Obama's reasoning that a nuclear-armed Iran is a danger to the world, but he disagreed with the president's proposed solution, which is to allow more time for economic sanctions to pressure Iran's ruling ayatollahs into permitting inspectors to verify that Iran is not building an atomic bomb.

"The region is just too unstable for these weapons to exist," Wasserman said. "So I believe Iran should be forced to turn from its ways. I just hope it doesn't have to be through a military option."

As for Obama, Wasserman said, "he needs to be more explicit about what lines Iran shouldn't cross."

At the U.N., Ahmadinejad challenged world leaders to confront countries he says try to dominate others. He urged a restructuring of the United Nations in a way that gives equal say to all and eliminates the veto power of the U.N. Security Council members, which he said use their power to trample the rights of other nations.

The world body is in the grips of a "world order" that is "founded on materialism and is in no way bound to moral values," Ahmadinejad said. "It believes in the humiliation of other nations, trampling the rights of others. It aims to monopolize power, wealth, science and technology for a limited group."

These countries have resorted to "intimidation by nuclear weapons and weapons of mass destruction" to maintain their dominant position, he said, singling out "continued threats by the uncivilized Zionists to attack" Iran, meaning Israel.

Jews departing from prayer from both reform and Orthodox synagogues seemed to agree that time was running out and that U.S. strategy was too risky. Nuclear experts, such as David Albright of the Institute for Science and International Security, say that once Iran has enough uranium enriched to 20%, and missiles capable of delivering a bomb, it will be only months away from completing the weapon-making process -- and that may happen without Western knowledge.

Ronald Sabban, a 33-year-old attorney who pushed his daughter in a stroller while leaving the Orthodox Fifth Avenue Synagogue with his wife, called Obama's pledge to prevent an Iranian bomb "empty words."

"To say (Iran) shouldn't have a bomb is meaningless," Sabban said. "Once they have the (nuclear) fuel, the game is up; they can make a bomb."

Sabban said he believes Obama doesn't want to start an unpopular war weeks before an election, less than a year after ending the war in Iraq, and while the Middle East is in flux in the wake of the Arab Spring uprisings.

"I understand where he's coming from," Sabban said. "But a preventive strike may prevent a more serious problem down the road."

Outside the Fifth Avenue Synagogue, Ely Joseph, 34, an Israeli living in New York, remarked on the irony that Ahmadinejad, whose nation was formerly known as Persia, is Israel's current nemesis. According to the Jewish Bible, a Persian nobleman Haman tried to persuade his king to exterminate the Jews 2,500 years ago. The Persian king listened to appeals from his Jewish wife, Esther, to spare the Jews, and hanged Haman instead.

Some worshipers were more supportive of Obama's Iran policy.

Laine Wladis, a restaurant owner waiting to join family members at Bnai Jeshurun, said the thought of a nuclear weapon "capable of wiping out masses" in Ahmadinejad's hands is frightening. But she questioned whether military action, as Israel claims may be the only answer, would stop a nation like Iran from obtaining a bomb.

"I don't know the answer," she said. "It's a struggle for me."

Sheila Linder, 69, believes Obama is telling the Iranians in subtle ways that they cannot expect to test U.S. patience forever.

"Just because we're calm and rational doesn't mean we're a pushover," she said. "If people don't understand that the USA is capable of deploying weapons, I don't know where they've been living."

Jay Popowsky, 59, said as he walked his mother home after services at Fifth Avenue Synagogue that Obama's on the right path.

"He's being supportive toward Israel and giving time for sanctions to work," Popowsky said. "I just hope it doesn't have to be through the military option."

Posted 9/26/2012 9:58 PM ET
Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad speaks at a news conference at the U.N. on Wednesday in New York.
By Don Emmert, AFP/Getty Images
Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad speaks at a news conference at the U.N. on Wednesday in New York.