For now, the Iranian government has suspended the death by stoning sentence meted out to Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani, the 43-year-old mother of two who was convicted of adultery. There is a lesson here.
There is often debate in free countries about whether it is counterproductive to protest human rights outrages committed by repressive countries. For most of the past decade, for example, while Hugo Chavez has cemented his relationship with Iran, he has made life for Venezuela's Jewish community more and more precarious. More than once, regime thugs have invaded Jewish community centers and synagogues. These violent outbursts were accompanied by escalating anti-Semitic rhetoric from state-controlled media and from the president himself.
A debate erupted within American Jewish circles. Is it better to protest loudly and publicly or will this simply make the lives of Jews in Venezuela that much harder? Writing in the Miami Herald in January 2008, Dina Siegel Vann of the American Jewish Committee cautioned that "Shouting and screaming from the safety of the United States may feel good to some, but the goal of the exercise is not to satisfy their needs (but those) of Venezuelan Jews who have repeatedly said that such behavior is likely to exacerbate the situation. ... Many in decision-making positions in the U.S. government have rightly, if belatedly, concluded that public confrontation with his regime should be avoided when possible."
Leaving aside the assertion that Venezuelan Jews preferred their American co-religionists to remain silent (many did not), and acknowledging that some in "decision-making positions in the U.S. government" preferred back-channel diplomacy (that would be the State Department), the call for "quiet diplomacy" sacrifices too much.
As we have seen in the case of Ashtiani, international protests very much do affect the way even the worst regimes treat their people.
During the 1970s, Jewish groups around the world drew attention to the plight of Jews in the Soviet Union. Through demonstrations, letter-writing, organizing at synagogues and on university campuses, even picketing the visiting Bolshoi Ballet, activists highlighted the fact that Jews in the USSR were not only second-class citizens, they were prisoners as well. Of course, all of the citizens of the USSR were prisoners, too. But only the Jews had an international cheering section. Bill Buckley wrote at the time that he hoped the Soviets would release every Jew who wished to emigrate -- except one -- so that the protests would continue.
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