Roger Cohen, a columnist for the New York Times (twice-a-week online) and the International Herald Tribune, has become in recent months Media Enemy No. 1 for many pro-Israel readers. His steady stream of columns strongly criticizing Israel’s incursion into Gaza last winter, calling for dialogue with Hamas, largely dismissing as bluster Iran’s threats to destroy Israel, and reporting from Iran about how relatively well Jews there are treated (as he was during his visit), has driven many Jewish readers to journalistic apoplexy.
American Jewish Committee Executive Director David Harris has taken Cohen on in print, Commentary magazine Executive Editor Jonathan Tobin says Cohen’s columns seek "to undermine American solidarity with Israel," and The Atlantic Monthly’s national correspondent
Jeffrey Goldberg cautioned Cohen not to confuse personal hospitality from Muslim hosts with political hatred.
In March, after hosting a face-off at his Los Angeles temple between Cohen and hundreds of angry Iranian-born Jews, Rabbi David Wolpe wrote he "came to believe that Iran was not Cohen’s sole concern; he wanted it as a stick with which to beat Israel over Gaza, whose incursion, he wrote, left him ashamed."
In an interview with The Jewish Week last Thursday, Cohen described himself as "a proud Jew" who has been "vilified" by critics, and he acknowledged that the issue has become personal.
"Something did break in me at the time of the Gaza attack" last winter, he said. "I couldn’t see the strategy behind" Israel’s military moves, "and I was appalled at the extent of the loss of life" among Gazans.
He wrote in the New York Review of Books at the time: "I have never previously felt so despondent about Israel, so shamed by its actions."
Little has changed since then. Cohen has heard all the arguments making the case for Israel as the aggrieved and morally superior party in this long-running dispute, and he rattles off some of the harshest descriptions of him in nasty blogs and letters he has received, including "self-hating Jew," a phrase, he noted, that "endlessly comes up."
But he is not swayed. Nor does he feel obligated to write about the "sins" the Palestinians have made over the years, though he readily admits there have been many.
Fairness is for objective journalists, not opinion makers, he maintains.
"Balance may be sacrosanct for mediators or journalists reporting the news," he said, but the role of columnists is to "provoke a little," using the "bully pulpit" to call attention to perceived ills — in this case, to Israel’s alleged brutality, hubris and unwillingness to resolve the Palestinian conflict.
In his columns he has expressed his "fairly strong feelings" about the Mideast impasse, insisting that Israel has lost its moral bearings and that "the heroic Israeli narrative has run its course."
"The great operative word" among Palestinians now is "humiliation," Cohen said. "Whether or not it’s desired, that’s the effect. And it’s not good for the Palestinians, the Israelis or the Jewish soul."
Convinced that Israel’s response to Hamas rocket attacks into its southern communities was grossly disproportional, Cohen quoted a retired Israeli general who said the IDF’s actions in Gaza last winter were, in effect, "an eye for an eyelash.
"I think that’s a pretty good summary," Cohen said during an interview at his office in Manhattan at the New York Times.
‘A Proud Jew’
A distinguished-looking man of 53, the British-born Cohen is polite, if not warm, in conversation. He has had a long and impressive journalistic career as a foreign correspondent, editor and columnist, and has written three nonfiction books.
Cohen grew up in London and was educated at Oxford, the son of South African Jewish immigrants whose parents came from Lithuania and Russia.
"My parents’ priority was assimilation," he told me. "My father hated his bar mitzvah, and I was raised in a very non-Jewish way." He said he was made most aware of his religion by classmates who called him "f—ing Yid."
"I am not a religious Jew but I am a proud Jew — it informs who I am," he said, adding that his son recently became a bar mitzvah and his daughter is excited about her upcoming bat mitzvah.
"I always felt Jewish," he said. "It’s a strong part of my identity," having visited Israel at 18, worked in Germany as a journalist and later covered the Bosnian war, "with its concentration camps."
He speaks of Israel with admiration for its societal achievements as well as disappointment in its actions toward the Palestinians, and what he describes as a willful ignorance among Israelis of their reality and responsibility.
"Israel is a strange place," he said, "a miracle" in creating a successful, wealthy society in six decades, but also "a paradox" because "the unhappy fact about Israel is you can be lulled by it, you can think you’re living on the coast of California but of course you’re not.
"Israel has fallen short," he says, seeing itself as the underdog and victim in the Middle East when, in his eyes, it is the dominant power with an obligation toward those living under its rule.
"No degree of suffering gives you an eternal passport to ride roughshod over another people," he said.
"Israel has won. Who’s the loser? What scrap of dignity is the Palestinian people going to salvage from all this? They’re not going away, and Israel needs to deal with that reality."
Ironically, Cohen’s critics say it is he who is willfully ignorant of Mideast realities.
He once described himself as "smart, driven, liberal, Jewish," and colleagues cite his brilliance and writing ability as well as an arrogance that made him widely disliked by those who worked under him during his two years as foreign editor of The Times.
"He is very talented and incredibly insightful about everybody but himself," said one journalist who knows Cohen. "He believes Iran is misunderstood and that Israel has gotten away with its behavior for far too long, but I think he understands he is pressing a little too hard" on these issues. "He’s gone way too far."
But Cohen believes his critics refuse to face the realities of today’s world, and that it is his job to puncture longstanding and ultimately harmful myths.
"I’ve been vilified," he said, for making the point that Iran is not a totalitarian country run by religious fanatics with no sense of history, subtlety or pragmatism. He said it is factually untrue and politically harmful to compare Iran to the Nazis and characterize its president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, as Hitler, eager to drop a nuclear bomb on Israel.
Iranian Jews Secure
Based on his observations during three weeks in Iran last winter, Cohen said that while the country is repressive, and he certainly would not want to live there, it is churning with the pulse of democracy among its youthful population. And he noted that the current presidential election campaign has been marked by sharp public debates among the candidates, not the sign of a totalitarian regime.
"Iran is a very deep civilization," Cohen said, and he was impressed that the members of the Jewish community — now believed to be about 20,000 — live secure, if not open, lives. In a column in February called "What Iran’s Jews Say," he wrote that Jews in the Islamic Republic were "living, working and worshipping in relative tranquility."
In our interview, Cohen acknowledged that Iranian Jews are not permitted to express positive feelings about Israel or Zionism, and that they are more restricted than Muslims in Iranian society. But he said that though he visited soon after the Israeli fighting in Gaza, the Jews he spoke to told him they encountered no anti-Semitism and felt safe, able to worship in their dozen or so synagogues.
"Everyone knows where they live, and there were no incidents," Cohen said. "I thought that was worthy of note, and I still do."
His reporting, though, enraged a number of Iranian Jews now living in America, who felt Cohen was being naïve at best, and more likely duped, not taking into account how fearful Jews living in Iran would be about publicly criticizing a government that has executed at least 17 Jews as Zionist spies since the Islamic Revolution three decades ago.
An estimated 30,000 Iranian Jewish expatriates live in Los Angeles, and in March, Cohen agreed to meet with some of their leaders, and respond to critics at the public forum held at Rabbi Wolpe’s large congregation, Temple Sinai, many of whose members are Iranian-born.
Some 400 people turned out for the discussion, which observers called a standoff between Cohen and his audience.
Looking back, Cohen said the responses he received to his columns on Iran were "intense, and many were upset and angered," particularly from readers who wrote letters to The Times. But he said those tended to be older people, and that blogger response was more in his favor. Most gratifying, he said, was the reaction from Iranian exiles who, much as they oppose Iran’s politics, "dislike the caricature" of Iran they tend to read about in the American press and who were "very grateful that I wrote about a country they could recognize."
As for the charges that he was fooled by what he saw in Iran, Cohen said: "I don’t buy it; I think it’s wacky."
He said it is irrational for the U.S. and Iran not to have engaged in dialogue the last 30 years, given the stakes, and that it is not too late for negotiations to head off an Iranian nuclear bomb. The two countries will not be allies, he said, but they can have "a normal relationship." As for Jerusalem’s fears, Cohen said "Iran won’t have an easy time wiping out Israel," knowing that if it tried, "it would become a large ashtray," the victim of a nuclear attack, courtesy of the U.S. and Israel.
Was that supposed to make Israel, or its supporters, feel comforted?
Cohen makes an important point in warning against demonizing Iran and its leaders as crazed fundamentalists ready to commit national suicide in the name of Allah. But he goes to the other extreme in brushing aside the leadership’s obsession with, and hatred of, Israel — a hatred grounded in history and religious ideology. Is it unreasonable for Jews today to take seriously the repeated threats of a nation bent on developing a nuclear weapon whose president threatens to destroy the Jewish state he calls demonic?
Dialogue and negotiation are important, but what happens if such efforts fail?
And while Israel, like every other nation on earth, has its shortcomings, it is too easy, and historically dishonest, to harp on its obligations to the Palestinians without mentioning Jerusalem’s repeated offerings of compromise and sacrifice, each rejected outright — not to mention a Palestinian culture that glorifies suicide bombers killing Jewish women and children amid calls for the destruction of the Jewish state.
Cohen says the Arab initiative of 2002 is "problematic," but promising. It demands that Israel first confine itself to its pre-1967 borders before the Arab states call an end to the conflict, and it calls for the "right of return" for Palestinian refugees. But Cohen says it is a mistake to ignore the offer completely. "It is possibly of cosmic significance," he says.
On the one hand, Cohen says that citing historical events and precedents in working toward Mideast peace is a dead-end effort. "I really believe it is futile to talk about the past," he told me. But on the other hand, he acknowledges being shaped by remembrances of history.
He has said that covering the war in Bosnia changed him personally, made him feel both lucky to be alive and obligated to have an impact on governments who do their best "to ignore terrible things.
"It made me reflect a lot," he said. "I think a lot about memory in my work — it can be illuminating, but also blinding."
Cohen called his book about the Balkan war experience "Hearts Grown Brutal."
It would seem from his writings and conversation that he believes that when it comes to the Mideast conflict, it is Israeli hearts that have hardened and that the government in Jerusalem is trying to ignore terrible things. He is welcome to his beliefs, of course, but Roger Cohen should be wary of conflating one tragedy with another.
Call it lack of balance or fairness, but to cite only one party to blame for the Israeli-Arab conflict is to deny history and reality, and to weaken one’s credibility beyond logic or truth.
Reading Cohen lately — the anger, blame and one-sidedness of his argument — one wonders whose heart, indeed, has grown brutal.