Illustrating his assertion that Israel “is a tough sell” because of its policies toward the Palestinians and its negative image internationally, longtime Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen, 73, observed the other day, “You couldn’t get Paul Newman to play [an Israeli war hero] in ‘Exodus’ today, people would laugh at it. It’s a pity.”
Of course Newman, who played Ari Ben Canaan, a Haganah fighter, in the 1960 Zionist epic film of the Jewish state’s creation, died six years ago. But Cohen’s point is well taken. Once viewed as David to the Arab world’s Goliath, Israel has seen those biblical roles reversed as it still struggles for acceptance more than five decades after becoming a modern state. Hollywood wouldn’t dare produce a major film today that fully justified Israel’s struggle for statehood. And even Cohen, a product of New York yeshiva schooling as a child, has written that Israel’s creation was “a mistake.”
Indeed, that statement, made in the “lede” (journalistic jargon for opening sentence) of a 2006 column Cohen wrote during a clash between Israel and Hezbollah — and the revealing reactions to his assertion — led the syndicated columnist to write a thoughtful new book with the provocative title, “Israel: Is It Good For The Jews?” (Simon and Schuster)
Under deadline pressure, he notes at the outset, he wrote in that 2006 column: Israel was “an honest mistake, a well-intentioned mistake, a mistake for which no one is culpable, but the idea of creating a nation of Jews in an area of Arab Muslims (and some Christians) has produced a century of warfare and terrorism of the sort we are seeing now.”
He explained in an interview with me this week that he tried in that column to convey the idea that founding “a state for Jews in the midst of 100 million antagonistic Arabs will get you in trouble. But using the word ‘mistake’ was itself a mistake,” he acknowledged. “It sounds querulous.”
The response to the column eight years ago was “instant,” Cohen noted, and many angry people felt he had “gone nuts.” But “infinitely more troubling,” he wrote, “were the congratulations I received from friends, colleagues, and acquaintances” who Cohen would have thought “were either supportive of Israel or, at the least, not hostile to it.” Not so, it turned out. The sense among these people was that “Israel had been acting so Jewish,” which is to say that it had gone from being a place of heroic “underdogs to a place of arrogant, pushy, smart and duplicitous people,” mistreating Palestinians: “the victim had become the bully.”
Cohen goes on to write that he “agreed with much of this criticism,” noting that in “countless columns over the years” he had condemned the Israeli occupation and “had written over and over again that by becoming an occupying power, Israel had lost its moral monopoly.”
So he set out to write a book explaining what he meant by “mistake” and to “tell the story of where Israel went wrong and how Israel went wrong.”
That’s where things get interesting, and complicated. Because in his extensive research, and in a narrative that blends the author’s personal family story with the modern history of the Jewish people, Cohen kept running into the depth and breadth of anti-Semitism Jews faced in Europe, the Mideast and the U.S.
‘The Power Of Anti-Semitism’
“I was astounded at the power of anti-Semitism,” he told me. Not just during the Holocaust but also before and after the war, and not just from “toothless peasants” but also from the highest levels of sophisticated world leaders. Too often the notion that Jews were extremely wealthy, brilliant and politically powerful resulted in hostility, and worse, against them. But sometimes it worked in their favor. Winston Churchill, for example, an outspoken champion of the Zionist cause, may have been motivated in part by fear of “Jewish power.” And Theodor Herzl, the founder of modern Zionism, was received by the pope and other world leaders because they believed he had the wealth and power of world Jewry to back him up.
Cohen also suggests that attempts at democracy in pre-World War II Central and Eastern Europe worked against the Jews because numerous governments the “lacked the necessary institutions or traditions to make democracy work, especially respect for minority rights.” As a result the leaders exploited or tolerated anti-Semitism. He said this sense of “catering to the mob” applies today, with free elections in Gaza and Egypt resulting in Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood coming to power.
All of the early 20th-century prejudice helped create a climate of sympathy for the creation of a state of Israel after the tragedy of the Holocaust, Cohen argues, but Jerusalem is still held to moral standards applied to no other country. In our interview, while pointing out the difficulties in presenting fair coverage of the Mideast conflict, he chastised the mainstream media, including The New York Times, for what he considers “naïve and unbalanced” coverage of this summer’s war, from the persistent visual images of Gaza devastation to siding with the perceived underdogs, Hamas, to the “macabre” notion that if more Israelis had been killed it would somehow have evened the score.
‘The Future Is Not Bright’
In the end, after 250 pages, Cohen answers the question posed by his book title by asserting that “yes,” the Jewish state has benefited not only the Jewish people but also the world at large through its smarts, creativity and democratic impulse. But looking ahead he offers bleak observations about American Jewry and Israel.
Citing Pew and other polls finding a steady increase in assimilation, Cohen writes that “sooner or later, there’s a falling away from Judaism.”
In our interview, he added: “The facts are incontrovertible — the Jewish population has shrunk in absolute and relative terms. I don’t see a counter-trend.”
As for Israel, he writes that its “promise is great, but the future is not bright.” Why? He explained to me that “Israel was created because it had enormous goodwill and a desire [by many nations] to make up for the Holocaust. But all of that has been dissipated,” he believes, in large part because the occupation has “tarnished Israel’s image.” And because Arab anti-Semitism runs so deep, countering the efforts for acceptance of a Jewish state in the region.
Still, he resisted the suggestion that he feels Israel is doomed.
Sounding more like a rabbi than a journalist, he responded by asking who could have thought that Herzl, perceived as delusional, would be right in predicting a Zionist state within 50 years of his 1898 declaration?
“People came out of the extermination camps and helped create a state. If you want to ask about Israel’s future, look to its past,” he said. “That’s its future. It was and is a miracle.”