For some years, the New York Times columnist Roger Cohen thrived in his role as a bete noire of pro-Israel advocates in the United States. In his writings on Iran, especially, Cohen attracted considerable ire for discounting Israel’s anxieties about the nuclear ambitions of the ruling mullahs, and for generally pushing the idea that the unresolved Palestinian question lies at the heart of the myriad conflicts in the Middle East and wider Islamic world.
And then he moved to London.
Back in the city where he grew up, Cohen has now — as his latest column announces — discovered that antisemitism is not some dastardly fabrication of the Israel lobby, but a real phenomenon experienced on many levels by many Jews. Off the back of that revelation, Cohen declares himself nostalgic for those same assertive Jews with whom he tussled back in the States.
Here, in brief, is what lay behind this sudden transformation. Visiting his sister’s house, he ran into her lodger, who, having noticed Cohen fiddling with his BlackBerry, referred to it as a “JewBerry.” Cohen didn’t follow. The lodger then explained that the free messaging services that come with the device make it a “JewBerry,” because Jews are always on the lookout for something free.
Cohen correctly diagnoses this remark as representing the casual antisemitism that has left a lasting imprint on the English, much as it has upon other European nations. He is probably right that someone who makes such remarks isn’t necessarily a violent antisemite. I grew up in London too, where I attended a private school with a large number of Jewish boys; all in all, our lot was a happy one, and if we got into the occasional scrap because one of the non-Jewish boys threw a penny coin at us — picking it up marked you as a money-grubbing “yid” — we didn’t conclude that another Holocaust was around the corner.
What bothers Cohen is that British Jews are, in the title of his piece, “Jews in a whisper.” The Jews of Albion do not, Cohen believes, have the gumption of the American brethren. His “inner voice” implores them to “get some pride…speak up!”
Why Cohen has arrived at this conclusion isn’t clear, because he does not seem to have spoken to any actual British Jews in the course of gathering his thoughts. Had he, for example, consulted with Anthony Julius, the author of a monumental history of English antisemitism, Cohen would have understood that the genteel barbs against Jews he mentions rest on far uglier foundations.
This was a land from which the Jews were formally expelled in 1290, and one which pioneered the infamous blood libel through the martyrdom tales of William of Norwich and Hugh of Lincoln. Fascism did not triumph, but neither was this a country free of its influence; in the 1930s, at a time when some of Britain’s most senior leaders were contemplating a deal with Hitler, Jews in the streets of east London faced a mortal threat from the Blackshirts who swore their allegiance to Sir Oswald Mosley. And, of course, as the former mandatory power in Palestine, Britain provided favorable conditions for the vicious anti-Zionism that was to emerge in the decades following the Second World War.