Roger L. Simon

Roger Cohen pontificates to LA's Iranian Jews

I did not expect to like Roger Cohen, when I went last night (with a PJTV crew) to see him speak to an audience of Iranian American Jews at an LA synagogue. The journalist had recently visited Iran and has written columns for the NYT on what he views as the relatively benign condition of Jews in that country. I had read those columns and Ron Radosh’s apposite responses.

So I knew I would find Cohen annoying at best, but I had no idea how boring he would be. He began by saying he would make some brief remarks before taking audience questions. Those remarks ended up filling the better part of an hour and were as predictable as they were lecturing. There was hardly a word the columnist said that surprised, even if you could give him plaudits for having the courage to say them in front of an audience of Iranian Jews who clearly voted against his views with their feet. They left the country.

Cohen’s opening statement ended, also predictably though inappropriately, with an impassioned defense of diplomat Charles Freeman, allegedly just pushed out of potential government office by that evil omnipotent cabal of AIPAC, right wing bloggers, etc. No word, of course, on Freeman’s execrable defense of the Chinese government in the face of the pro-democracy movement in that country and the student massacre at Tiananmen. This display of what Orwell might have called “objectively pro-fascist” behavior by Freeman apparently does not dismay Cohen, despite murmurings about China I heard all around me from a predominantly Jewish audience. In fact, Cohen didn’t have half the grace of that audience who actually gave a polite round of applause to his deadening speech.

I am a decade or so older than Cohen and have some experience from my leftist days of these junkets, such as he made to Iran, into “enemy” territory—my first of several was to the People’s Republic of China in 1979. If you don’t speak the language, and often even if you do, you are accompanied almost all of the time by an interpreter. That interpreter is, no surprise, an agent of the state, reporting back on everything you do or say and, even more importantly, who you saw. He or she could or could not be interpreting accurately what people are telling you. You have no way of knowing, unless you understand Mandarin… or Farsi. (I had to laugh when Cohen quasi-bragged about going jogging by himself in Iran. That is precisely what I did on the streets of Shanghai in 1979, but it didn’t help me to get to know what people were thinking.)

Suffice it to say that you see the world around you through a glass relatively darkly, even when people speak English. Naturally, some things pass through that glass, but, however sensitive your antennae, no matter how sharp your eyes, you are still missing a large part of the story – or maybe even getting a substantial part of it wrong. From China, I came back to write a novel, published shortly thereafter, that I now see was about fifty percent hogwash.

But, from his three weeks in Iran (I spent four in China) Cohen concludes that life may not be that bad for Iranian Jews, considering that only 75% of them have left compared to an even larger percentage of Jews leaving Arab countries. Stats like these are always disputed, but even accepting Cohen’s I remain skeptical for a host of obvious reasons. Indeed, I am stunned that Cohen, who spent time, as I did, in the Soviet Union and surely must have encountered a whole variety of Soviet Jews, from dissident to state hacks, would be so credulous as to believe reports from people who have to remain in a totalitarian (or even semi-totalitarian, as Cohen seems to insist that Iran is) state when their interlocutor returns to the safety of the West. Not everybody can be Yelena Bonner. Furthermore, a very large percentage of the Iranian Jewish population is aged – not people readily able to relocate to another culture.

I was puzzled by Cohen’s strange reaction to Iran until an audience member asked a question about the notorious public hangings in that country. Astonishingly, Cohen muttered something under his breath about us killing people in Texas. Now as someone who opposes capital punishment I can say this: Anyone who sees even remote moral equivalence between a culture that executes convicted murderers after appeal and one that hangs homosexuals for their sexual preference and stones women to death for adultery has, to be kind, a rather bizarre world view. This is cultural relativism run amuck.

It’s hard to like someone who makes statements like that and it’s hard to give his opinions much credence. Nevertheless, what Cohen apparently derived from his visit is that Iran is a complex society (whoever thought it wasn’t?) and that we should be negotiating with their government. When asked by another audience member what he made of the years of failed negotiations with the European Union, he dismissed them out of hand. The Europeans have no army. We are the big guys.

Again, no mention of the obvious – that we and, of course, the Iranians knew full well that the Euros were representing us and that at the slightest hint of a concession we would have come running to the table, just as we had with the North Koreans. Moreover, we have already been holding limited negotiations with the Iranians in Iraq for some time and, I would bet my house, have been holding back channel negotiations with them for years. As most of us, and I assume Cohen, know – almost all significant discussions of this nature go on out sight.

Still, I have no argument against negotiation. The only harm is that it buys the Iranians time to continue building an atomic bomb. This does not overly alarm Cohen who believes the mullahs to be pragmatists. He doesn’t seem disturbed by their eschatology or, I guess, really thinks they believe it. I assume he knows about it, although he did not demonstrate any background or interest in this area. That fundamentalist belief system, however, does concern me. It wasn’t that long ago (1980s) that Ayatollah Khomeini drove hundreds or thousands of ten-year old boys to their deaths as human mine sweepers for the greater glory of the Mahdi (to bring forth the hidden Imam – a form of Shia messiah). These are not exactly the people you would like to have a nuclear weapon.

Still, I don’t know what to do. It may be news to Cohen, but nobody really wants to bomb Iran – not even Big Bad Benjamin Netanyahu. We all know that people will get killed. We are in a dreadful situation. But papering over the situation with silly, self-delusional drivel about the not-so-bad life of Iranian Jews does not help. It only makes matters worse.