A week ago, New York Times columnist Roger Cohen wrote a now much discussed column about Iran’s Jews. The gist of his argument was that Iran’s Jews live in a good place, evidently without fear. The 25,000 still in Iran, he wrote, worship in over a dozen synagogues and make up the largest Jewish community in the Muslim Middle East. True, before the Iranian revolution their community was some 1000,000, but far less left Iran than other Arab communities when Israel was created. “The Arab Jews has perished,” he writes. “The Persian Jew has fared better.”
What about the Israel bashing, so famous from the endless anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial of President Ahmadinejad? As Cohen sees it, one has to ask what is more significant; the ranting or that the Iranian Jews live in “relative tranquility,” as proved by the fact that he has seldom “been treated with such consistent warmth as in Iran.” He recognizes that in 1999 Iran arrested Shiraz Jews on trumped-up charges of espionage, which was “the regime at its worst.” Still, he explains, Jews have one representative in Parliament, although a Muslim is not allowed to vote for a Jewish candidate. So, Cohen suggests we show “realism” about Iran, and not respond to it in a way that makes us see Iran as a rogue regime.
As you might expect, Cohen was promptly blasted by many columnists and writers, including Marty Peretz, Jeffrey Goldberg, Rafael Medoff, Ed Lasky, and Uriel Heilman once and then again. Now yesterday, Cohen took to his paper’s website to respond. That may have been his latest mistake, because he makes himself even seem more foolish than he was the first time.
Now I cannot be accused of being a Roger Cohen basher. On this site, I previously wrote favorably about his Times Magazine story on Cuba. I have some disagreements with his arguments, but he recognized Cuba’s continuing suppression of political dissidents, and the accuracy of those who see Communist Cuba as a totalitarian and repressive society. Would he have been as critical as Iran as he is of Cuba.
First, if one goes to the links of his critics that Cohen himself provides, it is immediately apparent that he quotes them out of context in his response, in order to make them appear unreasonable. He is peeved that Jeffrey Goldberg, perhaps the single best correspondent to have written about the Middle East, accuses him of being taken in by Iranian hospitality. What he does not tell readers is that Goldberg is quite specific; he notes that in societies no one thinks is anything but hateful towards all Jews, Goldberg himself was treated civilly and respectfully by radical Islamists from both Hamas and Hezbollah who were nice to him, after telling him of their goals to destroy Israel and murder Jews. The personal, Goldberg notes, is not always political.
Cohen cites Lasky’s column from a conservative website, American Thinker, which he writes “tries to prove its name is an oxymoron.” Cohen cannot refrain from taking such a cheap shot, which evidently is easier than to argue with Lasky’s sensible observation that does Cohen not realize “that the Jews he interviews in Iran are conscious of the ayatollahs’ surveillance and would be wary of expressing their true views?”
Cohen is most furious about all his critics who make a comparison between Iran and Nazi Germany. Iran, he writes, “is no Third Reich.” Yes, and Cuba is no Soviet Union or Mao’s China. But in the case of Iran, he thinks it sufficient to present all the ways in which Iran is different than Nazi Germany. They have not annexed any other country’s territory; they have a significant margin of liberty, “even democracy.” The mullahs are not mad, but have “proved malleable.” The forthcoming presidential race between Ahmadinejad and Khatami will be, he writes, a “genuine contest” between two religious leaders with very different viewpoints.
I would like to sentence Cohen to an hour or two with Michael Ledeen’s The Iranian Time Bomb: The Mullah Zealot’s Quest for Destruction. He just might learn something. (I can see Cohen at the computer right now-“Radosh cites the warmonger neo-conservative Michael Ledeen…”) As Ledeen points out, Khatami is anything but a real reformer, which is why the mullahs allowed him to have some power. Khatami, he points out, was “simply the empty political vessel into which the oppressed Iranian people poured their rage at the regime.” Later, he notes, Khatami authorized “some of the worst human rights violations” taking place in Iran, as well as presided over the acceleration of Iran’s nuclear program.
Well, at least Cohen is right about one thing: The “air you breathe in Iran is not suffocating.” Nor was it in Nazi Germany. The sun also shined in Franco’s Spain, and the beach resorts in Ibiza were as nice then as they are now. The streets in Iran “hum with life,” Cohen writes. We have all seen the films of the Warsaw Ghetto taken by the Nazis in Poland. Right outside the ghetto, the streets were filled with people enjoying themselves, while the Jewish residents were packed in and dying daily.
So Cohen suggests we learn the political lesson: we must not equate “Iran with terror.” In other words, ignore the nuclear arms buildup; ignore the constant threats to obliterate Israel; ignore the Holocaust denial and its implications, and learn the need to view both Hamas and Hezbollah as “broad political movements” that are simply “resisting an Israel over-ready to use crushing force.”
Cohen’s last is more than lamentable. He obviously buys the myth of Israel’s disproportionate response to Hamas in the last round of fighting; its supposed guilt in using force- “crushing force” to defend itself, and therefore is himself somewhat sympathetic to Hamas and Hezbollah’s political vision. No wonder he sees nothing strange in Iranian Jews condemning Israel to him and speaking as proud Iranians, not as Jews. He implies that were he an Iranian Jew, he would likely take the same position.
So Cohen warns us. Do not have a “one-dimensional lens.” That characterization is reserved for those who think that Iran is a real danger to world stability; those who think it is just another power whose leaders are totally rational are the realists we must listen to. And for good balance, he ends by reminding us that “hateful, ultranationalist rhetoric” is no preserve of Iranians. Where else may we find it? You guessed: Israel. What about Avigdor Lieberman, he asks? That reminds me of the old anti-Soviet joke from the 1930’s and 40’s. A fervent anti-Communist goes on a tirade about Stalin’s repressions and murders to an American leftist. The leftist immediately responds: “And what about the lynching of American blacks in the South?”
So here is my suggestion. Let’s continue bombarding Roger Cohen with answers. Obviously they are getting to him. Read his critics whose contributions I have linked to above. They have far the better case. And here’s a suggestion for The New York Times. You got rid of William Kristol. Why not follow up with Roger Cohen?