New York Times columnist Roger Cohen wrote a piece earlier this week (“What Iran’s Jews Say,” Feb. 23) that brought to mind the naïve and insidious reporting by such legendary Times dupes as Walter Duranty and Herbert Matthews, whose whitewashing, respectively, of the Soviet Union in the 1920s and ‘30s and Fidel Castro in the 1950s will stand forever as monuments to the argument that the self-described “paper of record” is often anything but.
It also conjured memories of the insufferable Mike Wallace filing reports for “60 Minutes” from Syria and the Soviet Union back in the 1970s and ‘80s designed to confirm the liberal rubes of Cambridge and the Upper West Side in their instinctive belief that real evil in the world was to be found only in the warmongering fantasies of Ronald Reagan. (More about Wallace later.)
To be sure, Cohen peddles his views on the paper’s opinion page, while Duranty and Mathews did their editorializing in the guise of news stories, but Cohen’s style often strays from the conventional thumbsucking “here’s my opinion” format to a more newsy-seeming “these are the facts” approach.
Such was the case with his column on his visit to Iran and the all-around contentedness – and anti-Israel sentiment – he says he found among the Jews with whom he came into contact.
Perhaps, observed The New Republic’s Martin Peretz in an online critique of the article, the happy talk Cohen heard in the Iranian Jewish community “is authentic. Maybe. And maybe not. After all, until the railroad cars rolled living Jews into Sobibor and Maidanek from which they did not emerge, many German Jews (or Germans of Jewish extraction) also gave the Reich the benefit of the doubt. Some gave it even to Hitler himself. Certainly, many Americans and Brits and French did.”
And while he believed Cohen was being truthful when he wrote, “I am a Jew and have seldom been treated with such consistent warmth as in Iran,” Peretz made the point that “There are probably millions of Persians who feel warmly about their Jewish neighbors … and remember their Jewish former neighbors with fondness. Forgive the German analogy again: even under the Nazis there were Germans who bemoaned the loss to Germany of its Jews….”
It would be easier to take Cohen’s reporting from Iran at face value if one weren’t acquainted with his biases and preconceptions, but by writing the following he sort of gave the game away even to readers less familiar with his history of sanctimonious posturing:
One way to look at Iran’s scurrilous anti-Israel tirades is as a provocation to focus people on Israel’s bomb, its 41-year occupation of the West Bank, its Hamas denial, its repetitive use of overwhelming force. Iranian language can be vile, but any Middle East peace – and engagement with Tehran – will have to take account of these points.
So there you have it. Whether or not those Jews Cohen spoke with are truly representative of Iranian Jewry is a matter open to debate. But Cohen’s attempt to rationalize Iran’s genocidal threats against Israel by putting the onus on Israeli actions and policies (leave it to a liberal to blame the victim) calls into question both his motives and his judgment.
In a February 1991 article in Commentary, the late Jerusalem Post editorial page editor David Bar Illan wrote that when the aforementioned Mike Wallace traveled to Syria in 1975, he “gave a clean bill of health to [Syrian dictator Hafez] Assad’s treatment” of the Syrian Jewish community. “He was particularly delighted to show that the Jews of Syria – though suffering from some travel restrictions – were quick to declare on camera that if they could only join the Syrian army they would be eager to fight against Israel.”
Bar-Illan also recalled Wallace’s contribution to Americans’ understanding of the plight of Soviet Jewry: “From 1980 on,” he wrote, “Leonid Brezhnev claimed that no Jews wanted to leave the Soviet Union. But pesky Jewish organizations in New York and that intolerably intransigent government in Israel kept insisting that 400,000 of them, risking jobs, jail and family safety, had applied for visas to Israel.
“Again Wallace knew whom to believe: standing in front of the Kremlin, he announced, with an arrogance only celebrated TV know-nothings can muster, that all the Jews who wanted to leave the Soviet Union had done so and the rest were getting along just fine.”
Bar-Illan would have loved Roger Cohen.
Jason Maoz can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org