A few weeks back (Feb. 27) the Monitor characterized a Feb. 23 piece by New York Times columnist Roger Cohen on Iranian Jews as reminiscent of “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.”
Cohen’s column sparked a wave of anger and criticism, and he returned to the topic a few days later with a defense of his earlier piece – a defense that only confirmed to many readers that Cohen wasn’t so much interested in the real state of Iran’s Jewish community, which he maintains is secure, content, and even resentful of Israeli bellicosity toward Iran, as he is in using Iranian Jewry as a cudgel to attack Israel.
Last week Cohen traveled to Los Angeles and spoke at Sinai Temple, a conservative synagogue with a large contingent of Iranian congregants, just about all of whom were, as might be expected, quite upset with the columnist.
In a March 15 column about the Sinai Temple event, Cohen seemed to backtrack a bit on his earlier insistence that all is well and good with the Jews of Iran but at the same time he once again revealed what really drives him – his fear that acknowledging the true nature of the Iranian regime would play into the hands of those who urge a more hawkish approach to Iran. Here’s what he wrote:
Just how repressive life is for Iran’s Jews is impossible to know. Iran is an un-free society. But this much is clear: the hawks’ case against Iran depends on a vision of an apocalyptic regime – with no sense of its limitations – so frenziedly anti-Semitic that it would accept inevitable nuclear annihilation if it could destroy Israel first.
Little wonder that Sinai Temple’s Rabbi David Wolpe, who spent considerable time with Cohen during the latter’s visit, echoed the Monitor’s view when he wrote afterward that “increasingly I came to believe that Iran was not Cohen’s sole concern; he wanted it as a stick with which to beat Israel over Gaza, whose incursion he wrote left him ashamed.”
To understand just what a Lilliputian figure we’re confronted with in Roger Cohen, take a gander at this exchange he had with Rabbi Wolpe at the Sinai Temple confab:
Rabbi Wolpe: I grant you that this is not a perfect analogy to Iran and Israel, but…you say that Israel is much more powerful than Hizbullah, much more powerful than Hamas. Let’s say tomorrow, it were reversed. Let’s say Hizbullah had the firepower of Israel and Israel had the firepower of Hizbullah. Let’s say Hamas had the firepower of Israel and Israel had rockets –
Cohen: We can say, we can say –
Wolpe: Wait, wait, wait, wait –
Cohen: We can –
Wolpe: Let me finish my question. You don’t know what to respond to until I’ve finished my question. What do you think would happen to Israel were the balance of power reversed? And the reason I’m asking that is because Iran is pursuing means by which they could actually in the end be more powerful than Israel so it’s not just hypothetical. If Iran gets several nuclear bombs, they have much more territory and they could be more powerful than Israel. What would happen if Hamas and Hizbullah – which are Iran’s proxies – had that power tomorrow?
Cohen: I don’t know what would happen.
Wolpe: I do.
Cohen: I don’t know what would happen and it doesn’t matter I don’t know what would happen because it’s not going to happen tomorrow, or within a year, or two years, or three years. It is somewhere into the future. What is important, I think, is to try and reach an agreement with Iran which prevents them from going to a nuclear bomb. And I think that’s possible. What is important is to begin to think differently about the Middle East in ways that could actually advance the cause of peace and the two-state solution rather than dreaming up scenarios from hell, rather than dreaming up the ultimate nightmare, rather than dwelling on nuclear Armageddon. Let’s try and build something better in the Middle East.
As veteran journalist and Middle East watcher Jeffrey Goldberg archly put in on his blog: “Roger Cohen doesn’t know what would happen if the situation were reversed and Hamas and Hizbullah had military superiority over Israel. The mind reels.”
Jason Maoz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org