Roger Cohen - new target of New York Jews' fury

By Paul Berger, December 17, 2009
New York Times columnist Roger Cohen provoked ire by claiming that life for Iran’s 25,000 Jews was not so bad

New York Times columnist Roger Cohen provoked ire by claiming that life for Iran’s 25,000 Jews was not so bad

It’s been quite a year for Roger Cohen. The British-born New York Times columnist has been called a “self-hating Jew” and accused of attempting to “undermine American solidarity with Israel”. The editor of America’s largest Jewish paper, the New York Jewish Week, even wondered whether his heart had “become brutal”.

Mr Cohen’s crime: a succession of columns sharply criticising Israel and presenting an alternative view of Iran.

“I don’t set out to be provocative,” Mr Cohen says, from his home in Brooklyn. “I set out to write what I believe.”

The furore began this winter when Mr Cohen spent three weeks in Iran.

A February column claimed that life for the country’s 25,000 Jews is not so bad. They pray in synagogues and run their own businesses in relative peace.

“Perhaps I have a bias toward facts over words,” he wrote, “but I say the reality of Iranian civility toward Jews tells us more about Iran, its sophistication and culture, than the inflammatory rhetoric.”

He suggested that “Iran’s scurrilous anti-Israeli tirades” could be interpreted 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”.

Jewish writers denounced him, saying he had taken at face value the testimony of Jews living in a climate of fear.

I was wrong about the brutality in Iran

In response, Mr Cohen flew to LA to meet members of the large Iranian-Jewish community. But the vehemence of the 400 people who attended his talk came as a shock.

“There were people screaming at me in the car park afterwards. I didn’t expect that. But if you criticise Israel here and if you try to take a nuanced position on Iran, you wade into very heated territory.”

Not that that has stopped him. He has accused Israel of crying wolf over Iran’s nuclear ambitions and urged it to negotiate with Hamas. He has also suggested that the depiction of Iran is a caricature; that the country is not a totalitarian state but an “unfree society” driven more by “self-interest and survival” than religious fanaticism.

This summer, he made a major gaffe when he predicted that Iran’s June elections would be “a genuine contest as compared with the charades that pass for elections in many Arab states” — provoking open schadenfreude from his critics when proven wrong.

Yet even after the bloody events of June, which Mr Cohen covered for the NYT from Tehran, he continues to insist that Iran is not a totalitarian state.

“Iran is not a monolithic system. It’s not Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, it’s not North Korea, it’s not even Cuba. There are many centres of power in Iran. But there’s no question that I underestimated the degree of brutality that would ensue after June 12.”

Mr Cohen, 54, is the child of South African Jews who immigrated to the UK in the 1950s. He was raised in London and educated at Westminster.

Recently, he wrote of being taunted as a “yid” by his classmates and being prevented from taking up a Queen’s scholarship to Westminster because he was Jewish. But he denies this was antisemitism: “That seems a bit heavy-handed for what I was describing.”

A number of American readers pointed out that there are examples of similar anti-Jewish prejudice in the US, such as quotas at Harvard and Yale. But he insists that his adopted land is still more open than Britain: “America is a nation of immigrants, and somewhere in that it affects the national psyche and outlook.”

He was raised in a “very non-Jewish way” and once confessed that his father hated his barmitzvah. Today, he is a member of a Reform synagogue.

“We attend on high holidays, no more than that,” says Mr Cohen. “I’m not religious but have wanted to give our children a Jewish education and identity.”

He joined the New York Times in 1990, after positions with Reuters and the Wall Street Journal and stints in Rome, Beirut, Paris, Berlin and the Balkans.

He was made acting foreign editor of the Times on September 11, 2001. But it is his online column, which he started this year, that thrust him into the spotlight.

For Jewish writers, another source of contention is his writing on Israel.

“Call it lack of balance or fairness, but to cite only one party to blame for the Israeli-Arab conflict is to deny history and reality, and to weaken one’s credibility beyond logic or truth,” wrote Gary Rosenblatt, editor of the Jewish Week.

“Reading Cohen lately — the anger, blame and one-sidedness of his argument — one wonders whose heart, indeed, has grown brutal.”

Mr Cohen says that he has not always had such a bleak view of Israel; that the invasion of Gaza at the beginning of this year was the turning point.

“I don’t think for 14 dead over eight years — or whatever the number is — 1,400 dead in two weeks, including 300 kids and I don’t know how many hundred civilians, I don’t think that’s proportionate, reasonable or acceptable. Personally, as a Jew, I found it shaming.”

He allows that the Palestinians have been “hopelessly inept” and that corruption, violence, and the Hamas Charter are “great difficulties for Israel”.

But, he says, “I don’t think Israel’s serious about peace. I find travelling the West Bank a humiliating experience.”

“In life,” he adds, “things accumulate, and then some day or other the jug brimmeth over.”

Last updated: 3:06pm, November 2 2010