For some years, the New York Times columnist Roger Cohen thrived in his role as a bete noire of pro-Israel advocates in the United States. In his writings on Iran, especially, Cohen attracted considerable ire for discounting Israel’s anxieties about the nuclear ambitions of the ruling mullahs, and for generally pushing the idea that the unresolved Palestinian question lies at the heart of the myriad conflicts in the Middle East and wider Islamic world.
And then he moved to London.
Back in the city where he grew up, Cohen has now — as his latest column announces — discovered that antisemitism is not some dastardly fabrication of the Israel lobby, but a real phenomenon experienced on many levels by many Jews. Off the back of that revelation, Cohen declares himself nostalgic for those same assertive Jews with whom he tussled back in the States.
Here, in brief, is what lay behind this sudden transformation. Visiting his sister’s house, he ran into her lodger, who, having noticed Cohen fiddling with his BlackBerry, referred to it as a “JewBerry.” Cohen didn’t follow. The lodger then explained that the free messaging services that come with the device make it a “JewBerry,” because Jews are always on the lookout for something free.
Cohen correctly diagnoses this remark as representing the casual antisemitism that has left a lasting imprint on the English, much as it has upon other European nations. He is probably right that someone who makes such remarks isn’t necessarily a violent antisemite. I grew up in London too, where I attended a private school with a large number of Jewish boys; all in all, our lot was a happy one, and if we got into the occasional scrap because one of the non-Jewish boys threw a penny coin at us — picking it up marked you as a money-grubbing “yid” — we didn’t conclude that another Holocaust was around the corner.
What bothers Cohen is that British Jews are, in the title of his piece, “Jews in a whisper.” The Jews of Albion do not, Cohen believes, have the gumption of the American brethren. His “inner voice” implores them to “get some pride…speak up!”
Why Cohen has arrived at this conclusion isn’t clear, because he does not seem to have spoken to any actual British Jews in the course of gathering his thoughts. Had he, for example, consulted with Anthony Julius, the author of a monumental history of English antisemitism, Cohen would have understood that the genteel barbs against Jews he mentions rest on far uglier foundations.
This was a land from which the Jews were formally expelled in 1290, and one which pioneered the infamous blood libel through the martyrdom tales of William of Norwich and Hugh of Lincoln. Fascism did not triumph, but neither was this a country free of its influence; in the 1930s, at a time when some of Britain’s most senior leaders were contemplating a deal with Hitler, Jews in the streets of east London faced a mortal threat from the Blackshirts who swore their allegiance to Sir Oswald Mosley. And, of course, as the former mandatory power in Palestine, Britain provided favorable conditions for the vicious anti-Zionism that was to emerge in the decades following the Second World War.
This anti-Zionism certainly bothers Cohen, to the extent that he even mentions its critical component: Muslim antisemitism. But again, he reports no conversations with those who might have educated him on the subject. A conversation with Howard Jacobson, the leading British writer whose recent novel, The Finkler Question, is a witty journey through the minds of anti-Zionist Jews, would have yielded valuable insights. The same can be said of the Community Security Trust, a communal defense organization run by individuals who are the very opposite of the supine Jews of Cohen’s imagination. One can add, too, the bloggers of Harry’s Place, who diligently monitor and attack extremists of all varieties — left, right, and Islamist — as well as the activists of Engage, who combat the academic boycott of Israel.
I could go on. The point, though, is that Cohen does not seem willing to connect with anyone who might shake his convictions (a pronounced trait among New York liberals that he must have picked up during his years over here). He is determined to drive home his fundamental argument, and no-one will stop him.
Above all else, it is a bizarre argument and it goes something like this. Jews have a duty to combat prejudice against them boldly and bravely. Yet their history compels them to resist the entreaties of those Cohen labels as “Islamophobes,” since these folks have simply adapted the discourse of antisemitism to Europe’s Muslims. For Cohen, if no-one else, “the lesson is clear”:
Jews, with their history, cannot become the systematic oppressors of another people. They must be vociferous in their insistence that continued colonization of Palestinians in the West Bank will increase Israel’s isolation and ultimately its vulnerability.
Got that? When someone makes a boneheaded joke about a “JewBerry,” the proper response is to denounce the Israeli occupation.
The Times, frankly, should be embarassed about publishing this type of nonsense. Moreover, it’s not the first time; in another recent column from London on the Oslo massacre, Cohen excoriated “Islamophobes” by tying in the death of singer Amy Winehouse, “a Jewish girl from East London whose artistry would once have been dismissed by a racist and murderous European right as degenerate ‘cosmopolitan’ trash.”
Underpinning Cohen’s inchoate offerings is a notion that many would reasonably regard as antisemitic: that Jews are collectively responsible for Israel’s actions unless they explicitly declare otherwise. Yet if someone was to argue that European Muslims were similarly obliged to condemn each and every Islamist atrocity, Cohen would no doubt declare them “Islamophobic.”
Most insidious of all is Cohen’s use of antisemitism as a gateway to bash Israel. Like Peter Beinart, he is profoundly troubled by the image of the empowered Jew. Essentially, he believes that the historical mission of Jews is to be without power, even as the antisemites accuse them of being all-powerful.
With friends like these, eh?