Roger Cohen says Jewish identity must be founded on opposition to Israeli treatment of Palestinians

Israel/Palestine
on 47 Comments

Roger Cohen has an important Jewish identity piece in the Times. Any sincere piece about Jewish identity is valuable these days, as Jewish identity is so critical. Cohen is clearly uncomfortable with anti-Zionism and tries to chart… the middle course…. toward the two-state solution, implicitly, and the preservation of Israel. And chiefly he argues: Diaspora Jewish identity must be founded on opposing Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians.

Now a ferocious anti-Zionism of the left — the kind that has called for academic boycotts of Israel — has joined the mix, as has some Muslim anti-Semitism. Meanwhile Islamophobia has been fanned by the rightist fabrication of the “Eurabia” specter — …

Where then should a Jew in Britain who wants to speak up stand? …

Perhaps a good starting point is a parallel pointed out to me by Maleiha Malik, a professor of law at King’s College London. A century ago, during the Sidney Street siege of 1911, it was the Jews of London’s East End who, cast as Bolsheviks, were said to be “alien extremists.” Winston Churchill, no less, argued in 1920 that Jews were part of a “worldwide conspiracy for the overthrow of civilization and the reconstitution of society on the basis of arrested development.”

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.

The difficulty in this argument is that I don’t see how that doesn’t end up in anti-Zionism. Political Zionism is a messianic belief system that has devoured Jewish life, spat out the cultural Zionists, and resulted in endless colonialism and ethnic cleansing.  That’s how it has worked out. The only way to take on the treatment of the Palestinians is to dissociate oneself from that ideology and not make the goal the preservation of a Jewish state. And so while I am not opposed to a Jewish state somewhere else– because many states are ethnically discriminatory–that state has depended on steadfast Diaspora support, as Cohen observes, and the moderate dissent he prescribes has repeatedly proved ineffectual inside America against the Zionists.

The ultimate questions here involve the Diaspora: Do you need a Jewish state? Why? Wouldn’t you prefer that people live in a state like the one you dig, a liberal democracy that protects ethnic minorities? Getting honest answers to these questions from American Jews would be revolutionary.

47 Responses

  1. pabelmont
    August 21, 2011, 10:24 am

    Anti-Zionism asks an awful lot. “Israel out of Palestine.”
    It is possible to ask for less: “Israel out of NEW PALESTINE (WB+G)”. I imagine Cohen is THERE.

    From my perspective, this is not asking enough. But it might be enough to make peace possible.

    It is what I have been calling for since 2008: remove settelers, dismantle settlements and wall. And, oh yes, end occupation.

    BDS also asks for FULL return. Israelis choke on that.

    Roger Cohen, however, cannot even bring himself to complain about the atrocities and lawlessness.

    I can and do so atlink to 123pab.com

  2. sherbrsi
    August 21, 2011, 10:39 am

    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.

    Jewish oppression of the Palestinians neither started nor will end with the cessation of colonization of the West Bank.

    Cohen knows that, but he is too bound to his own ideological support to Zionism and Israel to recognize that to support Israel is to oppose the Palestinians, in some form or extent to another.

    If Cohen were operating out of any sincerity for justice and freedom, then why does he not call for opposition to the occupation and recognition of Palestinian statehood (the latter of which he has himself strongly opposed)?

    He, along with most other Zionist, is simply unwilling to accept that this identity shift has long taken place. Cohen saying that Jews cannot become the systematic oppressors of another people ring as hollow to those who are not suffering from this self-imposed tunnel vision as when his ilk proclaim apartheid in Israel to be just around the corner. These realizations amount to little more than too little too late. Jewish identity, due to its blind support of Israel, have been cemented as that of oppressors, just as Israel is now cemented as an apartheid state due to its addiction to occupation and colonization.

  3. Elliot
    August 21, 2011, 10:42 am

    Phil –
    This is great news. The new Jewish identity founded on solidarity with the oppressed Palestinians rather than on bottomless tribal loyalty with the State of Israel is breaking into the mainstream, older generation.

    Was your use of “Diaspora” throughout the piece intentional? Unless we are referring to the Israeli diaspora outside the State of Israel, I prefer to use “Jews of the world.”
    “Diaspora” is a religious term that has been secularized and co-opted by Israeli nationalism.
    “Diaspora” assumes a Zionist reading of ancient history;
    “Diaspora” presumes the pre-eminence of the Israeli Jewish community over a diasporic periphery.
    In the late 40s David Ben-Gurion set up this terminology and mindset to claim the the State of Israel was true Israel and its people were the true Jews.
    What about the rest of us? Are we chopped liver?

    • Philip Weiss
      August 21, 2011, 11:34 am

      you’re right Elliot. now elaborate!

    • dimadok
      August 21, 2011, 12:09 pm

      You are chopped liver without your history. You are delusional to believe in your ability to disconnect between Jewishness and Israel. Every aspect of Jewish life will scream back to you- “remember the history of your people and their land!”. Denying all that will make you not a progressive Jew but rather a “world citizen” with liberal views, who’s moral imperative is a flexible as his opinions on what is considered to be “right” and politically correct.

      • pabelmont
        August 21, 2011, 4:02 pm

        Some Jews, however, will remember being taught to “make nice” in the3 societies in which they live, “render to Cesar”, etc. good, sound, rabbinic advice. Jews who have not been fooled into imagining that the diaspora is terminated (at least for Israel’s Jews) will realize that the rabbinic advice has not been followed by Israel’s Jews, who have made themselves (into) false Gods, false kings.

        dimadok is selectively choosing which history to remember. The pogroms against Jews were terrible, but so are the “price tag” pogroms and whole-court-attack by Israel on Gaza and West Bank. The Holocaust was absolutely dreadful, but so is Israel’s attack on Gaza and irts sometimes attacks on Lebanon.

        Jews had one experience left to experience for the first time when they came to power in Israel, the very important experience of self-control. They need to have that experience. they have not had it yet.

        Having no self-control, they invite control from outside. That’s what BDS is about. That’s what September 20 might be about.

      • dimadok
        August 21, 2011, 8:01 pm

        Should I take your words as “those Jews have to be taught self control”?
        If so, you are patronizing and maybe need to get some humbleness check. When those who set to kill us are killed before they are able to act- I see that as a success. When those who set to kill us are killed, while hiding among civilians, I regret the lost lives but it is still a success. Now you are appalled, aren’t you? Let me be clear- these people who intent on killing will die. It is their choice to hide and it the cruelty of guerilla warfare. They are not regular army nor they are not bound by any agreements or conventions.

        And one more thing- you must be delighted to see a “good” Jew, who is being nice and obedient to it’s master. Well it might strike you but that is just as Antisemitic as it gets. I love stubborn Jews who do not bow to no one, we Israelis are now our own masters, and it must be driving your senses mad.
        Don’t patronize.

      • Castle Keep
        August 21, 2011, 10:17 pm

        jeebus
        “When those who set to kill us are killed before they are able to act- I see that as a success. When those who set to kill us are killed, while hiding among civilians, I regret the lost lives but it is still a success. Now you are appalled, aren’t you? Let me be clear- these people who intent on killing will die.”

        did your god imbue you with some instinctual ability to divine “intent to kill?”

        you, who do not even have the intellectual capacity to comprehend your own history, confusing it, as you do, with propaganda, are willing to take lives on the basis of discerning someone else’s “intent,” and calling the completed act a “success?”

        dear god, I have stumbled into a nest of moral monsters.
        you terrify me.

      • dimadok
        August 21, 2011, 10:58 pm

        Where do you live my I ask- wait don’t tell me, I know it is the land of knights and princes, where battles are fought in open and enemies are calling before on each other. You call me stupid, and yet I drink from the same well as your dear Phil and I know far more than you should think.
        Fighting it is a dirty thing, for hardened, and you perhaps should stay with fairies and noble lords.
        Murderers who blow up children and slaughter them asleep do not fall from the sky- they live and eat somewhere, get orders and training.
        Those who know that shall do everything in their powers to stop them before they could act.
        These are the monsters and we are trying to stop them.

      • Woody Tanaka
        August 22, 2011, 7:31 am

        “When those who set to kill us are killed before they are able to act- I see that as a success. When those who set to kill us are killed, while hiding among civilians, I regret the lost lives but it is still a success. ”

        Exactly. Which is why the operation in Eliat the other day was widely praised by the Israelis as “them doing to us what we do to them,” right?

      • eljay
        August 22, 2011, 8:18 am

        >> Murderers who blow up children and slaughter them asleep do not fall from the sky- they live and eat somewhere, get orders and training. Those who know that shall do everything in their powers to stop them before they could act. These are the monsters and we are trying to stop them.

        For a moment there, it looked as though you’d FINALLY come around to understanding the suffering of oppressed Palestinians and their need to stop the Israeli monsters who blow up children and slaughter them asleep.

        But obviously you haven’t, and you’re just engaging in the usual apologetics, blaming the Palestinians for everything and glossing over Israel’s very real crimes, including its ON-GOING and OFFENSIVE (i.e., not defensive) campaign of aggression, oppression, theft, colonization, destruction and murder.

      • Chaos4700
        August 21, 2011, 4:11 pm

        Oh, is that why you’re digging up Muslim graves and dropping bombs on mosques? Erase their history and you can eradicate a people!

        Not the lesson you should have learned from the Holocaust, Zionist.

      • Mooser
        August 22, 2011, 11:22 am

        “but rather a “world citizen” with liberal views, who’s moral imperative is a flexible as his opinions on what is considered to be “right” and politically correct.”

        You can’t fool me, dimcok. You live in Missisipi or maybe Texas.
        What happened to the socialist dreams of all my relatives on the kibbutz?

      • dimadok
        August 23, 2011, 11:23 am

        Neither is correct- I do not live there. And socialist dreams of your relatives are shattered in pieces (unfortunately) when reality struck them. Which kibbutz they live in may I ask?

  4. MHughes976
    August 21, 2011, 11:53 am

    If the problem is that Israel is ‘systematically oppressive’ (would casual oppression be that much better?) at the moment it’s up to all of us to oppose what Israel is doing, not in any special way up to some of us, acting for reasons of history – particularly where history does not at all mean ‘personal experience from which I have learned’. Cohen seems to feel that he must attribute some sort of moral superiority over time to the very people to whom he attributes moral fault at this time – to make his point and at the same moment to weaken it. And why should the spectacle of oppression make one ‘vociferous’ about the interests of the oppressor? Concerned, perhaps, since they too are human beings, but vociferous, giving the impression that they’re the ones who matter?

    • piotr
      August 22, 2011, 9:36 am

      I think that systematic oppression is indeed worse. For example, Israel is proud of committing lower levels of atrocities than Sudanese militias in Darfur etc., but in the same time is unsurpassed in the systematic way the oppression is applied. At its ultimate, systematic oppression seems to be a mental disease, e.g. it seems that the main purpose in life of Hebron settlers is making shit to Palestinians. (Couldn’t the play videogames or run meth labs or whatever to get joy in life in some other way?)

      • MHughes976
        August 22, 2011, 4:49 pm

        You’re right, of course.

  5. yourstruly
    August 21, 2011, 12:08 pm

    jewish identity?

    taking care of number one?

    the exlusively me + one’s tribe?

    but then how long before there’s none?

    no generations yet to come

    no one

    just an empty world

    yearning, perhaps, for what might have been

    so is the question what is it to be a jew?

    not what it is to be a human being?

    • pabelmont
      August 21, 2011, 4:07 pm

      Excellent. Think of global warming as an experiment that (wealthy) people are generally too self-centered to combat, an experiment in distorting the world so much that for some it will amount to destroying it.

      GW is not a Jewish problem or a Christian or Buddhist problem. It is a human problem. It is a problem of self-control. We who live in me-me-me consumer-oriented societies have not been trained to self control. Israelis. in their treatment of Palestinians, ditto.

      Is there moral fault here? Yes. Huge. It is nearly universal.

  6. lobewyper
    August 21, 2011, 1:54 pm

    I notice that Cohen opposes “continued” colonization, but is silent about the colonization that has already taken place (including the Golan)…

    • lobewyper
      August 21, 2011, 2:47 pm

      Nonetheless, the NYT is an important medium, and Cohen’s piece is absolutely a step in the right direction.

  7. Shmuel
    August 21, 2011, 2:04 pm

    Nor with those who, ignoring sinister historical echoes, propose ostracizing Israeli academics and embrace an anti-Zionism that flirts with anti-Semitism.

    A Jew “with force… appetite … without shame” should be able to tell the difference between racism and legitimate political protest, and should be above such facile, manipulative associations.

    A serious journalist should know better than to misrepresent an explicitly institutional boycott as individual “ostracism”, and to imply that all anti-Zionism “flirts with anti-Semitism”.

    I happen to know some proud Jewish anti-Zionists in London. If Mr. Cohen needs an introduction, I’d be happy to oblige.

  8. lyn117
    August 21, 2011, 2:52 pm

    With all due respect, as heartfelt as Cohen’s piece was, it’s still sort of self-absorbed. The “whispers” about being Jewish and such self-absorption are two sides of the same coin. I suppose some of it is understandably defensive, but really, despite some anti-semitism Jews in the US and Britain really aren’t in any way an oppressed or threatened minority.

    Labling something Jewish e.g. “Jewberry” isn’t strictly an insult, unless you’ve internalized the idea that something’s wrong with being Jewish, like it needs whispering about. Neither, really, is calling Jews “clever” although it’s certainly stereotyping.

    I haven’t met very many Jews who were anything other than proud of it. I hope we’ll get to a place where you can call someone a Jew and it just be a statement about them, and everyone can be proud of what they are.

    To those who noted Cohen’s failure to divorce from political zionism, right on!

    • pabelmont
      August 21, 2011, 4:12 pm

      “I haven’t met very many Jews who were anything other than proud of it.”

      Or everyone can be not-proud. What’s to be proud of, just being a human being, just being a Jew? Perhaps I am proud of Gideon Levy — because he has made a successful project of telling truth to power in Israel. Similarly, Phil Weiss. But not just for being human. Or for being just Jews. Or for being 5’9″. (I’m 5’9″. Used to be 5″10″, but I shrank over the years. So what? Proud?)

      • lyn117
        August 22, 2011, 12:04 am

        Sure, or not proud. Human beans don’t have that great a record. We’re destroying the planet after all.

  9. Les
    August 21, 2011, 4:05 pm

    When I see WWI era racist anti-Semitic cartoons of Eastern European Jews, I sense Jewish anti-Semitism when those same cartoons reappear in today’s media, everything being the same except the Jewish garb has been switched to that of Middle Eastern mullahs. It would be good if Cohen would take notice that such racist anti-Semitism is commonplace in our media.

  10. seafoid
    August 21, 2011, 4:58 pm

    “Jews, with their history, cannot become the systematic oppressors of another people”

    Why not ? Aren’t they very good at it?

    The horse has bolted, Roger. Be a dear and shut the door of the stables.

    Presumably given their intellectual history the Jewish people would be incapable of producing a generation of thoughtless brainwashed tabloid readers but Ma’ariv proves that wrong.

    • Castle Keep
      August 21, 2011, 10:10 pm

      “given their intellectual history”

      only Jews have an intellectual history.

      Shakespeare wrote nothing.
      Italians made no contribution to the establishment of the United States.
      Russians had no cultural sensibility
      Iranians do not have 97% literacy
      Poles have not contributed some of the world’s most valuable discoveries
      Irish have no poetic gift
      Arabs did not envision Zero and algebra that gave rise to Newton

      why the persistence in displaying what must be a deeply felt inferiority that expresses itself by parading an imagined superiority simultaneous with an implicit diminution of the Other?

    • lyn117
      August 22, 2011, 12:15 am

      Jews, with their history, are just as capable as anyone else at editing out the bad parts. I think they were the first of the Abrahamic faiths to practice forced conversions on peoples they conquered. Well, maybe I’m annoyed with this “we’re better than everyone else because of our history” attitude. I realize it’s a common human failing, but that doesn’t prevent me from wanting to take it down a notch or two.

  11. john h
    August 21, 2011, 11:37 pm

    “The lesson is clear: Jews, with their history, cannot become the systematic oppressors of another people. ”

    This lesson should have been well learned by 1880. It should have been learned a thousand times over by 1945. Instead, Zionism appeared, with the specific goal that would inevitably involve the systematic oppression of another people.

    “Colonisation carries its own explanation, the only possible explanation, unalterable and as clear as daylight to every ordinary Jew and every ordinary Arab. Zionist colonisation must either stop, or else proceed regardless of the native population.” Jabotinsky, 1923, The Iron Wall

    It did proceed because the Zionist belief was and is that it is moral and just, and must triumph over all else; the end absolutely justifies the means.

    Hence we have a chronic case of, not merely arrested, but reversed, Jewish identity development.

    • Richard Witty
      August 22, 2011, 6:55 am

      “The lesson is clear: Jews, with their history, cannot become the systematic oppressors of another people. ”

      I prefer the positive form of the statement.

      ‘The lesson is clear: Jews and Israelis, with their history, must take care to establish good mutually beneficial and kind relations with their neighbors’.

  12. seafoid
    August 22, 2011, 10:18 am

    Jewish identity has to be seized from the many who regard the Arabs as not worthy of equality with Jews. It won’t be pretty but it must happen. Otherwise the eventual backlash will be dreadful.

    South Africa’s racist whites didn’t have a whole religion backing them up.

    • GalenSword
      August 22, 2011, 11:41 am

      Racist Christians have often attempted to use Christian scripture to bolster their racism.

  13. john h
    August 22, 2011, 5:01 pm

    Richard, your positivism is so underwhelming it causes nausea.

    Now that Jews and Israelis, with their history, get to keep their ill-gotten gains with impunity and are in oppression possession, kind relations with their neighbors are mutually beneficial.

  14. john h
    August 22, 2011, 5:32 pm

    Racist Christians are not alone in that. Racist Muslims and racist Jews do the same with their scripture.

    Followers of each religion not only do it to bolster their racism but also to support male chauvinism and political and military agendas.

    Those who do any of these are manipulating their religion for their own ends instead of reflecting the true core of their faith and scripture. It has always been so, it is what is in all of us.

    That is why many reject religion as a fantasy and a front for evil. In so doing they throw the baby out with the bathwater.

    Those who do not manipulate their religion but live in simple faith have found meaning and strength unknown to those who manipulate or reject.

    • eljay
      August 22, 2011, 5:45 pm

      >> Those who do not manipulate their religion but live in simple faith have found meaning and strength unknown to those who manipulate or reject.

      Unknown, perhaps, but not necessarily of any greater value.

      • MHughes976
        August 22, 2011, 6:03 pm

        Views on religion (including atheism) other than one’s own tend to be frightening. This person thinks thoughts that I cannot – cannot begin to – think. So how can his or her mind be as human as mine?

      • eljay
        August 22, 2011, 6:35 pm

        >> Unknown, perhaps, but not necessarily of any greater value.

        To clarify: The meaning and strength found by those who live in simple faith is not necessarily any better / stronger / more fulfilling / of more value than the meaning and strength found by those who live without any sort of “faith”.

  15. john h
    August 23, 2011, 12:49 am

    “To clarify: The meaning and strength found by those who live in simple faith is not necessarily any better / stronger / more fulfilling / of more value than the meaning and strength found by those who live without any sort of “faith”.”

    Absolutely, if you’re meaning subjectively. Not necessarily, but unable to be determined, if you’re meaning objectively.

    If you are a Jew and/or an American, that is what gives you a meaning and strength those who are not cannot find, because that is a major part of your identity, who you are by birth or choice.

    And if you are, that doesn’t necessarily mean it is or you are any better / stronger / more fulfilling/fulfilled / of more value, than anyone who lacks that meaning and strength your particular identity brings.

    Our identity is tribal and expressed in patriotism, the nature of which isn’t experienced by those without that identity. They are without ours but have their own, and there is no objective way to measure or rate any of them. Even though in fact one may in some way be of greater value, we can only measure subjectively.

    Each is; you’ve just got to be there.

    Faith is the evidence of things unseen.

    • RoHa
      August 23, 2011, 1:29 am

      Does that post actually mean anything?

      Faith is a form of lying to oneself.

  16. john h
    August 23, 2011, 3:24 am

    Lol, fair question, gotta agree it does remind of Witty’s wanderings, eek!!

    Back to the real reason for this site.

    • eljay
      August 23, 2011, 7:18 am

      >> Lol, fair question, gotta agree it does remind of Witty’s wanderings, eek!!

      And a damned fine job that was, too! :-)

  17. Donald
    August 23, 2011, 7:47 am

    There are four letters responding to Cohen’s column today in the NYT

    link

    Three of them are predictably and nakedly racist and one isn’t. I think Roger Cohen’s column was weak because he spent so much time identifying real or alleged anti-semitism in various groups and when he refers to Islamophobia speaks of it more as a wrong response and something that shouldn’t be engaged in, rather than as evidence that many in the pro-Israel/Jewish community are in fact bigots. He doesn’t stress this enough. And so the stage is set for three of the letters that appear today.

    Floyd Abrams in his letter says he is concerned about the settlements, but then shows what really matters to him are the double standards and harsh criticism applied to Israel. So given a choice between opposing real injustice to actual human beings (but Palestinians, so it doesn’t count) and opposing harsh language against Israel, he clearly thinks the harsh language is the bigger issue. The two letters by Katherine Gurvey and Michael Berenhaus are even worse. Berenhaus seems to think that the drop in the infant mortality rate in the WB since 1967 is Israel’s accomplishment, as though infant mortality hadn’t dropped in Jordan or nearly everywhere since 1967. To these two, the only possible reason for pretending to care about Palestinians comes for the argument that it might decrease anti-semitism–if it won’t do that then it’s not worth bothering about.

    Cohen needs to revisit the issue and point out that these attitudes that you find in so many letters to the NYT (not just today)show people who are so self-absorbed that anti-semitism of any sort, even the imaginary kind, is a bigger issue to them than any amount of Israeli cruelty to Palestinians. It’s racism, pure and simple.

  18. john h
    August 23, 2011, 7:40 pm

    “Cohen needs to revisit the issue and point out that these attitudes that you find in so many letters to the NYT (not just today)show people who are so self-absorbed that anti-semitism of any sort, even the imaginary kind, is a bigger issue to them than any amount of Israeli cruelty to Palestinians. It’s racism, pure and simple.”

    It’s not just racism or the seeing of anti-semitism at the drop of a word or two, it’s why these attitudes are held. They are ingrained due to western guilt, Israeli hasbara on victimhood, AIPAC, and the msm bias, omission, and timidity. They must be constantly challenged for any change to occur.

    And they play a part in where Cohen himself stands. Many of us have been there in some form, and we have our own story. Cohen could start his revisit by recognizing this and the truth of what sherbrsi posted here.

    • Donald
      August 23, 2011, 11:49 pm

      I don’t object to a focus on anti-semitism–it’s only 70 years since the Holocaust and there is a long history of anti-semitism in the West and it’s not completely dead. But where concern over anti-semitism goes rancid is when it is used as an excuse to downplay or ignore Israeli crimes. Or when it is okay to talk about the problem of anti-semitism among Muslims or Christians or the British or whoever, but nobody talks about the anti-Palestinian bigotry among defenders of Israel. I think the three letters I referred to in the NYT today were bigoted and they were published, because that sort of thing goes unnoticed in our culture.

  19. john h
    August 23, 2011, 10:48 pm

    “And a damned fine job that was, too! :-)”

    Cheers eljay, no promise of a (or no) repeat tho! (=)

  20. wondering jew
    August 28, 2011, 3:53 pm

    The only response that viewed “proud Jews” as a positive was that of Shmuel. Phil, do you consider proud Jews something valuable?

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