J.J. Goldberg

Roger (Cohen) and Me, Revisited

By J.J. Goldberg

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It appears that my August 5-14 column about Roger Cohen has upset a few people, which is usually one of the perks of the job. But some of those who are upset with me are people I care about, and with them in mind I’d like to expand on my thoughts a bit, by way of explaining what I meant.

The column was originally meant to be a discussion of Cohen’s New York Times Magazine article from August 2, in which he attempted to explore the mechanics of American policy-making towards Iran. One of the framing elements of the piece was the role of Dennis Ross. I thought Cohen misfired badly in ways that seemed to me instructive, and even though I usually try to avoid personal attack pieces, I wanted to take apart that argument. However, as I re-read his Times columns since January, I found what struck me as a pattern of weak thinking, which seemed to shed light on the misjudgment I had found in the magazine piece. I started to flesh that out, and by the time I was done I didn’t have much room for the Dennis Ross argument and it was deadline time, so I rushed in a few more paragraphs and then I went with what I had, as they say. Now I see my original intention got lost.

So here is the original point: I don’t believe Dennis Ross is the problem in American Middle East policy. Just like I didn’t think Douglas Feith or Elliott Abrams were the problem with same in the Bush administration. Presidents (or, in rare cases, vice presidents) create their own teams, and they generally know perfectly well whom they are hiring. Certainly Obama knew what he was getting in Dennis Ross. He’s been an open book for years.

This is not to defend Ross’s views or his role in policy-making or execution. Certainly one can legitimately argue that Ross has had a negative role. Aaron Miller has pointed out ways in which he felt Ross’s role was negative. He was there and he has examples of things Ross did and said. I have a few stories of my own. The difference is that Miller’s claim is based on what Ross did, not who he is.

Cohen didn’t offer much information on Ross’s policy actions, and the examples he gave are rather mixed in what they prove. The bulk of Cohen’s argument consisted of repeatedly questioning Ross’s ability to work effectively in the region because of the “recurrent issue” of whether, having “embraced the Jewish faith,” he is “too close to the American Jewish community and Israel to be an honest broker.” Because of his “obsession” with Israel, which has recently “merged in a perilous countdown” with his newer “obsession” with Iran. Because of his “well-known ties with the American Jewish community and the sometimes hawkish views on Iran” (though Cohen parenthetically acknowledges at one point that Ross has also held dovish views and “argued at other times for unconditional engagement”— albeit “backed by the threat of draconian sanctions”).

Now, the case has been amply made in various venues that Ross’s views are more hawkish than Miller’s. That wasn’t a secret when they worked together. But the gap can’t have been intolerably wide. After all, the two worked together, along with Daniel Kurtzer, as a close-knit team, under Ross’s leadership, for a full 14 years, from 1986 to 2000, under three presidents. Likud prime ministers reviled all three as self-hating Jews, Arabists, “Baker’s Jewboys.” Labor prime ministers were happier with them, though even then there were some harsh exchanges, notably when Israeli interests clashed with American interests. And Arab governments considered them and the American government credible enough to work with as honest brokers.

All that fell apart when George Bush was elected president. Like his predecessors, he also appointed Middle East advisers who were “close to the American Jewish community and Israel.” But these individuals were well-liked by Likud leaders and reviled by Arab leaders. The difference? A different president who had different beliefs and hired a different set of advisers with more compatible views to execute them. Clinton, Bush senior and even Reagan worked with greater or lesser energy toward Israeli-Palestinian compromise. George W. didn’t. He — or as we now understand, Cheney and his coterie — viewed compromise as weakness. That should have been simple enough to figure out just from reading the newspapers. But no. These days it’s enough to cite signs of ethnic or religious engagement, on either side, to create an air of suspicion on the other side.

It didn’t used to be that way. It used to be that the dividing line was between those who work toward Israeli-Palestinian compromise, which we might call the Labor-Fatah position, and those who believe Israel must inevitably push toward maximum boundaries and hence that the only question is whether or not Israel should exist, which is a view shared among religious fundamentalists of all three monotheistic faiths.

In the madness of the post-9/11 Bush years, things got so polarized that the pro-compromise position became marginalized in many parts of the culture, and the question was no longer Israel-Palestine compromise versus no-compromise but Israel legitimate versus Palestine legitimate. In this atmosphere, those who speak ill of Palestinians (or even of their defenders) are identified — by the newly dominant voices on both sides — as “pro-Israel,” and those who speak ill of Israel or its defenders are identified, again on both sides, as pro-Palestinian. Just about anybody who argues publicly that Israel is legitimate becomes part of “the Lobby,” and just about anybody who argues for Palestinian rights becomes an “Islamofascist.” It’s a simplistic, reductionist and increasingly a dangerous discourse.

I write a lot that is critical of Israel and the Jewish community, largely because they’re my family and I worry about them. So a lot of people on both sides see me as friendly toward the Palestinian side. On August 5 I wrote something critical — well, not even of the Palestinian side, but of someone who is seen lately as a champion of the Palestinian side — and suddenly I’m on the other side.

In fact, if there is a policy side I’m on, it’s the side that’s become invisible. Which brings me back to my recent post about Amos Kenan and his “A Letter to All Good People.” So it goes.

A final thought: None of this should be taken to indicate a change in my feelings of warmth and friendship toward anyone on either side, including those who responded to this column and those who didn’t. I just wanted to explain where I was coming from.

Jim Hightower used to say that there’s “nothing in the middle of the road but yellow stripes and dead armadillos.” Great line, but then, he never lived in the Middle East.

jerry steinman Fri. Aug 14, 2009

suggested reading: http://www.nybooks.com/articles/22270

Mr Cohen says he was "shamed by its [Israeli] actions"

Brad Wed. Aug 19, 2009

There is no need to apologize for the Roger Cohen column.

Lee Diamond Wed. Aug 19, 2009

I like JJ Goldberg a lot so I do not want to get into comparisons.

I do want to say that in terms of what has gone on the last 9 months, year, year and a half or so, Roger Cohen has offered a kind of exploring, searching effort that I have not noticed from many other writers. Maybe Leonard Fein.

JJ makes valid points in his piece.

Rather than comment on them, however, I want to say something else that reflects on Roger Cohen.

Gaza is a horror story. Where is the American Jewish community? Oh , I forgot, they are saving Darfur. Beg your pardon.

Judaism is being destroyed from within. Foxman, Hoenlein, Harris et al have failed us. It is time for those of us, as JJ I think may have implied, PASSIONATE MODERATES to demand a different approach.

Bert Cohen Thu. Aug 20, 2009

To me the 'elefant in the room' has always been those progressive Jews who could NEVER admit to the crime of stealing land, persecuting the original population and getting angry whenever the subject is brought up close to home. These 'progressive' Jews are forever harping on human rights and the need to help the downtrodden. Will J.J. Goldberg and his supporters at least set the record straight. Will they admit that they are all Jewish settlers themselves, living on land stolen from the Native Americans who were persecuted and genocided? I know that this is so offensive to discuss in polite society but what are OUR moral credentials to preach to Israel about Jewish 'settlers'? The 'poor' Arabs in Israel live far better than the Native Americans today in reservations like Pine Ridge, SD. Jews who cry for the Arabs might do better by first addressing the ongoing crimes against the Native Americans here at home

Lespollock Fri. Aug 21, 2009

Lets applaud some progress. Haven'T seen Rajah Cohen in the NY times so much lately. What can he say after his leaders - Mahmood and the ayatollahs - embarrassed him by showing their true colors after the Iranian election? Go way Cohen, and take J.J. with you, this is a fight for life, you are hiding on the streets of 1968 Berlin.

Lespollock Fri. Aug 21, 2009

Lets applaud some progress. Haven'T seen Rajah Cohen in the NY times so much lately. What can he say after his leaders - Mahmood and the ayatollahs - embarrassed him by showing their true colors after the Iranian election? Go way Cohen, and take J.J. with you, this is a fight for life, you are hiding on the streets of 1968 Berlin.

Lespollock Fri. Aug 21, 2009

Misprint. Meant 1938 Berlin.

Frank Sat. Sep 26, 2009

An anti-Semitic "Cohen"? Why are the Jewish people beset by self-hating faux "Jews"?


JG, Caesarea

Friday, September 25, 2009

Roger Cohen Again Demonizes Israel: No Slip of the Pen

A few thoughts about Roger Cohen's latest New York Times op-ed re Germany, "The Miracles of Dullness". His penultimate paragraph:

"The demon [italics added] of instability, German-prodded, moved to the Middle East, where another modern nation state, Israel, in turn upended the order of things. Perhaps after 74 years (1871-1945), we will see glimmerings of a new, more peaceful regional order there. Hope is almost as stubborn as facts."

First, is this right or wrong? Answer: This is absurd. There have been innumerable wars and insurrections since the establishment of the State of Israel involving the various Arab countries and Iran that did not involve Israel in any way whatsoever. Moreover, these wars resulted in an exponentially larger number of civilian and non-civilian casualties than all of the Arab/Israeli wars combined:

1. The Syrian invasion of Jordan in 1970 in support of the Palestinian attempt to overthrow the Jordanian government.

2. Black September. The PLO sought to overthrow the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, which constitutes 77% of the original Palestine mandate.

3. The Lebanese Civil War from 1975 to 1990, which resulted from ethnic tensions and changing demographics favoring Lebanon's Shiites.

4. Iraq-Kuwait clashes in 1973, 1976 and 1990. Iraq claimed Kuwait as part of Iraq.

5. The Iran-Iraq War, which lasted for eight years and resulted in the deaths of at least half a million combatants and non-combatants.

6. The Dhofar Rebellion, 1962-1975.

7. The 1963 Sand War between Morocco and Algeria.

8. The 1973 Libya-Chad War.

9. The 1977 Libya-Egypt War.

10. The Western Sahara conflict involving Morocco and Algeria in the 1970s.

11. The ongoing Somali Civil War.

12. The First and Second Sudanese Civil Wars.

13. The genocide in Darfur.

14. The North Yemen Civil War.

15. The 1994 Civil War in Yemen.

16. The 2004-2007 Sa'dah Conflict.

And let's not forget the Kurdish uprisings against Iraq and Iran, the barbarities perpetrated against Iran's Baha'is, and the Syrian army's 1982 bombardment of Hama to quell a revolt by the Muslim Brotherhood, which resulted in the deaths of up to 40,000 people.

Of course, Cohen is free to write whatever he pleases, correct or incorrect, and much of what he wrote about Iran has been widely discredited. In this vein, I would only add that although I was promised by the Public Editor's office of The New York Times that I would receive an answer whether Cohen's "What Iran's Jews Say" was in keeping with New York Times' standards of journalistic ethics, they have since refused to honor their commitment. Jill Abramson also has refused to touch this issue.

Far more serious is Cohen's latest link between Israel and Nazi Germany, albeit indirect, in an op-ed having nothing to do with Israel. This is much in keeping with the anti-Semitic connotations involving the title of Cohen's earlier op-ed, "Obama in Netanyahu's Web".

The New York Times wishes to publish this? It's The Times' prerogative, but I think The Times need also consider the resulting enmity and anti-Semitism, which in no way contribute to understanding or peace.

Cohen would have us believe that Israel is also a "demon of instability". After his farcical series of op-eds on Iran which went unchecked by The Times, we can only wonder about the demons floating around Cohen's head.

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