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October 23, 2017 12:44 pm

Why Was an Anti-Israel New York Times Columnist Allowed to Speak at the Center for Jewish History?

avatar by Stephen M. Flatow / JNS.org

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Roger Cohen. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

JNS.org – Just when you thought that things couldn’t get any messier over at the Center for Jewish History, a New York Times columnist who was invited to speak there has unleashed a barrage of verbal attacks on Israel.

The columnist, Roger Cohen, was invited to deliver this year’s Leo Baeck Memorial Lecture at the institution; the Leo Baeck Institute is one of six Jewish organizations that operate from the Center for Jewish History building. I did not attend Mr. Cohen’s lecture on October 15. But in a pre-lecture interview with the Baeck Institute’s newsletter, LBI News, Cohen violently lashed out at Israel.

“Somehow,” he declared, “the Jews, who were for millennia humiliated and excluded in the diaspora, now find themselves in a semi-colonial situation in which they subject the Palestinian people to much of what we once suffered.”

“Much of what we suffered?” Gas chambers? Pogroms? Ghettos? Inquisitions? Which of these, exactly, does Cohen think that Israel has used against the Palestinians?

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He didn’t stop there. Cohen proceeded to declare that, “Lawlessness prevails in the settlements.” Another blatant lie. Anybody who is familiar with the Jewish communities in Judea and Samaria knows that “lawlessness” is an absurd and outrageously false description. Those communities are legal, and the overwhelming majority of their residents are peaceful, law-abiding citizens.

Cohen continued, claiming that “settlers vote as citizens of Israel while the millions around them cannot vote.” Utterly false. Of course the Palestinian Arabs can vote, and they do vote — when Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas lets them.

Just five months ago, on May 13, 2017, hundreds of thousands of supposedly “disenfranchised” Palestinians went to 461 polling stations, and chose the members of the 391 municipal and village councils in the PA-controlled portions of Judea and Samaria. A total of 3,489 council members were elected. But I guess Roger Cohen wasn’t paying attention. He was too busy accusing Israel of denying Palestinians the right to vote.

Of course, it’s not as if the Leo Baeck Institute didn’t know what it was getting into when it chose Cohen as its speaker.

Cohen has been an outspoken critic of Israel for a very long time. In his column from February 10, 2014, for example, he accused Israelis of “keep[ing] their boots on the heads of the Palestinians.” In his column from January 28, 2016, Cohen urged businesses around the world to take action to force Israel to “cease settlement-related activities.” And who can forget his series of articles in 2009 that whitewashed antisemitism in Iran?

I find it hard to believe that the leaders of the Leo Baeck Institute were not aware of Cohen’s record before they selected him as their speaker. But whether or not they knew of his attacks on Israel in the past, why did they consider it necessary to circulate his latest attacks on Israel in their very own newsletter? Why publicize and legitimize Cohen’s anti-Israel tirades?

A similar question was raised when it was revealed that another institution that shares its building with the Center for Jewish History — the American Jewish Historical Society — was planning a Balfour Declaration event featuring speakers from the anti-Zionist “Jewish Voice for Peace” group.

I am not assuming that the controversial new president of the Center for Jewish History, David N. Myers, is to blame for the activities of either the American Jewish Historical Society or the Leo Baeck Institute. They are autonomous organizations that make their own programming and publishing decisions — separate from the Center for Jewish History.

Nor am I suggesting that people who attack Israel should be deprived of their right to free speech. There are, of course, plenty of platforms for people who want to denounce Israel. The question that I am raising is whether mainstream Jewish community institutions should provide platforms for such attacks on the Jewish state.

The leaders of the American Jewish Historical Society decided, to their credit, that the anti-Zionist Balfour program should be cancelled — since it was not consistent with their society’s mission. Perhaps the folks at the Leo Baeck Institute can learn from that.

The Baeck Institute’s mission is to “promote the study and understanding of German-Jewish history.” Roger Cohen’s comparison of Israel’s behavior to that of past persecutors of Jews was a gross distortion of German-Jewish history. The publication of Cohen’s anti-Israel vitriol in the Baeck Institute newsletter was clearly inconsistent with the institute’s mission. The institute, therefore, should acknowledge its grievous error in judgment.

Stephen M. Flatow, a vice president of the Religious Zionists of America, is an attorney in New Jersey. He is the father of Alisa Flatow, who was murdered in an Iranian-sponsored Palestinian terrorist attack in 1995.

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