Roger Cohen’s Shame
by Jerold Auerbach
A distinguishing trait of New York Times columnist Roger Cohen, as it was for his predecessor Anthony Lewis, is Jewish shame. Lewis frequently lamented that Israel, by settling its biblical homeland after the Six-Day War, would have dismayed his idol Louis D. Brandeis. But Cohen is his own moral exemplar.
A visit to Hebron, burial site of the biblical patriarchs and matriarchs where King David reigned before relocating his throne to Jerusalem, recently stirred Cohen’s outrage (January 20). There he discovered the “corrupting” consequences of “overwhelming power” and “the biological metaphors of classic racism” among the several hundred Jews who inhabit their ancient city (none of whom he gave any indication of meeting). For Cohen, Hebron exemplifies “the terrible logic of an occupation driven in part by a fanatical settler movement abetted by the state of Israel.”
Guided by a founder of Breaking the Silence, a marginal left-wing anti-settlement advocacy group of disillusioned Israeli soldiers, Cohen’s exploration of Hebron was confined to the dilapidated former commercial center of the old city, “now a stretch of apocalyptic real estate” where “garbage accumulates” and “mingling is obliterated” — also known as the Jewish Quarter.
Except for one Israeli soldier, who is “clearly uncomfortable with his mission, enforcing segregation,” Cohen reports no contact with any of its seven hundred Jewish residents. There is no mention of the Palestinian rioting and terrorism in 1929 that murdered scores of Hebron Jews and yeshiva students, destroying the centuries-old Jewish community. Nor did he visit the ancient Jewish cemetery where many of them are buried or Beit Hadassah, once a medical clinic that served Jews and Arabs alike and now is home to a dozen Jewish families. Cohen is oblivious to the 16th-century Avraham Avinu synagogue, destroyed in 1929 and beautifully restored after the Six-Day War. Nor does he report a visit to the towering Machpelah shrine, built during the reign of King Herod to mark the burial place of the patriarchs and matriarchs of the Jewish people.
To be sure, Hebron is layered with competing Jewish and Moslem religious claims, historical memories — and retaliatory violence. Some might even trace them as far back as the biblical rivalry between Abraham’s sons Isaac and Ishmael. In Cohen’s myopic view, however, Hebron history begins with “the occupation of the West Bank” — known to Hebron Jews as “the return to biblical Judea and Samaria” following the Six-Day War. He embraces his guide’s perception of the Jewish community as nothing more than an “offense against Palestinian independence,” with settlers “a vehicle of this strategic aim.”
What may be even more astonishing in Cohen’s narrative than his diatribe against Hebron Jews is his obliviousness to the reality of the city of Hebron. Its Palestinian sector, which no Jew may enter (Cohen is silent about his exclusion), is home to 215,000 Arabs who inhabit the thriving commercial hub of the West Bank. It features multi-story shipping malls, two universities and — as a Google photo reveals — modern commercial and residential buildings. The suffering of Hebron Arabs is nowhere in sight.
To be sure, Cohen’s diatribe against Hebron Jews is merely one piece in his mosaic of discontent with Israel. Back in December his focus was the other ancient (and current) capital of Israel. President Trump’s “rash recognition” of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, which Cohen labeled an “ultimate-deal fantasy,” stirred his ire. Relying on left-wing Ha’aretz columnist Tom Segev for his condemnation of the coalescence of “strong nationalism and strong religion,” Cohen lamented Israel’s “shift from upstart to colonialist power,” exemplified by its “messianic push to settle the West Bank.” The deplorable result is “an ethno-religious Jewish state.” In Cohen’s narrative of decline, “the Israel hoped for by Ben-Gurion has lost itself, corrupted by overreach” — specifically, in the “occupied territories” (which happen to constitute the biblical homeland of the Jewish people). Israel’s government, Cohen laments, “is my shame.”
In an appropriate postscript (January 21), Cohen again rails at President Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. His primary source is a Tel Aviv University lecturer in Yiddish literature who claims that it “destroyed hope,” rewards “right-wing nationalists” and is “disastrous.” Like Howard Jacobson’s Finkler, Roger Cohen is an “ashamed Jew,” whose defining characteristic is criticism of the Jewish state.
Jerold S. Auerbach is the author of “Hebron Jews: Memory and Conflict in the Land of Israel” (2009).