New York Times columnist Roger Cohen visited my synagogue Thursday. All day long the sparks flew and the cultures clashed.
In the weeks preceding his visit, Cohen had written two columns for the NY Times in which he wrote of Iran as a more flexible state that the usual depiction in the American media. Even more controversially, spoke of Iranian Jews as enjoying a fairly tranquil and good life, opposing Israel's policies and supporting Iran's acquisition of a nuclear weapon.
As the Rabbi of a synagogue half of whose members are Iranian (the synagogue's total membership is about 2200 families, totaling between 5-6000 people) I felt the stunned, angry reaction at once. "How can he say this Rabbi?" "Is he naïve, ignorant, foolish?" "He is a dupe of the regime."
I wrote to my friend Jeffrey Goldberg at the Atlantic and said if Roger Cohen would like to hear Iranian Jews who are not being censored by the regime, he should come to Los Angeles. Goldberg posted the invitation on the blog. To his great credit, Cohen wrote me the next day and we arranged a visit.
I knew Cohen through his very powerful and gripping book "Hearts Grown Brutal" which recount the horrifying story of the Balkan wars of 1990's. (Interestingly, major part of his criticism of the feckless American response is that we did not use force early enough.) A Jew who grew up in England, he had also profiled Tzipi Livni for the NY Times magazine. So he was, presumably, no stranger to the twists of the Middle East or the ravages of ideology.
(To see the evening event, go to http://www.jewishjournal.com/videojew/item/live_video_tonight_a_dialogue_with_roger_cohen_and_the_iranian_jewish_commu/ )
To see Cohen's column on the event, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/03/16/opinion/16cohen.html?_r=1
I had breakfast with Cohen at his hotel and we spoke amicably about the day to come. He was looking forward to the event, and like many reporters, showed himself an acute listener. He was gracious and thoughtful.
I set up a lunch and a dinner with prominent members of the community. Cohen lunched with Sam Kermanian, an urbane, informed advocate. Sam tried to convince him that his outlook was indeed naïve, and that he was being used by some very clever Mullahs to validate their own regime. At dinner - with among others Jimmy Delshad, former Mayor of Beverly hills and novelist Gina Nahai, Cohen heard again and again that the Jews he spoke to in Iran were well aware that their words were monitored. Indeed, Cohen said his own translator told him in no uncertain terms that he (the translator) would file a report of all his movements after he left. Well, people pointed out quite reasonably, might that intimidate the interviewees just a wee bit?
There have been arrests, even executions in Iran of Jews, both at the time of the revolution and following. But increasingly I came to believe that Iran was not Cohen's sole concern; he wanted it as a stick with which to beat Israel over Gaza, whose incursion he wrote left him ashamed.
The evening began with a long, reasoned statement from Cohen. But to my mind the challenges I offered him, and the audience offered, were met with restatements of the same position, and little acknowledgment of the force of the argument. I asked "You advocate negotiations with Hamas and Hizbollah, arguing that they can be pragmatic. What if Hamas and Hizbollah had the arms of Israel and Israel had their force of arms. What do you think would happen?" To my amazement, he said he didn't know. Well, I do. And so does he. For all the thoughtless and ignorant cry that Israel is committing 'genocide' no one doubts the true genocide that would befall the Jews of Israel if Hamas had a superior force of arms. As Iran moves closer to a nuclear weapon, such a question becomes less and less theoretical.
Omar al-Bashir is the President of Sudan. He was just indicted on war crimes for the genocide in Darfur. He is an unambiguously evil man; a crook, a criminal, a murderer on a grand scale. I read Cohen a clip from the AP that mentioned that senior leaders of Hamas, Hizbollah and Iran all offered al-Bashir their support. Are these the pragmatists, I asked, whose word you would trust? As someone who reported on Bosnia you had to realize, I pleaded, that ideology sometimes trumps pragmatism, humanity - everything. Cohen's answer was that Livni's father had been a member of the militant Irgun when Israel was founded and now she was for a two state solution. So you see, he concluded, ideologues can change. I confess, my shoulders slumped a bit with this riposte. Really, that was all?
The audience tried over and over again to convince Cohen that while he was partly right - the Iranian people were sophisticated, poetry loving, freedom loving people, they were also people many of whom (particularly their leaders) were in the grip of a terrifying ideology. The government sponsors the production of the "protocols of the Elders of Zion" the anti-Semitic forgery that has done more harm than any other. They negotiated five years with the European Union in return five more years to build a nuclear program. The relentless persecution of the Bahai, which came up several times in the evening, shows the face of a regime that claims homosexuals do not exist, that Muslim lives (according to law) are worth more than others, that non-Muslims carry impurities, that women's status is degraded - on and on these Iranian Jews pleaded that Cohen acknowledge that his reading was partial at best, dangerous at worst.
Roger Cohen deserves great credit for volunteering to visit the synagogue, and for listening to a variety of voices. But for someone who covered the disintegration of the Balkans into ferocious slaughter he seems oddly unaware of how tenacious and potent is ideology. The non-ideological regimes with whom Israel contended - Jordan, Egypt - miraculously have peace with Israel. In both cases, Israel sacrificed a good deal (including the golden fleece of the middle east, oil reserves) in order to get peace. Is Iran comparable: the same Iran whose leaders repeat, over and over again, that they wish to wipe Israel off the map?
In a fit of mild exasperation, I told Roger Cohen that if tomorrow Hamas said they wanted peace, I wouldn't believe them. I might test it, but I wouldn't believe them, not at first. So why, why should he believe they want peace when they don't even say it?
It is, as Dr. Johnson said in another context, the triumph of hope over experience. Of course, as the Iranian Jews pointedly said over and over again that night, the relevant experience is not Mr. Cohen's two week trip in the region. The deep experience is theirs, burned into their minds. And it is not, alas, one that suggests a solution any time soon.