Eight years after suggesting that Israel was an “honest” mistake, Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen’s follow-up book shows that his love for Israel prevails.
Israel “is an honest mistake, a well-intentioned mistake, a mistake for which no one is culpable,” Cohen wrote in a July, 2006, column. “The idea of creating a nation of European Jews in an area of Arab Muslims (and some Christians) has produced a century of warfare and terrorism of the sort we are seeing now.”
Stating that there was no point in condemning the fetid anti-Semites of Hamas and Hezbollah, Cohen suggested that Israel “pull back to defensible — but hardly impervious — borders. That includes getting out of most of the West Bank — and waiting (and hoping) that history will get distracted and move on to something else.”
Referring to that article repeatedly in his new book, Israel: Is It Good for the Jews? (Simon & Schuster, September 2014), Cohen explains that “the word ‘mistake’ was itself a mistake.” The mistake, he simplifies, was the “belief that somehow the Arab Middle East would politely make way for European Jews.”
How Israel went wrong
Cohen plunged into writing his book as a result of that article. He vowed to “tell the story of where Israel went wrong and how Israel went wrong.” Yet, as one reads his intensely researched anecdotal essays on Jewish history, anti-Semitism, and the Holocaust, one can’t help but conclude that Cohen is arguing that Israel is a mistake that had to be made.
“Israel is the product of history’s most murderous century,” he writes. “As a nation, Israel is a battered child. It is therefore difficult to reproach Israelis for their occasional cruelty, for their wavering resolve to expel the Arabs from their land, for their determination to prevail no matter what.”
Looking back at the tumultuous events of 1948, Cohen assigns blame to others as well. “Had the Palestinians and the nearby Arab states agreed to the United Nations partition plan, had they acceded to the creation of the State of Israel, the predicate for the nakba would have been avoided.”
Considering the options at the time, Cohen says that Israel’s birth “was midwife by the immense moral imperative to compensate, to express contrition and guilt and horror and shame at what had just been done to the Jews [in the Holocaust].”
Many nations had acted to solve problems of mixed populations at their birth, but not Israel, he writes. Israel’s “refusal to engage in population transfer or ethnic cleansing so that Israel would be as free of Arabs as Hungary is of Romanians or Turkey is of Greeks has left Israel in mortal peril. It was a mistake.”
As he grew up, Cohen believed in the Israel “that was not only a miracle, but a miracle that performed miracles.” But years later, Israel’s moral imperative had been “both forgotten and soiled.” In Cohen’s eyes, the soiled part, Israel’s fault, was its occupation of the West Bank.
“The mistake of my long-ago column is becoming more and more apparent,” Cohen says. “Israel has lost the sympathy of the West. It behaves like an abused dog: hit so many times that it bites for almost no reason at all.”
The author’s personal love for Israel
Yet, despite his repeated arguments, which fail to offer ways to correct this so-called ‘mistake’, Cohen can’t help but express his own personal love for Israel, and for the Jewish People. “I love my own people,” he stresses. His book is highly personal, detailing family roots in anti-Semitic Europe, a visit to the Polish town where his mother once lived, and experiences in Cairo, Beirut, and with his family, when he stood prepared, as a Jew, to defend his children from brutal terrorists.
“In writing this book, I fell in love – with Israel, yes, but mostly with Jews,” Cohen concludes. Looking into the future, he is not entirely optimistic. He envisions Israel as a refuge for the “ultraorthodox, living in their own neighborhoods, keeping mostly to themselves – Judaism trapped in a time capsule.”
“Does it matter if Israel survives?” Cohen asks. “In one sense, the answer is no. Jews survived and occasionally thrived in the Diaspora. They are a Diaspora people, at home without a home.
“But in another sense, the answer is yes. It is the Middle East’s only democracy. It is the creation of other democracies. It represents the best of Western civilization – not its perfection, but it has handled itself pretty well under great stress,” he says.
Concluding the collection of essays and personal anecdotes, Cohen states that Israel “is a nation much like any other nation. It sins. It is sometimes wrong. It was conceived in arrogant disregard of the indigenous people… It did nothing that other nations have not done, and yet their right to exist is not challenged. Israel is not evil. It is merely human.”
A nation much like any other nation, one cannot help but conclude that Israel has held up pretty well despite the ‘mistake’ of its birth in a very cruel, inhospitable Middle Eastern neighborhood.