Michael D. Cohen
Michael D. Cohen

Don’t believe ‘Believer’ — A critique of Reza Aslan’s documentary on the Jewish people and the State of Israel

I am proud to be a Modern Orthodox Jew.

I am proud to be a Jew who believes that part of our relationship with God entails being fully engaged with the world. To me, this means being productive in the world around me. I also am proud to be a Jew who believes that all members of the Jewish people are brothers, regardless of their individual level of religious practice.

I am infinitely troubled by Reza Aslan’s CNN documentary “Believer,” which my wife and I watched the other night. It is a work that would lead you to believe that I simply do not exist.

Mr. Aslan surmises in his concluding remarks that Israel is in serious trouble. Having sought out only the extremes of our people, he tells the world that the Jewish state is headed to a naturally combustible decision point between democratic atheism and totalitarian theocracy.

Spending roughly a quarter of his reporting on selling to the world that the only hope for a middle ground lies in the hands of the Na Nachs, the Breslover chasidic sect that, as Mr. Aslan details, has only a rough 1,000 fully dedicated adherents, is sheer lunacy. If he were seeking out a chasidic sect that has a global imprint, why not speak to the astronomically larger and impactful Chabad?

Prior to my privileged work with the Simon Wiesenthal Center, I spent more than 15 years working for both the federal and New York state governments. I obviously watch television, or I would not have seen Mr. Aslan’s work. While certainly my full-time occupation has not been Torah learning since my gap year after high school, I seek to have an appropriate balance between my responsibilities of supporting a family financially through my career and serving God in accordance with halacha. Still, I am a functioning, contributing Orthodox Jew; according to Mr. Aslan, I simply do not exist.

The Simon Wiesenthal Center created its Moriah Film division decades ago. The only film studio of its kind; so far it has produced 16 full-length films, endeavoring to combat anti-Semitism through education on issues such as the Holocaust and modern Israel. The Simon Wiesenthal Center was founded by an Orthodox rabbi and functions at the direction of two Orthodox rabbis. According to Mr. Aslan, there is no connection between Orthodoxy and modernity, no acceptance of religion and technological trends in communication platforms or otherwise. According to Mr. Aslan’s own highly critical words, Israel is in trouble because the Orthodox want to contain society within a set of parameters that were appropriate only in antiquity. Therefore, I presume that the Simon Wiesenthal Center does not exist either.

According to Mr. Aslan, there is a growing resentment because the Orthodox world simply does not send its children to fight for the defense of Israel, preferably sending only young secular Jews into harm’s way. During my gap year in Israel, I vividly recall spending many a Shabbat dinner at the home of Tuvia and Rina Berman, friends with a multigenerational relationship with my family. I remember the delicious American-style food that the former Staten Island residents provided, and I also remember the times when their eldest son, Ari, would come home on army furlough just before our meal, with both his rifle and his tzitzit hanging by his side. He now is the Israel director of the Orthodox Union, but I guess that according to Mr. Aslan he simply does not exist either. Nor does Nachal Haredi — the Israel Defense Force’s ultra-Orthodox units.

To those who understand the beauty of the diversity within the Jewish people, both in Israel and in the diaspora, we must ask if Mr. Aslan had a distinct agenda. Or did his pre-existing prejudices obstruct his ability to report responsibly? Whichever the case may be, we must suggest that CNN remove the word “documentary” from this piece, as it suggests balance and objectivity. Instead, it reflects Mr. Aslan’s apparently uniformed perspective.

It is Mr. Aslan’s purportedly concrete assertions, upon which he builds his deceiving conclusions, that simply do not exist.

About the Author
Michael Cohen currently serves as Eastern Director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center. Mr. Cohen additionally serves on the Englewood, NJ City Council where he was recently elected to his third term. Mr. Cohen has previously held senior staff positions on Capitol Hill and in NYC and NYS governments for over 15 years. Mr. Cohen has also served as Director of Political and Strategic Affairs for a top NY lobbying firm.