David Harris, the executive director of the American Jewish Committee, is not too keen on New York Times columnist Roger Cohen’s recent op-eds about Israel. The two had a lively exchange in the pages of the New York Review of Books, which takes off from Cohen’s earlier article, Eyeless in Gaza.
Harris is not alone in his reaction to Cohen. The Jewish Telegraphic Agency’s editor’s blog, The Telegraph, was merciless in its critique of Cohen. The Jewish Journal took serious exception to Cohen’s piece on Iran. And one hardly needs to look to guess what CAMERA (the Orwellian-named ‘Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America’) has to say.
Sometimes it’s explicit. And sometimes it lies just under the surface. But the idea that Cohen’s views are based on an inherent bias against Israel is present in all of these responses. This is not unusual, and it’s not unique to proponents of Israeli government policy either. Supporters of the Palestinians also tend to assume that anyone defending Israel can only do so if they are hopelessly biased in favor of it.
It seems as though it’s impossible to have an honest opinion on the matter of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. We can only be seen to hold those beliefs that our predilections force upon us. This is the way it is with most charged political debates, of course, but it is most acute when the subject includes Israel.
What is it about Roger Cohen’s work that has provoked such a profound response? Is it that yet another prominent Diaspora Jew has chosen to upbraid the Israeli government? Is it that the journalist’s employer is changing its historic position on Israel? None of the above. Cohen is simply painting a more complex and nuanced picture of the Middle East. And he’s raising hackles because he is also criticizing Israel’s policies. Both the case he makes, and the reaction it has provoked, are therefore instructive.
Roger Cohen is apparently not being stifled. This is a sign of the times, and Israel’s increasingly degraded global image. But, rather than address Cohen’s salient points, David Harris’ rejoinder focuses entirely on the evils of Hamas, and pays scant attention to the enormous suffering the war inflicted on the civilian population of Gaza by the Israel Defense Forces. Cohen rightly fires back with illustration of that suffering.
Like any war, Operation Cast Lead must be examined critically, and that examination must cast a critical eye at the conduct of both sides. But the end result of that war was…what, exactly? If Israel won, what gains did it realize? Rocket fire from Gaza continues. Hamas’ military capabilities certainly suffered a blow, but they are rebuilding, and that same blow also seriously compromised Hamas’ ability to control other armed groups in Gaza. Those groups, according to Israeli intelligence, are the ones firing the rockets.
Israel lost, at least temporarily, diplomatic ties with one of only three Arab countries with which it had enjoyed them. Its relationship with Turkey, its sole military ally in the Muslim world, was severely strained; and the war dramatically raised local popular hostility toward the government of Egypt and the Palestinian Authority, both of whom were seen as supporting Israel. Most of the world is absolutely convinced that Israel committed horrible war crimes in Gaza, and Israel’s adamant refusal to allow human rights investigators into Gaza reinforces that perception. Even in the United States, sympathy for Israel is at an all-time low.
Hamas, in turn, has survived and has deepened its control over Gaza. The Islamist organization’s popularity is higher than it’s ever been among Palestinians and the ‘Arab street’. The Arab League nations, who once varied only by degree in their opposition to Hamas, are increasingly split over whether to relate to them as a legitimate leadership body now. In Europe, Hamas are increasingly being talked of as a governmental entity. Fatah, Israel’s ally in the Palestinian Authority, is negotiating the formation of a unity government with Hamas. And, Gilad Shalit, the symbol of Israel’s impotence during the Olmert years, remains in captivity.
This is Israel’s payoff for the Gaza war. And the price? Over 1,300 persons dead. How many of them were actually civilians is yet another detail about which we only have the conflicting claims of Hamas and Israel. But even Israeli estimates put it at over 400, a number that warrants an official inquiry. An IDF investigation concluded that the number of homes destroyed or damaged in the operation was so great that it would be “very difficult” for Israel to legally justify this destructiveness. The electricity and water supply is still disrupted, even compared to the poor levels of service that held in Gaza before the war. And much of the damage cannot be repaired because Israel continues to refuse to allow many building materials and spare machinery parts (including many for medical equipment) into Gaza.
13 Israelis were killed during the Gaza campaign, four being felled by “friendly fire.” The southern towns of Sderot, Ashkelon, Ashdod and Beersheva, as well as nearby towns and kibbutzim were subjected to weeks of terror. It is about all of this, the destruction on both sides, that Roger Cohen is asking “For what?”
Harris’ glib reply is to ask Cohen what he would have had Israel do. The journalist has some answers, but even if there were none, if this was Israel’s only option for action, doing nothing would have been far preferable.
Israel has every right, indeed, the most compelling and binding moral obligation, to defend and protect its citizens. But, as Cohen correctly puts it, Hamas’ murderous and blatant crimes do not give Israel the right “…to blow Gaza to pieces, or deprive people of food, water, and medicine. “ In the end, as has been true with most tactics on both sides, it was the civilian population that suffered the most, while the leadership, Hamas, survived.
These are serious issues, and ones for which Israel has already been presumed guilty by most of the world. Its refusal to allow investigators into Gaza or launch a credible independent investigation of its own (i.e. one that is not run by the military, an obvious conflict of interest) provides substantial evidence for those who are presuming Israel’s guilt, and undermines Israel’s democratic principles. Therefore it is left to the press, or, to be precise, to the Roger Cohens of the world to fill in these gaps in a clear and sober manner.
When Cohen expresses his shame over these events, he is expressing his connection with and anxiety about Israel, as an American Jew. The New York Times journalist’s recommendations are geared toward resolution and sound tactics (at least as he sees it), and show an abiding concern for Israel’s moral fiber and democratic principles that his critics, for all their bombast, sadly lack. Criticizing Cohen by saying that ‘Hamas is a terrorist group’ is simply not sufficient. Such impoverished responses ironically underline the fact that there is no legitimate means of defending the situation Cohen decries.
As we’ve painfully learned in the US over the past seven years, one way that terrorists ultimately win is by making their enemies abandon their principles in the name of security. This is the conformist moral logic appealed to by individuals like David Harris, who find themselves increasingly trapped by their outdated concept of what it means to ‘love’ Israel. What this love means is always more of the same: maintaining an unacceptable status quo that degrades Jewish values and Israeli nationhood. It is Roger Cohen, and those like him, who are trying to rescue Israel, and the rest of us, from this tragic fate.