Book Review: ‘Israel: Is It Good for the Jews?’ by Richard Cohen
Worse than the book’s derivative history is Richard Cohen’s undiminished need to patronize Israelis and supporters of the Jewish state.
Can a reviewer go on strike? Though I am not a member of any union, there were moments while reading Richard Cohen’s book when I was tempted to throw up a literary picket line. Mr. Cohen, a longtime Washington Post columnist, originally titled his book “Can Israel Survive?” but renamed it “Israel: Is It Good For the Jews?” for final publication. He fails to answer either question. Yet that’s far from the only problem with this well-meaning volume that flirts too often with outright illiteracy.
Consider the following sentences: “Anti-Semitism is a prejudice of the zeitgeist. It is now situated in the Middle East, in the Arab world. It stirs in Europe and elsewhere, but the noxious stink of the Hitlerian abattoir clings to it still, so it is a sotto voce sort of thing.”
Reading these lines—the remainder of the paragraph is even worse—you get the sense that Mr. Cohen thinks this is writing of a high order. Does it occur to him that something with a “stink” to it cannot be “sotto voce”? Or that “the zeitgeist” cannothave a prejudice? Or that a prejudice cannot be “situated” in the Arab world, as if it were a pyramid or a mosque? Or that anti-Semitism is hardly a “sotto voce sort of thing” in certain neighborhoods of Paris or London?
Yes, the reader more or less gets the point. But as George Orwell warned in 1946, the English language “becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.” Mr. Cohen’s book is a case study in Orwell’s timeless lament.
Indeed, it was slovenly language that accounts for this book in the first place. In 2006, during Israel’s summer war with Hezbollah, he wrote a column called “Hunker Down With History” that began with the line: “The greatest mistake Israel could make at the moment is to forget that Israel itself is a mistake.” The column sparked the usual rebukes from Israel’s supporters. But it also elicited congratulations from many of Mr. Cohen’s colleagues and friends, which he found disquieting. “What oozed out,” he writes in the book, was that “they had finally met a Jew who acknowledged the truth about Israel.”
Mr. Cohen should not have been surprised by the reaction. And yet he quickly realized that the line about Israel being a mistake was a mistake. It had been “tossed off under deadline pressure.” He couldn’t think of another word that expressed his meaning. Perhaps he didn’t quite know what he meant at all.
And so Mr. Cohen hunkered down with the very history he claimed to know, but didn’t, while he was busy patronizing Israelis with a lecture as they were being shelled by Hezbollah.
Now he disgorges all that he has learned. He writes about Theodor Herzl, the founder of modern Zionism, and about the Dreyfus Affair, the anti-Semitic prosecution of a French Jewish artillery officer that proved to Herzl that Jews faced a dark future in Europe. He describes the grim condition of the Jews in Eastern Europe, particularly the Poland of his grandparents, that prompted people like the young David Grün—later to rename himself David Ben-Gurion—to leave Poland for Palestine. He explains, and defends, the Revisionist Zionism of Ze’ev Jabotinsky, who knew better than Ben-Gurion’s Labor Zionists that the Arabs of Palestine would never consent to Jewish rule, however progressive or benign. He reminds readers of how little was done by Western powers (including the Roosevelt administration) to save the Jews before, during or even after the Holocaust. As late as 1946, Jews were being killed in Polish pogroms.
Mr. Cohen also recites the history of the close collaboration of Amin al-Husseini, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, with Adolf Hitler. He reminds readers that, while ethnic expulsions and population transfers were common occurrences in Europe and elsewhere in the first half of the 20th century, it was only Israel that refused to follow suit by expelling its own Arab population after its independence in 1948. Today, of course, it is only Israel—with an Arab population of 20%—that is widely denounced for allegedly doing what, in fact, it did not do.
All of this makes for a useful, if derivative, primer on the whence and why of the Jewish state. But then Mr. Cohen makes the leap from his extended book report to his attempt at making his own arguments, and we’re back to terrible writing, shallow arguments and mental goo.
“For many of these people,” Mr. Cohen writes, referring to young American Jews who are indifferent to their heritage, “history did not end, in the famous (and misunderstood) formulation of Francis Fukuyama, but was consumed in the Holocaust . . . . Two thousand years of anti-Semitism supposedly halted on the spot, stopped right there, and history started something new. Context is gone. The moment is everything. The tweet, the text, the phone call, the cell phone picture, and, if you want to get really fancy, the photojournalist garbed as if for a safari, countless pockets for this and that, but none for what went before.” You follow?
Worse than this, however, is Mr. Cohen’s undiminished need to patronize Israelis and supporters of the Jewish state. “Who will defend Israel when its national character is no longer that of the European exile, the fighting intellectual, rifle in one hand and a volume of Kierkegaard in the other?” he asks, as if the defense of Israel rests on literary sensibilities. “What will happen when Jews from Islamic lands, already nearly 50% of the population, become a healthy majority and change the face that Israel presents to the world, particularly America?”
So, is Israel good for the Jews? Mr. Cohen has a sentimental affinity for the country. But he also says that the country has “run out of purpose” and, by virtue of its very location, puts its citizens at risk in all kinds of ways, not least by putting them in range of an Iranian nuclear missile. For all that, Mr. Cohen might have noted that fewer Israelis have died in all of its wars than were murdered on any given day of the Holocaust.
Israel has been proving even its sharpest critics wrong for nearly 70 years. Here’s betting its light outshines Mr. Cohen’s dim bulb.
Mr. Stephens writes Global View, the Journal’s foreign-affairs column.