Roger Cohen.(Reuters/NYT)

New York Times columnist Roger Cohen published one of those destined-for-the-Most-Emailed-list pieces yesterday (where it spent the day in frankly disappointing second place behind an article on something called “decision fatigue”). It’s about Jews, and Israel, and Jews and Israel. One pictures Cohen in a heist movie, appearing in the requisite room with all the laser-tripped alarms, carefully stepping about so as to evade capture: the settlements are wrong, yet so are the boycotts; Jews need to stop oppressing people, but the English need to stop hating Jews. Readers, unlike laser-tripped alarms, can read between the lines.

While the piece meanders, its main thrust is that Jews, and particularly English (and presumably other European) Jews, having been 100 years ago the equivalent of Muslims today, must oppose European Islamophobia; as a corollary, especially shameful are “the Knesset members who have met in Israel with European rightists like Filip Dewinter of Belgium in the grotesque belief that they are Israel’s allies because they hate Muslims.” Finally—and it’s not clear how he makes the leap from that to this, although he claims “the lesson is clear”—“Jews, with their history, cannot become the systematic oppressors of another people. They must be vociferous in their insistence that continued colonization of Palestinians in the West Bank will increase Israel’s isolation and ultimately its vulnerability.”

(A quick caveat, and I make it as someone who after the Oslo massacre argued that the alliance of the Israeli and European right-wings was a bad thing: the Knesset members don’t meet with the Europeans “because they hate Muslims,” but because they like Israel—which is because they hate Muslims, but it’s not actually the same thing.)

Cohen refuses to paint the Israel question in anything but the broadest of strokes. (His post-Cast Lead report brought essential passion to the debate, but it too was marred by this lack of complexity.) If you are a Jew, you are either “fanning Islamophobia” or “the systematic oppressors of another people.” But actually, that’s not what life is for most diaspora Jews (it’s not even life for most Israeli Jews).

At the same time, he pulls back from the true courage of his convictions, mainly in order to avoid yet another laser-tripped wire: he seems to be saying that Jews of all peoples have a unique obligation not to be oppressors, but then expresses his reasons for opposing the occupation in rigidly realpolitik terms—”Israel’s isolation and ultimately its vulnerability.”

What is consistent throughout this incoherence is Cohen’s insistence that all Jews, “with their history,” have an obligation to adopt his view of the settlement enterprise—a view that this Jew (that is, me) happens to share. But this insistence commits the same category error as those Jews he bemoans for labeling him a self-hating Jew: both sides find the actions of all Jews implicated in the actions of some Jews; whether it is right-wing Israelis promoting settlements or Roger Cohen condemning them, somebody is crying shanda.

Roger Cohen is defining his Jewishness, negotiating his relationship to it, entirely by reference to Israel’s policies. Another Jew who does this, as Tablet Magazine columnist Michelle Goldberg documented, is the anti-Zionist blogger Philip Weiss, who wrote of Cohen’s argument, “I don’t see how that doesn’t end up in anti-Zionism.” He’s not wrong. And yet Cohen, in his stated opposition to boycotts, appears to establish plausible deniability of anti-Zionism. Is he in fact an anti-Zionist merely seeking to avoid one more laser-tripped alarm? Or does he support the state of Israel as it is now (minus the policies he dislikes), and can his worldview be non-simplistic enough to allow diaspora Jews to have opinions about Israel, even to feel an affinity with and an obligation toward it, without being ipso facto implicated in its actions? It’s something he needs to clarify.

Jews in a Whisper [NYT]
Roger Cohen Says Jewish Identity Must Be Founded on Opposition to Israeli Treatment of Palestinians [Mondoweiss]
Related: Eyeless in Gaza [NYRB]
Mondo Weiss [Tablet Magazine]
Earlier: What to Make of the Oslo Attacker’s Zionism?