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A different voice is sounding through Europe!

High-profile Jewish intellectuals dare to criticize Israeli policy. ‘Uncritical support of Israel does not support Israel’, as Roger Cohen put it last Friday. After Avraham Burg last autumn, who was invited to the Bruno Kreisky Forum (here my report), the Institute for the Human Sciences (IWM) decided to welcome Roger Cohen, the well-known Middle-East journalist and weekly columnist (International Herald Tribune and New York Times) to deliver its annual lecture. Besides the appeal for his own cause ­– ‘journalists bear witness, no miracle of technology will replace them’ –­, he dealt with two, partly interwoven important issues in current international relations, on the one hand, the strained relations between Iran and the US, and, on the other, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The title of his speech was ‘Unnatural Enemies: the Iranian-American Psychosis and the New Middle-East’ and Iran was indeed at the core of the first part of his lecture. Having covered the last presidential election in June 2009, which saw the (official) victory of the incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad over his challenger Mir-Hossein Mousavi, Cohen described a very ‘modern’ people, thriving in political pluralism and mutually respectful democratic debate since the Persian Constitution of 1906. His long sojourn in the country at different periods of time has led him to feel genuine empathy for the Iranians (as he also feels for the Poles) and, after recalling how, in the first hours following the elections, Ahmadinejad’s thugs and henchmen terrorized their opponents, Cohen stated ‘Mousavi would have been more moderate. We would have had an interlocutor.’

Iran is an interesting state in that it plays a symbolic role in its relations to the US. The events of the 1979 hostage crisis (66 US citizens were held hostage for 444 days), introduced the first images of Islamic radicalism to the media. They led to the image being formed of Iran as the ‘archenemy’ of the US. On the other side, Iranians have not forgotten that, in the war against Iraq from 1980 to 1988, Saddam Hussein largely received Western ammunition, chemical weapons and mustard gas. As Cohen said, George W. Bush’s 2002 statement on the Axis of Evil merely aggravated the situation. History and memories are now seen as obstacles to the journalist.

Cohen might seem optimistic or somewhat naive when he comments on his position regarding the nuclear issue, saying ‘Iran is not a nuclear state’ or even ‘whether Iran wants the bomb is unclear’. His positive assessment of the present government led on to a questionable transition to dealing with Israel. Cohen said that the 25,000 Jews who live in Iran lead peaceful lives, even though Ahmadinejad has held an execrable speech declaring he wants to dispose of Israel and roundly condemning Zionism. According to Cohen, no stones have been thrown at Iranian synagogues in recent years, and not the slightest harm has been done to the Iranian Jews, not even during the Gaza conflict in the winter of 2008/2009. When he went on to state ‘anti-Semitic incidents took place in Paris, Lyon and Caracas, not in Isfahan or Teheran’, the audience smiled, but I was more than sceptical. It is not that I would like to downplay anti-Semitism in France, but the situation is surely much more difficult for Jewish people in Iran (see this film).

The most interesting part of Cohen’s lecture concerned Israel. He backed Ehud Barack who asserted (in opposition to Benjamin Netanyahu) that ‘Iranians are not meschugge’ (once more, there were smiles in the audience). For the US-journalist, the West Bank barrier (‘wall or fence’ as he said) must be seen as a ‘symbol of failure’. He further deplored that Israeli journalists were not allowed into Gaza and that both Arabs and Israelis were victims of the past. ‘History illuminates the past, but it also entraps people’ as he put it. Both Palestinians and Israelis should try to escape from the past and dispense with an identity forged from victimhood (see Suffering as Identity: The Jewish Paradigm by Esther Benbassa, Verso, 2010).

Cohen endeavours to be optimistic and mentions two reasons for hoping for peaceful co-existence. The first is the US-educated Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, who switched ‘from the World Bank to the West Bank’. Cohen appreciates his pragmatic (‘prosaic’) stance and traces the two-year plan which started in August 2009 with the goal of declaring the independence of the Palestinian state. Then Cohen praised the diversity of opinion among the Jewish population, both in Israel and in the diaspora. Disregarding the provocative negationist speeches by Ahmadinejad, Cohen called for more differentiation, saying that the Iranian regime is not like the Third Reich. He summed up his position by saying the Jewish diaspora should ‘be an honest broker not an Israeli lawyer’.

In his lecture, held in the crowded little library of the IWM, Cohen sadly did not comment on the one-state solution (which he does not support, as he told me later). He rather echoed (without explicitly mentioning it) a European call for a two-state solution, JCall, entitled ‘European Jewish Call for Reason’, named after the new Jewish lobby in the US, JStreet (founded in April 2008 to counterbalance the AIPAC). People who sign the JCall state: ‘Our objective is to allow the opinions of European Jews, who have been silent for too long, to be expressed publicly and to allow a Jewish voice to be heard that is both committed to the state of Israel and critical of the current choices of its government . This call, signed by Bernard-Henri Lévy, Alain Finkielkraut, Elie Barnavi, Esther Benbassa and many others, is available online and has been widely commented on in the media (Jerusalem Post, Associated Press or Haaretz). A different voice is sounding through Europe and the diaspora more generally.  That is good news!

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10 mai 2010 - Posted by | Israel, Uncategorized | , , , ,

Un commentaire »

  1. C’est interessant que Roger Cohen qui ecrit pour le New York Times a declare une fois que la fondation de l’etat d’Israel a ete une grosse erreur. Et maintenant il est pour deux etats. Est ce que la fondation d’un etat palestinien ne sera pas une erreur? On assiste a present maintenant au printemps (ou plutot) l’automne arabe. La Tunisie n’a pas de direction claire, l’Egypte est en crise, la Lybie divise entre plusieurs tribus. Seule la Syrie reste entiere!!!

    Commentaire par CHARLIE | 26 août 2011 | Réponse


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