Roger Cohen is a columnist for The New York Times, where he has worked since 1990: as a correspondent in Paris and Berlin, and as bureau chief in the Balkans covering the Bosnian war (for which he received an Overseas Press Club prize). He was named a columnist in 2009. He became foreign editor on 9/11, overseeing Pulitzer Prize-winning coverage in the aftermath of the attack. His columns appear twice a week, on Tuesdays and Fridays. His previous books include Soldiers and Slaves and Hearts Grown Brutal. He lives in London, and will move back to New York in June. His newest book, The Girl from Human Street: Ghosts of Memory in a Jewish Family, is now available. He will be blogging here this week for the Jewish Book Council’s Visiting Scribe series.
As a New York Times columnist, I move regularly back and forth across the Atlantic. I carry my Jewish identity with me, of course, but Jewishness is lived differently in Europe and the United States. Expression of strong support for Israel raises eyebrows among Europeans inclined to view the Jewish state as bellicose or colonialist. Palestinian victimhood plays well on a continent of strong pacifist tendencies. By contrast, in the United States it is criticism of Israel that tends to cause a frisson of disapproval. The Israeli saga – of courage and will in the face of implacable foes – resonates in American mythology, far beyond the Jewish community. Perhaps no other foreign state prompts such intense feelings of identification and sympathy.
Since the heinous Paris attacks on freedom of expression in general, and on Jews in particular, I have been pondering these differences anew. It is 120 years since the Dreyfus Affair involving a French Jewish officer wrongly accused of treason. The case divided French society into Dreyfusards and anti-Dreyfusards, who were also anti-Semites. Among those who covered the case as a foreign correspondent in Paris was Theodor Herzl. The founder of modern Zionism’s conviction that Jews would only escape anti-Semitism through the creation of a state of their own was reinforced by this experience; his seminal “The Jewish State” was published in 1896, in the midst of Capt. Dreyfus’ legal tribulations.
Today, Zionism is a dirty word in Europe. Say you are a Zionist, as I sometimes do, and you may encounter a scarcely suppressed gasp of incredulity. Yet, four French Jews have just been killed in a kosher supermarket by an Islamist fanatic. Their bodies will be taken to Israel for burial. The necessity of a Jewish homeland has been illustrated yet again.
It is a necessity born of a simple fact: millennia of diaspora wandering that culminated in the Holocaust (which even Herzl could not have imagined) demonstrated that Jews could always be turned upon when a scapegoat was needed, that they would never belong entirely, and that in the end only self-reliance would save them. Looking into the wanderings of my family over four generations – from Lithuania to South Africa and on to Israel, Britain and the United States – I was left with no doubt that Jews needed a safe harbor, a place where scrawny scholars would become vigorous tillers of the soil, and no Jew would ever again go meekly to her fate. If Jews reached this conclusion, it was with reluctance. Having reached it and forged their state, they will never renounce it.
I would like to see a discussion of Zionism in Europe on the basis of last week’s events. I would have liked to see Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Mahmoud Abbas shake hands in Paris and commit themselves to the two-state peace that remains the only viable outcome in the Holy Land. Israeli-Palestinian peace would not eliminate jihadism but over time it could help stanch it. I am convinced that Muslim leaders must do far more to denounce the murderous ideology that finds its inspiration in a Wahhabi reading of Islam and turned Paris last week into a city of fear.
Last time I was in Israel I saw an old friend, Micha Shagrir, a movie producer who is dying of cancer in a Jerusalem hospice. We talked about old times. It was a tender moment. Micha mused on projects he still dreamed of completing. His body had become the frail vessel of an unbowed spirit. A year ago, in Paris, he was found wandering around, lost, the first sign of the tumor in his brain. Thirty-five years ago, in 1980, his wife Aliza was killed in the bombing of the synagogue on Rue Copernic in Paris.
Life’s patterns, the personal and the political, how one contains the other, how time is not linear but may eddy in circles: these have been and remain the themes that interest me most.
Check back on Thursday for more from Roger Cohen.
- Reading List: Dreyfus Affair
- Trials of the Diaspora: A History of Anti-Semitism in England by Anthony Julius
- Herzl’s Vision: Theodor Herzl and the Foundation of the Jewish State by Shlomo Avineri
Roger Cohen is a columnist for The New York Times, where he has worked since 1990 as a correspondent in Paris and Berlin and as bureau chief in the Balkans covering the Bosnian war, for which he was cited for excellence by the Overseas Press Club. He was named foreign editor on 9/11, overseeing Pulitzer Prize-winning coverage in the aftermath of the attack. His previous books include Soldiers and Slaves and Hearts Grown Brutal. He lives in London.