Israel: Is It Good for the Jews? by Richard Cohen, Simon and Schuster, 273 pages, $26
Reviewed by NEAL GENDLER
Is Israel good for the Jews? No, not if you prefer discrimination, exclusion, expulsion, persecution, pogroms and murder in the millions.
Ask a stupid question.
Of course Israel is good for the Jews, as Richard Cohen makes more than abundantly clear in Israel: Is It Good for the Jews? Much of the book recounts our woeful, disaster-filled history since exile, making as vivid a case for a Jewish homeland as any fervent Zionist.
So why this book? An early title — Can Israel Survive? — was inappropriate; beyond decrying the “occupation,” Cohen mercifully devotes little space to the demeaning American habit of telling Israelis what’s in their best interest.
Cohen says the book originally was to “tell the story of where Israel went wrong and how Israel went wrong.” But beyond criticizing rule over Judea and Samaria, the engaging, lively result is a love story.
Like Ari Shavit in My Promised Land (1-17-14 AJW), Cohen sympathizes with Arabs who were displaced, calling that an unfortunate necessity to create Israel. And unlike many, he doesn’t ignore Arab expulsion of Mizrachi Jews in numbers equal to Arab refugees of 1948.
Cohen starts by explaining his notorious Washington Post column of July 18, 2006, which called the creation of Israel a mistake — a “well-intentioned mistake” of creating a nation of European Jews in a sea of Arabs, producing “a century of warfare and terrorism.”
Cohen now says “the word mistake was itself a mistake,” but it was wrong to think the Arabs would politely agree. Well, yes, but he doesn’t name any unclaimed place to have put the urgently needed Jewish state. Maybe Antarctica?
Before writing, Cohen decided to “brush up a bit.” One book and Web site led to another, and “slowly, inexorably, I fell in love. What marvelous people these Jews were! What magic and what genius and drama and what tragedy!”
Cohen, a witty, upbeat writer, says: “The founder of modern Israel would not have liked modern Israel,” finding it too socialistic, informal, Jerusalem-obsessed, Middle Eastern, “and much too Jewish.” Theodor Herzl envisioned a German-speaking Vienna-on-Mediterranean of coffeehouses and well-assimilated Jews like himself — not the shtetl Jews he disdained.
Cohen finds Israel closer to Vladimir Jabotinsky’s more-prescient vision of a nation under siege and mistakenly too Jewish to have expelled its Arabs.
One statement puzzled me for hours: Had Arabs “acceded to the wishes of the international community” by accepting partition, they might now be Israel’s majority. Eventually, I figured out: Had the Arabs within Israel’s 1947 partition lines remained there, today’s 1.7 million Israeli Arabs and what he gives as 5 million descendants of Palestinian refugees would outnumber Israel’s Jews. (Israel’s latest official population data show 6.2 million Jews.)
A complaint is that Cohen gives scant attention to historic Jewish longing for return and pre-Shoah settlement; anti-Semitism was not the sole motivation. Others: Once each, we have “Reformed Jews” and Zionist Peter Bergson (Hillel Kook’s alias) as “Bergstrom.” Cohen so often mentions the perception that Jews are “cunning” that it’s almost as if he agrees. And he says: “Anti-Semitism is so spent a force [in America] that it can be found only in the fund-raising material of various Jewish organizations.”
Close, but not quite, and it’s increasing in Europe. And uniting all but the most elite Arabs, he says, is an “anti-Zionism that is indistinguishable from anti-Semitism… as it once was in Europe, a widely accepted belief system,” which speaks of Jews as did Hitler.
If that’s not gloomy enough, Cohen closes with angst about continuing occupation and about Jews’ future in America because of indifference and intermarriage. He says: “Israel’s promise is great, but its future is not bright” because of the hatred around it and the lack of critical mass worsened by economic emigration.
But yet he concludes: “The long view is what matters — back as well as forward. Israel must endure. It is the irrevocable deal” made with its immigrants, especially Shoah survivors who had lost everything. “All the rest is commentary.”
Neal Gendler is a Minneapolis writer and editor.
(American Jewish World, 10.10.14)