Matthew Kalman is the author of “The Death of Yasser Arafat” and “Psychobibi.” His first novel “Moses Takes a Bath” will be published in 2015.
In 2006, when Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen wrote that the creation of Israel had been “a mistake,” he triggrered an uproar and a bout of self-reflection that has resulted in his new book, “Israel: Is It Good for the Jews?” It’s a fair question that Cohen raises with this entertaining, enthusiastic romp through recent Jewish history. “The word mistake was itself a mistake,” Cohen concedes. It perhaps justified the backlash from Israel supporters, but what he found “infinitely more troubling” were congratulations from friends that “suggested or inferred or implied . . . that they had finally met a Jew who acknowledged the truth about Israel.”
His pilgrimage through the rise of modern European Jewry highlights the emergence of Zionism, the creation of Israel and modern challenges to the legitimacy of the Jewish state. It’s an intelligent and fast-paced historical survey weaved into a compelling narrative, with fascinating vignettes sampled from a vast reading list proudly displayed in an 11-page bibliography.
Despite the academic garnish, the meat of this book is neither history nor reportage. Cohen offers memorable cameos and all-star quotations, but no original research and little first-hand reporting. He has the columnist’s skill of conjuring up a complex idea in a pithy epigram and summoning an entire pen-portrait with a few deft keystrokes. Queen Victoria’s prime minister Benjamin Disraeli, the baptized son of Isaac D’Israeli, “lost an apostrophe but gained an empire.” Alfred Dreyfus was “innocent of treason but guilty of being a Jew.” Theodor Herzl was “one of those Jews driven mad by being Jewish.” And Lord Balfour “for all his infatuation with Zionism . . . was nonetheless infected with a mild case of anti-Semitism.”
Jew hatred was everywhere all the time, in Cohen’s telling. There was the church-inspired anti-Semitism of the Inquisition and the Middle Ages; the genteel anti-Semitism of the British; the quota-imposing anti-Semitism of the Americans; and the vicious, deadly anti-Semitism of czarist Russia, Poland, Romania and Hitler. The “Jewish question,” as Herzl famously formulated it in his revolutionary Zionist manifesto, “The Jewish State,” hung in the European air like the sword of Damocles.
The culmination of all this, as Herzl and Kaiser Wilhelm II presciently foresaw, from opposite sides, was the Holocaust, with its ruthless efficiency and mind-numbing millions of victims. “I believe the best would be gas!” Wilhelm said, suggesting that humanity rid itself of Jews with “a regular international all-worlds pogrom a la Russe.” But first came the Evian Conference in 1938, where the would-be Allies united to deny salvation even to the increasingly persecuted Jews of Germany and Eastern Europe in exile. “Millions of Jews were about to be murdered,” Cohen observes icily, “and the world could not be bothered to do anything about it.”
The dreadful Holocaust shadow obscured the lesser but still horrific crimes that followed, such as the murderous pogroms in Poland in the immediate postwar period that added slightly to the appalling number of the Nazis’ Jewish victims and compounded the suffering of the few who had, against all odds and shocking Allied indifference, survived. Starving, skeletal, exiled, bereaved and traumatized beyond measure, the few Jews fortunate enough to see liberation were incarcerated by the Allies, forced to share their new prisons with the monsters who had staffed the Nazi death machine.
The clear result was the realization of Herzl’s prophecy a half-century before. “The Jews . . . took the ash of Auschwitz and molded a nation from it,” Cohen writes. A postwar survey of displaced Jews, he notes, found only 13 out of 18,000 who wished to remain in Europe. “They preferred a place where Jews would be in control. They preferred Palestine. They were not, strictly speaking, Zionists seeking to make a new nation. They were, strictly speaking, victims, seeking only to be left alone.”
Meanwhile, Cohen writes, a massive moving of populations — “ethnic cleansing” in today’s vocabulary — swept 16 million Central European ethnic Germans into Germany, with perhaps 2 million slaughtered on the way, without anyone protesting, let alone summoning a war crimes tribunal. More than 10 million Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims were expelled from their homes to facilitate the creation of India and two Pakistans.
Cohen adroitly skewers the anachronistic, false charges now leveled at Israel for “ethnically cleansing” its Palestinian population when, immediately after World War II, it was one of the few places in the world where this then-acceptable practice, endorsed by the victorious Allies at Potsdam, did not occur. “Expulsion was all around them,” he writes. “The most advanced nations in the world not only permitted it but also advocated it . . . and yet the Jews of Israel hesitated and, in the end, did not order the expulsion of the Arabs.” Still, Palestinians were largely unwitting victims of Hitler’s tyranny, losing their land to the new Jewish state.
This is challenging and informative stuff, but what bearing does this have on whether Israel is “good for the Jews”? Cohen never answers the question nor tells us much about the country today. In a 244-page narrative, Israel is born on Page 176. Nor does it occupy much of the remaining text. There is more reportage from Cohen’s first voyage, in 1980, through Egypt, Lebanon and Jordan than from Israel, and scant evidence that he ever returned. Few Israelis will recognize the repeated description of Israel as a “European” country or its “latter-day veneration of Jerusalem.” His central thesis — that Herzl’s “mad plan had worked” only because of the Holocaust — is tendentious.
Cohen rightly chastises Herzl and his supporters for viewing Palestine through a Eurocentric lens that filtered out the indigenous Palestinian population. But Cohen’s Israel is viewed mostly from afar, with Palestinians and Zionists mere pawns in the hands of others. Truman and Eisenhower — and even Cohen’s parents — figure larger than Moshe Dayan, Benjamin Netanyahu and David Ben-Gurion. Netanyahu, Israel’s dominant leader for the past two decades, appears twice, and only to justify cameos of his insignificant father. Vladimir Jabotinsky, the founder of revisionist Zionism, who died in 1940, graces 10 pages, with a biographical sketch and a fascinating, counterintuitive analysis of his writings. There is the 1933 assassination of Haim Arlosoroff; but of Yitzhak Rabin — the prime minister who signed historic peace deals with Jordan and the Palestinians, who ushered in the high-tech revolution that transformed Israel’s economy from farce to powerhouse, and whose 1995 assassination still divides and haunts Israeli politics — there is nothing.
A final chapter in which Cohen belatedly emerges into the 21st century and explains why Jews — or, indeed, anyone — should support Israel’s continued existence is short, sentimental and unconvincing, while his catalogue of its failings — occupation, settlements, occasional massacres of Palestinians, bombing Gaza and Lebanon — is compelling evidence for the prosecution that goes largely unchallenged.
This book is packed with fascinating history and cogent, provocative arguments against the more absurd charges now leveled at Israel, but readers hoping to find an answer to the question in Cohen’s title will be disappointed.