The anger in a significant portion of the Los Angeles Jewish community this week is not about the economy, Hamas or Bernie Madoff — it’s about Roger Cohen.
Cohen is a regular columnist for The New York Times and editor-at-large of the International Herald Tribune. Last month he traveled to Iran, where he interviewed everyday Iranians, including members of the 25,000-strong Jewish community.
He wrote two columns. His first, “Iran’s Inner America,” portrayed an Iranian people mistrustful of America but eager to reach out and be accepted. The second, “What Iran’s Jews Say,” reported that Iran’s Jews are largely embraced by what Americans tend to see as an entirely evil regime.
“Perhaps I have a bias toward facts over words, but I say the reality of Iranian civility toward Jews tells us more about Iran — its sophistication and culture — than all the inflammatory rhetoric,” Cohen wrote. “That may be because I’m a Jew and have seldom been treated with such consistent warmth as in Iran.”
That warmth became a very cold shoulder when Mideast observers and Iranian Jews here read Cohen.
“There hasn’t been another article or editorial that has ever created a reaction like this among Iranian Jews of all backgrounds and age groups,” Sam Yebri, the founder of Los Angeles’ 30 Years After, a group of young Iranian Jewish activists, told me. “It has really struck a nerve, because Cohen is using his perception to paint a really rosy picture of the regime in Tehran.”
Yebri, a Yale-educated Century City lawyer, said the reaction was overwhelmingly negative. After all, Los Angeles is home to some 30,000 Iranian Jews — and they didn’t come here for the weather.
Many of these people have had firsthand experience with the intimidation, oppression, property confiscation and random imprisonment that has plagued the Jewish community in Iran since the rise of the mullahs. And most have friends and relatives still there who tell them stories very different from what Cohen is hearing.
“I know Iranian Jews who live in Iran, and they live in fear,” Yebri said. “They don’t live in an environment where they can speak frankly with Roger Cohen.”
The idea that Cohen can parachute into Tehran and ignore this reality enraged Karmel Melamed. Melamed, also a lawyer, writes about his community for this paper. Since The New York Times refused to run his angry, thoughtful response to Cohen, he ran it in full on his blog, Iranian American Jew.
“The truth of the matter is that since 1979, Iran’s government has used the presence of Jews living in that country as a major propaganda tool to supposedly show themselves in a positive light to the West,” he wrote.
Cohen responded to his critics in a column on March 1. By reporting on what he saw as the undercurrents of freedom and tolerance in Iranian society, he hoped to paint a more nuanced picture of a country that most Americans see in black and white.
“This is the Iran of subtle shades that the country’s Jews inhabit,” he wrote. “Life is more difficult for them than for Muslims, but to suggest they inhabit a totalitarian hell is self-serving nonsense.”
Cohen argued that for his critics to assert that Iran is just like Nazi Germany is hyperbole, but it is just as much of a reach — I think the term is “self-serving nonsense” — to use Jews as the poster children for a subtle, nuanced Iran.
“Cohen stretched journalistic ethics in taking a few quotes to make the argument that the regime is respectful of human and civil rights,” Yebri said. “He’s trying to make the argument by relying on the exceptions, not on the general experience. He seems to discount the experience of most of the people.”
Considering the propaganda that can result from a column like this in what is arguably the world’s most powerful newspaper, Yebri said members of his community are still looking for a way to set the record straight. E-mails went out to 30 Years After’s 3,500 members urging them to write Cohen and The Times.
My suggestion is a public forum with the columnist and the Iranian Jewish community here, which The Journal would be happy to sponsor — provided the forum wasn’t just about Cohen.
Because the larger issue here is, of course, not Cohen.
The larger issue is that as Iran marches with seeming inevitability toward developing nuclear weapons, Jews feel helpless to stop it. We have achieved a level of power, acceptance and influence unprecedented in our history — the success of the Iranian Jewish community here is as good a measure of that as any. And yet once again, we find ourselves in a position of standing by as an anti-Semite arms himself with the means to carry out his avowed desire to annihilate the Jews. So Purim 2009 feels like Purim 1939, which may have felt like the first Purim.
Last week, a bipartisan group of congressman, including Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Sherman Oaks) and Rep. Howard Berman (D-Van Nuys), made yet another valiant attempt to punish companies doing business with the Iranian regime. In a letter to Secretary of Energy Steven Chu, they requested he reconsider a U.S. government contract awarded on Jan. 16 to Vitol, a Swiss firm that is Iran’s leading supplier of gasoline. Though Iran produces more oil than it needs, it hasn’t developed the refining capacity to provide its own gas.
But will this latest sanction attempt, even if it succeeds, slow Iranian nuclear capability this year or next?
I have to wonder whether that helplessness fueled the depth of this week’s anger at two New York Times columns. Roger Cohen might listen to us. Iran, unfortunately, is a different story.