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Racism? Blimey! (A tale of two Cohens)
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Racism? Blimey! (A tale of two Cohens)

Gilbert N. Kahn is a professor of Political Science at Kean University.

On Aug. 21 Roger Cohen published his discovery — eureka — that classical anti-Semitism is well and alive even in his re-adopted home of Great Britain. As if he has been hiding under a rock, The New York Times columnist suddenly exclaimed to his readers that he actually had ignored this fact while repeatedly attacking Israeli policies and excusing and even denying the hostile attitudes of Iranian and Arab leaders toward Israel.

Cohen repeatedly has focused his attention on the Arab-Israeli conflict with a far more sympathetic ear for the plight of the Palestinians. Now, he suddenly woke up to the fact that Jews face issues in the world other than the problems Israelis were creating by continuing their current settlement policy.

Regardless of the extent to which Cohen and, similarly, Times columnist Thomas Friedman (and, for that matter, the Times editorial board itself) continue to argue — rightly or wrongly — that the expansion of Israeli settlements on the West Bank undermines efforts to achieve peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians, irrational hatred of Jews persists in Europe, Arabs and Israelis aside.

Cohen’s column engendered the usual gamut of letters, including a biting response from blogger Ben Cohen (no relation but also a former British subject). Ben Cohen took the columnist to task for failing to recognize that, despite his recent experience, Anglo Jews had made significant progress in how they react in 2011 to blatant anti-Semitism.

Roger Cohen has a long way to go before he can be seen as a balanced analyst on Jewish- or Israel- related issues. At the same time, Ben Cohen stepped a bit far himself in defending the surge of public backbone now present among Anglo Jewry. With the exception of the extraordinary efforts of the Community Security Trust, Anglo Jewry’s extremely effective defense organization, British Jews as a whole remain timid and compliant, certainly when compared to American Jews. (This indeed was one of the points of Roger Cohen’s column.)

Both Cohens highlight important issues. For example, anti-Jewish attitudes in academia, among students, faculty, and administrators, persist at an unacceptable level. The positions of the Israeli government and those taken by students and researchers ought to be irrelevant to the findings of, say, a cutting edge bio-medical research paper or the work of a humanities or social science scholar. Why must mounted police be required to protect the integrity of a university conference at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies whose speakers were examining the 100-year history of Tel Aviv?

Campuses ought to be the battleground for ideas, not places where police need to protect speakers. Something is wrong when a student at St. Andrews University in Scotland can attack a Jewish student because he was pro-Israel, and then defend himself by arguing that he was a member of an anti-racism campaign.

It is not only at the political level that there is a need for leadership to counteract anti-Semitism. Church leaders of all stripes ought to be more sensitive to the very thin line that exists between anti-Israel attitudes and anti-Jewish feelings. For example, some mainstream Protestant churches, as detailed in a recent report of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, persist in blaming Israeli policies for the perceived decline of Christians living in the Holy Land. These same churches pay little attention to the Muslim hostilities toward Christians on the West Bank prior even to 1967.

Jews themselves are not totally blameless, although Roger Cohen does seem to find truth only on one side of the debate. There is a genuine need for left-wing Jews themselves not to lump into one category the arguments of the more strident Israeli nationalists. And too many right-wingers try to quash debate by ostracizing genuine pro-Israel voices who disagree with the policies of the current Israeli government.

All Jews must be far more open and receptive to alternative policy options. Failure to do this only plays into the hands of the genuine anti-Semitic voices in the pro-Arab world and fuels rationalizations for the blatant, ever-present anti-Semites who managed to sneak up on Roger Cohen.

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