In the spring of 2009, Roger Cohen, the New York Times columnist, surprised some of his readers by claiming that Iran’s remaining Jews were “living, working and worshiping in relative tranquility.”
Cohen wrote: “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.”
In this, and other, columns, Cohen appeared to be trying to convince his fellow Jews that they had less to fear from the Iran of Khamenei and (at the time) Ahmadinejad than they thought. To me, the column was a whitewash. It seemed (and seems) reasonable to worry about the intentions of those Iranian leaders who deny or minimize the Holocaust while hoping to annihilate the Jewish state, and who have funded and trained groups—Hezbollah and Hamas—that have as their goal the killing of Jews.
Cohen’s most acid critics came from within the Persian Jewish exile community. The vast majority of Iran’s Jews fled the country after the Khomeini revolution; many found refuge in Los Angeles. David Wolpe, the rabbi of Sinai Temple there, invited Cohen to speak to his congregants, about half of whom are Persian exiles, shortly after the column appeared. Cohen, to his credit, accepted the invitation. The encounter between Cohen and an audience of several hundred (mainly Jews, but also Bahais, members of a faith persecuted with great intensity by the Iranian regime) was tense but mainly civil (you can watch it here). For me, the most interesting moment came not in a discussion about the dubious health of Iran’s remnant Jewish population, but after Wolpe asked Cohen about the intentions of Iran and its allies toward Jews living outside Iran.
“Right now,” Wolpe said, “Israel is much more powerful than Hezbollah and Hamas. Let’s say tomorrow this was reversed. Let’s say Hamas had the firepower of Israel and Israel had the firepower of Hamas. What do you think would happen to Israel were the balance of power reversed?”
“I don’t know what would happen tomorrow,” Cohen answered. This response brought a measure of derisive laughter from the incredulous audience. “And it doesn’t matter that I don’t know because it’s not going to happen tomorrow or in one or two years.” Wolpe quickly told Cohen that he himself knows exactly what would happen if the power balance between Hamas and Israel were to be reversed. (Later, Wolpe told me that he thought Cohen could not have been so naïve as to misunderstand the nature of Hamas and Hezbollah, but instead was simply caught short by the question.)
At the time, Cohen suggested that he was uninterested in grappling with the nature of Hamas and its goals. “I reject the thinking behind your question,” he said. “It’s not useful to go there.”
“Going there,” however, is necessary, not only to understand why Israelis fear Hamas, but also to understand that the narrative advanced by Hamas apologists concerning the group's beliefs and goals is false. “Going there” also does not require enormous imagination, or a well-developed predisposition toward paranoia. It is, in my opinion, a dereliction of responsibility on the part of progressives not to try to understand the goals and beliefs of Islamist totalitarian movements.
(This post, you should know, is not a commentary on the particulars of the war between Israel and Hamas, a war in which Hamas baited Israel and Israel took the bait. Each time Israel kills an innocent Palestinian in its attempt to neutralize Hamas’s rockets, it represents a victory for Hamas, which has made plain its goal of getting Israel to kill innocent Gazans. Suffice it to say that Israel cannot afford many more “victories” of the sort it is seeking in Gaza right now. I supported a ceasefire early in this war precisely because I believed that the Israeli government had not thought through its strategic goals, or the methods for achieving those goals.)
While it is true that Hamas is expert at getting innocent Palestinians killed, it has made it very plain, in word and deed, that it would rather kill Jews. The following blood-freezing statement is from the group's charter: “The Islamic Resistance Movement aspires to the realization of Allah’s promise, no matter how long that should take. The Prophet, Allah bless him and grant him salvation, has said: ‘The day of judgment will not come until Muslims fight the Jews (killing the Jews), when the Jews will hide behind stones and trees. The stones and trees will say ‘O Muslims, O Abdulla, there is a Jew behind me, come and kill him.”
This is a frank and open call for genocide, embedded in one of the most thoroughly anti-Semitic documents you'll read this side of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Not many people seem to know that Hamas’s founding document is genocidal. Sometimes, the reasons for this lack of knowledge are benign; other times, as the New Yorker’s Philip Gourevitch argues in his recent dismantling of Rashid Khalidi’s apologia for Hamas, this ignorance is a direct byproduct of a decision to mask evidence of Hamas’s innate theocratic fascism.