Monday, February 23, 2009

Roger Cohen's Persian Letter

Roger Cohen's column boils down to this: 2009 Iran is not 1938 Germany, Iranians were super friendly to a Jew (who happens to write a column in the New York Times and thus to have gobs of power in terms of PR)... therefore Iran is a decent place for Jews.

Cohen will of course be heralded for his courage to shatter the myth that Iran is pure evil, for his daring to add nuance to the situation. And there's nothing wrong with nuance. What is wrong is an approach to Jew-hatred that defines as 'tolerance' any behavior towards Jews that falls short of genocide. Cohen overshoots the nuance mark, feeling the need to declare Iran not only not as intolerant as one might think, but a place where Jews are treated with "warmth."

The beyond-nuance approach is sometimes found in historical writing--such and such a place had 'only' humiliating laws against Jews, whereas at the same time another part of the world had pogroms, therefore Place A was a wonderful place to be Jewish. Or, these Christians 'only' demanded that Jews convert, whereas these other Christians killed every Jew in sight, making Group A a 'tolerant' set. Is relative tolerance tolerance? On the one hand, remembering a historical context is important, i.e. that 21st-century multiculturalism was not an option anywhere in, say, 1800. On the other, that such and such crap behavior happened in the Past, when Everyone Was Racist, seems a poor catch-all excuse for all past crap behavior, especially when said crap behavior was considered crap behavior by its victims at the time.

But, back to Cohen and the here-and-now:

"It’s important," he writes, "to decide what’s more significant: the annihilationist anti-Israel ranting, the Holocaust denial and other Iranian provocations — or the fact of a Jewish community living, working and worshipping in relative tranquillity."

His take: "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."

OK, so, question: how are words not facts? If I were to step out this morning and find a mob denying the Holocaust and shouting 'Death to Israel' (unlikely, I should note, even in Park Slope), would I tell myself how lucky I am that no one firebombed my apartment and the local synagogue, and that I live in a place that tolerates Jews? If a reporter asked me what I thought, and the angry mob was in sight, then yes, I would probably say just that. But I would expect the reporter would take in the entirety of the situation, and not go back to his newspaper and write up a story on the charms of Jewish life in Park Slope.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Well put!