New York Timesman Roger Cohen was to come to my house for dinner on
Tuesday night. But, alas, at the last moment, he found himself amidst
one of the oldest Jewish communities in the Diaspora. But if he'd come
I would have started a discussion with him about his op-ed piece, "What
Iran's Jews Say," that was published in Monday's Times. Other
guests would certainly have joined in. This is Cambridge, remember:
more of our dinner guests would have agreed with him than with me, on
the premise that Israel is responsible for all the discomfort Jews feel
anywhere. In his absence, I'll tell you what I thought of his column
and you can tell me what you made of it, too. But please read what he
wrote before you go on.
There are, Cohen says and everybody agrees, roughly 25,000 Jews in Iran. One thousand two hundred live in Esfahan, where there are a "handful" of synagogues and which is the dateline of his piece. Now, 75,000 Jews have left Iran, some after Israeli independence, most after the chiliast Islamic Revolution of 1979. In comparison to how the Bahai were and are treated in Iran since Ayatollah Khomeini seized power (and how, for that matter, Sunni Arabs are treated there right now), the Jews have gotten off rather well. Some Jews are charged with spying for Israel and then hung; others denounce the Jewish state.
Cohen seems to think that the last sentiment is authentic. Maybe. And maybe not. After all, until the railroad cars rolled living Jews into Sobibor and Maidanek from which they did not emerge, many German Jews (or Germans of Jewish extraction) also gave the Reich the benefit of the doubt. Some gave it even to Hitler himself. Certainly, many Americans and Brits and French did.
Surely, Cohen is telling the truth when he writes, "...I am a Jew and have seldom been treated with such consistent warmth as in Iran." There are probably millions of Persians who feel warmly about their Jewish neighbors...and remember their Jewish former neighbors with fondness. Forgive the German analogy again: even under the Nazis there were Germans who bemoaned the loss to Germany of its Jews, perhaps millions of German patriots. I wrote about one of them about a fortnight ago, he being Karl Amadeus Hartmann, a real hero.
But Cohen's comfort level in Iran is not really his argument. And I won't paraphrase it. Here it is, in his own words:
It's important to decide what 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 tranquility.
Perhaps I have a bias towards facts over words, but I say the reality of Iranian civility towards Jews tells us more about Iran- its sophistication and culture- than all the inflammatory rhetoric.
...Or perhaps I was impressed that the fury over Gaza, trumpeted on posters and Iranian TV,
never spilled over into insults or violence toward Jews. Or perhaps it's because I'm convinced
that the "Mad Mullah" caricature of Iran and likening of any compromise with it to Munich -a
position popular in some American Jewish circles--is misleading and dangerous.
Of course, it is not Cohen at risk but Israel. And the "mad mullah" caricature is not a caricature at all. Ahmadinejad is a real man, and he was elected president of Iran and he speaks to everyone in the name of Iran. At the United Nations and even at Columbia University and the Council on Foreign Relations. And everybody knows that Iran is fast developing atomic bombs, and that this development would be pursued under the somewhat milder Mohammad Khatami if he were to win the presidency from Dr. A'jad.
The Iranian atomic bomb will soon be a fact. It is a fact that Cohen appears not to notice, although he tells us haughtily that he prefers facts over words. It is wiser to grapple with this one essential fact than to go ecstatic over praying with the few remaining Jews in Esfahan.