Roger Cohen of the New York Times

By M. Shahid Alam

Roger Cohen is the rare columnist at NYT who makes an occasional effort to bring some objectivity to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Yet, how far does his objectivity go?

Consider his piece of June 10, “Modern Folly and Ancient Wisdom.”

I have selected a few excerpts for comment.

First excerpt:

“Israel’s bloody interception of the Mavi Marmara and its motley crew was crass — another example of the counterproductive use of force — but nothing about it could justify the Turkish prime minister’s outrageous statement that the world now perceives “the swastika and the Star of David together.”

Why does he speak of the “motley crew” on the Mavi Marmara? First, is ‘crew’ the appropriate word for the humanitarian activists on a ship bringing relief to people under blockade. ‘Crew’ has unpleasant connotations. Let us consult the Oxford English dictionary. Originally, it meant “an augmentation or reinforcement of a military force.” Now, by extension, it means “Any organized or associated force, band, or body of armed men.”

In addition, why is this a ‘motley’ crew? Does he mean heterogeneous? In fact, most were Turkish. Why then are they “motley?” The word has a bad odor. The OED concurs. Consider two entries in the OED. Entry one: “Of a thing or collection of things: composed of elements of diverse or varied character, form, appearance, etc. Freq. with implication of poor design or organization.” And entry two: Of a gathering or group of people: consisting of people of diverse or varied appearance, character, etc.; miscellaneous. Freq. depreciative.

Now consider this: Israel’s behavior was merely “crass – another example of the counterproductive use of force.” So Cohen disapproves of Israel’s behavior because it is “crass” (stupid) and “counterproductive” to Israel. Nothing worse. On the other hand, the Turkish prime minister’s statement is “outrageous.” Criticism aimed at Israel is “outrageous” but Israeli massacre of humanitarian activists is merely “crass.”

There is a myopia too behind Cohen’s anger at the Turkish prime minister’s statement. He claims, “there is nothing about it [the illegal Israeli massacre of civilians]” that can justify Erdogan’s statement. Is Erdogan’s outrage a response only to the attack on the Flotilla – or is the world’s perception of Israel slowly catching up to its long history of settler colonialism, ethnic cleansings, illegal wars, countless massacres of civilians, and wars daily threatened against Lebanon, Syria and Iran? Such myopia is inexcusable in one who should be better schooled in the Middle East.

Second excerpt:

“Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the bristling leader who has given Kemal Ataturk’s secular Turkey an Islamic tinge and an eastward-looking inclination, should know better than to invoke the Nazis when speaking of a state that emerged from the ashes of European Jewry.”

Israel as “a state that emerged from the ashes of European Jewry” That’s a page out of Israeli hasbara. Using the Holocaust to justify the creation of Israel and the ‘right’ of Israel to immunity from international law. The Zionist movement was launched when Adolf Hitler was barely eight years old. Inside the supportive shell of the British occupation of Palestine, the Zionists in Palestine had already created the infrastructure of a Jewish society and state by the early 1930s, again long before the Holocaust. I am sure Roger Cohen knows all this: but does not matter to the way he thinks about Israel?

Third excerpt:

“But it is still a liberal democracy, home to a level of debate and openness unknown elsewhere in the Middle East.”

Is Israel “still a liberal democracy?” Consensus on that claim is fast disappearing, even in partisan Western societies. Then follows something inexcusably lame: he compares Israel to the despotisms supported by and allied to the USA and Israel. Look Israel is still a liberal democracy: just compare it to the despotic monarchy of Saudi Arabia.

Fourth excerpt:

“Its tactical lurches, often violent, do not add up to a strategy; they have resulted in a shocking erosion of Israel’s stature.”

Given what Israel is – an apartheid society, a garrison state founded on ethnic cleansing, a state that still practices ethnic cleansing, a nuclear-armed state threatening warfare against its neighbors – why should the erosion of Israel’s “stature” be “shocking.” Shouldn’t persons of liberal and humane values welcome this erosion? No so Roger Cohen of the New York Times.

Enough said: if this is what comes from the pen of a self-consciously liberal and humane Zionist, what can we expect from the rest of the “motley crew?”

– M. Shahid Alam is professor of economics at Northeastern University, Boston. He is author of Israeli Exceptionalism (Palgrave, 2009) and Challenging the New Orientalism (IPI, 2006). He contributed this article to Contact him a:

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