A peripatetic who has built his life on motion: Roger Cohen

This year, Limmud hosted world-famous New York Times columnist Roger Cohen as the guest of honor.

Cohen possesses a striking life story that has taken in intriguing stops in Britain, South Africa and the United States. In his family memoir, ‘The Girl from the Human Street’ published in January this year, Cohen highlights the importance of exile, dislocation and the feeling of loss as the essential components of his Jewish identity, while also highlighting the illness of his mother, who was diagnosed as a manic depressive following their immigration to London.

We had a pleasant discussion with Mr. Cohen about a variety of topics, ranging from his career in journalism to his family tree, from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, to the current state of Turkish-American relations. We hope you enjoy our conversation together as much as we did.


You have been writing an opinion column for the International New York Times since 2008. You are a true opinion leader, as your words reach millions every week. What does it feel like? Could you share with us your business ethics?

Today, there aren’t that many jobs left in which you can go anywhere in the world and write about whatever you like. I’ve never, in all these years, been asked to write a column on a specific subject. Nor have I been limited in any way or where I could go. So that’s a great privilege and, of course, it affords you the ability to bang on about subjects you think are important. Obviously, for me, those subjects have included Israel-Palestine, the Iranian nuclear deal and the preservation of the European Union. But it’s also a big responsibility because I believe the values for which the New York Times stand – journalism without fear or favor – is under some threat and is also very sacred and very important. My responsibility is to try to give some illumination about the world we live in.


I’d like to share a quote from your book, ‘The Girl from the Human Street’: “The journalist moves in the opposite direction from the crowd, toward danger, often leaving the settled majority perplexed. Why, people ask, do you do that? In search of a fair understanding, you say, and they shake their heads. There is nothing to understand, they insist, just write the truth!” Is there a way to reach the truth?

People talk about the truth a lot. They say, “Just write the truth!” Why are you bothering to go to Diyarbakir, for instance? Just write the truth!” But of course, as you know, Selin, everybody has his or her own truth, and often in places like the Middle East, those truths are passionately held.

So, what does a journalist do? He or she listens to all sides and tries to arrive at his or her view of what the real situation is. It’s important to have people who take the time to go places to look, to listen, to watch and to understand and then try to render some subtle truth that reflects all this. You gather different truths and arrive…


At a synthesis, maybe…

Yes, a synthesis…


There was a time in your life when you decided to trace your family tree, so you went to Lithuania, where you faced the ghosts of the Holocaust. Could you share your impressions with us? What struck you most about that trip?

Well, I’ve been running around all my life. And at some point, the most dangerous dateline for me, I thought, was me. And the most dangerous condition to be in was still, rather than moving. I wanted to look back at my own story of displacement. I grew up in South Africa and Britain. We were largely busy forgetting the past, assimilating and adapting to a new environment… My parents were immigrants to Britain. And I realized at some point that I knew very little about where I came from. I decided in my book to explore that past. My grandmother, whom I loved, scarcely talked about it. She spoke Russian to her parrot, and that was it. I went back to her hometown in Lithuania, and discovered that on Oct. 2, 1941, all the Jews of Zagare were rounded up and killed – more than 2,400 people.


Did you lose any of your relatives in the Holocaust?

No, my relatives had all left. But it was very clear to me what would have happened to my family had we remained in Europe and not gone to South Africa. It had a pretty powerful effect on me, and again, here was this battle of truth going on because it had taken a long time for Lithuania, which, of course, was occupied by the Soviet Union after the war, to arrive at an accurate memory of what had happened. The Russians suppressed what had happened to the Jews. In many instances, Lithuanians were complicit with the Nazis, so they didn’t want to talk about it either. It was moving for me to see Lithuania painfully arriving at this truth, and to arrive at my own truth about where my family came from.


How do you think being an immigrant shaped your identity overall?

I was very lucky, very privileged. I went to the finest education institutions in Britain. I went to Balliol College, Oxford and then to Westminster. My father did well in Britain as a physician and was an expert on malaria, but under the surface, there was the otherness of being a Jew in Britain and the otherness of being an immigrant and, over time, that came out in some way. I felt that – while I think Britain is a great country and London is a wonderful city – I didn’t feel completely at home there, and I ended up immigrating myself and becoming an American.


Do you feel at home now?

I do, in New York. You spend a week in New York and you are a New Yorker. It is a city of outsiders in a way. And of course it’s a very Jewish city. Jewishness is lived much more exuberantly in New York than it is in Britain, where it tends to be a case of Jews in a whisper.


In your family memoir, you also emphasize the importance of exile, dislocation, loss and forgetting. You argue that these elements are intrinsic to the Jewish condition. Could you elaborate more on this?

When you leave a place behind, it is lost. In the United States, we used to think of immigration as a new opportunity. That’s the American dream, but it is also a loss. Leaving and rebuilding is not easy. I think every Jewish family, whatever it manages to preserve, carries inside it at some level this repetitive loss that is involved in Jewish odysseys. In my own family, I felt it particularly and clearly for various reasons. I wanted to explore that.


You are known as a committed Zionist who believes that Israel is essential to Jewish survival, but you do not shy away from criticizing Israel’s policies toward the Palestinians. As far as I know of your writings, you are against the occupation. Regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, do you see a possible breakthrough?

I strongly believe that Jews need a homeland. All this exploration of my own family’s past and the work I’ve done over my whole life has demonstrated to me that for all the emancipation of Jews in the 19th century, Jews were never accepted into these societies. In fact, half-acceptance proved more dangerous than non-acceptance. Jews after the Holocaust needed and still need a homeland, but what is the Jewish condition over so many millennia of being stateless? It has been to be dispersed; it’s been wandering. A Jewish state built on the statelessness of another people and on controlling the lives of people, I think, is very hard to reconcile with the very core of Jewish ethics: “That, which is hateful to yourself, do not do to your fellow man!” and “Invite the stranger in!”

We were strangers in a strange land over so many years. So this attempt to control the lives of millions of other people, and in this case the Palestinians, is deeply corrosive in my view. This doesn’t mean that … there is not plenty of blame to go around on both sides. But the Israel that exists today is an Israel that is fundamentally fragile in some way because of the occupation, and it also betrays the aspirations of the pioneers.


Do you foresee any reconciliation in the end?

Well, they certainly can. Two states for two peoples, living beside each other in peace and security… We all know, more or less, what is involved in that – the huge sacrifices demanded from both sides in order to build a better future for their children. Are they prepared to make those sacrifices? Are they prepared for true statesmanship and leadership?

I don’t see any evidence that they are right now. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry went to Israel 27 times leading up to March 2014. The Obama administration made it clear what it thought needed to be done, but neither Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas nor Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu are ready to go there.


We know that Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu is going to meet President Barack Obama this week. What is the current state of U.S.-Israeli relations?

Bad. Very bad.


Have the two allies overcome the trauma of the Iran deal?

I don’t think the relationship between President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu will ever be good at this point. They can try to patch it up, and I’m sure they will because U.S.-Israeli relations are very important, but I think President Obama feels that he’s been a strong defender of Israeli interests and in return for that he has had to watch Prime Minister Netanyahu openly campaign for Mitt Romney in the last elections and openly try to go around him and over his head in order to persuade the Republicans dominating Congress to reject the nuclear deal which President Obama, in my view, rightly backed. He has had to watch Prime Minister Netanyahu completely ignore his request that construction in the West Bank stop in order to allow at least a window for serious negotiations. If you are a Palestinian negotiating for a potential state in the West Bank and if you are watching Israeli settlements growing day by day, that sends a pretty clear message that your interlocutor is not serious.


Coming to Turkish-American relations… We used to have a strategic partnership. Perhaps it was too much of a value-laden concept, but where are we today?

Well, Turkey is obviously very important in battling ISIS [the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria] and in trying to resolve the desperate situations in Syria. Turkey has done something extraordinary in accepting 2 million refugees in recent years, and there will be no resolution of the refugee crisis in the West if Turkey is not involved. Turkey is enormously important as well, of course, for being a NATO ally for the United States.

I think the recent actions of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, however, have put relations under some strain. There is concern in the United States about repression of the press, the perceived undermining of the rule of law and the violence we have recently seen in Turkey. There is the resumption of the war with the Kurds, some apparent ambivalence in President Erdogan’s attitudes towards ISIS and a general sense that President Erdoğan has created a very personalized form of rule symbolized by his palace in Ankara.

The AKP [Justice and Development Party], his party, is trying to impose a single identity onto Turkey when Turkey is a heterogeneous nation at a very, very fundamental level. Turkey is heterogeneous or it is nothing at all. So this is concerning to the United States.


What are your impressions from your trip to the south of Turkey?

I went to Urfa, Diyarbakir and Mardin… I’ve observed a great deal of simmering anger among the Kurds in Diyarbakir and elsewhere. There is a feeling that President Erdoğan has taken a deliberate decision, resuming the war against the PKK [Kurdistan Workers’ Party]. Of course, the PKK played a role by reacting to the [July 20] Suruc massacre by killing two policemen, and there were other incidents in which Turkish security forces were killed and a large number of Kurds have been killed both inside and outside Turkey. There has been bombing not only in northern Iraq, but also in Rojava in northern Syria, controlled by Syrian Kurds. In Diyarbakir and Mardin, I met Kurdish mayors who are very concerned. If Turkey and the Kurds don’t find a way to get back to negotiations, things could go in a very bad direction.


Looking forward, when you look at world politics, do you see more clashes or reconciliation?

There is a lot of instability right now and a lot of danger. The period of Pax Americana is not over, but it is receding because other powers are growing and the U.S.’ relative power is diminishing. The U.S. is very bruised by two unwanted wars, the one in Afghanistan and the one in Iraq. But there is nobody to replace the U.S. as the guarantor of global security. So in Syria, in Ukraine and elsewhere, you see a bit of the vacuum situation I’ve just described. Vacuums are very dangerous. If America’s words are not respected anymore, if, for example, the U.S sets a red line, as it did in Syria on the use of chemical weapons, but does not uphold that red line, that sends a very dangerous message.

All that said, technology has opened the world, and it draws people together. People have different views. Technology is a means for very different powers to project their views of the world, Russia, China and others. I think that taken overall, the digital universe that we live in is a force for reconciliation, but how that danger and reconciliation coexist and are balanced out over the coming decades will be a very fundamental question.

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