LOS ANGELES (JTA) — There was no clean knockout when New York Times columnist Roger Cohen faced off against some 400 Iranian Jews and Bahais in Los Angeles, but spectators were treated to some vigorous rhetorical sparring and nimble footwork.
Cohen, a British-born Jewish journalist, wrote a column last month from Iran titled “What Iran’s Jews Say” claiming that Jews in the Islamic Republic were “living, working and worshiping in relative tranquility.”
Despite Holocaust denials and rants by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad about wiping Israel off the map, Cohen wrote from Esfahan, “as a Jew, I have seldom been treated with such consistent warmth as in Iran.”
The column set off a firestorm of criticism.
Many of the estimated 30,000 Iranian Jewish expatriates living in Los Angeles, who uprooted themselves from their homes in Iran after the Islamic Revolution of 1979, said Cohen’s evaluation was dangerously naive at best and, at worst, a mockery of their own experiences.
Cohen and The New York Times were inundated with letters and e-mails, prompting Cohen to agree to fly to Los Angeles and address critics at Sinai Temple, which has a large representation of Iranian congregants. Cohen said he paid for the trip himself.
Cohen also wrote a follow-up column defending his views, arguing that “the equating of Iran with terror today is simplistic” and reminding that “hateful, ultranationalist rhetoric is no Iranian preserve. Avigdor Lieberman, Israel’s race-baiting anti-Arab firebrand, may find a place in a government led by Benjamin Netanyahu.”
At Sinai Temple on March 12, what could have been a highly emotional face-off went well thanks largely to the audience’s restraint during Cohen’s lengthy defense of his views and Rabbi David Wolpe’s insistence on decorum during an emotional question-and-answer session.
“Were you paid by the Iranian government for your trip?” one audience member asked Cohen.
No, Cohen said, though he paid an Iranian agency $150 a day for the services of a translator, who acknowledged that he would have to file a report on Cohen’s doings with the authorities.
In his presentation, Cohen said that labeling Iran a totalitarian regime ready to destroy Israel and the West’s infidels is a “grotesque caricature.” Rather, he argued, Iran’s leadership is pragmatic and primarily concerned with assuring its own survival.
Iran, he said, is the most democratic state in the Middle East outside Israel, and its leadership opposes the Taliban and al-Qaida.
Cohen called Iranians a proud people who pay little attention to official propaganda. To compare the situation in Iran to an impending holocaust “dishonors the memory of 6 million victims,” he said.
Cohen also said that though he counts himself as “a strong supporter of Israel,” the Jewish state “overplayed its hand in Lebanon and Gaza,” and Hamas and Hezbollah are “established political forces” that cannot be eliminated by military force.
When Cohen completed his talk, which was met by light applause, Wolpe was the first to challenge him.
“You draw a distinction between the Iranian people and their rulers, but Iran has a long history of anti-Semitism,” Wolpe said. “The Iranian government has republished the notorious anti-Semitic forgery ‘The Protocols of the Elders of Zion,’ and your New York Times column ran in the Tehran Post.”
“Then they stole my column,” Cohen responded.
Wolpe countered, “That shows that it was worth stealing.”
Questions from audience members ranged from thoughtful to bitter. Several asked how Cohen could take the answers of fearful Iranian Jews at face value, especially with a government translator at his side.
Cohen responded that he recognized the possibility of self-censorship by the Iranian Jews, “but that doesn’t mean that nothing they said is of any value.”
Some of the sharpest questions came from the Bahai community; seven Bahai leaders in Iran recently were imprisoned as alleged Israeli spies. Cohen said he had not spoken to the Bahais but was aware of their plight.
Law student Jasmin Niku was unsatisfied by Cohen’s presentation.
“He didn’t understand the geopolitical situation and he doesn’t know what he is talking about,” said Niku, 22.
Two veteran community leaders also expressed doubt about Cohen’s analysis.
“In Iran, Jews are pawns of the regime, which will go to great lengths to persuade outsiders, like Cohen, who know little about the history of the Jewish community, that everything is just fine,” said George Haroonian.
Sam Kermanian said he was particularly disappointed after spending two hours alone with Cohen earlier in the day trying to explain the real situation in Iran.
Kermanian, who is active in the Center for the Promotion of Democracy in Iran, said the Tehran regime is adamantly anti-American, whatever the sentiments of its people.
“If Cohen has come to a different conclusion, after talking to four or five Jews through an interpreter,” Kermanian said, “then he has been deceived.”
(For a video of the dialogue, visit http://blogs.jta.org/telegraph/article/2009/03/16/1003744/debating-roger-cohen.)