Esteemed N.Y. Times columnist is steamed about Israel

Stressing that there is “no viable alternative” to a two-state solution if Israel is to remain both a Jewish and democratic state, New York Times columnist Roger Cohen told a packed sanctuary in Los Altos Hills last week he doesn’t expect such a resolution without changes in leadership — in Israel, among the Palestinians and probably in the United States, as well.

“Right now the signs are not good,” he said in front of some 450 people at Congregation Beth Am on Dec. 7. Nonetheless, a fraught-with-violence status quo is “not sustainable,” he added.

“In the not-too-distant future, there will be more Arabs between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River than Jews,” he continued. Without a two-state solution, he said, “The choice for Jews will either be to oppress these Palestinian people, several million of them, in a system that may come to resemble what I observed in South Africa in my childhood, or give up on its Jewish nature, and that I think is not an option any of us want.”

Drawing an analogy between the ongoing Mideast conflict and the end of apartheid in South Africa, he said, “Enlightened leadership can make a difference even in the most dire situations that seem to offer no hope.” In the early 1990s, for example, South African leader F.W. de Klerk and anti-apartheid icon Nelson Mandela were able to set aside their disagreements for the common good.

“But we have yet to persuade the leadership in Israel and Palestine to put the future over the past,” he continued. “We don’t have to agree about history … but we have to agree that putting food on the table is more important than deciding exactly what happened in some particular village that was then Mandate Palestine 68 years ago.”

Rina Rosenberg of Palo Alto chats with journalist Roger Cohen before his Dec. 7 talk. photo/allen podell

The event, held on the second night of Hanukkah, was part of Cohen’s five-city tour sponsored by J Street, the Israel advocacy group that stands in favor of a two-state solution and in “strong opposition” to the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement.

Cohen, 60, has worked for the New York Times for 25 years — as a foreign correspondent in 15 countries, a foreign editor and now columnist. Earlier, he worked for the Wall Street Journal and Reuters, and he has written four books, including his latest, a memoir, “The Girl from Human Street: Ghosts of Memory in a Jewish Family.”

His talk was preceded by the blessing of Hanukkah candles by Rabbi Melanie Aron of Congregation Shir Hadash in Los Gatos and Beth Am Cantor Jaime Shpall, who together sang “Banu Choshech Legaresh,” which translates as “We have come to banish the darkness.”

Jeremy Ben-Ami, J Street’s founder and president, and Eva Borgwardt, leader of J Street U Stanford, also spoke briefly. The latter, who introduced Cohen, offered an impassioned plea for applying the Jewish command for social justice (which she talked about learning as a youth at Beth Am) in the Palestinian territories.

Cohen then proposed sending Borgwardt to Israel to speak to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

He also talked about his new memoir, which he signed at the event. It details his family’s journey from Lithuania to South Africa, England, Israel and the United States.

Researching the book, “I was really cemented in my convictions as a Zionist,” he said. Even in Britain, where he largely grew up, “it was fine to be a Jew, but preferably a Jew in a whisper. Don’t raise your voice too high.”

His years as a foreign correspondent also convinced him that “Jews need a homeland. They need the modern State of Israel. The question is which Israel.” The Jewish state, he said, has “drifted from a secular Zionism that wanted to find a place for that large Arab minority within Israel to a messianic Zionism that says all land is ours between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River.

“Why is it ours? Because God said so? Because it was deeded to us a millennia ago in the Scriptures, and that land is ours forever? That is very problematic.”

A two-state solution will involve “teeth gritting” on both sides, he said. Most of the Jewish settlements in the West Bank, other than those contiguous to Jerusalem, will have to be abandoned, he noted. “The Palestinians will have to give up on the so-called right of return,” he added. “There’s no way 4 million Palestinians can go back to Israel. They can be compensated, but they can’t go back.”

Regarding the status of Jerusalem, Cohen suggested returning to the 1947 United Nations resolution, guaranteeing access to the holy sites for all religious groups. In addition, Palestinians “need to have some part as their capital,” and international supervision will be necessary.

Can it happen?

“Not likely in the last year of the Obama administration,” given the president’s “lousy relationship with Netanyahu,” he said. “We need to see a change of leadership in Israel, in the prime ministership and in the opposition.”

Nonetheless, “it’s no good just throwing up our hands,” he said. “Some of the most unexpected events in my lifetime”— such as the fall of the Berlin Wall — “were unforeseen.”

While the Beth Am sanctuary was largely filled with J Street members and supporters, at least one attendee voiced dissent in an interview after the event.

“I came here ready to argue with him,” said Michael Hahn, a member of Beth Am and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. “I came away finding him to be fair and balanced, realistic about the failure of leadership on both sides.” However, Hahn didn’t see the settlements as “the heart of the problem.” Instead, he said, it’s the failure of Arab states to recognize Israel’s right to exist. n

Janet Silver Ghent
Janet Silver Ghent

Janet Silver Ghent, a retired senior editor at J., is writing a memoir on her late-life romance. She lives in Palo Alto and can be reached at [email protected].