Israel: Is It Good for the Jews?
By Richard Cohen
Simon & Schuster, 288 pages

In July 2006, as Hezbollah rockets rained down on the north of Israel, Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen published an op-ed in which he called Israel a “mistake.” The piece, titled “Hunker Down with History,” was published four days into what would come to be called the Second War in Lebanon. During that war, precipitated by an anti-tank missile attack on Israel Defense Force soldiers patrolling the border, and by the attacks throughout the north, Israel targeted terrorist bases in Lebanon from the air and on the ground.

Cohen’s response to the indiscriminate targeting of Israeli civilians by Iran-backed terrorists was not only to explain why “Israel itself is a mistake” but also to warn against compounding the “honest mistake—a well-intentioned mistake, a mistake for which no one is culpable”—by forgetting this fact.

Why did Cohen, an openly proud Jew, consider the establishment of the Jewish state a mistake? He wrote: “The idea of creating a nation of European Jews in an area of Arab Muslims (and some Christians) has produced a century of warfare and terrorism of the sort we are seeing now. Israel fights Hezbollah in the north and Hamas in the south, but its most formidable enemy is history itself.”

One could argue with him, and many did so at the time. But there were many others who cheered. And it was the latter he found most disturbing, for some reason: “A disquieting sort of applause came my way,” he writes in his new book, Israel: Is It Good for the Jews? He continues:

Needless to say, the odd anti-Semite checked in via email, making the usual whacko references to Jewish power and Jewish wealth and Jewish malevolence. This sort of stuff is easy to dismiss because it is so loony. More troubling—infinitely more troubling—were the congratulations I received from friends, colleagues, and acquaintances whom you would have thought—that is, I would have thought—were either supportive of Israel or, at the least, not hostile to it. But what oozed out, what was suggested or inferred or implied, was that they had finally met a Jew who acknowledged the truth about Israel.

Cohen’s book is a long answer to them—not to his critics, but to his champions, who had made him so uneasy. A bit odd, to say the least, but characteristic of the book’s paradoxical nature as a whole. As is customary of a number of liberal Zionist journalists and pundits whose hearts bleed in all the right places, but whose mugging by reality has left them with conservative notions that threaten to push them into a political camp they abhor, Cohen presents a view of Israel that is inherently contradictory.

On the one hand, he is sympathetic. On the other, he sees it as a result of the Holocaust and treats the settlement of Palestine as an understandably selfish act on the part of people who did not take into account the existence of Arabs living there.

On the one hand, he defends the relative care with which the IDF deals with its enemies. On the other, he hastens to qualify his defense with the compulsory note that it often uses excessive force.

This frequently irritating balance and counterbalance is at the heart of two consecutive chapters, “Jabotinsky Was Right” and “Jabotinsky Was Wrong.” In the first, Cohen paints a surprisingly flattering portrait of “the man who had fathered what became right-wing Israeli politics,” first debunking the posthumous assumptions about the father of the revisionist movement in Zionism, and then expressing his sorrow about the false claims that Jabotinsky supported the mass transfer of Arabs to make way for Jews. “Jabotinsky recognized that Arabs were no different from other peoples,” Cohen writes. “They loved their land and would fight tenaciously to keep it. He had scorn for those who felt otherwise.”

Rather than seeing this as a moral virtue, however, Cohen actually considers the unwillingness of both the revisionists and the Labor Zionists (like Israel’s first president, Chaim Weizmann, and its first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion) to kick out the Arabs of Palestine a mistake: “A different nation, a different victor in the wars of 194748, might have cleared out the general area of Arabs…This policy, this refusal to engage in population transfer or ethnic cleansing so that Israel would be as free of Arabs as Hungary is of Romanians or Turkey is of Greeks has left Israel in mortal peril.”

Cohen says Jabotinsky was wrong because he believed that “in due course, a moderate Arab leadership would emerge and come to terms with Israel.” Pretty mild error for a “firebrand” such as Jabotinsky, even more striking for a liberal American Jew like Cohen to admit as much. Still, Cohen cannot bring himself to follow his own logic. Jabotinsky’s prescription for a conceptual “Iron Wall” between Arabs and Jews, and for patience on the part of the Jews to wait until the Arabs repudiated radicalism in favor of pragmatism and agreed to make peace, “took hold if only because events went his way,” he says. “The Gandhian goodness of the liberals, the socialists, was to no avail.”

Just as its title constitutes the kind of presumptuous question that is never asked about any country other than Israel—at one point Cohen says Israel has “run out of time and…purpose,” which is not exactly the sort of thing required of nations—so are Cohen’s constant references to the antagonistic traits of Jews in general and to Israeli actions in particular grating. Herein lies the main flaw of an otherwise compelling and beautifully written book. Israel: Is It Good for the Jews? reads like a fascinating memoir, with choice historical and personal anecdotes. But it feels like a work that didn’t know what it wanted to be when it grew up—as if Cohen set out to justify the notion that Israel’s survival ought to be in question, yet ended up falling in love again with the Jewish people and the Jewish state in spite of himself.