"I was drawn to otherness."
Roger Cohen: this “strange amalgam of identities”
Roger Cohen’s memoir of his Lithuanian-Jewish-South African-English mother’s suicidal depression is an inquest into the damage of displacement that seeps into genes: the longing for home, the need to belong – “right up there with love and other fundamental human instincts.” Contrarily, his own prevailing instinct has been to get out, escape – not least from “this not quite belonging” of an Oxford-educated cosmopolitan Jew in the best London circles 30 years ago. “I was drawn to otherness, to observer-dom,” he is telling me in conversation. He took up the high office of Foreign Editor at the New York Times at the age of 46, before he was an American citizen, on the dreaded day: 9.11.2001. Nowadays he is the level-headed Times columnist from everyplace ominous: Iran, Gaza, Egypt, Israel, the breadth of Europe.
In our conversation he is tracking his uneasy path from searching the “strange amalgam of identities” in the hiding places of his family history, to the strain on his considered loyalty to Israel. At the end of 2014, wrote a cautionary piece called ‘Zionism and its Discontents.’ It was classic Roger Cohen for the eloquent long-view liberalism that draws fire from major Jewish institutions in the US for criticizing Israel, and from Europeans for his essential Zionism.
Where is this going? A 9-year-old child in Gaza has seen three wars. What kind of grown-up is that child going to grow into? Is this in Israel’s interest – to have a place that is sealed off with 1.8-million human beings inside it? Can we think again about this?
Roger Cohen, in conversation with Chris Lydon in Boston, February 13, 2015