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

Related Content

  • Potter

    An intimate conversation and a privilege to hear. I connect especially because my grandparents also came from Lithuania and Russia (The Ukraine, the “Pale of Settlement”). They Jews leaving the pogroms and hardships in Eastern Europe, but they came to America, a very different tale. It was difficult but that was the end of running. I still have my grandfather’s suitcase. And so we settled in. But then many left for Israel.

    I know so little about those who went elsewhere and suffered the anti-Semitism I did not growing up in the Bronx New York. I was a New Yorker as much as anyone else, as much as Alfonzo the black boy sitting behind me tapping drums on his desk in 5th grade or Carmen Morales, my friend from Puerto Rico in Junior High.

    Mr. Cohen talks about personal trauma and “repetitive reenactment”. Jews who went through terrible trauma over and again, who felt unwanted wherever they landed engaged in repetitive reenactment of the traumas on a personal level, but too on a communal cultural societal level. Leaders in Israel, Sharon, Netanyahu especially (but others)take political advantage and encourage, nurture cultivate fear and this feeling of always being the victim. And so as a nation, Israel can hardly get beyond their own psychosis. Some do rise above, others, too many others it seems ( “supporters” included), don’t rise above/

    I love the place Roger Cohen has arrived at, belonging or not belonging either way. This was a wonderful interview, and all the more-so for it’s setting in your home Chris.

    Here is the full poem from a most wonderful poet Yehuda Amichai, It’s second stanza is quoted or referred to so much and in this interview by Roger Cohen.

    Visits of condolence is all we get from them.
    They squat at the Holocaust Memorial,
    They put on grave faces at the Wailing Wall
    And they laugh behind heavy curtains
    In their hotels.
    They have their pictures taken
    Together with our famous dead
    At Rachel’s Tomb and Herzl’s Tomb
    And on Ammunition Hill.
    They weep over our sweet boys
    And lust after our tough girls
    And hang up their underwear
    To dry quickly
    In cool, blue bathrooms.

    Once I sat on the steps by agate at David’s Tower,
    I placed my two heavy baskets at my side. A group of tourists
    was standing around their guide and I became their target marker. “You see
    that man with the baskets? Just right of his head there’s an arch
    from the Roman period. Just right of his head.” “But he’s moving, he’s moving!”
    I said to myself: redemption will come only if their guide tells them,
    “You see that arch from the Roman period? It’s not important: but next to it,
    left and down a bit, there sits a man who’s bought fruit and vegetables for his family.”

  • Cambridge Forecast


    The interview with Roger Cohen was touching and informative
    and can be thought of as a discussion within a larger context:

    Go back to 1977.

    Woody Allen’s movie “Annie Hall” is playing in the movie
    theatres. The romance with “Annie”

    takes place in a context of “Alvy’s” (Woody Allen character)
    Jewish American “identity amalgam”

    coming apart and becoming neurotic. Antisemitism lurks
    everywhere and pogroms seem to loom.

    This corrosive comin apart is bracketed by the showing of
    the Marcel Ophuls documentary masterpiece, “The Sorrow and the Pity”. “Annie”
    goes to see it at the end of the movie and they discuss it at the beginning.
    Excerpts are quoted within the movie itself. The Ophuls movie is a kind of
    cinematic equivalent of a Greek Chorus in drama.

    In that same year, Menachem Begin became Prime Minister of Israel
    and begin the process of steering Israel to the far right. He signed the Camp
    David Agreement not because he was movied by pictures of his grandchildren (as
    per the puerile accounts) but because his strategy was to put Egypt “hors de
    combat”, thus breaking the Arab front
    and freeing up Palestine for total colonization, creeping or otherwise (de
    facto annexation or de jure, whatever suits).

    When begin became prime Minister in 1977, his very first
    movie was to offer South Africa an alliance and nuclear weapons, envisioning an
    Israel-America-South African triad to beat back global “Mandela-ism.” In the end,
    the South Africans decide against this and came down from the wrong branch on
    the wrong tree while Israel goes deeper into political lunacy.

    What Roger Cohen might not realize is that “Annie Hall” and
    Menachem begin sharing Jewish history in and from 1977 tells you that Jewish
    self-identity, on a global scale is in a structural crisis:

    help make Israel conform to globalism and twist globalism to suit Israel by
    rabid tribal Islamophobia which is now an Israel/neocon industry and aims to manipulate
    the world into a global civil war much as the Bolsheviks in 1920 wanted the
    same but Islam going to war against the West and not the other way. (Warren Beatty’s
    movie “Reds” shows this in the “Baku”/Islamic Conference scenes towards the

    Roger Cohen’s interview might be constructively
    reinterpreted as a case or instance of a decay process in Jewish
    self-understanding. For example, Cohen might not see or want tosee that the
    Netanyahu-right loathes diaspora Jews in a way that overlaps with Woody Allen’s
    bleating in “Annie Hall” when he, Allen, talks about New Yorks Jews as all “Commies
    and homos,” with a strong tinge of self-hatred. Netanyahu wants conflict with
    Muslims so as to force these Jewish “Diaspora lefties” (that the Israeli Right
    loathes to the max)to settle in Israel, take up the gun, and by land grabbing
    and crimes and murders and bloodshed become transformed into Hebrew warriors.

    In other words, Netanyahu’s Israel is not only the world headquarters of Islamophobia but also anti-Semitism/Judeophobia.

    It is this spectre that haunts Roger Cohen’s analysis without
    his being able to synthesize an understanding in which his intuitions are part
    of such a larger picture.

    Any ROS listener would potentially find the following classic quite enthralling:

    “Jewish history and World History” book, Jacob Talmon
    (famous Hebrew University luminary of yesteryear).

    Richard Melson

  • Cambridge Forecast


    There are two British literary works that will greatly illuminate Roger Cohen’s strange” identity
    1. Frederic Raphael’s “Glittering Prizes” (1976 TV
    series) that shows the encounter of his Jewish protagonist “Adam Morris” at
    Cambridge and beyond in his encounter with “tribal Zionism.”

    Adam Morris is a liberal internationalist but this begins to retreat before Zionism. At a
    conference, one of the ladies in the audience chides him, with, “are you saying
    that the only people in the world who don’t deserve a state are the Jews.?”

    He has no good answer and one can see how the notion of Israel as humanity’s payback to
    the Jews for the Holocaust will dissolve the traditional Jewish liberal
    internationalist instincts.


    2. Ronald Harwood’s “An English Tragedy” about the “n-dimensional
    contortions” of the Jewish Leopold and John Amery, his traitorous son.

    “It’s fascinating to find Harwood, the Jewish writer who presented the world with the
    extraordinarily rounded and vulnerable character of Szpilman, the eponymous
    hero of The Pianist, seeking to understand this apparent opposite. Yet
    Harwood works hard to present another in-depth portrait and indeed he does find
    the cracks that make Amery vulnerable. Harwood even gives Amery his teddy bear
    as a sort of mute confidant, and it’s pleasing to find that teddy is indeed a
    historical character, according to contemporary accounts.

    But more seriously, casual anti-Semitism was endemic in the English upper
    classes of the time and the blinder that Harwood plays is his apparent
    discovery that Leo Amery, John’s father, was Halachically Jewish, through his
    mother. And it is his argument that this is the tipping point for his already
    mentally unstable and prejudiced son. The jury is probably still out (sic) on
    whether that makes him easier to understand.

    John Amery’s course of action is to plead guilty to the charge of treason,
    knowing that the death penalty is mandatory, despite the best efforts of his
    family to exonerate him on grounds of diminished responsibility and even
    naturalization to Spanish citizenship. It looks like suicide while of an
    unsound mind, the motive possibly a bid to wipe out any chance of there being
    issue bearing his tainted (Jewish) blood. This will prove especially misguided,
    in the light of his brother Julian presenting grandfather Leo with a grandson
    and three granddaughters.”


    These two British works will deepen one’s understanding of Roger Cohen’s own “via
    dolorosa” in the identity realm.

    The brew of Holocaust, militant Zionism (think of Netanyahu speech and Jabotinsky belligerence), liberal instincts, in the modern era leads to a crack-up prone inner life, standing on a “strange amalgam of identity.”.

    Richard Melson