Israel at 60: Interview with Mitchell Cohen


While its faced its fair share of knee jerk reactions, unpleasantnesses, accusations of ethnocentrism, and other semiorrhea, Israel celebrated its 60th anniversary last month.  I just came across an interview with Dissent editor Mitchell Cohen from last month. Cohen touches on a number of interesting questions and issues. There are some particularly interesting exchanges:

Daniel Buarque: You point out in your article, “Anti-Semitism and the Left that Doesn’t Learn” (check it out, a fine article-SO), that Israel’s legitimacy is often questioned in the world because of conflicts in the Middle East and because of Israel’s relationship to the Palestinians. Should the rest of the world celebrate the sixtieth anniversary of Israeli independence? Why?

Mitchell Cohen: One of the points I tried to make is that Israel is subjected to double standards, especially on the left. Saying that gives me no joy: I identify with the left so my criticism comes from within the left. I celebrate the birth of the state of Israel because it represented the success of a national liberation movement. Here you have a people, the Jews, who had been persecuted for centuries, who had been the internal “Other” of the West. Their suffering culminated in the Nazi slaughter. From its origins in the late nineteenth century, the Zionist movement was pessimistic about the future of the Jews in the West and in Russia. Many liberals and leftists told them that they were too “particularist” and should put all their faith in universalizing political movements—communism or liberalism, for examples—but nobody can look back at the last century and say that the Zionists were wrong in seeing that emergency was at hand and that what might be called political Esperanto was wrong. Continue reading

Integral Cosmopolitanism, Not Good


Continuing with the discussion between Mitchell Cohen and Andy Arato (see here) about the Left, the conflict in the Middle East and the Turin Book Fair, Cohen has written an interesting response to Arato’s accusation that supporters of Israel risk ethnocentrism. Cohen’s article, “Against Integral Cosmopolitanism,” begins with an analogy:

I delayed responding to Andy Arato in the hope that Tariq Ramadan and Tariq Ali might clarify some issues by demanding a boycott of the Olympics to protest the killings in Tibet, a poor land occupied brutally since 1951. Alas, I cannot report that Ramadan has called on members of the Arab League or Iran to act against Beijing, which is also a chief patron of Sudan’s genocidal government. Ali does not seem to be urging intellectuals to action on China comparable to his (and Ramadan’s) campaign to deny Israel honors at European book fairs. Perhaps sport must just go on, as did the Olympics in 1972 after the Israeli team was massacred. I’d like to know if they think that it was right for the games to go on then and why; and I’d like to know if Andy Arato thinks that it is no longer the right time for the Olympics to take place in Beijing as he thought it is “not the right time” to honor Israel in Turin and Paris. He says “it just so happens” that Israel occupies certain places. But it didn’t just so happen and that was why I said that definitions of states and laws must be contextualized. It has to do with the political impact of historical memory too, and so I do not quite understand how Arato can refer to an “aggressive Israeli war” of 1967 yet declare that it doesn’t matter who was at “fault.” I’d still like to know: What would you do if three states in a legal state of war with you mobilize their militaries? And one of them demands removal of the international buffer force that had prevented war for a decade. And the UN complies and your second largest port is blockaded. What do you do? Explain an ideal speech situation to a populist-nationalist dictator (Nasser) or an overtly fascist party (the Ba’ath in Damascus)? Wait until international law secures universal values?

The analogy is fairly clear and for the most part I think its quite effective. Why isn’t it fair game to demand the same human rights standards for other countries that we set for Israel, in this case, China? Once again, the question becomes why is it that Israel in particular is such a concern and has to meet standards demanded by the Left? Why is Israel under such a microscope? Why protest Israel–a democracy– but not other horrifically repressive regimes at work that Mikhail has been chronicling here for a while now? Why such a double standard? Unfortunately, the short answer may just be, as Cohen suggests, antisemitism.  Moreover, this passage points  to another issue lurking around in these exchanges, the issue of  universal rights, whether the Rights of Man and/or Revolution, or cosmopolitanism. Continue reading

Turin Book Fair Honors Israeli Writers, Faces Usual Knee Jerk Reactions


As the NY Times reported last month, Israel is being honored at the Turin Book Fair this year and predictably there is some controversy:

The selection of Israel as guest of honor at this spring’s International Book Fair in Turin has set off a furious debate among Italian, Israeli and Arab authors and intellectuals, including calls to boycott the event, Italy’s largest annual gathering of the publishing world. Those opposed to the decision say that offering such an honor at a fair opening in May, when Israel will celebrate its 60th anniversary as a nation, is to ignore its policies toward Palestinians.

“A prestigious event like the book fair can’t pretend it doesn’t know what’s happening in that part of the Middle East,” said Vincenzo Chieppa, a local leader of the Italian Communist Party, who was one of the first to raise objections to the selection of Israel. Subsequent calls to boycott the fair — coming both from extreme-left-wing Italian political activists and prominent Italian and Arab intellectuals and authors — have prompted a wave of newspaper articles, some raising concerns about censorship and others extolling the need to place art above politics.

Performing the usual category mistake, the call to boycott is another misguided knee-jerk campaign to slander a group of people who are quite critical of many of the Israeli governments policies. As novelist A.B. Yehoshua commented in an op-ed column in La Stampa: “The aim of culture and literature is not to build barriers among people, but to open up to others.” The organizers of the fair are not backing down: “A country has to be able to come to the fair without being counterbalanced by another country,” Mr. Picchioni said. “What’s next? If we honor Russia, do we also have to invite Chechnya? Or what about China? Do we bring in Tibet?”

There is an interesting discussion over at Reset between Dissent co-editor Mitchell Cohen and Andy Arato. In an interview, Cohen comments on the Turin Book Fair:

I think it is the right decision in both cases. Israel has had a remarkable history, often tumultuous, sometimes unhappy, but remarkable nonetheless. Its ties to Europe are profound and important. Israel was created in response to centuries of persecution and therefore deserves solidarity. That is not the same thing as supporting all Israeli policies, just as having sympathy for the plight of Palestinians ought is not to be confused with apologetics for every act done by a Palestinian. It is not just Europe and Israel that gain when the Jewish state is honored at these book fairs. The Middle East peace process gains too. Israel has a vibrant literary culture and it is worth noting that many of the Israeli authors who are invited are outspoken doves and supporters of Israeli-Palestinian reconciliation. Unfortunately, there is a campaign these days from within parts of the western intellectual world, especially within parts of the left, to de-legitimize the Jewish state. This campaign is wrong-headed, often slanderous, and betrays the best ideals of the left and democracy. Continue reading