Sunday 29 March 2009

Jewish writer raises a storm in America with his report from a 'tolerant' Iran

A row has broken out over allegations of antisemitism at the New York Times, America's most vaunted name in journalism and a newspaper with a large Jewish readership.

The storm centres on a column about Jews in Iran written by New York Times journalist Roger Cohen and a cartoon attacking the recent war in Gaza.

The newspaper, and Cohen in particular, has been accused of being too critical of Israel and an apologist for Iran and its leader, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Cohen's column was written from Iran about the country's small Jewish minority. His piece acknowledged the difficulties the group experienced and portrayed them as part of an Iranian society that he said was more tolerant, democratic and sophisticated than many American critics allowed.

Such sentiments might seem uncontroversial, but in America no one touching on issues around Israel or antisemitism escapes close scrutiny. Cohen was attacked by Jewish writers and bloggers. The Jerusalem Post dubbed him "misled", while the Atlantic Monthly called him "credulous". Others went much further. "The Nazis had Theresienstadt, their 'model' concentration camp used to 'persuade' the gullible that Jews and others who aroused the ire of the Nazis were being treated well. Would Roger Cohen have had no problem portraying that favourably as well?" fumed writer Ed Lasky on the American Thinker website.

Cohen said he was stunned by the vehemence of the response, an impression exacerbated when he visited exiled Iranian Jews in California and was abusively heckled. "I was surprised at the anger and intensity of the reaction ... I expected a reaction but did not expect it to blow up into a whole furore," Cohen said.

Perhaps part of the reason for the intensity of the attack is the fact that he is Jewish himself. "I think it's partly my name. The 'self-hating Jew' things can come to the surface in some of the responses," he said. Another reason is that the column appeared in the Times, which many media experts hardly see as a fierce critic of Israel, given its home audience. "As soon as I read the column I thought a lot of people would be unhappy," said Jack Lule, a journalism professor at Lehigh University.

The debate over Cohen's piece came as the Times published Pat Oliphant's cartoon, which shows a headless figure goose-stepping and pushing a snarling Star of David in front of it. The figure is herding a woman carrying a child labelled Gaza to the edge of a cliff. The cartoon also appeared in the Washington Post, Slate and other publications. It caused instant outrage among Jewish groups. "It is cartoons like this that inspired millions of people to hate in the 1930s and help set the stage for the Nazi genocide," said a statement from the Simon Wiesenthal Centre.'

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