Roger and Me
“New York Times columnist Roger Cohen visited my synagogue Thursday,” writes Rabbi David Wolpe of Sinai Temple on Huffington Post today. ” All day long the sparks flew and the cultures clashed.”
In a typically lucid and powerful article, Wolpe recounts his day with the New York Times columnist who enraged the LA Iranian Jewish community by writing two columns suggesting the 25,000 Jews left in Iran don’t have it all bad.
The reaction prompted Wolpe, whose synagogue in Westwood has a large Persian Jewish membership, to invite Cohen to meet with his congregants face to face. The difference between LA’s Persian Jews and the ones in Iran? The ones in LA can tell Cohen the truth without disappearing into a Teheran dungeon (Oh, that).
(You can see a video of the encounter at Sinai here, by the way.)
Wolpe starts his post recounting his breakfast with Cohen, and some initial private meetings he set up for the columnist.
I had breakfast with Cohen at his hotel and we spoke amicably about the day to come. He was looking forward to the event, and like many reporters, showed himself an acute listener. He was gracious and thoughtful.
I set up a lunch and a dinner with prominent members of the community. Cohen lunched with Sam Kermanian, an urbane, informed advocate. Sam tried to convince him that his outlook was indeed naïve, and that he was being used by some very clever Mullahs to validate their own regime. At dinner – with among others Jimmy Delshad, former Mayor of Beverly hills and novelist Gina Nahai, Cohen heard again and again that the Jews he spoke to in Iran were well aware that their words were monitored. Indeed, Cohen said his own translator told him in no uncertain terms that he (the translator) would file a report of all his movements after he left. Well, people pointed out quite reasonably, might that intimidate the interviewees just a wee bit?
As the day gives way to evening, Wolpe’s frsutration with Cohen becomes evident. His starts to wonder if Cohen’s reporting wasn’t driven by a hidden agenda: “…. increasingly I came to believe that Iran was not Cohen’s sole concern; he wanted it as a stick with which to beat Israel over Gaza, whose incursion he wrote left him ashamed,” writes Wolpe.
As Wolpe recounts the actual public event, with the give and take between himself, Cohen and the audience, the rabbi doesn’t mask his dismay. “Really, that was all?,” he writes, when Cohen offers a lame example for how terrorists can moderate their views.
Finally, in his blog, Wolpe tells us what he makes of his learned visitor:
In a fit of mild exasperation, I told Roger Cohen that if tomorrow Hamas said they wanted peace, I wouldn’t believe them. I might test it, but I wouldn’t believe them, not at first. So why, why should he believe they want peace when they don’t even say it?
It is, as Dr. Johnson said in another context, the triumph of hope over experience. Of course, as the Iranian Jews pointedly said over and over again that night, the relevant experience is not Mr. Cohen’s two week trip in the region. The deep experience is theirs, burned into their minds. And it is not, alas, one that suggests a solution any time soon.
You can read Rabbi Wolpe’s whole post here.
To see Cohen’s column on the event, click here.
To read my take on Cohen’s columns, click here.
And our video of the encounter at Sinai is here.