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On Iran, Roger Cohen v. Jeffrey Goldberg

One day after Atlantic writer and blogger Jeffrey Goldberg announced that he would be “checking out for a while” — taking a blogging break to “buy some horseradish, among other things” — Roger Cohen, in a New York Times op-ed that referenced Goldberg’s recent interview with Benjamin Netanyahu, accused Goldberg (a Forward alum) of being the prime minister’s “faithful stenographer.”

Goldberg, who had spoken with Netanyahu on the topic of Iran, isn’t the only one at the receiving end of Cohen’s accusations. Cohen, in the aforementioned op-ed, charges Israel with “crying wolf” and Netanyahu with “fear-mongering” about Iran. The op-ed columnist writes that leaders of the Jewish state have long exaggerated both the timeline of the regime’s acquisition of nuclear weapons, and the likelihood that, when they are acquired, they would be used. He takes issue with Netanyahu’s description, in his conversation with Goldberg, of Iran as a “fanatic regime that might put its zealotry above self-interest” and “a country that glorifies blood and death, including its own self-immolation” — contending that the mullahs prize self-preservation, above all. Cohen’s evidence: Their regime “has survived 30 years, ushered the country from the penury of the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war, shrewdly extended its power and influence, cooperated with America on Afghanistan before being consigned to ‘the axis of evil,’ and kept its country at peace in the 21st century while bloody mayhem engulfed neighbors to east and west and Israel fought two wars.”

The accusation Cohen levels against Goldberg is odd. That’s because Cohen, of late, has been taken to task for allegedly parroting in this and other op-eds the Iranian regime’s contentions of its munificent treatment of the Islamic Republic’s remaining Jewish residents. In a February column, Cohen wrote:

Still a mystery hovers over Iran’s Jews. It’s important to decide what’s more significant: the annihilationist anti-Israel ranting, the Holocaust denial and other Iranian provocations — or the fact of a Jewish community living, working and worshipping in relative tranquility.

Perhaps I have a bias toward facts over words, but I say the reality of Iranian civility toward Jews tells us more about Iran — its sophistication and culture — than all the inflammatory rhetoric.

That may be because I’m a Jew and have seldom been treated with such consistent warmth as in Iran. Or perhaps I was impressed that the fury over Gaza, trumpeted on posters and Iranian TV, never spilled over into insults or violence toward Jews. Or perhaps it’s because I’m convinced the “Mad Mullah” caricature of Iran and likening of any compromise with it to Munich 1938 — a position popular in some American Jewish circles — is misleading and dangerous.

Following the publication of that piece, Cohen visited a Los Angeles synagogue and sparred with Iranian expats — many of whom expressed concern that “Cohen’s evaluation was dangerously naive at best and, at worst, a mockery of their own experiences,” according to a JTA report. At that Los Angeles event, Cohen acknowledged that, during his recent reporting trip to Iran, he had paid $150 a day to an Iranian translator, who was also responsible for filing a report on his activities to Iranian authorities. It’s hard to dig too deep when you’re being tailed by a minder.

This morning, on the heels of his Passover hiatus, Goldberg wrote this “Memo to Roger Cohen” on his Atlantic blog:

Everyone knows that the first rule of writing a New York Times column is: Never attack your critics, particularly in personal terms. Columnists for the Times have scaled the Mt. Olympus of punditry; when they attack their critics they demean their lofty position, and inevitably draw more attention to the criticism than it would otherwise receive. Roger Cohen never learned this rule. Please don’t get me wrong – I’m happy to have gotten under Cohen’s skin. He is a Jewish apologist for an anti-Semitic regime, and he should be reminded often that he has debased himself. But in a way, I’m disappointed that he’s so easily rattled.

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