Michael Oren, soon to be Israel’s ambassador to the U.S., is first and foremost an historian. But his academic and diplomatic/political lives come together in this short piece in the current New Republic on the erection of a memorial to World War I deserters at Ypres on the French-Belgian border. Yes, with the last of the WWI vets dying off, the Europeans are putting up a pole to honor those who refused to fight at all.

Oren goes through the logic and the absurdity of this. If World War I was an insane war, then the sane thing to do was not to fight. And most people came to view the war as just that, so deserters look good. As Oren points out,

In contrast to the United States, fortunate to have fought most of its wars overseas, Europe was host to two twentieth-century apocalypses that left it depopulated and permanently traumatized. Torn between ravaging communist and fascist tides, many on the continent came to see war as an inherently no-win, illegitimate endeavor. Consequently, desertion could be conceived as logical, even honorable–and not only from the killing fields of Ypres.

But this has now gone further, as evidenced in a number of European actions that seem to indicate that virtually all military acts are problematic (Oren lists failed peacekeeping on the Israel-Lebanon and Israel-Gaza borders, and failure to fight the Taliban, as evidence, as well has Germany’s harboring of an American deserter from Afghanistan.) While American and European histories diverge over the violence known on our own shores, these ideas have a way of migrating. Oren closes his piece with the question: “It sounds far-fetched, but it is impossible not to wonder: Will visitors to Valley Forge someday see a single pole?”

Some additional reverberations: The current confrontation in Iran, and in my little blogging universe, the conversation around Roger Cohen. Cohen issued a small mea culpa in light of this week’s events: “I erred in underestimating the brutality and cynicism of a regime that understands the uses of ruthlessness.” (Full article here.) Iran does indeed practice violence, and that was on display for all to see on Sunday. Cohen, the most European of the NYT columnists, seems to have been awoken from a daydream, perhaps because of some deeply ingrained aversion to any form of violence. Iran may as well be Israel now.

Okay, that was a cheap shot. But it brings us to reverberation no. 2, which is Israel. It’s hard to imagine the Israeli police responding to a democractic protest the way the Iranians have. Cohen would have to grant that. Israel does exercise violence, but its record against its own citizens is pretty darn clean. And, as I have often argued before, if a mass Palestinian non-violence movement arose, it would bring statehood quicker than all the armed intifadas in the world. Why? Because no one could argue with it. As a non-violent movement, it would take away any of the moral ambiguity that comes with violence, and that leads ultimately to societies erecting memorials to those who fled military service.

Final reverberation: I think that Oren is on to something important here. As Americans become more aware of human suffering, through the Internet and through travel to the developing world, I imagine we will take on some of the European sensibility towards violence. I see this phenomenon all the time among the college students I work with. Violence is problematic for them. But violence is also linked to forms of particular identity, because so many wars have been fought in the name of maintaining religious or ethnic or national purity. “Let’s all be humanists” is the motto of many today, and would seem to be the European slogan too. Our challenge is to develop a language for talking about difference that does not lead to violence. (On this score, Jonathan Sacks’s The Dignity of Difference is the best book out there.)

1. Gary Rosenblatt’s column on Roger Cohen.

The first 95% of the article is fantastic–balanced, fair, giving Cohen a reasonable hearing but also citing his critics and raising important questions. It’s a model of journalism. And then, somehow, Gary pivots in the last 30 seconds to this:

Cohen called his book about the Balkan war experience “Hearts Grown Brutal.”

It would seem from his writings and conversation that he believes that when it comes to the Mideast conflict, it is Israeli hearts that have hardened and that the government in Jerusalem is trying to ignore terrible things. He is welcome to his beliefs, of course, but Roger Cohen should be wary of conflating one tragedy with another.

Call it lack of balance or fairness, but to cite only one party to blame for the Israeli-Arab conflict is to deny history and reality, and to weaken one’s credibility beyond logic or truth.

Reading Cohen lately — the anger, blame and one-sidedness of his argument — one wonders whose heart, indeed, has grown brutal.

As readers of this blog well know, I have been among Roger Cohen’s critics. But I think that Gary undermines his own case with this move at the end. I don’t think that Cohen’s “heart has grown brutal,” and to make this kind of argument simply misses the point. Yes, Cohen should be more up-front about the lack of fairness in the Iranian elections (see Friedman’s piece yesterday, which compared Lebanon and Iran), but Cohen is also operating in the prophetic tradition, calling Israelis–and diaspora Jews–to take responsiblity for the things for which we should take responsibility, namely whether to attack Iran (which from what I can tell would be a strategic blunder of epic proportions) and how to use the force we have built up in a manner that befits our national aspirations.

2. Ari Shavit on Bibi and the “Seven Word Solution”

The heart of Shavit’s piece is this: “A demilitarized Palestine alongside a Jewish Israel.” Worth reading, and sums up pretty much what seems necessary.

3. I haven’t written anything about Obama’s speech last week. It was, in general, remarkable and amazing. My two bones to pick:

1) I don’t actually care about equating suffering; I think we need to get over that one. But I do care about ignoring history and making it seem as though Israel would not have happened without the Shoah, which is misleading and plays into the basest elements of Holocaust-denying anti-Semitism. Zionism happened before the Shoah for two or three generations, and the Jewish people have 3,000 years of history in Eretz Yisrael.

2) As Andre Aciman points out (his memoir is well worth the read), and as here quoted by Jeffrey Goldberg, the displacement of Jews in Arab and Muslim countries in 1948 needs to be remembered as part of the narrative.

I promise my blog isn’t devoted to Roger Cohen. As I’ve written previously, I genuinely like his writing–most of the time. But each of his columns in the last weeks about Iran and the Jews has been progressively more and more off-key. This morning, he blows it completely, in my view. Over the weekend, he relates, he went to Los Angeles at the invitation of Rabbi David Wolpe to meet L.A.’s large Persian-Jewish community. He writes:

Earlier, Sam Kermanian, a leader of the Iranian Jewish community, said I had been used, that Iran’s Jews are far worse off than they appear, and that my portrayal of them was pernicious as it “leads people to believe Israel’s enemies are not as real as you may think.” He called the mullahs brilliantly manipulative: “They know their abilities and limitations.”

On at least this last point I agree. Just how repressive life is for Iran’s Jews is impossible to know. Iran is an un-free society. But this much is clear: the hawks’ case against Iran depends on a vision of an apocalyptic regime — with no sense of its limitations — so frenziedly anti-Semitic that it would accept inevitable nuclear annihilation if it could destroy Israel first.

The presence of these Jews undermines that vision. It blunts the hawks’ case; hence the rage.

So he agrees that the Iranian leadership is manipulative, but then chalks it up to American/Jewsh apolocalypticism and neurosis? He goes on to talk about how pragmatic Iran has proven to be since the revolution, and how we can count on that pragmatism in the future. Roger, if we could count on level-headedness and pragmatism, how do you explain the presidency of George W. Bush? Just because people have shown–occasional–good sense in the past does not mean you should rely on that in the future. Here Reagan was right: If you’re going to trust, you also have to verify. The testimony of the Iranian Jews you met undermined Cohen’s argument, yet he didn’t draw any lessons from it.

Finally, in the last paragraph, he bought the anti-Israel view of Chas Freeman’s withdrawal, the refutation of which I showed in a previous post.

I really want Roger Cohen to be right. I don’t like the idea of a clash of civilizations, and I do believe that moderation is possible. But this column finally convinces me that when it comes to Iran, Roger Cohen is being played.

In case you were thinking that Chas Freeman’s withdrawal from the National Intelligence Council directorship was due to an over-exertion of the Jewish community’s muscle, pause a moment and read this editorial from the Washington Post, which is worth quoting in full:

FORMER ambassador Charles W. Freeman Jr. looked like a poor choice to chair the Obama administration’s National Intelligence Council. A former envoy to Saudi Arabia and China, he suffered from an extreme case of clientitis on both accounts. In addition to chiding Beijing for not crushing the Tiananmen Square democracy protests sooner and offering sycophantic paeans to Saudi King “Abdullah the Great,” Mr. Freeman headed a Saudi-funded Middle East advocacy group in Washington and served on the advisory board of a state-owned Chinese oil company. It was only reasonable to ask — as numerous members of Congress had begun to do — whether such an actor was the right person to oversee the preparation of National Intelligence Estimates.

It wasn’t until Mr. Freeman withdrew from consideration for the job, however, that it became clear just how bad a selection Director of National Intelligence Dennis C. Blair had made. Mr. Freeman issued a two-page screed on Tuesday in which he described himself as the victim of a shadowy and sinister “Lobby” whose “tactics plumb the depths of dishonor and indecency” and which is “intent on enforcing adherence to the policies of a foreign government.” Yes, Mr. Freeman was referring to Americans who support Israel — and his statement was a grotesque libel.

For the record, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee says that it took no formal position on Mr. Freeman’s appointment and undertook no lobbying against him. If there was a campaign, its leaders didn’t bother to contact the Post editorial board. According to a report by Newsweek, Mr. Freeman’s most formidable critic — House Speaker Nancy Pelosi — was incensed by his position on dissent in China.

But let’s consider the ambassador’s broader charge: He describes “an inability of the American public to discuss, or the government to consider, any option for U.S. policies in the Middle East opposed by the ruling faction in Israeli politics.” That will certainly be news to Israel’s “ruling faction,” which in the past few years alone has seen the U.S. government promote a Palestinian election that it opposed; refuse it weapons it might have used for an attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities; and adopt a policy of direct negotiations with a regime that denies the Holocaust and that promises to wipe Israel off the map. Two Israeli governments have been forced from office since the early 1990s after open clashes with Washington over matters such as settlement construction in the occupied territories.

Owing to my previous post about Roger Cohen’s recent Iran columns, I feel obliged to make clear that his column this morning is way beyond anything I’m comfortable with. Cohen today advocates talking with not only Hezbollah and Iran, but Hamas, without preconditions beyond renouncing violence–not even recognizing Israel. Okay, that’s a tactical call and plenty of Israelis have called for the same thing. (And it’s inevitable: At a recent lecture at Northwestern, Prof. Elie Rekhess made multiple Freudian slips in referring to Israel’s refusal to talk to “the PLO.” Elie laughed about it each time it happened, pointing out that Israel has previously been in the position of refusing to talk to a potential negotiating partner on principle, only to ultimately negotiate.)

But what’s really difficult is this part of the column:

One view of Israel’s continued expansion of settlements, Gaza blockade, West Bank walling-in and wanton recourse to high-tech force would be that it’s designed precisely to bludgeon, undermine and humiliate the Palestinian people until their dreams of statehood and dignity evaporate.

The argument over recognition is in the end a form of evasion designed to perpetuate the conflict.

Israel, from the time of Ben Gurion, built its state by creating facts on the ground, not through semantics. Many of its leaders, including Ehud Olmert and Tzipi Livni, have been on wondrous political odysseys from absolutist rejection of division of the land to acceptance of a two-state solution. Yet they try to paint Hamas as irrevocably absolutist. Why should Arabs be any less pragmatic than Jews?

Of course it’s desirable that Hamas recognize Israel before negotiations. But is it essential? No. What is essential is that it renounces violence, in tandem with Israel, and the inculcation of hatred that feeds the violence.

Speaking of violence, it’s worth recalling what Israel did in Gaza in response to sporadic Hamas rockets. It killed upward of 1,300 people, many of them women and children; caused damage estimated at $1.9 billion; and destroyed thousands of Gaza homes. It continues a radicalizing blockade on 1.5 million people squeezed into a narrow strip of land.

At this vast human, material and moral price, Israel achieved almost nothing beyond damage to its image throughout the world. Israel has the right to hit back when attacked, but any response should be proportional and governed by sober political calculation. The Gaza war was a travesty; I have never previously felt so shamed by Israel’s actions.

Yes, that’s a read. But it utterly fails to take into account Israel’s good-faith negotiations with the PLO and its withdrawal from Gaza, or the fact that there is a good deal of diplomatic activity taking place in the wake of the Gaza offensive. (Do bear in mind, however, that I agree that Israel did more harm than good to its  own cause in the Gaza war.) Furthermore, it doesn’t address the serious dilemmas presented by Hamas. I agree with realpolitik up to a point, but diplomacy can’t abandon all sense of principle. Don’t official statements mean anything? The Israeli government has, for fifteen years, officially worked for a two-state solution and negotiated for it. Hamas rejects a two-state solution. Who are the moderates here?

I read Roger Cohen’s columns on Iran’s Jews last week and this with interest, and fully expecting what evidently followed: A barrage of condemnation. I have liked Cohen for a long time. Like David Brooks, my other favorite NYT columnist, Cohen defies easy caricature. While one could write a Bob Herbert or Tom Friedman column with something of a Mad Lib, Cohen both espouses unconventional opinions and writes beautifully.

Yet whenever it comes to Israel (and now, by extension, Iran), many of my Jewish friends get the heebie jeebies about our fellow-MOT. Cohen argued that Iran’s Jews actually enjoy a good deal of freedom, that most of them don’t want to leave, that they were against the Israeli operation in Gaza. Yes, he admits, they face occasional trumped-up charges of conspiracy with the Zionist Entity. But, as he argues this morning in his rebuttal, this is within the context of something that is not a totalitarian state. Not a free state, but no Fourth Reich either.

I’m not ready to take sides here (I like Jeffrey Goldberg a lot too), and I am surely risking the opprobium of some of my friends and colleagues. But many of us strongly supported the election of Barack Obama, on the basis that he was smart and sophisticated, that he would not be the reductivist thinker that George Bush was. (Of course, many of my friends did so feeling that Bush had been the best friend Israel ever had. I demur.) Why do we want someone with supple thinking when it comes to health care, education, the environment, and foreign policy challenges in Europe, Asia, Africa, and South America, but not the Middle East? Let’s at least have a fully fleshed-out and informed coversation. Cohen has given one side. I’d like to hear the other.