LONDON — Despite not being Jewish, atheist Nick Cohen, one of Britain’s best-known journalists, had never had a problem with his surname. It was, he thought, part of the furniture.
On his paternal side, the family had “abandoned their religion, so he wasn’t Jewish, and more to the point, my mother and my grandmother weren’t Jewish either, so according to Orthodox Judaism’s principles of matrilineal descent, it was impossible for me to be a Jew,” says Cohen.
But then in 2007 Cohen wrote a book, “What’s Left?”, a provocative and witty account of his belief that British liberals had lost their way. According to Cohen, “all hell broke loose” in the wake of that book’s publication.
“The book was an attempt to answer a question which is not asked often enough,” he says. “If I were to show you a newspaper article defending a movement that was misogynist, homophobic, anti-Semitic, or decided to kill any Muslim who had decided of their own free will to change their faith or have no faith, and ask what kind of newspaper it was, you’d say, obviously it is a left-wing newspaper.
‘The book was an attempt to ask why the Left was going along with ultra-obscurantist, fascistic and extreme right-wing movements’
“The book was an attempt to ask why the Left was going along with ultra-obscurantist, fascistic and extreme right-wing movements,” says Cohen.
Amid the howls of outrage from the Left which greeted his book, Cohen began to detect a growing number of those who said, “Oh, he’s only saying that because he’s a Zionist.” Cohen was denounced as having shifted to the “warmongering, liberal-imperialist, neocon right.” But Cohen will have none of it.
He has, it is true, pretty much given up on the Left — out of despair, he says, that it has endorsed movements it would once have denounced as racist, imperialist and fascistic. But Cohen, a lean and rangy 55 year old, has now invited even more controversy with his latest column for The Observer news paper, Britain’s left-leaning Sunday publication, which is owned by Guardian Newspapers.
In “Why I’m Becoming A Jew And Why You Should, Too,” Cohen suggests that it is hopeless to continue telling people that he is not Jewish when he is challenged over his views, particularly in regard to “the anti-Semitism that has spread so far from the extreme left into the mainstream that it now threatens to poison the Labour Party.”
His initial attempts to insist that he was not Jewish were “dishonorable,” Cohen says.
‘I sounded like a black man trying to pass as white or a German arguing with the Gestapo that there was a mistake in the paperwork’
“I sounded like a black man trying to pass as white or a German arguing with the Gestapo that there was a mistake in the paperwork,” says Cohen.
Instead, he says, he decided to embrace the challenge.
“Racism changes your perception of the world and yourself. You become what your enemies say you are. And unless I wanted to shame myself, I had to become a Jew. A rather odd Jew, no doubt: a militant atheist who had to phone a friend to ask what on earth ‘mazel tov’ meant. But a Jew nonetheless,” says Cohen.
So, intellectually — and in no other way — Nick Cohen has begun to define himself as Jewish.
His Observer column has attracted hundreds of comments — many of which have been removed by the paper’s moderators, though given what has been published, one can only speculate at the vitriol in what we do not see.
A slightly weary Cohen, who says he never reads the comments below his pieces, acknowledges that the personal abuse directed at him coincides with the prevalence of the Internet.
“What the Internet has done is to provide a home for every type of fanatic, from child abusers to anti-Semites, to anti-black racists to Islamophobes. And because there’s so much material, you can live in a world which totally confirms your beliefs. You are rarely confronted with facts. Before the web, you would turn on the TV news, and there would be all kinds of things you didn’t like. Now, you can live in a bubble, and hear only things you want to hear, and see your prejudices confirmed and your enemies denounced,” says Cohen.
Jews, says Cohen, are not taken seriously when they speak about anti-Semitism, but are “just dismissed” in a way which would never happen if there were complaints of other sorts of racism. Instead, he says, “there is the formulation, ‘there is no anti-Semitism, and you’re only saying that to protect Israel.’”
Neither Right nor Left, Cohen thinks, takes racism seriously — and those who raise it “are always regarded as having an ulterior motive.”
‘Anti-Semitism is part of a wider betrayal, an abandonment of anti-fascist values’
I ask him about the essential disenfranchisement of Jews on the Left, but Cohen says things are worse than that.
“It’s not just anti-Semitism. When [the far Left] goes along with and defends extreme right-wing Islam, as the leader of the Labour Party does, it is not just abandoning Jews, it is abandoning liberal Muslims, left-wing Muslims, ex-Muslims, who want to be able to look to the British Left for support in their struggle, but then find that they are ‘the oppressors,’ or make excuses for the oppressors, or are treated as if they don’t exist. Anti-Semitism is part of a wider betrayal, an abandonment of anti-fascist values.”
To the Left, says Cohen, anyone who argues that there is anti-Semitism “will pretty soon be called a Zionist” — slower if your name is John Smith than if it is Nick Cohen, but the charge will be made, nonetheless.
Israel, he says, “has become a giant supernatural demon to the Left. Anyone who disagrees with the Left orthodoxy has somehow become spawn of the devil. Just like the Jew in medieval Europe, Israel has supernatural powers, and is held responsible for every conflict in the Middle East. If bombers blow up Brussels and Paris, it’s because of the Israeli occupation. And it is criticism which is wholly irrational — and it has become respectable.”
‘Just like the Jew in medieval Europe, Israel has supernatural powers, and is held responsible for every conflict in the Middle East’
In European left-wing circles, Cohen says, it has become entirely “normal” to say that Islamic State would not be attacking European cities if Israel were not occupying the West Bank.
“But that is missing [what is said by] a psychopathic global movement. They don’t say, we are engaged in a reasonable, if regrettably bloody, protest against Israeli settlements in Hebron. They don’t say that. They say, we want to create a global caliphate, we want everyone to convert to Islam, and then a paradise on earth will follow. That’s what they say, but nobody listens to that,” says Cohen.
Cohen denies he is a lone voice, but reminds me, thoughtfully, of the aphorism that “the Right looks for converts, the Left looks for traitors.” After he published “What’s Left?” in the ensuing furor he was pushed out of writing for the left-wing magazine, the New Statesman, and the National Union of Journalists sued it on Cohen’s behalf. The right-wing opposite number, The Spectator, took him on as a columnist and lets him write, he says, whatever he wants.
He was not the first person to be “purged” by the New Statesman: by the end of his tenure there, Cohen was carefully examining every word he wrote and wondering if he could get away with it. “Fraser Nelson [The Spectator editor] doesn’t give a damn what I write” — but, though Cohen doesn’t say so, the fact that he is expressing his trenchant views in a right-wing journal confirms every prejudice that the far Left has about him.
Cohen deplores the tribal instinct of the Left to reject anyone outside their belief system.
“I think it’s just being mature, to reassess your views; I don’t regret that.” The far Left, he says, “is like a distorting mirror of the liberal mainstream,” and his assessment of the Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, is that he is a product of just that distortion, a man who has not examined or challenged his views in 40 years of politics. Corbyn, says Cohen, witheringly, has neither the ability nor the intelligence to stamp out anti-Semitism in today’s Labour Party.
“It’s like asking Nick Griffin to rid the British National Party of racism. He [Corbyn] just can’t do it,” he says.
For a while, Cohen says, he would tell people he wasn’t Jewish when asked about his views on anti-Semitism and Israel (where he has been, just once, as a teenager, though he doesn’t rule out a second visit).
“Then I thought, hang on, first of all, your questioner is in a lot of trouble if they want to check whether you are Jewish. Checking whether people are Jewish does not have a good history. And you’re in even worse trouble by denying you’re Jewish, because you’re pandering to racism or trying to get yourself a get-out-of-jail-free card,” he says.
We are unlikely to see Nick Cohen in a synagogue any time soon. But his sober good sense makes a cheering contrast, for British Jews, to the seemingly endless stories of anti-Semites in public life, a worryingly “usual” background to daily conversation.