WASHINGTON POST-WATCH: Richard Cohen Gets Hamas Right, Israel Wrong

The Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations included Richard Cohen’s “Hamas, a threat to its own people” (Washington Post, June 29) in its “Daily Alert” for the commentary’s observation that Hamas threatens the Palestinian Arabs it claims to lead. The “Daily Alert” is a valuable e-mail compilation of news about Israel, the Middle East, U.S. foreign policy and related issues. But upon a closer look, it is apparent that Cohen’s syndicated piece leaves much to be desired.

The columnist’s comparison of Hamas to the Nazis is important, but not new. Cohen cites Paul Berman’s book, The Flight of the Intellectuals in supporting the term “Islamic fascism” and its application to Hamas.

But before The Flight of the Intellectuals, University of Maryland Prof. Jeffery Herf made the Nazi-Islamic extremist connection explicit. In Nazi Propaganda for the Arab World (Yale University Press, 2009), Herf demonstrated that Hamas’ ideology is similar to that of the Third Reich and the Soviet Union when it comes to rejection of the West, as lead by Great Britain and the United States, and its hatred of Jews and Judaism.

According to Herf, “having absorbed Communist anti-imperialist and Nazi antisemitic propaganda themes on behalf of an anti-secular, apocalyptic religious vision, radical Islam presumes to possess absolute truth about history and politics that divides the world into good and evil and offers justification for political murder and sometimes mass murder.”

“Islamo-fascism” literally helped write the anti-Jewish and anti-Zionist script — including charges of “imperialism,” “war-mongering” and hostility to Islam — that resonates with many in the contemporary Arab-Islamic world, not just Hamas. Herf sees these concepts rooted in Nazi propaganda that specifically targeted Arabs to undermine the Allied war effort in North Africa and the Middle East.

Cohen notes that “Berman traces Hamas’ intellectual pedigree to Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, whose founder, Hassan al-Banna, greatly admired Hitler, and to Haj Amin al-Husseini, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, who spent much of World War II in Germany cozying up to Hitler, organizing a Muslim SS unit and, on occasion, remonstrating with the Nazis for not killing enough Jews.”

But the columnist does not remind readers that al-Husseini was a father of Palestinian Arab nationalism and leader of anti-Jewish massacres in British Mandatory Palestine. Such violence helped induce the British to close Palestine to Jewish emigration as the Nazis prepared the Holocaust.

Nor does Cohen say that al-Husseini influenced Palestinian Arab “secular nationalists” such as Yasser Arafat and his Fatah movement as much or more so than Palestinian Arab Islamists like Hamas. A European-influenced, anti-democratic, anti-Zionist “Arab fascism” as exemplified by post-colonial governments in Syria, Iraq, Egypt and by the Palestine Liberation Organization long pre-dated Hamas.

‘Useful idiots’

Cohen’s comparison of “the so-called activists who wish to break the [Gaza Strip] blockade” with Western “useful idiots” who sympathized with the Soviet Union during the Cold War is apt. Mr. and Mrs. International Solidarity Movement, Adam Shapiro and Huweida Arraf leap to mind, for example.

But Cohen’s self-interruption — “Now is the time, I suppose, to say that Israel is not perfect either” — is needless. Who said it was? But in fighting the evil represented by Hamas, it need not be, any more than, in writing of the U.S. struggle against al Qaeda and the Taliban, Cohen would have to note, “of course, America is not perfect either.” Such undergraduate moral ambiguity dilutes his point about the reality of Islamic fascism.

To demonstrate the Jewish state’s imperfection, Cohen claims it “continues to overreact, uses too much force and has often trampled on the rights of Palestinians.” The columnist provides no specifics, making the charges of overreaction, excessive forces and “trampling on the rights of Palestinians” ring hollow.

Only after Hamas fired thousands of mortars and rockets from Gaza at Israeli civilian target did Israel respond with the blockade. It waited until even more were fired before launching “Operation Cast Lead,” the December 2008 – January 2009 military incursion that stopped short of Gaza’s most built-up areas. After terrorist mass murders of the 2000 – 2004 second intifada, Israel delayed retaliation, taking care to avoid as much as possible harming Arab civilians. An argument can be made that, if anything Israel has under-reacted to Palestinian attacks and inadvertently prolonged the conflict for both sides.

Likewise Cohen’s assertion that Israel has “often trampled on the rights of Palestinians.” Arabs of the West Bank and Gaza Strip under Israeli control have ranked higher, according to the United Nations, in living standards than Algerians, Syrians, Egyptians, Moroccans, and Yemenites. That’s an odd sort of “trampling” given chronic Palestinian aggression and incessant rejection — not only by Hamas but also by the more “moderate” Fatah-led Palestinian Authority — of Israel’s legitimacy as a Jewish state.

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Cohen condemns with faint praise, writing “still, Israel is Thomas Jefferson’s idea of heaven compared with Gaza.” Not just in comparison with the Strip, but also with any other place in the greater Middle East, from Morocco to Iran. The Jewish state is the only country in the region where a U.S. citizen, passing for a local, could live and enjoy American-style civil liberties.

The columnist is correct in noting “the irony is that Israel is often called a colonialist power.” But he self-sabotages, adding “in some sense, the charge is true.” No, it’s false in all senses. Rather than colonialist, Israel represents the successful struggle of an ancient, indigenous people to return to and rebuild in a portion of their ancestral land. And since the Jewish state’s re-establishment in 1948, it has gained territory only in defensive wars, relinquished much of it and offered even more in return for peace. That is not colonialist behavior.

Cohen does properly describe “those who think that Arabs cannot be held to Western standards of decency” as upholding “the true colonialist mentality ….” But he mistakenly adds that Hamas’ “fervid embrace of a dark … medievalism” is “non-Muslim.” The reactionary obscurantism, anti-intellectual, religiously intolerant attitudes bundled under the rubric of medievalism are a distinguishing characteristic of the supremacism found in influential Islamic trends today from the Sunni Wahhabi school to the Shi’ite anti-modernism of Ayatollah Khomeini and his followers.

Cohen almost wrote an important column about Islamo-fascism and the useful idiots of the West who back some of Israel’s most anti-Western enemies. Almost. But lack of intellectual rigor and a foolish compulsion to be seen as “even-handed” prevented him.