While in Europe, I read a review somewhere — maybe the Herald Tribune? — of the new book by Rich Cohen (not to be confused with Richard Cohen of the Washington Post). The review was positive, which surprised me a bit. I read, or at least perused at some length before throwing it away, Cohen’s book Tough Jews and found it fairly disgusting and full of self-loathing. In Tough Jews Cohen waxes nostalgic and giddy over a bunch of Jewish murderers and thugs — the sleazeballs behind Murder Inc and similar ilk. I thought the book betrayed a profound masculine insecurity and a kind of self-hatred. Why idolize hired killers and thugs? What does it say about how you view contemporary Jews — never mind yourself — that you wish there were more Jewish criminals around today? Here’s a line from the book: “If Jewish gangsters still thrived today, if they hadn’t gone legit, if Jews of my generation didn’t regard them as figments, creatures to be classed with Big Foot and the Loch Ness monster, I think the Jewish community would be better off.”
I understand that gauzy nostalgia for the Italian mafia is quite mainstream — and I liked The Sopranos and The Godfather as much as the next guy. But I don’t know of too many Italians who brim with pride about Al Capone or Lucky Luciano, or who think that the mafia has been a great boon to Italian Americans. The idea that Jews would be better off if only we still had more hired killers and extortionists strikes me as bizarre. Indeed, I can only assume that Cohen believes that the recent story of the “Kosher Nostra” amounts to great news for Jews everywhere, whch is to say, I can only assume that Cohen is a shmuck.
Which brings me to Cohen’s new book, which I haven’t read. But I did read this post by Rick Rickman over at Contentions and the review by Adam Kirsch in the Tablet. Here’s how Kirsch sums up Cohen’s work:
But at the same time, Cohen seems to endorse a favorite contemporary critique of Zionism, which is that it somehow diminishes Jews to be a nation instead of a light to the nations: “Now the Jews have returned their holy idea to the street, where, as is happening with the Hebrew language, it has been barbarized and filled with slang.” He also touches on the corollary argument that Israel endangers Jews: “By making the faith physical, by locating it in a particular place at a particular time, Zionists have made Jews vulnerable in a way that they have not been since the fall of the Second Temple.” Like everyone who makes this argument, Cohen seems to believe that the eras of the Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition, the Chmelnitzsky pogroms, and the Holocaust were safer for the Jews than the era of the IDF.
Neither the facts nor the ideas in Israel Is Real, then, deserve much attention. But the best way to take the measure of Cohen’s book is to look at his language. I know that Cohen’s hyped-up style depends on a certain swagger and exaggeration. Still, when I read that “according to the critics” the early Zionists had “the same goal as the Nazis: a world without Jews”; that Rishon le Zion, the first modern Zionist settlement, was “the punk corpuscle that herald[s] the disease, the lonely pimple that portends the general outbreak, the tiny bud that suggests the sea of wildflowers,” followed by the invitation to “pick your metaphor”; that “Israel is not a nation—it’s a landfill, a garbage dump, where Europeans heaped the ashes after the war”; or worst of all, that “No one hates a Jew like a Zionist”—I cannot help feeling that Cohen’s desire to make an impression on the reader comes at too high a price, and that cleverness without taste, knowledge or wisdom is a poor foundation for a book—about Israel or anything else.
So, to sum up Cohen’s view: More Jewish criminals — good, more law-abiding, successful Israelis — bad.