Review – Robert Cohen on Balfour, May and the ‘wrong kind of Jew’, Cornerstone, Lancaster, Wednesday 15 November
The people who booked Robert Cohen to give a talk on 100 years since the Balfour Declaration probably thought that the small meeting room at the Cornerstone Café would be ideal – it can comfortably fit an audience of 40, after all. Well, by the time subtext arrived, the numbers had reached 70 and rising, so your correspondent squatted cross-legged on the floor. Several latecomers couldn’t get into the room at all, and experienced the talk in audio only.
So was he any good? Very. This was a well-observed political history talk, coupled with personal reflections on how Cohen has found himself labelled, as he calls it, ‘the wrong kind of Jew’. Cohen described the Jewish East End in 1917, whose political figures included Communists, Socialists and Anarchists as well as Zionists, and compared that time with now, when ‘political Zionism and Judaism have undergone a seamless merger.’ Cohen’s hero is the Jewish theologian Marc H Ellis, who like Cohen is fascinated by modern Jewish identities.
Cohen wondered whether political Zionism had truly brought Jewish safety, forecast that Jews and Arabs would both be part of the future landscape of the Middle East and unveiled, instead of the Balfour Declaration, his own ‘Boris Declaration’, in which he optimistically imagined our foreign secretary declaring one day that ‘Her Majesty’s government view with favour the establishment in Palestine/Israel of a safe and secure home for all who live there.’
There was just one thing. Cohen was billed as outlining ‘the prospect of Jewish opposition to Zionism today,’ and he certainly mentioned Zionism dozens of times, telling us at one point that he was not a Zionist, ‘even of the moderate, liberal variety.’ But he declined to define Zionism, and at one point openly challenged those who regarded it as ‘just an expression of racism and colonialism,’ stressing that ‘if that’s all you see you are failing to understand its historical and political context.’ So what was it? During the Q&A afterwards, he finally offered a definition – a homeland for the Jewish people. Was that so different from his ‘Boris Declaration’?
At the start of the talk, Cohen wryly noted that he had ‘yet to receive a single invitation from a Jewish organisation to speak’ – not surprisingly, given the declared anti-Zionist theme. Cohen’s vision for the Holy Land is one which many in Israel’s peace camp would support, so why the focus on a single word? subtext hopes Cohen returns to Lancaster soon – he lives relatively nearby, in North Yorkshire – so we can try to find out.