Archive: Rebel without a pause

'It's open!' Geula Cohen yells when I knock on the door of her modest apartment in Jerusalem's French Hill neighborhood. 'Come in, come in,' she signals warmly with her free hand, the other one clutching the telephone which - like her cellphone, ringing to the unlikely tune of 'Jingle Bells' - interrupts her throughout the interview. 'Sorry,' she apologizes when she hangs up, shaking my hand and buzzing into the kitchen to prepare us a couple of cold drinks, simultaneously sneaking a glance over at the fax machine near the refrigerator. 'There's just so much going on.' Yes, indeed - for all of us, and for Cohen in particular. She's preoccupied with the national dilemma: The Knesset is voting yes to disengagement ('a recipe for disaster which will unilaterally bring us back to the '67 borders, or worse'). And then there's the legal imbroglio of her son, Minister-without-Portfolio Tzahi Hanegbi (innocent of all wrongdoing, she insists, in a scandal involving alleged political appointments he made to cronies while he was environment minister). That the decor of her flat is a kind of Middle Eastern Bohemian - with Oriental throw rugs, embroidered pillows, antique furniture, bric-a-brac from the Arab market, and artwork covering every inch of wall space - is no surprise when you consider the former minister and Knesset member's exotic style of dress and jewelry, and her trademark wild, curly black hair. More unexpected is her relaxed, even cheerful demeanor and her quiet conversational voice. It's the opposite of the national firebrand persona, making impassioned political speeches and arguing with left-wing protagonists on Al Yemin Ve'Al Smol, the radio program on which she currently duels with Oren Shahor, the ex-general and former coordinator of activities in the territories. 'Most people see me as a caricature,' she says, albeit without evincing particular concern, as we sit across from each other at a dining-room table cluttered with notepads, mail, and a stack of dailies. 'They don't see me as a human being - certainly not as a woman. They're surprised I've ever been in love with anybody other than Judea and Samaria.' Of course Geula Cohen (her maiden name) was in love with, and married to, Emanuel Strassberg (whose nom de guerre, Hanegbi, would later become his official last name). They met in the pre-state ultra-revisionist Lehi underground. He was a commander and she a radio broadcaster, forced to go into hiding from the British Mandate authorities. (Captured in 1946, she was sentenced to seven years in prison - for possession of guns and ammunition, and for broadcasting illegally - and escaped 10 months later by jumping out of a lavatory window of the Jerusalem hospital where she was being treated for pneumonia.) 'He was a wonderful man,' she says of her late husband with a big smile, 'but you know, love in the underground looks different when you come up.' They had been long separated when he died of cancer, when Tzahi was 18. Why did she never remarry? 'I'd probably make any man who lived with me miserable,' she laughs, infectiously. Still, the 78-year-old former Tehiya party member and Likud MK doesn't consider herself 'tough.' 'On the contrary,' she says. Her screen saver is a photo of her baby grandson, the youngest of Tzahi's four children with his American-born wife, Randi. 'I'm someone who rolls around the floor with her grandchildren. And lately I've found it really hard to watch television, because I get too emotional when I see anything sad or any injustice, like hungry children. I can't bear it; it makes me scream or cry.' Then she pauses, and modifies the self-portrait a little: 'Look,' she says, clasping her hands together and furrowing her brow, 'I'm someone who knows what she wants, without a lot of wavering. This doesn't mean that I never change my mind or opinion about something or someone - just that I am clear about my positions.' ASSESSING HER professed reputation as a 'simpleton ideologue,' Cohen sounds tough, indeed. She says, quite matter-of-factly, that the distorted image 'comes mainly from the hatred and blindness of the Left, which has always lived by cliches about the Right being boorish, primitive, and unthinking.' By way of illustration, she opts to highlight an encounter with a young, apparently leftist, reporter sent to interview her many years ago, when prime minister Menachem Begin was considering appointing her as education minister (he didn't). The reporter asked her if she'd ever finished high school. 'When I said 'yes, and I also have a BA and an MA,' she was so shocked that I felt an invisible barrier suddenly disintegrate.' The shattering of preconceptions. 'The fact that she wasn't aware of this, or of my having had a regular column in Ma'ariv for years, is a separate issue,' she added. Indeed, degrees in Bible and philosophy from the Hebrew University, as well as an autobiography she published in 1960 called The Story of a Fighter, are just a couple of the accomplishments that led to her receiving the Israel Prize for Life Achievement last year. An activist for Soviet Jewry, the founder of the Knesset lobby for Jonathan Pollard, and more recently of the Uri Zvi Greenberg Heritage Center, Cohen has been fighting all her life. When she sees me inspecting a series of old photographs - in the Lehi, with Begin, in the Knesset - she starts to give an oral tour. 'This is me during one of my Lehi radio broadcasts,' she says, pointing to a black-and-white. But then she stops herself. 'I'm not someone who is nostalgic for the past,' she says. 'Don't get me wrong: I thank God that I lived that past, that I had the opportunity to participate in the struggle for the establishment of the state, that I was part of making a dream come true. But my nostalgia is for the future.' And the likely future seems nightmarish, given her opposition to disengagement? Is the dream being smashed? 'I think we have the most wonderful country in the world,' she says. 'It's true that it has crime and other flaws, but so does every other country. I don't measure a nation by how low it sinks, but rather by how high it can reach. There is no other nation that can rise as high as this one. Look what we've created here in fifty-odd years in every field. And all this is while we are bleeding from wars over our very existence. 'And while I see part of society feeling a little worn down and in despair, I also see a part of society that's inspired and inspiring - the settlers. It is to them that I go to recharge my batteries, in spite of the fact that I'm not a religious person.' Israel's biggest flaw? The answer is immediate. 'Materialism. Now-ism. Narcissism. Everything is me, me, me. Even most of the leaders suffer from this, which, of course, has a trickle-down effect. 'This nation can't survive without mutual involvement and commitment. This doesn't only apply to social gaps; it applies to political ones as well. Gush Katif and [Tel Aviv's trendy] Rehov Sheinkin, for example, are part of the same society.' Yet, unfortunately, she asserts, the folks on 'Sheinkin' - a name she uses as emblematic of the flawed Israelis - don't always feel the kinship. The settlers, she says, her eyes lighting up, are more focused on the 'us' than the 'me,' which is why, she argues, they have so much inner strength. In addition, they haven't lost their connection to their Jewish roots, unlike so many other Israelis who, she says sympathetically, are exhausted from having to fight for survival all the time. 'And it's no wonder' that these other Israelis are suffering so, Cohen says, hands waving flamboyantly. 'I mean, what gives a plant the strength to blossom and branch out? The roots!' For all her incessant criticism of the Left, Cohen does not accuse it of bad faith. That leftists view the settlers, rather than Arab terrorism, as the enemy is due, she says almost pityingly, to what she calls their 'illusion' of peace - their 'misguided belief' that if the settlements would only disappear, peace would burst forth. And it is this illusion, she says, that feeds both the hatred of and alienation from the settlers. With a look of disgust, Cohen talks about a recent article in Haaretz, by veteran columnist Yoel Marcus. 'Marcus said that whenever he asks whether there is going to be a civil war in this country, his response is that the settlers aren't his countrymen. He's wrong and he's sick.' This she reinforces by recalling the sight of former Meretz leader Shulamit Aloni hugging Palestinian legislator and spokeswoman Hanan Ashrawi and calling her 'my sister.' Unlike the Left, Cohen says, the Right does view other Jews - even those with whom it disagrees politically - as brethren. This discrepancy, she declares, presumably excluding far-Right extremists from her equation, has always characterized the two ends of the spectrum. 'When I was in the Lehi and we were fighting the British, the Left also treated us like the enemy. Then, as well, I didn't think they weren't my brethren. I simply thought they were wrong.' The good news, she says, continually steering the conversation in an unexpectedly optimistic direction, is that there are positive processes taking place all over the country. One of these, she says, is the renaissance of Bible studies among secular Jews who are feeling the effects of the societal 'emptiness.' (Emphasizing her hip credentials with a reference to Madonna, she chuckles at the new Kabbala fad.) Another, she perceives, is that different sectors of society are moving gradually toward one another. 'The haredim are becoming more and more receptive to Zionist books, and the secular Zionists are becoming more and more receptive to religious books.' Still, she says, there is a worrisome malaise spreading too - even infecting the prime minister. 'Arik Sharon is a strong man who had something in him snap,' she says sadly. 'And though I'm used to seeing Arik wrong about all kinds of things, I'm not used to seeing him broken.' Disengagement, she believes, is Sharon's response to being beaten down by the country's loss of will and the world pressure for an agreement with the Palestinians. 'This is how he decided to withdraw from as little territory as possible,' she explains, 'and in so doing, threw a piece of meat to the hungry world and the hungry Left to keep them quiet.' What he doesn't realize, she sighs, 'is that all he will succeed in doing is whetting their appetites.' She hopes and prays that 'this kind of defeatism will not lead the country to commit suicide. The basis for our survival is that we are a nation that can suffer a lot, but cannot die,' she says passionately. 'This is because we are a nation waiting for the messiah - not literally necessarily, but spiritually - waiting and striving for a better world, to make it a better place. We have a calling.' Cohen is at the forefront of the struggle to thwart disengagement - writing, broadcasting, and rallying. She says that 'individual soldiers, whose conscience doesn't allow them to evacuate settlements, can take personal responsibility, and pay the price of going to jail.' But she is horrified by the public calls and demands for soldiers to disobey their commanders. 'Calling upon soldiers to refuse orders? No way!' Where conducting a referendum is concerned, Cohen is less decisive. She says she is firmly committed to the rule of parliamentary sovereignty. Major issues like the country's borders shouldn't be put to a public vote 'any more than the issue of whether the country should be democratic.' Still, she says referenda could be held on more minor issues such as lengthening the school day and closing streets on Shabbat. And then, coming back to a referendum on disengagement, she reverses herself: If it would help mend the split in the country, she pronounces, 'then it would be 'a good deed born out of a sin.' ' PERHAPS SHARON, rather than defeated, has just come to regard the demographics as unsustainable, and Greater Israel as an ambition he lacks the Jewish numbers to maintain? Cohen is dismissive. Ben-Gurion would never have declared a state if he had taken demography into account, she reasons. 'All the demographers say that if every family had one more child, our entire problem would be postponed for another 50 years,' she says. Hence, she says, the need to make conversions for immigrants 'as swift and easy as possible - without all this awful bureaucracy. Anyway,' she goes on, 'our greatest demographic problem is the Israeli Arabs.' So how does the mother feel to see her son opposing disengagement rhetorically yet supporting in the Knesset? There she was, outside the building, demonstrating against Sharon's plan, and there he was, inside, bolstering the majority. 'Tzahi's not only my son, he's also an idealist who fights for the things his mother fought for in his own way,' she responds with full maternal approval. 'And unlike me,' she says wryly, 'Tzahi is someone who works within the government. (Cohen resigned from the Herut party over the peace agreement with Egypt, and from the Shamir government over the Madrid Conference in 1991.) 'This requires a degree of flexibility and compromise. I always tell Tzahi that when there's a wall in my way, I'm willing to put my head through it, and lots of times, this got me injured.' She's not speaking figuratively here. She broke her thigh during a demonstration in 1991 when she was a Tehiya Knesset member. 'That's why I have back problems to this day.' And that's why she moved back to Jerusalem in 1999, after seven years living in Kiryat Arba, the settlement adjoining Hebron: She needs physiotherapy. 'Tzahi, on the other hand, isn't willing to bang his head against the wall - he looks for the key.' So while Hanegbi opposes disengagement, 'he won't leave or topple the government' over it, she believes, fearing new elections that could lead to the fall of the Likud. 'In spite of what everybody says about him, he's very level-headed,' she says. And those ministerial appointments of his 'were based entirely on whether the candidates were suitable for the job.' After all, she signs off with another jab, it's the Left that has always been 'chronically afflicted with the disease of cronyism.'