"Children of Jihad" Author Jared Cohen
August 11, 2008Comments (2)
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At 26, Jared Cohen is the youngest member of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s Policy Planning Committee, a post he has held for two years. He is also a Rhodes Scholar, fluent in Swahili among other African dialects, a published author, an artist, and a former soccer goalie who holds the Connecticut state record for most career saves. In 1994, his parents threw him a 1960s-themed bar mitzvah party. Jared Cohen is a rising star in the Washington policy establishment – and every Jewish mother’s dream come true.
Two blocks from the U.S. Department of State, tucked in an unassuming corner of the George Washington University campus, is a tiny Starbucks with low-ceilings and empty tables; six of them. Jared Cohen appears, right on time, punctual yet distracted by the blinking device in his palm. With the exception of the occasional, deafeningly loud ice blender – it’s completely quiet and obvious why he picked this location for an interview.
Jared Cohen, 26, advises Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on Middle Eastern youth.
It certainly isn’t the green room at The Colbert Report, with which Cohen is already familiar, nor is it his personal office housed in the same building with Secretary Rice. But the modest backdrop is where Cohen feels comfortable slipping in a cold caffeine break in the late afternoon and telling me about the time he visited a Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon alone, bravely identifying himself (after some hesitation) as a Jew. Cohen, himself, doesn’t use the word “brave” when he relays the story.
As a graduate student of international relations at Oxford University, Cohen traveled often to the Middle East and war-torn Africa. Just a few years ago while traveling alone to meet General Mounir Maqdah, a leader for the Palestinian political party Fatah, Cohen found himself inside the Mia Mia camp surrounded by Hamas supporters suspicious of his American skin. Cohen asked his Palestinian peers what they thought of Americans and of Jews. The responses were not favorable. Unknowingly, the Hamas supporters assured him they would “cut off the head” of an American Jew if they ever saw one.
Maybe it’s his youth and the indestructible mentality that goes along with it or because he’s told the story so many times before, but Cohen seems unphased by his experience at the Mia Mia camp. Upon learning there was a local bounty on his head Cohen says he casually changed topics, asking his would-be murderers about their political struggles, their favorite forms of social media, what type of girls they found attractive and their career ambitions. Briefly bonded with the men and poised to share uncomfortable silence, Cohen then revealed his faith.
He still has his head.
“If I started the conversation with ‘Well, I’m a Jew so explain to me…’ I never would’ve gotten anywhere,” says Cohen. “This way forced them to reconsider their preconceived notions about Jewish people.”
Cohen, who travels extensively (previously as a graduate student interested in youth culture and now as a representative of the United States government), holds fast to three solid identities: an American, a Jew, and a youth (which he considers anyone under the age of 30).
Cohen with Bedouins in Central Syria.
As an American Jew, he considers himself an ambassador for Judaism whenever he visits another country. Raised in a Reform household in Connecticut, Cohen is not a Saturday regular but does attend services on the High Holidays and fasts on Yom Kippur. He admits, however, attending more Shabbat services when he’s abroad, always in search of a foreign country’s Jewish community no matter how small or concealed it may be. Cohen has sought out Jews in Iran and Syria, “finding a home” in their ancient and reticent synagogues. He was never involved with Hillel at Stanford University, but when he lived in England he became active in the Jewish Society at Oxford. He says rampant anti-Semitism prompted him to affiliate.
As a youth, Cohen is fascinated by the similarities between American and Middle Eastern youth culture. When he first visited Iran as a graduate student in 2004, he quickly identified the commonalities shared by Hezbollah’s youngest members and struggling American teens.
“Bottom line is terrorist organizations are gangs,” says Cohen, likening Hamas to the Bloods and the Crips street gangs that terrorize otherwise civil neighborhoods in East Los Angeles.
In the Middle East, young people join terrorist organizations, Cohen says, for the same reasons that derelict drop-outs yearn for initiation. They are seeking family, purpose and power. And then another revelation – Cohen realized that both demographics communicate in the same ways, using modern technology like text messaging and social media. He saw an opportunity for what he calls “dorm-room diplomacy,” a means of engaging youth in civil discourse.
“The best way to prevent extremism is [through] contact, “explains Cohen, speaking faster as he excitedly lays out his plan for technology-based intercultural youth engagement. “Despite all this conflict, there’s a wild card. [Using these tools,] American society can steer us in a [better] direction.”
Cohen’s preoccupation with foreign relations and extensive professional resume may seem unusual for someone his age, but for all his work building bridges between unlikely allies, Cohen is also a very average 26-year old. He uses Facebook to keep in touch with Jewish classmates and foreign friends, bemoans his multi-coffee habit as a “financial burden” and juggles two BlackBerries in a solid attempt to strike a work-life balance.
For now, it’s mostly work. Cohen doesn’t comment on the Administration, his work with the State Department or what it’s like to have Secretary Rice for a boss. But, he is happy to discuss his other passion: writing. When Cohen returned from his Middle East and African travels, he turned his observations into a book. Children of Jihad will be released in paperback later this month. Described by Tom Brokaw as a “smart, insightful…winner,” Cohen’s book portrays his terrorist counterparts, with whom he dined on a regular basis, in a rather unconventional light.
Cohen chronicles his experiences with Middle Eastern youth in a new book.
"Instead of tattered green military fatigues, they wore Armani jeans and Versace sweaters; their hair was not covered by checkered scarves or head wraps, but meticulously sculpted and styled; and rather than slinging Kalashnikov rifles over their shoulders, they lugged around bulky, heavy backpacks, more likely to be filled with books than bombs…Their political views—when expressed—were ultra extremist and they unabashedly shared them with me. But more often than not, we talked girls or sports."
As my eyes widen, Cohen is quick to clarify that he does not support, nor sympathize with, the members of these organizations.
As a Jew and as an American, he recognizes extremism as evil and ill-conceived. His book, therefore, is not a commentary on right versus wrong, West versus East.
“I wrote a travelogue,” he says with mild defensiveness. “People can draw their own conclusions.”
Children of Jihad is not Cohen’s first book and he says he’ll write many more. After visiting Eastern Africa in 2001, Cohen wrote One Hundred Days of Silence which chronicled the political and social aftermath of the Rwandan Genocide. Though the massacre occurred in the same year that Cohen was becoming a bar mitzvah, the effects of the genocide lingered into his college years. As a 19-year old Stanford sophomore, Cohen originally traveled to Africa to conduct a study on Kenyan youth. An unintended detour piqued his curiosity about the tragedy that had occurred in that region. He traveled east to Uganda, spent time talking with Rwandan victims and then entered the Congo, a nation fraught by civil war. Though the Congolese border was closed to foreigners, Cohen convinced a banana truck driver to smuggle him inside where he personally interviewed perpetrators of the massacre.
Pressed for time, Cohen obliges me and hurriedly crosses the street to pose for some photos. My colleague takes out his camera and begins snapping as rain begins falling. Despite the shining sun, a few drops become a heavy shower in a matter of seconds. Cohen is a good sport, blinking excessively but smiling as the shutter clicks. He’s survived worse conditions.
Cohen on The Colbert Report.
Then, as quickly as it started, the rain stops. Cohen extends his hand to signal his next appointment. It’s after 5 o’clock but he’s on his way back to work, phone pressed to his ear, disappearing down E Street as instantly as he’d appeared.
Chris Matthews, host of MSNBC’s “Hardball,” describes Cohen as a “young gutsy writer” who offers a fresh perspective on an age-old issue. “[He] knows that the East-West struggle is being fought over the café tables... Do the youth of the Islamic world dream of an engineering degree from Michigan State or a martyr's death? This young American has had the moxie to sit and listen for hours at those tables. In the words of the poet, Jared Cohen has taken the road 'less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.'"
Danielle Freni is senior communications associate at Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life.