The audience politely applauded Cohen at the end of the talk, but when Wolpe opened the dialogue, some sparks – leavened by humor – were ignited.
Wolpe to Cohen: “You draw a distinction between the Iranian people and their rulers, but Iran has a long history of anti-Semitism…the Iranian government has republished the notorious anti-Semitic forgery ‘The Protocols of the Elders of Zion,’ and your New York Times column ran in the Teheran Post.
Cohen: “Then they stole my column.”
Wolpe: “That shows that it was worth stealing.”
Finally, it was the audience’s turn to confront Cohen directly, and the questions ranged from thoughtful to bitter.
“Were you paid by the Iranian government for your trip?” asked one audience member. “No,” said Cohen, though he paid an Iranian “agency” $150 a day for the services of a translator, who acknowledged that he would have to file a report on Cohen’s doings with the authorities.
Wolpe interjected that Cohen had paid for his own trip to speak at Sinai Temple.
Several questioners wondered how Cohen could take the answers of fearful Iranian Jews at face value, especially with a government translator at his side.
Cohen responded that he recognized the possibility of self-censorship by those he talked to, “but that doesn’t mean that nothing they said is of any value.”