Steven M. Cohen

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“I respect Palestinian nationalism because I'm such a Jewish nationalist myself… I feel that clearly if I were a Palestinian, given who I am, I would be a very, very committed Palestinian activist. I'd be devoting my life to defending my people, my homeland and our human rights, both individual and collective.”

Peace Activism

1966 – 1974

American Zionist Youth Federation

North American Jewish Students Network

Interview Date
March 27, 2015

Interviewer
Aliza Becker

The Interview

Steven M. Cohen was raised in a family he describes as “non-observant Orthodox”—keeping Kosher at home, Shabbat candles, Shabbat services, but otherwise fairly lax. He was a member of Young Judaea briefly in his teens (1965-6), but Zionism was relatively unimportant to him at the time. This changed when he entered Columbia University in 1966. As was the case for so many, the Six Day War was a turning point. “With the war, I was swept of in all kinds of pro-Israel rallies. I remember holding an Israeli flag in the street and having people put money in it walking by. And there were celebrations after the war, so on and so on.” He helped to organize a new Jewish organization on campus, Kadima, and soon was working as a liaison with the AZYF (American Zionist Youth Foundation, an extension of the Jewish Agency’s Youth and Hechalutz Department, then chaired by Gen. Morele Baron).

Cohen “never saw myself as a peace activist; and I think I still don't see myself as a peace activist.” That said, he remains proud of his early and forthright support for the creation of a Palestinian state. He remembers in particular a speech given at Columbia in 1969 by Israeli politician by Aryeh “Lova” Eliav (1921–2010) as a turning point, but less a “conversion experience than a legitimation experience.” Eliav had been forced out of the Labor Party by Golda Meir, who notoriously insisted that “there are no Palestinians.” (In that regard, Cohen points out, “Golda and the Labor Party were much more retrograde about Palestinians than Bibi Netanyahu and Likud is today.”) But Cohen heard Eliav on a speaking tour of the United States, sponsored by the Jewish Agency, an indication that positions in the late 1960s and early 1970s had not hardened into firm “pro-occupation” and “anti-occupation” stances.

Cohen began to speak on behalf of negotiations and the establishment of a future Palestinian state at a time when these notions were an anathema to most American Jewish organizations. And at the same time, as a campus Zionist activist, he opposed those on the left who favored the option of a single, secular, Palestinian state. He remembers a debate at Columbia in 1970, with SDS (Students for a Democratic Society) on one side, and him and Eric Tucker, a Columbia student who was a member of Hashomer Hatzair he conducted a debate, on the other. “The other side said there should be a secular democratic state of Palestine in which Jews would vote and it would be equal rights. And I said, like no way. Your position is contrary to the wishes of the people who actually live there. You're so detached from the Middle East. What we need is two states, one a Jewish state, one a Palestinian state. I repeat this story often, because it's a badge of honor for me. I gave my first speech on behalf of the Palestinian state in 1970, long before a lot of other people even thought the question was legitimate. And I did it as a defender of Israel and Zionism on campus.”

Cohen’s commitment to and conception of Zionism had a number of sources. His Columbia professor, Arthur Hertzberg, with whom he studied for a year, was “my great teacher. Arthur was probably the greatest Zionist thinker in the 20th Century outside of Israel.” Leonard “Leibel” Fein – the social activist and Habonim alum, was another. Cohen was also influenced by the Black Power Movement. “It left a deep impression on me, and I'm sure other people too, because it questioned the prevailing assimilationist model for adjusting to America. And it said you don't have to blend in … you shouldn't assimilate. And when I was a boy growing up—this is now going back now to when I was 15 years old—I remember taking a long walk from my house to meet Malcolm X who was leading a protest at Kings County Hospital in Brooklyn. . . I was really eager to see him, because the Black Power people and separatists meant something to me and spoke to me as a Jew. I certainly admired Martin Luther King, But I had a real passion for Malcolm X, and, by the way, in a small way for Rabbi Meir Kahane, because they both represented, to me, Jewish separatism, Jewish nationalism, which still resonates with me today. Of course that’s not to endorse everything that Meir Kahane did but, on one point he was very, very powerful” To me they were saying, “We shouldn't be Uncle Toms. We shouldn't be submissive to America. We should stand up for our Jewish group rights and our business shouldn't be assimilation.”

In 1970, Cohen was one of five organizers (along with David Twersky, Alan Mintz, Aviva Cantor Zuckoff, and Mel Gottlieb) of a sit-in with 200 people at the New York Jewish Federation, 45 of whom stayed behind to get arrested. “The others were afraid of losing their student deferments and being drafted or they were going to lawyers, whatever. So the 45 of us stayed and got hauled off in Paddy wagons. The demonstration had five demands. One was for democracy. We wanted Federation to go to the neighborhoods, hold public hearings, and ask the people what they want rather than relying on the rich folks who lived up and down Fifth and Park Avenues, from 59th to 72nd Streets. Something like 13 out of 15 members of the DC, Distribution Committee, came from those Upper East Side blocks, I would later find out from Charles Liebman, a close friend, mentor, and collaborator. But we had a sense that these affluent donors making decisions were giving money to hospitals, which we thought was like a total waste of money, because they weren't really supporting Jewish interests. We wanted support for our other four demands: Jewish education, Jewish arts and culture, Jewish life on campus and for the Soviet Jewry campaign, which in 1970 we saw as being repressed by the establishment. We felt they were practicing sha-still politics, telling us not to protest publicly. You're ruining diplomatic relationships they’d claim. You'll never get Soviet Jews out this way.” Cohen was active in a number of other organizations in the early 1970s, the North American Jewish Students Network and the North American Jewish Students Appeal of which he was chair for a dozen years. “I was also on the board of the Jewish Student Press Service as well as an editor of Response Magazine, following Bill Novak.” Cohen made his first trip to Israel in 1970, as a student activist with the AZYF. “In the summer of 1971 I went back to learn Hebrew for six weeks. And then returned almost every year until 1983 when I lived there for two years on sabbatical. In 1992, I made Aliyah.”

What does Cohen think now of the current prospects of the Zionist left? “There's no reason why Jewish nationalism and collective identity and concern for Jewish safety and security can't harmonize (in fact, for me it motivates) with concern for justice for the Palestinians, with how we're treating others. We who are on the Zionist left need to learn how to bridge with others who are committed to the Jewish people and are scared for their safety and the safety of Israel and Jews. So, how do we talk to people who worry about anti-Semitism, who are worried about ISIS and all the things that Bibi says that are threatening Israel? We should accept their safety-oriented arguments, saying, in effect, yeah, that's right and because of those threats we have to get out of the Occupied Territories and make sure there's a Palestinian state – both as a matter of justice and to promote our own security.

 “So, how do we put those two things together? We can't ignore Jews' social identities. And we can't just also argue only rationally. We can't argue from principles about ethical values and universalism. I think they’re not what motivates people to make peace. The decision to end the Occupation has to come out of Jews’ and Israel’s collective self-interest. Those who argue solely out of universal principles of justice and decency alone actually undermine the peace movement. They only have a chance of organizing like-minded people, and they feed into our ideological adversaries in Jewish life, who want to cast us who really do care about Israel in a negative light, saying that we're naïve; we're disloyal; we really don't care about Jews; we've been seduced by liberal modernity and post-Zionist universalism. So, I think that we can't exclusively broadcast our deep concerns over our incredible mistreatment of Palestinians. 

“The truth is … I respect Palestinian nationalism because I'm such a Jewish nationalist myself… I feel that clearly if I were a Palestinian, given who I am, I would be a very, very committed Palestinian activist. I'd be devoting my life to defending my people, my homeland and our human rights, both individual and collective. In fact, that may be a way to explain the Palestinian side to the nationalist Jewish side; tell them to put themselves in the other’s shoes.

“This is a never-ending struggle. So people in the last Israeli election were very depressed. It's all over, some said. I can't be a Zionist. I can't be involved or we have to do things very differently. My reaction was what are you nuts? Ahad Ha'am wrote about this problem in 1892, so this is the problem we have and we’ve had it for over a century. Once you bring the Jewish People to the land of Israel and they're going to be indigenous Palestinians living there, we're going to have this contested situation. There's no one time when this conflict is over, not one time when we win and not one time when we lose. We're always fighting this ongoing battle. It's like saying, "We didn't eradicate poverty, so what now?" Well, keep fighting. There's still more things to do. Food stamps are there. Medicare is there. Healthcare is there. Good. Ok, we have more to do. There's Social Security, wonderful. But what about all the other problems? And the same thing with the Israel-Palestinian dispute. I’m afraid it's going to go on forever. Even if I live a long time, I know I will never see the end of the Israel-Palestine conflict. I just know it. And people should get used to it.”

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Biography

Steven M. Cohen was born in Brooklyn in 1950 and attended Columbia University from 1966 to 1974, graduating with a BA in 1970, and a Ph.D. in sociology. He taught at Queens College until 1992 when he made Aliyah and joined the faculty at The Hebrew University.   In 2005 he was named research professor at HUC-JIR. He divides his time between New York City and Jerusalem. His daughter and granddaughter live in Tel Aviv. His books include, with Charles S. Liebman, Two Worlds of Judaism: The Israeli and American Experience (Yale University Press, 1990) and, with Arnold M. Eisen, The Jew Within: Self, Family and Community in America (Indiana University Press, 2000).