A Lifelong Commitment To Middle East Peace
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A Lifelong Commitment To Middle East Peace

Stephen P. Cohen, who died last week at 71, is remembered for his behind-the-scenes effort to end the Israel-Palestinian conflict.

Stephen Cohen: He knew all the leaders in the Middle East, and never lost his optimism for a peaceful future. JTA
Stephen Cohen: He knew all the leaders in the Middle East, and never lost his optimism for a peaceful future. JTA

Editor’s Note: The following is adapted from a eulogy delivered at Stephen P. Cohen’s funeral, Jan. 27.

In the early 1980s, Moment magazine published a piece called “Jews to Watch in the 1980s.”

It identified 35 emerging Jewish leaders, under the age of 35, and asked each to respond to questions about their hopes and expectations for the American Jewish community.

Steve wrote, in part, that his parents “sent my brothers and me to an independent Jewish day school with a tangled identity, founded by a Russian Haskalah secular principal and a British formal Orthodox rabbi.

“These Montreal Jewish contradictions produced many varieties of Jews. I became an ardent Zionist who hated oppression of any minority, an observant Jew whose own strong faith did not shake his conviction that secularism was a more honest response for most Jews, a fluent Hebraist who wishes his parents had spoken more Yiddish at home, or at least French, a social scientist whose highest respect is for Jewish scholars, a political activist who thinks that the deeper problems are beyond political negotiation and are in the realms of culture and meaning…

“My area of focused contribution may lie at the margins of the Jewish future. Most likely in 1990, we will still be embroiled in bloody conflict with Palestinians, and many other Arabs, and cut off from vital participation in the developing world. Perhaps the prudent betting person, basing predictions on present enmities and resistance to change, would sharpen the weapons of Jewish combat, preparing to wage war, not to end it.

“I prefer to work toward reconciliation. Perhaps if I do and others join, it will seem more probably and more palpable to Jews, Arabs, and others. In peace and cooperation with Egyptians, Palestinians, and other Arabs, the Jewish people in Israel and in the first diaspora will have our first post-Holocaust opportunity for an era of religious and cultural renewal, and new opportunities for dramatic economic and social development. I would like to help portray and elaborate this alternative Jewish future; I would like to show how we can get there, including steps we can take to facilitate the process. I would like to help identify and cultivate our prospective partners in the rapidly changing and fascinating Arab and Islamic worlds.

“I am pessimistic about the likelihood that most American Jews will see in their Judaism or Jewishness a primary determinant of life goals and moral values. I am optimistic that smaller cadres of Jews will be molding a Judaism and a Jewish community more able to meet these and other human needs for those who do.”

Fascinating. Nuanced. Brilliant. Stephen Cohen.

His words express the myriad intellectual and cultural factors that shaped Steve’s heart, head and soul, and his life pursuit of Jewish learning, of Jewish depth and peace. Steve never stopped learning.   His words convey his deep love of the Hebrew language; his passion for Israel, justice and the Jewish people; and his embrace of the forces for change that were emerging in Jewish life — the chavurah movement, CAJE, Genesis II and the New Israel Fund.  In the 35 years that have followed, Steve never stopped welcoming those that were creating new initiatives to renew and revitalize the Jewish community.

His dedication to and pursuit of peace in the Middle East defined much of his life.

Through his Institute for Middle East Peace and Development, he traveled widely in the Middle East meeting major leaders. He arranged and participated in breakthroughs between Israel and its neighbors. He had numerous meetings with President Sadat, was among those who encouraged Sadat’s initiative which led to his visit to Jerusalem and helped set the context which led to Presidents Carter convening Camp David … and the peace agreement that followed. He created a back-channel for Israelis and Palestinians to meet long before it was legal to do so.

On his 70th birthday last year, one of Steve’s closest friends, New York Times columnist Tom Friedman, wrote that when he was chief diplomatic correspondent in the late 1980s and early ’90s, “this guy, Stephen P. Cohen — different from all the other Steve Cohens – kept showing up in the corner of pictures — with Yasir Arafat, King Hussein, Abu Mazen [Mahmoud Abbas], Yitzchak Rabin, Shimon Peres, Hosni Mubarak, Hafez el Assad.” Friedman kept wondering who he was, and finally met him and became good friends.

“I know the difference between the mirage and the oasis when it comes to Middle East experts,” Friedman wrote, “and Steve is all oasis. He was such a fountain of real wisdom and deep insight into the motivations and thinking of all sides. I could not resist going back to that fountain time and again.”

After the optimism of Oslo and then its sudden demise, with the murder of Yitzchak Rabin, Friedman wrote that “it was not a dream. It did happen and Steve dedicated himself to reviving that moment in all the years since. His tireless optimism has always been an inspiration for me. If more people thought and worked as hard at peace as Steve did … Israelis and Palestinians would have been at peace a long time ago.

Boutros Boutros-Ghali, who served as Egypt’s minister of foreign affairs and UN Secretary-General, wrote in the Afterword to Steve’s memoir, “The Go-Between: Memoir of a Mideast Intermediary” (Geffen): “Much has changed in the 40 years since Steve and I first worked together. Some has been for the better, but far more has been for the worse. Today, the need for a new generation of Steve Cohens — individuals outside the traditional positons of power who are willing to commit themselves to efforts that moderate hostility and engender dialogue — is as great, and arguably greater, than it was before we (Egypt) reached peace with Israel.” 

A call for a new generation of Steve Cohens — what a tribute.

May Steve’s life and the memory of his life inspire each of us to commit ourselves yet again to peace, to justice, to equality — in our country, in Israel and far beyond.

John Ruskay, a Jewish Week board member, is former executive director and CEO of UJA-Federation of New York.

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