What was a nice Jewish boy doing meeting with Haffez Assad two months before the Syrian dictator’s fatal heart attack in 2000?
The answer to that question tells the story of Dr. Stephen P. Cohen of Teaneck, who died last week at 71. The meeting with Mr. Assad was the culmination of a quarter century spent meeting with Arab leaders. The meetings first were in Cairo, later in Beirut and Tunis, in Paris and Brussels, and even — and this was a sign the Cairo meetings bore fruit — in Jerusalem. Dr. Cohen made a passion and then a career as a Jewish interlocutor who, with varying degrees of success, helped tear down the personal and political walls between Israel and its neighbors.
He was born in Montreal. His father was an immigrant who came from Lithuania; his mother was born in Canada. He went to a nominally Orthodox day school through high school — those were the days where a yeshiva high school graduating class would have barely more than a dozen students and the faculty would be a diverse mix of Orthodox rabbis, ardent secular Yiddishists, and non-religious Israelis. For college, he stayed in town, attending McGill University and majoring in social psychology. He was president of the campus Hillel. His vice president was Elaine Shizgal, a year behind him; they married when she graduated in 1967, two weeks after the Six Day War
The Cohens moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts; Stephen earned his doctorate in social psychology at Harvard and then taught there for five years. The radical student activism of the 1960s had birthed a Jewish counterculture, and Stephen was active in it, first as a student and then as a professor. He co-founded a magazine, Genesis 2, and became a leader in the activist Jewish Student Network. In the wake of the Six Day War, the Jewish counterculture was advocating policies well to the left of Israel’s Labor government. In exchange for not protesting the Israeli prime minister’s visit to America, the Network was granted a private meeting with Golda Meir. Dr. Cohen peppered her with questions about the Palestinians. She was not happy — but it was better than a public protest.
Dr. Cohen’s first involvement in the Middle East conflict came in 1968. Students were beginning to mobilize in favor of the Palestinians, and the Harvard Divinity School planned a conference. Harvard’s Hillel rabbi called the school dean. “You need a Jewish student working with you, and Stephen Cohen is it,” Elaine recalled this week.
“He put together a remarkable conference that had Israelis and Palestinians and Christians and Jews,” she said.
In 1971, Stephen worked with a senior colleague, Dr. Herbert Kelman, who had fled Austria with his family in 1938, when he was 11. The two men taught a graduate seminar on social-psychological approaches to international relations. Among their students was future Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. This led to a workshop on conflict resolution that brought Israelis together with Palestinians who identified with the PLO.
The Yom Kippur War in 1973 shocked Stephen, mobilized him, and ultimately focused his energies.
“He felt people didn’t have access to the whole range of news,” Elaine said. So he and a friend started a mimeographed publication they called Mideast Probe. Listening to Israel radio and BBC reports on a shortwave radio, Stephen would dictate the articles; William Novack, who later would co-author “The Big Book of Jewish Humor,” would type them; they would run off 30 copies on a mimeograph machine to which they had limited access, and then, in the middle of the night, they would deliver them to thought leaders and op ed writers like Anthony Lewis of the New York Times.
“This went on for about six weeks,” Elaine remembered. Then Stephen asked for a leave of absence from teaching and went to Israel. There, he was sent to the front to use his psychological training to work with battle-shocked soldiers.
“The realization that these Israelis were not the invulnerable soldiers of my childhood imagination had a real emotional impact on me,” he wrote in “The Go-Between,” a memoir published late last year. He vowed “to devote my professional abilities to help prevent another traumatic war.”
In 1975, Stephen traveled to Egypt and Jordan and Lebanon with Dr. Kelman and a Lebanese professor whom he had befriended in America. In Egypt, he met a Cairo University professor who headed the Centre of Political and Strategic Studies, an institution focused on understanding Israel. This professor’s political star was starting to rise. His name was Boutros Boutros-Ghali. At Cairo University, Stephen knocked on faculty office doors, asking if anyone wanted to work with them on conflict resolution. Someone called the police. “Getting arrested, as it turned out, was the best thing that could have happened to me,” he wrote.
President Anwar Sadat’s spokesman learned of the arrest, arranged for Dr. Cohen to be freed, and spoke with him at length.
A year later, Boutrous-Ghali’s center invited Drs. Cohen and Kelman back for a roundtable discussion.
“I told them that I believed the Israeli people would be shocked by an Egyptian peace initiative, much as they had been shocked by Egypt starting a war three years earlier,” Stephen wrote in the memoir. “I added that a surprise step by Egypt toward peace might cause Israel to reconsider its ironclad vow to hold on to the Sinai.”
Back in Israel, Stephen updated top Israelis on what he understood to be Egyptian attitudes toward the possibility of a peace surprise. When President Sadat surprised the world with an offer to visit Israel, Dr. Cohen was not surprised. Soon he was meeting with Dr. Boutros-Ghali in Jerusalem, when the Egyptian stayed at the King David Hotel as part of President Sadat’s retinue on the historic visit to Jerusalem.
Dr. Cohen had established himself as someone who could speak and listen to Israelis and Arabs and earn each side’s trust. Dr. Kelman’s academic research had argued that trusted third parties could work to help bridge conflicts; Dr. Cohen proved that true. Having premised their response to Israel on non-recognition and non-negotiation — and not particularly trusting American diplomacy — Egypt turned to Dr. Cohen to sound out whether the risk of negotiation and dropping its posture of rejection would be worth it. Even after President Sadat went to the Knesset and began direct talks, Dr. Cohen continued to play a role as a go-between, sometimes meeting with President Sadat, sometimes with Israeli leaders, sometimes relaying plans for meetings between Israeli and Egyptians in European hotels. Those meetings paved the way for President Jimmy Carter’s summons to the two sides to what became 13 days of negotiations at the Camp David presidential retreat.
Once Egypt and Israel signed a peace treaty calling, among other things for Palestinian autonomy, President Sadat felt that it was time for the Palestinian Liberation Organization to reach out to Israel. He summoned the PLO’s ambassador to Egypt for a conversation on how to do so. Among President Sadat’s suggestions: Reach out to Dr. Cohen.
And so it was in 1982 that Dr. Cohen first met with Yassir Arafat, in the PLO-controlled section of Beirut known as Fatahland. It was shortly before Israel would invade Lebanon to expel the PLO. Israelis could not legally speak with the PLO, but at least one Knesset member wanted to send a message to Arafat: Stop your activities in Lebanon, or there will be an invasion.
“Then let them come,” Arafat told Dr. Cohen.
Of course, they came. And when Dr. Cohen next met with Arafat and his senior aides, it was in Tunis, where the PLO had relocated after the invasion of Lebanon. Dr. Cohen met several times with PLO leadership there; he later said that they did not believe that he was not an Israeli agent, although he told them he was not. The meetings led to more meetings between PLO officials and actual Israeli intelligence agents; Dr. Cohen helped arrange the rendezvous, sat at the table, and wrote up the minutes in painful longhand. He ate the cheese but not the meat at the meal the Israelis brought because he kept kosher. The topic of these meetings: Israeli prisoners of war held by the PLO.
It would be seven years until the Oslo Accords brought negotiations between the PLO and Israel to the public light. There were other channels, and discussions had many fits and starts as the desire to communicate jostled with the realities of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and internal Israeli politics. Dr. Cohen would talk with both Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Rabin — not always the most trusting of partners. Last week, family and friends eulogized him as an incredible listener. Reading his account, you can see that it may have been this quality, as much as his neutrality, his position outside the immediate political arena, and his ability to relay details about his Arab interlocutors, that made him invaluable to Israeli leaders.
After living two years in Israel in the 1970s, Dr. Cohen began teaching at the CUNY Graduate Center in Manhattan, and the family moved to Teaneck. In 1985, he returned to Montreal to head up the CRB Foundation started by billionaire Charles Bronfman. Then he received funding to make his Mideast conflict resolution work his full time endeavor. It was a task that involved a lot of travel but no set location as a base. That enabled Stephen and Elaine Cohen to move back to Teaneck, when she got a job as head of school at what is now the Golda Ochs Academy in West Orange.
For his three daughters, his foreign travel was mysterious.
“We either weren’t allowed to know or weren’t allowed to say where he was,” his oldest daughter, Rabbi Tamara Cohen, said. “We called them trips to Never-Never Land.”
After 1993, it seemed the world had caught up with him. But it also put his work into a more public light.
For his children, “There was a lot of pride and some fear,” she said. It was hardest for the youngest sister, Maya.
“She was in high school in Montreal where there was a backlash against Oslo,” said the middle daughter, Rabbi Ayelet Cohen. “Her friends would say, ‘Your father wants to give away the Golan’ in this very accusing way, as if he could give away the Golan.”
It was in the 1990s that Stephen began his visits to Syria and talks with Assad. They had been arranged by a onetime army mate of Assad’s who lived in America. Assad was clear that his goal was the Golan. Prime Minister Rabin had indicated that he might be willing to return the Golan Heights to Syria in exchange for peace. In 1999, Dr. Cohen helped broker a possible preliminary deal with Aryeh Deri, the leader of Shas, the third largest party in the Knesset. The plan was that Deri would travel to Syria, endorse trading the Golan for peace, and Assad would return the bones of the Israeli spy and national hero Eli Cohen to Israel.
But this was not to be. Deri was indicted for fraud even as Prime Minister Ehud Barak ratcheted up conflict between his party and Deri’s. When Barak met with Assad in Washington in 1999, the results were disappointing to the Syrians.
So in 2000, Dr. Cohen was hoping to help move the process forward. What would have happened if Assad had lived more than two months? The possibilities range from 1990s visions of Edenic peace to contemporary visions of Syrian chaos.
Stephen’s career as a globetrotter ended in 2005, when he had a septuple bypass surgery. He continued writing and analyzing the Mideast conflict. He continued to go down to Washington for quasi-official workshops with think tankers and former government officials..
“People were always calling for advice and analysis and his take on the situation,” Elaine said this week.
Stephen gave this summation in an article published in the Forward posthumously: “It is hard to imagine a future between Israelis and Palestinians free of burning confrontation. Yet it is worth recalling that hope for peace was no greater in 1986 than it is today. Eventually, inevitably, the Israeli and Palestinian leaders will conclude — as Peres, Rabin and Arafat did in their time — that there is no way of winning, and that finding a way of living under better circumstances is the only realistic goal.”