If there is to be any hope for peace, the late Stephen P. Cohen believed, it would have to come from human relationships. From people talking to each other out of the hot glare of the public eye. From backchannel diplomacy, because that allows a degree of honesty, of genuine connection, that more open and therefore more theatrical communications do not.
That’s why his family set up the Stephen P. Cohen Seekers of Peace Fund at the New Israel Fund. Last week, the Cohens announced the fund’s first grant, for $20,000, which will go to a Jerusalem-based project called “Lowering the Walls.”
Dr. Cohen — who was born in Montreal and taught in such institutions as Harvard, where he earned his doctorate, and who created and ran the Middle East Institute for Peace and Development at CUNY’s Graduate Center — lived in Teaneck for decades. He and his wife, the Jewish educator Elaine Shizgal Cohen, were active members of Congregation Beth Sholom there. Dr. Cohen died in January 2017. He was 71.
Now, Dr. Cohen’s widow — also called Dr. Cohen — along with their three daughters, his brother, her brother, and some others, created the Stephen P. Cohen Seekers of Peace Fund. The fund, according to its mission statement, was founded to further Stephen Cohen’s understanding that “the best approach to resolving conflicts among and between parties locked in political, cultural, and religious disagreements is through direct communication and face-to-face dialogue.”
The fund is not a foundation. It’s complicated to set up a 501 (c ) (3), Dr. Cohen learned, and if she and her board had done that, they would have had to send out their own requests for proposals, and then evaluate the responses, and the whole proposition “seemed overwhelming.” So the fund had to become part of a larger organization. “We looked at the New Israel Fund,” Dr. Cohen said. “I wanted to find a project that really reflected Steve’s values, and his approach to working on conflict resolution. I also wanted to find an area where our friends and relatives, across a fairly wide spectrum from liberal to progressive, would be comfortable.” (The family has a few friends or relatives to the right of center, she clarified.)
In making the choice of the New Israel Fund, Dr. Cohen said, she knew that she was picking a group that had been the target of “attempted vilification. But it is really doing well, and the recent attacks by Prime Minister Netanyahu resulted in 3,000 new Israeli donors to the fund.” (In early April, Mr. Netanyahu accused the NIF of being anti-Israel and blamed the organization for the reaction to his back-and-forth decisions on expelling migrants.)
“There isn’t such a culture of philanthropy in Israel as there is here,” she added; that makes the new NIF donors even more worthy of note. (NIF officials estimated that some 95 percent of the Israelis who gave in response to Mr. Netanyahu’s comments were first-time NIF donors.)
“The NIF works in the areas of human rights and democracy, shared social and economic justice, and religious freedom,” Dr. Cohen said. “So we decided to look at initiatives for strengthening democracy. Those are areas where we knew that Steve’s friends and relatives would be happy to make a donation.”
Elaine and Steve had three daughters, Tamara, Ayelet, and Maya; Tamara and Ayelet both are rabbis. They also have five grandchildren. The family and friends on the advisory board, each of whom is extremely well connected in the Jewish world, “set up a designated fund, and through outreach, we have raised $132,000 in the United States, and about $5,000 in Canada,” Dr. Cohen said. She jump-started the fund with a gift, and then approached many of her husband’s friends, students, and colleagues. They were generous.
The goal is to give away about $30,000 in grants for five years. “It is a spend-down, not a foundation,” Dr. Cohen said. The advisory board plans to give away another $10,000 this year; it has not yet started to decide where the money should go next year, but Dr. Cohen is fairly certain that it will go to different groups.
Lowering the Wall, which will receive $20,000 from the fund, is an anti-racism program based in Jerusalem; it’s small scale, and so the Cohen funds it receives can make an actual, noticeable difference for the potential leaders with whom the program works. The program brings Arabs and Israelis together; because it’s about building bridges, the activity to which Stephen Cohen devoted his life, and also about education, which has been the propelling force behind Elaine Cohen’s decisions, it seems a perfect way for Dr. Cohen to help Dr. Cohen’s memory flourish.
John Ruskay is the executive vice president of UJA-Federation of New York and a decades-long friend of both Steve and Elaine Cohen.
“We were part of related communities that were trying to renew Jewish life, from the early 1970s onward,” Dr. Ruskay said. “I was involved in the New York chavurah movement, and he was in Chavurat Shalom in Boston. We were both involved in Jewish educational renewal.
“We have been doing this for a very long time.”
He describes his friend Steve as someone whose work was both invaluable and hidden. “Steve was a pioneer in recognizing the urgent need to reconcile Israelis and Palestinians,” Dr. Ruskay said. “From the mid 1970s on, he devoted so much of his life to working with the highest officials of government on both sides. He did much of it totally privately — it was backchannel diplomacy. He also supported people-to-people endeavors, which led to greater understanding.”
He remembers a story about his friend Steve. “There was a crisis in Beirut, and he simply went to Beirut and started walking. “He wanted to find Arafat.” That was Yasir Arafat, the head of the Palestine Liberation Organization; the crisis was the siege of Beirut, which ended in Arafat’s expulsion from Lebanon. Dr. Ruskay doesn’t remember the specifics of the episode; what he remembers is his friend’s irrepressible chutzpah — and seemingly contradictory but nonetheless enormous capacity to keep secrets, if bridges could be built on those untold truths.
“His memory can provide both a model for what one person could do and can inspire others to seek ways to bridge the impasse,” Dr. Ruskay said.
Dr. Eva Fogelman, a Manhattan-based psychotherapist who specializes in trauma in general and the trauma of second-generation Holocaust survivors in particular, also sits on the advisory board for the Stephen Cohen fund.
Dr. Cohen changed her life, Dr. Fogelman said.
She remembers the first time she saw him. It was in 1972, at a conference of the Network of Jewish Students, an activist group that was both very much of its time and very, well, Jewish. “I remember that after the official program was over, a whole bunch of people got together in one of the rooms — it was a very dingy room, somewhere in New York,” she said. “He was pontificating about vocation versus avocation. It always sort of stuck in my mind.” Dr. Cohen always did have strong opinions.
Later, Dr. Fogelman moved to Cambridge, where Steve and Elaine Cohen lived; they were active in the same political and egalitarian religious groups and came to know each other well. She remembers that “Steve had a shortwave radio, so when the Yom Kippur War broke out in October of 1973 we would listen to the news.” Steve and a friend, Bill Novak (who went on to write books about Jewish humor) put together a newsletter called the Mideast Probe, Dr. Fogelman recalled. “Then a whole bunch of us who had cars would deliver them to influentials in the neighborhood.” Those so-called influentials included such New York Times columnists as Anthony Lewis, and the information in the newsletters in fact occasionally did surface in Lewis’s columns. “Most people did not have shortwave radios,” Dr. Fogelman pointed out. “One of the things that Steve always said is that information is power.”
When Dr. Fogelman worked on the doctorate, Dr. Cohen was her advisor. “He was a major influence in my life, intellectually, personally, socially,” she said. “He always was a feminist in his outlook, and in those days we had very few religiously committed Jews who were feminist.
“We did not know about all his activities,” she added. “We didn’t know about his meetings with people like Arafat. He kept them quite secret. We knew that he was doing things, but we didn’t know what he was doing.
“I am just one person whose life Steve influenced in a major way,” Dr. Fogelman concluded. “He believed in me, and what it was that I could do — and that changed my life.
“So this advisory board now is trying to make sure that the work he started will continue.”