On Steve Cohen

A bringing together of those memories that made it onto the web so far. Apologies in advance for the omissions, and I’m sure there’ll be more to come.

Jane Ashworth:

Don’t Organise, Mourn!
Steve was smart with words – he liked playing with them.
That’s Funny, You Don’t Look Antisemitic is a great title for a book; No One is Illegal is a clever campaign name. (http://www.noii.org.uk/)
Right now, ‘Don’t Organise, Mourn!’ – his only slightly tongue-in-cheek injunction to grieving friends’ seems as tidy and insightful as anything else he came up with.

More Jane:

“Thats Funny was written almost by accident. He started – so he told me – with the intention of writing about the Lebanon war but was horrified by the coverage in the left press. He understood exactly what he read and …he called it good and proper.
Commander is right to see Steve as a universalist – a real one who didnt think that required assimilation. He was against the ‘machers’ but he always knew who he was – and thank god for that because there’s nothing so distasteful as an ambivolent, inside out communalist/anti-communalist.
The comments about Steve on this site and in other places too have reminded me about Steve the politico. Seeing him more or less everyday for the last months of his life I’d lost that perspective and just seen him as Steve, my highly entertaining pal. Starting to step back and look at his political contribution pulls me up sharpish. I knew why we needed to republish Thats Funny -for instrumental reasons – it stood for the forging of the red-blue alliance in the student world of the 80’s that carries on today – but I hadnt thought about its actual contribution. It was important and Steve had the balls and a brain to write it.”

Lonnek on Indymedia:

“In 1984, Steve wrote a text titled “That’s funny, you don’t look antisemitic”. A careful account of the history of anti-semitism on the left in the UK, it also presents a differentiated analysis of Zionism and anti-Zionism. This text, re-published on the net in 2005, represents a valuable intervention in the current debate within the UK left about Palestine and the politics of the state of Israel.

Two positions seem to be impossible to reconcile: One accuses certain discourses amongst anti-Zionist supporters of the struggle of the Palestians of Anti-semitism. The other accuses this criticism of Zionism.
Steve had “one foot in the camp of the anti-Zionists and yet he [was] still mortified by left-antisemitism” (Engage Online). His position shows one way to oppose the Israeli occupation of Palestine without falling into anti-semitic ways of thinking and feeling.”

Paul Frosh on Engage:

“There are books which seem not only to speak for a generation but also to create one. I think that’s true of Steve’s That’s Funny – it not only gave a brilliant historical and critical account of left anti-semitism that resonated, tragically, with the personal experiences of many of us at the time (mid-80s), but also became a way of identifying like-minded fellows and cementing bonds with them: anyone who had read and appreciated That’s Funny was fundamentally alright. That’s why it holds an important place in the memories of those who were active in the left and the student movement at the time. Like most of those who read Steve’s book, I never met him personally, but what made That’s Funny more than simply a superb critique (no mean feat in itself) was the way his personality seemed to emerge from it: humane, sharp as a knife, ironic, and not prepared to suffer fools (or the socialism of). I’m sure that Steve the man was much more than this – you can’t reduce a life to a book – but perhaps the real magic is that he’ll be remembered with great affection by people like me, people who have no idea what he looked or sounded like, but who will continue to treasure his voice.”

Socialist Resistance:

Steve Cohen, who fought so powerfully for migrants and the oppressed these past four decades, died at around 5am on Sunday morning (8th March, 2009). Steve had worked with many of us over the decades, as a member of the International Marxist Group, as a Jewish socialist and as a leading campaigner for migrants rights. Bob Hughes sent the following comment:

“He’d been suffering from rheumatoid arthritis for fifteen years, and despite terrible pain and increasing disability kept on with his writing and campaigning and continued to be a tower of strength and source of inspiration to all around him, almost to the very last.

In the end, he went peacefully, with his closest friends and family beside him.”

Workers’ Liberty:

“If you didn’t know Steve, he was a prolific writer and campaigner, most recently the driving force behind the No One Is Illegal group (after writing a book of that name for Jessica Kinglsey Books, published in 2001). NOII has been a catalyst for the recent growth of No Borders activism in the UK and beyond.

Steve worked for years as a campaigning immigration-law barrister, fighting and winning many landmark cases and setting up the Greater Manchester Immigration Aid Unit (GMIAU). Took part in numerous Anti-Deportation Campaigns.

If you want to make a donation in his memory, please make the cheque out to Arthritis Research and send it to GMIAU 1 Delaunays Road, Crumpsall Green, Manchester M8 4QS”

David Rosenberg on Socialist Unity:

“I knew Steve from 1978 when he joined the JSG, and one of the first impacts he had on us, and later on other groups within the left and anti-racist movements, was the importance of the history of immigration control.

He did a lot of original research unearthing aspects of the 1905 Aliens Act and from this research he wrote about how every key principle of racist immigration practice and the machinery to implement them, was enshrined in that first act of 1905 – the idea that some people were considered “undesirable”, the use of medical criteria to exclude, and powers of deportation after people were permitted entry.

When I first met Steve he was also promoting a self-published book of his sharp and very humorous poetry entitled “The Jews and the Genitals”. Unfortunately I lost track of where my copy went to but we republished one of the poems in the mid 80s in the second issue of our magazine, called “the Epsteins and the Frankensteins: an everyday story of Jewish family life” in which he wrote about “fascism, zionism, the Jewish family – the triple polarities of Jewish sadness”. Still true!”

Aly McIntyre on Socialist Unity:

Steve, I went to your memorial meeting tonight (12/3/09).
To see jews, muslims and socialists together, remembering
you, said it all.

Our day will come, Venceremos – TAL.

Bob From Brockley:

I was shocked to read this morning at DST4W of the death of Steve Cohen. I first came across him in the very early years of my political development, when I was given a copy of his 1984 pamphlet That’s Funny You Don’t Look Anti-Semitic, a brilliantly written account of British left antisemitism, tracking it from its early days in Hyndman’s day to the vicious debates of the 1970s and 1980s campus left. This was the period of the Sunderland Poly JSoc ban and of the Perdition controversy, and I had my first experiences of versions of left antisemitism in the anti-fascist and student movements I was involved in. Steve’s booklet put its finger on what was wrong with the left in a way that instantly made sense, and provided the resources to challenge it. When Engage re-published it in 2005, it seemed incredibly timely.

Jon Pike:

““That’s Funny” was a pradigm shifitng book for me too, first in the 1980’s, and then, when I had cause to reach for it again in 2005. Steve’s contribution is immense. It’s one of the few books of which you can say, the more people read it, the better the world is.”

Hak Mao:

“At xmas 1967 I used to go around chanting Ho Ho Ho …Chi Minh. At pesach 1968 I got kicked out for saying ‘Next year in Saigon'”.

You will be sorely missed friend.

Jim on Shiraz Socialist:

“Steve Cohen – internationalist, anti-racist, activist, intellectual and “anti-Zionist Zionist” – died this morning.

He’d been gravely ill and in pain for a long while, but he kept fighting for as long as his increasingly frail body allowed. He loved literature and was himself a fine writer. Perhaps his greatest (and most controversial) piece of writing was “That’s Funny, You Don’t Look Anti-Semitic”, first published in 1984. ‘Engage’ (an organisation that Steve didn’t always agree with), republished this invaluable little book in 2005.”

Ben on Z-Word:

“I first read Steve’s book on left antisemitism – the brilliantly-titled That’s Funny, You Don’t Look Antisemitic – when I was a student at Manchester University in the mid-1980s and, even now, I still consult it from time to time. I never got the opportunity to meet him, but going by some of his writings, I guess we would have disagreed on quite a few things. Nonetheless, if someone’s personality can be reflected in their writing, then I always pictured Steve as an individual who was witty, combative and deserving of respect.”

Matthew Kalman:

“I was shocked and saddened to learn of Steve’s untimely passing. He was a wonderful man who inspired many of us with his intellectual honesty, bravery, modesty and dark humour. I was fortunate to meet him when I was very young – he was addressing a NUS conference fringe meeting in Blackpool on Britain’s racist immigration laws – and he had a huge impact on my own political development. When no-one would publish “That’s Funny…” it seemed only natural to help find the few hundred quid needed to get it printed because we realized it was important. But no-one could have predicted its huge impact. Much of today’s parliamentary and now international work on antisemitism led by people on the Left grew directly from the groundbreaking work done by Steve back in the 1980s, as John Mann implies above.
As we say in Jerusalem: May he be remembered for a blessing.
For once, I am sure that is true.”

David Shraub:

“I imagine Mr. Cohen and I would differ on many, many things. But his efforts in challenging anti-Semitism from inside his socialist movement were extraordinary, and the contribution he’s made to progressives of all identities and stripes in fighting anti-Semitism are beyond measure.”

Bruce Robinson:

“Richard Gold, a good friend of Steve’s, said he asked Steve a few weeks before he died which organisation he would join today if his health permitted him to be fully active. He replied that he would join the AWL.

None of which is to bask in Steve’s reflected reputation or claim Steve as an “orthodox” supporter of the AWL. His politics were too individual for that and he had many disagreements with us — such as on two states in Israel-Palestine where, perhaps reflecting sympathies for anarchism and an opposition to borders and states that underestimated the importance of the national question, he favoured “no states”.

He also differed on forms of organisation, rejecting democratic centralism. He said he was an “anti-Leninist”.

Steve drew some political lines very sharp. I tried to discuss with him a few weeks ago his response to the construction workers’ strikes, which he condemned outright as “racist strikes”. Unfortunately he was too ill to discuss this. On other political issues, though, he could be a “softie”, which might come from his years in the IMG, or from what Richard Gold called his “nice politics”.”

Dave Landau, a long obituary including:

“Steve saw the weaknesses in the movements resisting different aspects of immigration controls: the idea that there can be some kind of fair and non-racist controls; not seeing the need to marry forthright campaigning with legal tactics; and a lack of knowledge in different professions about how immigration controls impact and what to do about it. Steve set about dealing with these by writing a series of books. ‘Immigration Controls, the Family and the Welfare State’, ‘No One is Illegal’, ‘Standing on the Shoulders of Fascism’ and ‘Deportation is Freedom’ which draws close parallels with the ‘newspeak’ described by George Orwell in 1984 and the discourse of the ‘immigration service’ (there’s a good example), the Home Office and Government.

Illness forced him to leave the Unit but he continued to write. He became increasingly aware of the need for a voice which openly called for the abolition of immigration controls and with the assistance of a few of us comrades wrote the No One Is Illegal Manifesto. This led to the establishment of No One Is Illegal group which has organised conferences, published a number of pamphlets, pushed for defiance of controls amongst the caring professions and so forth. Since then there has emerged the No Borders Network and the Campaign Against Immigration Controls all strongly influenced by the ideas of the manifesto and in the last year of his life Steve was concerned to find a way to bring these all under one umbrella.”

Seems fitting to end with the man himself, to Engage:

“…there can be no genuine internationalism, no genuine international solidarity, no meaningful working together of ordinary people wherever tribalism or communalism dominates. And at the moment it is precisely these reactionary formations that dominate both Muslim and Jewish communities-and the tragedy is they are hardening. It would be good if Engage put its energy into helping soften them.”

3 Responses to “On Steve Cohen”

  1. Frank Adam Says:

    A long life to Steve’s family…! It is barely a month that I arrived on the doorstep of his block of flats to deliver a branch newsletter to one of his neighbours and was surprised to see him being aided into a car to go to hospital for his appalling arthritis.

    He was very much the worse for wear but intellectually as feisty as ever and seeing me we were barely past the pleasantries and he turned furiously on a point of Labour policy only to be almost levered into the transport. Talk about, “Bear it forward till we fall…”

    Most of my memories are of the mid 70’s when he was working in a law centre and joined in several early meetings of Jewish Socialists’ Group which started in Manchester as a general alliance of all sorts of Jewish Socialists Z and non-Z to defend the right of Jews and Israel to exist in the aftermath of the Yom Kippur War. By 1982 JSG had become a London Bundist Shul and many of the originals left for other pastures, myself to the Labour Party and I saw Steve when canvassing on my ward in which he lived.

    His first edition is still on my shelf and I was consulting it only last week. Long may it tickle brains.

  2. Celebration of Steve Cohen’s Life « ModernityBlog Says:

    [...] Engage, JSG and various campaigns that Steve was involved in, have organised a celebration of Steve Cohen’s life which will take place this Sunday, 5th July [...]

  3. Live dangerous – shop at Marks and Spencers. A poem by Steve Cohen. « Engage – the anti-racist campaign against antisemitism Says:

    [...] Live dangerous – shop at Marks and Spencers. A poem by Steve Cohen. August 7, 2009 — Mira Vogel In comments to an earlier post, Richard Gold drew attention to this poem by independent Jewish socialist Steve Cohen. [...]


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