Some religious obscurantism about Steve Cohen

Steve Cohen died on the conclusion of Shabbos Zachor – the sabbath before the festival of Purim. This literally means the sabbath when we remember. We remember the terrible deeds of the Amalekites against the Israelites in the desert just after leaving the bondage of Egypt. The Amalekites picked upon the vulnerable, the weak and the stragglers. Purim celebrates the confounding of the evil plans of Haman, a Persian courtier and a descendant of Amalek, some thousand years after the Exodus, who fails in his plans to wipe out the Jews of the Persian Empire and ends up hanging from the gallows he had planned for the Jews. Amalek stands for the worst of the oppressors of the Jews – Agag, Haman, Hitler and Ahmadinijad. Famously just before Julius Streicher dropped to his death on the gallows of Nuremburg he screamed Purim Fest 1946.

Steve was a fighter against antisemitism and all oppression. He was a universalist who loved his Jewishness but was not a Jewish political particularist. He wouldn’t have liked what I’ve just written. He would have found the link fantastical and the message ethno-centric and religious. He may have thought it funny. I should think that some of the Purim story and its account of the bloody revenge exacted by the Jews on their adversaries would have troubled him, just as would the religious injunction to blot out Amalek. Steve fought antisemitism not as a Jewish nationalist and he didn’t draw zionistic or millinerial conclusions from it. Steve was a pure universalist.

And here is the great paradox. For religious messianic zionist nut jobs such as myself he was the icon of all icons in the struggle against left antisemitism. He was the prototype, the proto – Engagenik because he called the antisemitism on the left. He spoke out when the ranks of the JSG remained silent, he published when Pluto Press wouldn’t and he did so from an unimpeachable universalist position. He was like a laboratory which allowed the issue to be analysed under the most sanitised of conditions and he found beyond dispute the bacillus of left antisemitism. But of course it was disputed and he was villified and his motives were impuned and that’s why ultimately I think his universalism was wrong because it places too much faith in the power of human agency but I loved him for his purity of purpose and his nobility of his commitment.

Rav Kook, the first Chief Rabbi of Palestine loved the secular zionist settlers of the Yishuv because, despite their desecration of the sabbath, their consumption of non-kosher animals, their sexual libertarianism and their avowed atheism, they were doing the work of God. Steve was doing the work of God – he was carrying a very important message. That’s funny you don’t look like a Malach. Sorry Steve.

Malach means angel or messenger. Malachi means my messenger. Its also the name of one of the 12 minor prophets.

Malachi Wald was the name given by Michael Elkins to the leader of DIN in Forged in Fury.


(Chair of UJS in 1985, Formerly known as “The Commander”. And other names too.)

PS Engage still has my copy of That’s Funny – can I have it back now!

4 Responses to “Some religious obscurantism about Steve Cohen”

  1. Jane Says:

    I very much doubt that Steve would have taken afront at the Commander’s thoughts. Sure, they would have reaffirmed Steve’s impression of the Commander as an obscurantic nutjob, but thats ok…and hard to disagree with. In fact, Steve did intend to turn his attention back to Jewish learning after he finished writing a novel about Max Schactman and the Trotskyist Treehouse.
    (Here I feel obligated to stress that there was never a question of Steve becoming religious – that just would not have happened.)
    Thats Funny was written almost by accident. He started – so 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 as Commander said – 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.
    (And by the way- he did know the Bundist element of TF was a bit off the mark – but he couldnt find another way to express a commitment to preservation of his cultural identity.)

  2. Karl Pfeifer Says:

    To insinuate, that the Chaluzim, the secular Jewish pioneers were practising “sexual libertarianism” is one of the big lies
    of the bigots and of the leaders of Palestinian Arabs, who complained about their Jewish neighbours to the British rulers of Palestine accusing them of “Bolshevism” and “sexual libertarianism”.

    Jewish Bigots insinuated, that the Chaluzim, the Jewish pioneers practised “sexual libertarianism”. Arab leaders added to that the accusation that they are “Bolsheviks” when they complained to the British rulers of Palestine about their Jewish neighbours.

  3. Inna Says:


    I am from a conservative (albeit not religiously conservative family) and let me assure you that “sexual libertarianism” is very much in the eye of the beholder.

    In fact, it was my own “sexual libertarianism” (I was very improper in my dealings with the opposite sex in that I was too straightforward, etc.) was a source of some tension for me as I was growing up. I still remember telling my Grandmother that “Boys do not kiss a girl’s hand these days” and being told what would happen to me with That sort of attitude…

    (I won’t even tell you what happened when my would-be husband and I moved in together prior to marriage…)



  4. Karl Pfeifer Says:

    Inna there is a lot of difference, between a conservative family and the antizionist orthodox groups complaining to the British about sexual libertinism and Bolshevism.
    I lived 5 years in a Kibbuz and can say, that as a rule there was no sexual libertinism, of course – like in any society – there were also in the Kibbuz some, who practiced sexual libertinism.

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