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A Life Exemplifying Reconstructionist Values

February 3, 2017

The author, academic, and activist Stephen Philip Cohen, Ph.D. died last month at 71. (Read the New York Times obituary.) The father of Rabbi Tamara Cohen, ’14, he was a living example of Reconstructionist values, illustrating a commitment to dialogue and process, a love of knowledge, a fine grasp of nuance, a passion for Israel and the Jewish people, and a strong drive to make the future more fruitful than the past.

“Both sides in the peace process are using that process to drive wedges among their enemies. If they are not stopped - indeed, if bridges are not built precisely where they now seek to divide - real peace will be impossible,” the late scholar and diplomat wrote in a 1989 New York Times opinion piece.

“Thus, the peace process,” he continued, “is being carried on for the secondary tactical benefits of weakening the enemy, as well as with the hope that it might bring peace.”

Presciently, he wrote those words four years before the Oslo Accords were signed and a decade before the peace collapsed in the wake of Camp David and the Second Intifada.

Cohen’s words epitomized his approach to the Middle East. His views were imbued with deep nuance. He saw clearly the cold facts and reality, and that the line between waging war and pursing peace could be thin. He was deeply committed to peace and often cast blame on both sides for its failure to manifest. He was not a naïve optimist, but in the Times piece and in all of his writings on the conflict, he expressed the possibility that there could be peace. If he was certain about anything, it seemed, it was that peace could be achieved if only enough Palestinians and Israelis believed it necessary – and could convince their leaders of the same.

Cohen, who founded the Institute for Middle East Peace and Development, played key, behind-the-scenes roles in laying the groundwork for the historic 1979 peace agreement between Israel and Egypt. In 1986, he set up the first ever official meeting between representatives of Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization. He was an active member of the Senior Working Group on Middle East Peace at the United States Institute of Peace, and for a decade served as Senior Scholar at the Israel Policy Forum.

He wrote about the secret 1986 talks for the first time in his 2016 memoir, “The Go-Between: Memoir of a Mideast Intermediary.”

Boutros Boutros-Ghali, the late Egyptian diplomat who in the 1990s served as Secretary-General of the United Nations, wrote the afterward to the book.

“Much has changed in the 40 years since Steve and I first worked together,” Boutros-Ghali wrote. “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 positions 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 in the years before we reached peace with Israel.”

Just last year, the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College presented Cohen with the prestigious Keter Shem Tov (The Crown of a Good Name) at commencement. The award recognizes distinction in scholarship and communal service in pursuit of Reconstructionist ideals.

He was also deeply immersed in multifaith engagement, working in the early 2000s to create the Summit for Interfaith Respect, assembling Catholic, Greek, Orthodox, Protestant, Muslim and Jewish religious leaders from around the world.

“The tensions that currently characterize relations among many national and religious communities require high-level discussion about ways to advance respect and understanding across faiths,” he wrote in the Forward.

We are fortunate to know so well the body of Stephen Phillip Cohen’s life work. It demonstrates that Reconstructionist values do help repair the world.

In addition to his wife, the former Elaine Rachel Shizgal, he is survived by three daughters, Rabbi Tamara Ruth Cohen, Rabbi Ayelet Sonya Cohen, a graduate of the Jewish Theological Seminary, and Maya Orli Cohen, five grandchildren, and a brother, Prof. Richard I. Cohen of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.