Remembering a Transpartisan Pioneer

Our friend and colleague Stephen P. Cohen passed away at the age of 71 at his home in Teaneck, NJ, on January 25.  For three decades Steve was the “silent broker” of peace talks in the Middle East—“the lone guerilla warrior of peace,” one Israeli politician called him.  The New York Times obituary said:

Stephen P. Cohen, a Canadian-born professor who secretly brokered peace talks between Arab and Israeli officials for three decades, died on Wednesday at his home in Teaneck, N.J. He was 71…

The son of a Jewish immigrant from Eastern Europe, Mr. Cohen found that his academic credentials and Canadian citizenship lent him the credibility to arrange the first direct and informal (but sanctioned) talks between the Israeli government and Yasir Arafat, the Palestine Liberation Organization leader, early in 1986.

Mr. Cohen also met with Anwar el-Sadat, the Egyptian president, in Alexandria before Sadat and Prime Minister Menachem Begin of Israel signed the Camp David accords in 1978. Mr. Cohen was credited with advancing other Israeli peace initiatives with Egypt and Jordan.

As an advisor and mentor to us in the writing of, and as the author of the preface to, our book, Voice of the People: The Transpartisan Imperative in American Life, Steve provided us with invaluable wisdom in the power of his thinking, the courage of his actions and the model of the life he led.  We will miss him and his counsel and offer the following remembrance.

A. Lawrence Chickering:  I first met Steve in 1981, when he started organizing high-level meetings between senior Arab-American and American Jewish leaders to explore how, working together, they might be able to advance the Middle East peace process.  Participation included high-powered business leaders from both sides: Najeeb Halaby, former Administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration, former CEO of Pan American Airways, and father of Queen Noor of Jordan; Joseph J. Jacobs, founder and Chairman of the Jacobs Engineering Group; Robert Abboud, former President of Occidental Petroleum; and a variety of Jewish leaders, including Lawrence Tisch and several former Presidents of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.

I remember the first meeting.  I was the only non-Semite in the room, and Steve asked me to speak first, providing an overview of the purpose.  The distrust—‘hatred’ might not be too strong a word—was palpable between these two groups of people who had never met and who blamed each other and their allies for the continuing conflict in the region.

The tension and distrust that was everywhere in the first meeting dissipated very quickly.  By the third meeting the participants from both sides were playing golf together.  Steve, who lived in New York, brought a network of Jewish leaders to the project.  I had a long-time relationship with Joseph Jacobs, a Lebanese-American immigrant from Southern California, who organized the Arab contingent.

It was a wonderful dream, which, unfortunately, failed to be fully realized because neither side knew how to expand the personal experiences they had with each other into the policy process.  Instead of asking each other for help in understanding the other side’s grievances and aspirations, both sides started pushing the other to put pressure on “their” country in the Middle East to make concessions.  As a result, the relationship between them deteriorated without seeing the impact both desired.  It was an early step in transpartisan foreign relations.

If the parties had carried their own experiences with each other to the region, the result might have been different.  When Steve and I first came together, with this inspiring group of Arab and Jewish Americans, the tension and conflict were rooted in distrust, which was caused, in turn, by lack of personal contact.  When the members of the group started to interact, trust began to grow, and they started to see each other as human.

From this personal trust nourished, nudged and promoted by Steve, they started to see possibilities that were hidden before.  If they had gone together to the region and sponsored programs bringing Palestinians and Israelis together, perhaps things might have been different then, and even now.  Many programs have done this since then with great success, but only on scales not yet big enough to significantly affect the larger narrative of conflict and distrust.

Steve himself wrote about what he encouraged us to see as the answer in the preface he wrote to our 2008 book, Voice of the People, restated here from our previous note:

The lesson from the Middle East is clear: there can be no peace without trust and no trust without peace and both trust and peace require personal subjective contact among individual people of strong competing loyalties.

The key to trust is doing things together.  It is engaging people in common purposes.  When people come together in real engagement, their conflicts and differences start to melt away sometimes very quickly.

Building personal trust is still possible today, and today one might add social media telling stories of engagement and of each side honoring the other as a tool offering a broader opportunity then tools available in 1981.

One of Steve’s earliest activities in the Middle East occurred in 1973, after Egypt launched its surprise attack on Israel, thus launching the beginning of the Yom Kippur War.  Steve was teaching at Harvard at the time, and he took a leave of absence and enlisted in the Israeli army.  As the New York Times obituary described his purpose, it was to ‘use his training as a social psychologist to bolster morale at the front.’

In the 1970s Steve organized crucial breakthrough negotiations between Israel and its neighbors.  These included meetings with Egyptian President Anwar Sadat before Camp David, between Sadat and Israel’s Moshe Dayan, and the first official talks between Israeli representatives and the PLO.

During this time he also organized the first meetings between Shimon Peres and Sadat and between Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres and Abba Eban with the leaders of the National Democratic Party (Egypt).  Dayan and the future United Nations Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali encouraged him to establish the institute that would become the Institute for Middle East Peace and Development, which he directed until the end of his life.

Steve continued his inter-group peace efforts throughout his life, collaborating on two interfaith dialogue projects—in 2004 and 2010—which focused on breaking down one of the most consequential divides of our time: the divide between the U.S. and the Muslim Middle East.  The programs brought together religious scholars and graduate students from the faculties of Islamic theology, law, and religious texts from Al-Azhar University in Cairo to meet with their Jewish and Christian counterparts.

The program dealt with two aspects of American culture: its legal foundations and its religious traditions.  The participants discussed essential legal principles and traditions, such as freedom of religion and freedom of the press, which shape and define American society, culture, and values.  After a general study of constitutional law, discussion moved to preconceptions expressed by many of the Al-Azhar participants about American legal principles and how they apply to minority groups, especially to Muslims and Islam.

Given the widespread skepticism in contemporary Muslim societies regarding U.S. commitments to civil liberties and due process, the project devoted an afternoon to the legal issues surrounding these rights.  Once the principles of American law were clarified, with their inherent complexities and tensions, the students were ready in the second week to discuss the experiences of different religious groups in America, from historical as well as sociological viewpoints.

The groups interacted in multiple ways intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually.  The power of the experience became fully clear at the end of the trips when the religious leaders gave each other inter-faith blessings.

One of the most striking results of the exchange was the personal relationships that the Al-Azhar students established with their American counterparts.  Long after the exchange was over, they continued corresponding with each other, and several students have returned to the US to conduct Ramadan prayer services to local Muslim communities.  (It is interesting that these relationships were limited to religious students on both sides; no similar relationships took root between students with secular perspectives [e.g., the History of Religion] and religious students.)

Steve based his commitment to these interfaith and inter-ethnic immersions on his deep religious convictions, as he hoped the combatants’ religious convictions might help promote peace between them.  The attacks on the Twin Towers on 9/11 provoked widespread anger and even hatred, but Steve paraphrased Lincoln in his response: “[W]e must fight those among them who pray only to the God of Hate, but we do not want to go to war with Islam, with all the millions of Muslims who pray to the same God we do.”

James S. Turner:  Lawry introduced me to Stephen when we were working on Voice of the People.  It turned out to be a remarkable event.  We picked up Steve at Union Station in Washington DC and headed off to an inspiring lunch.  Lawry had filled me in about Steve’s illustrious history as a citizen provocateur in creating many negotiating pathways for the development of Middle East Peace—long before the Israel-Egypt and Israel-Jordan peace accords.

It does not appear to be an overstatement to say that Steve’s work helped in major ways to move the Middle East toward peace including his significant contributions to the enduring peace accords with Israel, Egypt and Jordan.  It also does not overstate the fact that Steve knew painfully and intimately how far his efforts and those of his allies fell short of their desired goals.  Nonetheless, in that first meeting and each conversation that followed, Steve reinforced the demand that we keep to the path of building peace through “personal subjective contact among individual people of strong competing loyalties.”

In Steve’s view, which he pressed upon us with his moral commitments, living examples, and penetrating intellect, the resolution of every contentious issue, every matter of diverse opinion, and every strongly held clash of beliefs began with developing personal relationships among individuals of strong competing loyalties.  From him we heard that putting together strong partisans from left and right who are able to know each other personally can resolve differences in ways neither party had dreamed of before they met.

As I learned to apply this process to issue after issue, outcomes emerged that I had never imagined.  Steve’s example fed and continues to feed my transpartisan experiences.

Lawry and Jim: Steve was one of the leading voices in the transpartisan movement.  The preface he wrote for our Voice of the People is as important to us today as it was when he wrote it almost ten years ago:

[The authors] advocate expanding the vision of ‘public’ beyond government to people.  They argue for a new kind of politics, one that brings people together and encourages citizens to play a greatly increased role in public spaces.  It would be a politics based on human engagement and trust, both at high policy levels and in communities across the country.

The authors propose solutions . . . to solve problems ranging from public school reform, to racial tension, to major issues of national security and foreign policy.

They advocate a strong, empowered concept of citizenship . . . [citing] examples of successful transpartisan action from all parts of the world – educational reform in India, prison reform in California, healthcare initiatives in Denmark, and social entrepreneurship in South Africa, among many other examples.  These successes need to be exposed to the world, talked about, and adapted to fit the needs of all the world’s peoples facing similar challenges.  We can often agree on the results we want; but we need to learn from one another how to achieve them.  We can truly build upon each other’s progress.

We were honored when Steve wrote these words and continue to be inspired by Steve’s beliefs, commitments, and political savvy as we remember his consequential life.  We will miss his guidance but will always have his inspiration.  God speed, Steve.

Please check out Transpartisan Note #38 dedicated to Stephen P. Cohen. We also invite you to read the full preface from “The Voice of the People: The Transpartisan Imperative in American Life” written by Stephen P. Cohen.