RIP Steve Cohen

March 8, 2009 at 11:41 am (Anti-Racism, anti-semitism, good people, Human rights, immigration, Jim D, literature, Middle East)

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. Here’s an excerpt from Steve’s 2005 introduction:

Is there any way out of this mess? Particularly is there any way out of this mess for socialists in this country trapped politically between the existential linkage of anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism? Is there a wisdom of Solomon? In all humility I think so. Of course we can all have our own politics on the way forward as regards Israel/Palestine. My own vision is of a federated secular and socialist middle east. This maybe is utopic but so is socialism. So is the revolution. So is all meaningful change. However there is going to be no way forward without a recognition of the fundamental block towards any change whatsoever—namely the world wide antagonism between Jews and Muslims. The international nature of this cleavage is central. Only joint and grassroots solidarity between the players in the game can possibly open up any dialogue. In Israel/Palestine this means between the Jewish and Palestinian masses. For instance let there be a march of a hundred thousand Israeli peaceniks into the occupied territories—and let them stay until the Israeli army and the settlers march out (or co-operate with the Palestinians in the sharing of resources—including the opening up of the new townships to Palestinians). Let Engage encourage this with its co-thinkers in Israel!

In this country it means joint activity between Jews and Muslims (and socialists) with the Jewish and Muslim communities. And what this boils down to is joint activity against fascism and racism. I suggested above the necessity to start to develop a movement simultaneously based on struggle for Palestinian rights and against anti-Semitism. This is presently an abstraction. However another real movement does exist against racism which can draw the two communities together in struggle. This is the disparate movement against immigration controls—for whom the Jews were the first and Muslims the latest victims. Of course controls need to be challenged in their own right—not just as a device for unity. However the challenge can also forge a unity which presently seems a million miles away. What is more the history of the last thirty years of struggle by migrants, immigrants and refugees against controls shows something that SWP/Respect have utterly missed. This is that real, meaningful, progressive political activity within the Muslim community (and all third world communities) comes from the grassroots either by by-passing or defeating the community machers. Let Engage become involved in these struggles both because of their intrinsic political importance and as part of its commitment to challenging left anti-Semitism by building meaningful alliances!

It could begin by supporting the campaign of Samina Altaf and her two children to fight deportation. Samina’s is just one of countless stories—though I guess more immediately poignant. Having fled Pakistan to avoid repeated domestic abuse she was refused asylum here. Like all asylum seekers she is outside of the welfare state and has been forcibly dispersed into Salford by the so-called National Asylum Support Service (NASS—a wing of the Home Office). And now as a failed asylum seeker who is refusing to return “voluntarily” to the country from she fled she is being threatened by NASS with eviction onto the streets. And I forgot to mention this—Samina is disabled with rickets. And her children are crippled with rickets. Get involved with the campaign! Write a letter of support to her constituency MP—Hazel Blears that well known re-labeller of third world identity and warrior against international terrorism (address House of Commons, Westminster, London SW1). Blears happens to be a Home Office MP—so terrorise her with letters of support. And invite a speaker from the campaign to one of your meetings—whilst sending money to the campaign (address Samina Altaf Defence Campaign, c/o Bury Law Centre, 8 Banks St, Bury BL9 ODL).

Finally I think that not one iota of the above can ever be resolved through communalism, through tribalism, through uncritically supporting Jews as Jews or Muslims as Muslims. My religion right or wrong! And all due to an accident of birth. I guess I recoil when I read on the Engage website the reflection on being Jewish—”frankly I can’t get enough of it”. Jewish identity as an addiction is not much of an advert for clarity of political thought. I was shocked by a news report I read a few years ago. It is a story that deserves creative fictionalisation. It concerned a guy who was raised in a highly Zionist family (I guess High Zionism is the Jewish version of High Church). He was raised as a conscious racist towards the Palestinians. Dirty Arabs! Until he discovered he was one of them—He was an adopted son. His biological parents were, I think, Libyan. Overnight (or maybe it took a little longer) he became a vehement anti-Zionist—and Jew hater. Dirty Jews! I was struck by two very powerful televisual images during the recent eviction of the Gaza settlers by the (Orwellian entitled) Israeli Defence Force. One was that of Israeli soldiers crying. The Israeli army in tears? One of the most powerful militaries in the world! Why no tears when the Palestinians were evicted? The second image was just bizarre in its tribalism. This was that of the settlers being evicted and the soldiers evicting them temporarily desisting from their civil war and praying together on shabbos—with the evictions resuming as soon as shabbos ended. Compared to this crazy chauvinism the legendary Christmas Day football match in the trenches of World War One between German and British soldiers was a genuine act of internationalism. However 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.

Steve Cohen

Read the rest here.

Steve helped set up the ‘No-one Is Illegal’ campaign, which was his major area of activity in his last years.


  1. Dr Paul said,

    Sad news indeed. I was going to e-mail him to tell him that we are running his article ‘A Horrible History’ on unions and immigration in the next issue of New Interventions. Now it’s too late. I will include a memorial in the introduction to the article.

  2. Jane said,

    Thanks Dr Paul – I’ll draw this to the attention of his other friends and family.

  3. Jane said,

    Steve helped set up No One is Illegal – and not No Borders

  4. Jim Denham said,

    Sorry about that mistake, Jane. I’ll correct the article accordingly. Thanks for taking the trouble.

    Engage reminds us of another brilliant example of Steve’s writing: his response to NATFHE’s boycott motion:

  5. Dave Stamp said,

    I’m really very sad to hear this news: I met Steve a couple of times 2 or 3 years ago and found him an incredibly inspiring, compassionate and committed man.

    We’re all impoverished by his loss.

    RIP Steve.

  6. Matt said,

    Message from National Coalition of Anti-Deportation Campaigns:

    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). 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.

    There won’t be a funeral – he gave his body for medical research.

    There will be a small memorial service in Manchester town hall at 5pm on Thursday 12 March, and a larger, suitably festive memorial event some time in July, probably in the weekend after what would have been his birthday (July 16th).

    If you want to send a personal message of condolence to his daughter Rachel, his son Tom (and Tom’s wife Cecilia and their children Fintan and Ellen), to Sheila, Harriet and all those who loved Steve, please send it to Harriet:

    If you want to make a donation in his memory, please make the cheque out to Arthritis Research and send it to GMIAU – address below.

    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: to name just a few

    * Viraj Mendis
    * Nasira Begum
    * Anwar Ditta
    * Rahman family
    * Khan family
    * Okolo family
    * Okanlami family
    * Decardi Nelson family
    * Anderson family

    Messages of appreciation would also be welcome there (send them to the Director, Denise McDowell):

    Email: Denise McDowell
    GMIAU, 1 Delaunays Road, Crumpsall Green, Manchester M8 4QS

  7. Rosie said,

    I printed out and read Steve Cohen’s pamphlet “That’s Funny, You Don’t Look Anti-Semitic”. It’s excellent and I’m sorry I hadn’t read it years ago. I thought in my naivete that Left anti-semitism was a recent phenomenon. But what Steve Cohen wrote in 1984 is being echoed today eg Ken Loach:-

    British film director Ken Loach says that a rise in anti-Semitism in Europe since the Gaza crisis is “not surprising and understandable”.

    He was responding to a report earlier this week by the Vienna-based agency for fundamental rights (FRA) which said cases of anti-Semitism had risen across Europe since last December. . .

    But, speaking in Brussels on Wednesday, Loach said, “If there has been a rise I am not surprised. In fact, it is perfectly understandable because Israel feeds feelings of anti-Semitism.”

    Loach, famous for films like Kes, Cathy Come Home and Riff Raff, stressed that “no-one can condone violence”.

    But the director, who has spoken out against Israel in the past, branded the report as a “red herring” designed to “distract attention” from Israel’s recent military actions.

    So as long as Israel continues with its present policies, no-one should ever mention anti-semitism, in case people’s attention is distracted from Israel? When will it be okay to start mentioning anti-semitism again?

  8. charliethechulo said,

    Loach – not a bad man – of course directed Jim Allen’s anti-semitic “Perdition”. Allen was not a bad man: just a victim of the British left’s traditional anti-semitism, as exemplified by the WRP, to which both Loach and Allen once belonged.

  9. Matt said,

    Was Loach in the WRP? I know Allen was (well the SLL actually, up to the early 60’s I think) but I thought Loach was only involved with Thornett’s WSL after they split from the Healyites.

  10. charliethechulo said,

    I don’t know for sure whether or not Loach was in the WRP: I do know, for sure, that he was close to Thornett shortly after the split with the WRP. I’ve always assumed that Thornett knew Loach as a result of both having been in the WRP/SLL, but I may be wrong.

  11. On Steve Cohen « Engage - the anti-racist campaign against antisemitism said,

    […] Jim on Shiraz Socialist: […]

  12. Jim Denham said,

    Engage has done a great round-up of tributes to this great man:

  13. Jim Denham said,

    Thanks to Becky for this::
    16 JULY 1945 – 8 MARCH 2009

    Steve Cohen was committed to struggle against all forms of oppression, for justice and for socialism. This commitment was expressed both in activities and in the application of his formidable intellect to progressing struggles, often in the form of publications. No short account of his life, even one focussing solely on Steve’s political activities, can begin to do justice to the breadth and depth of these commitments. I will try to highlight some key themes.

    After studying law at Trinity College Oxford and at Birmingham University, Steve trained as a barrister and in 1970 went on to set up an adventure playground in Moss Side Manchester (!). In Birmingham Steve got involved in organising the Balsall Heath rent strike. They talked about the Balsall Heath Soviet in those heady times.

    Critical Trotskyism Steve joined the International Marxist Group in 1968 and left at the end of 1974. He was attracted to this group rather than the other myriad of tendencies on the left at the time, because of its dynamism, openness to ideas and discussion and the seriousness with it took oppressions that the rest of the left either avoided – such as questions of sexuality and gender – or which they didn’t see as fundamental; such as racism. He was also impressed by the robust anti-imperialism of the IMG regarding Ireland.

    Steve’s disenchantment with the group was around largely the same issues that attracted him. There were limits to how much the group supported self-organisation of oppressed groups, particularly when raised in relation to the internal life of the organisation. There were limits to the extent ideas outside the Marxist cannon could be introduced from feminism, psychoanalysis and new ideas emerging from the Black movement which we marshalled, for example, in trying to develop an understanding of fascism. The emphasis on debate sometimes just promoted clever debaters to the top and despite the apparent freedom of discussion and plethora of internal tendencies, there was, Steve felt, an authoritarian streak running through the group. Everyone in the IMG shared a concern about the lack of an organic link with the wider working class, but Steve others, including myself, felt that there was a retreat towards the economism that marked out so many other groups at the time, which we never believed was the key to working class politics. And he noted with irony, that as the organisation tried to make a ‘turn to the class’, there were comrades who were rooted in the working class who became more marginalised or dropped out, while the ‘intellectuals’ tried to make a ‘turn to the class’.

    Despite leaving the IMG Steve did value his experience in theory and practice in that organisation. Steve always had a high regard for Trotsky’s ideas and would often refer to the influence of these ideas, commenting that his views were often more in line with what Trotsky argued than the Trotskyist groups themselves. He developed strong criticisms of positions he had held before in the IMG. In particular the idea of unconditional but not uncritical support of anti-imperialist movements around the world bothered Steve. Those movements which were Stalinist had often been responsible for murders of thousands of political opponents; often left wing opponents in the communities they claimed to represent. Or they promoted a nationalism that would come to show its vicious side to minorities in the future. Later he argued that this prepared the way for uncritical support for groups driven by religious fundamentalism by sections of the left in recent times. Steve became very interested in the debates between Trotsky, Cannon and Shachtman around these questions. These important debates had been lost to the generation of Trotskyist in the IMG, or appeared in a very distorted form – not entirely surprisingly as Shachtman’s later evolution made his positions easy to demonise. These debates sit at the core of an unpublished novel that Steve wrote and was editing at the end of his life.

    Steve questioned Trotskyist and Leninist ideas about democratic centralism, dictatorship of the proletariat and so forth believing that we have to learn from other traditions such as anarchism and bundism.

    Ireland. A positive thing that Steve absorbed from the IMG days was an appreciation of the centrality of Ireland to the struggle for socialism in Britain – although he later became self-critical regarding the unconditionality of our support for some of the politics and actions of the Republican movements. He made an important contribution to this struggle, linking it to the struggle against racism in general, focussing on the treatment of Irish people in this country. He wrote a pamphlet against the Prevention of Terrorism Act entitled “Apartheid in Britain”. In these days of ‘war on terror’ and the racism that surrounds this, Steve’s pamphlet anticipated a phenomenon which has spread and eaten deep into the body politic since then.

    In 1976 he was invited to speak at a meeting organised by the National Council for Civil Liberties (now Liberty) about this pamphlet. The meeting was broken up by fascists and Steve was knocked unconscious.

    He got to know Moira O’Shea through his work at North Manchester Law Centre on Mental Health. When Moira was herself accused of terrorism Steve was heavily involved in her campaign.

    Jewish Socialism, Anti-Semitism and Zionism. Being Jewish was always important to Steve. Not in a religious way. But in recognising an important history, being part of a refugee people, a persecuted people and recognition that anti-Semitism is still very much alive. This has informed his opposition to racism, fascism and immigration controls. As the saying goes “two Jews, three views”. Steve regarded heterodoxy as a central part of his Jewish identity as well as of his socialism, and he challenged the ‘machers’ – the self appointed leaders of the Jewish community who claim to speak for all of us, but usually say things we are trenchantly opposed to – at every opportunity. Steve was a member of the Jewish Socialist Group off and on over a number of years and was a member when he died. His approach to life and his humour were quintessentially Jewish.

    From his IMG days onwards Steve championed the rights of the Palestinian people. Steve was more radical than many in this regard in trenchantly opposing the ‘two-state solution’ on the grounds that it was inherently racist and could only be achieved through ethnic cleansing, apartheid or a combination of both. Exclusive states, Jewish or otherwise, were anathema to Steve.

    Steve took the fight into the Jewish community itself, getting physically thrown out of a synagogue in the 80s.

    But at the same time Steve felt that there was an anti-Semitic strain contaminating the anti-Zionist movement. Some times this was a deliberate use of the anti-Zionist flag of convenience under which anti-Semitic ideas were peddled. More often it was unconscious, old anti-Semitic notions would emerge. Analyses and leaflets appeared where the tail wagged the dog, Zionism strode the international stage as a thing in itself, higher than capitalism, manipulating the great military powers such as the USA. A throwback to the old World Jewish Conspiracy ideas. He wrote a pamphlet in 1983 entitled “That’s Funny You Don’t Look Anti-Semitic” about anti-Semitism on the left. This infuriated many. Not even the Jewish Socialist Group would publish it although it was eventually published by the Beyond the Pale Collective.

    Whilst Steve looked back critically at “That’s Funny….” he believed that the central thesis remains even more pertinent today, when there are sections of the left who sing the praises of Hizbollah and Hamas. And he was very concerned that there appeared to be an exceptionalism about how Israel is talked about and acted upon, compared to other equally or more appalling regimes. He has recently characterised himself as a Zionist anti-Zionist. Zionist, not because a Jewish state is a good thing, but because of a recognition that Jews live in a hostile world in which they need protection and recognising that this a moving force behind support for Zionism. Anti-Zionism, because of the occupation, the racism and so forth of the Israeli State. He saw these as two dialectical anti-racist poles.

    He argued that campaigns and actions in solidarity with the Palestinians should always explicitly have opposition to anti-Semitism as part of their platform.

    Fighting Immigration Controls Steve’s work at North Manchester Law Centre opened a door for him on the world of immigration controls. People were coming in facing deportations, or fighting to bring in other members of their families, falling foul of internal controls through refusal of welfare, educational, health rights and so forth. What before was a theoretical opposition to immigration controls for Steve became a living issue for him as a community lawyer. He soon realised that a key to success was open campaigning and developed a partnership between community campaigns and the legal battle. He was soon involved in a number of high profile campaigns. Nasira Begum, Anwar Ditta, Said Bibi, Nasreen Akhtar in the late 70s, and later Viraj Mendi, Florence Okolo, the Rahman family campaign to name just a few.

    All this got Steve researching into the history of immigration controls and re-discovering the anti-Semitic campaigning that led to the introduction of the Aliens Act back in 1905 and bringing attention to the proto fascist group at the turn of the 19th/20th century, the British Brothers League.

    Steve saw the necessity of bringing the lessons of these campaigns and of the history immigration controls to wider public and wrote a number of pamphlets whilst at the law centre. Steve also saw the necessity of a specialist centre of resistance and legal support and campaigned for the establishment of the Greater Manchester Immigration Aid Unit, of which he was the first co-ordinator for many years.

    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.

    Mr No Polltax Steve played a small role in the monumental struggle that brought down the Thatcher’s Poll Tax. Under the name of Mr No Polltax, Steve entered into a protracted legal correspondence with Bury Council as to why he would not and could not pay his poll tax. Ironically Steve was one of the few who would be slightly better off under the poll tax than under the old rates system, but he saw it as a matter of principle to resist an unjust system.

    Disability – fighting His System and The System In 1995 Steve developed chronic rheumatoid arthritis with intense acute episodes. Over the years these became increasingly debilitating and intensely painful. This required medicines which progressively weakened his immune system leaving him vulnerable to infection and other illness. This led to him being in and out of hospital in the last few years of his life.

    Did this stop Steve fighting? No it didn’t. He still went to Lithuania, taking me as his carer, to investigate the role it had as a buffer state in terms of immigration control and alert students to the evils of developing controls. Whilst in Lithuania he took the opportunity to research the fate of his own family during the Nazi era, visiting the shtettle (Jewish village) where a branch of his family came from.

    What his illness did do was present him with a new battlefield. What he found were many wonderful dedicated workers in the health service and in the local authority caring service on the one hand, and institutions which could not properly come to grips with or even understand the issues of disability on the other. He had a series of battles large and small. One was to fight for a different design of chairs in the hospital as the existing design was unsuitable for many disabled people. Steve got involved in disability groups, bringing to their attention relationships between the struggle for disability rights and the fight against racism.

    Steve’s last battle was against the New Labour policy of privatising home care in the name of choice. The only choice he wanted – to keep his existing regular carers – was not on offer. He managed to win the battle in his own case but saw this as the opening salvo against a system in reaction and a union in retreat. So that war has yet to be won and has lost one of its most militant soldiers.

    Culture Steve often found literary expression to his political involvements. From his little book of poems “From the Jews to the Genitals” in 1975 through to a novel he just finished (as yet unpublished) just before his death relating to all of the themes above and more.

    Steve lived his life according to the No One Is Illegal motto DEFIANCE NOT COMPLIANCE. He will be sorely missed by his children, Rachel and Tom, his daughter-in-law Cecilia, his two grandchildren, Fintan and Ellen, his friends and comrades.

    Lotta Continua.

    David Landau
    21 March 2009

  14. Can’t see for looking « Shiraz Socialist said,

    […] illustrated a point about loyalty tests by quoting from the late antifascist Steve Cohen. The whole thing is here but I am quoting one paragraph because the point it makes is so often […]

  15. Can’t see for looking « Max Dunbar said,

    […] illustrated a point about loyalty tests by quoting from the late antifascist Steve Cohen. The whole thing is here but I am quoting one paragraph because the point it makes is so often […]

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