In Memory of Steve Cohen

An obituary for Steve Cohen. Originally published in May 2009.

Steve Cohen, a socialist and fighter against all forms of racism and immigration controls, died on Sunday morning, 8 March 2009.

“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.” (Jane on Engage Online)

Here is my attempt at public remembering and mourning.

Steve worked for about 30 years as an immigration-law barrister in Manchester, set up the Greater Manchester Immigration Aid Unit, participated in many Anti-Deportation Campaigns. He wrote books, manifestos, pamphlets and emails about anti-Semitism and socialism, about immigration, borders and the welfare state, in past and present.

Steve was a lawyer, a writer, and a political organiser. A Socialist and a non-religious Jew. A very funny and inspiring man full of integrity with a clear, analytical and personally grounded political stance. Probably a bit of a workaholic, full of enthusiasm that was difficult to withstand. A man who brought immigration history from below and past political struggles right into today’s realities, showing that “learning from history” is not necessarily a dusty, empty phrase.

He came from a generation of socialists that was used to organising in fixed structures, with committees, formal meetings and clearly defined roles, through manifestoes, programs, political parties and position papers. Within this tradition, Steve was fascinated by the interventionist, creative, direct action oriented political forms which were revived in the framework of the globally networked social movements of the last decade. Thus he was one of the bridges between political generations - although the younger generation’s informal, networked, horizontal, non-representative and seemingly chaotic ways of organising must have seemed weird to him at times.

In 2003, Steve was a driving force in writing a political manifesto against immigration controls titled “No One Is Illegal”. This slogan, taken from the writings of Elie Wiesel, was also the main statement of the transnational european noborder network which formed in the late 1990s. This network developed into one of the main grassroots assemblies of radical migration related politics on a European level, using “new” networked formats of political organising visible in border camps, campaigns against migration control, and Europe-wide action days. The “No One Is Illegal Manifesto” articulated the same uncompromising position against any form of immigration control. It helped to assemble No Borders-hubs in the UK and connect them with existing campaigns against immigration controls.

For the last fifteen years, Steve suffered from rheumatoid arthritis. This illness twists and turns the body. It is very painful and affects the functions of the body - hands, eyes, back. Nevertheless, Steve continued writing political texts and organising emails “with one eye and one finger”, as he put it.

In 1984, Steve wrote a text titled “That’s funny, you don’t look anti-Semitic”. 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 Palestinians 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-anti-Semitism” (Engage Online). His position shows one way to oppose the Israeli occupation of Palestine without falling into anti-Semitic ways of thinking and feeling.

In an obituary on Workers Liberty, he is described as “a tower of strength and source of inspiration to all around him”. Even though I only met him very few times, I am sadly missing him as well. I am grateful for having crossed his path while he was alive. Now his body has gone to medical research according to his wish, and the folder with his numerous organising mails on my email client is closed. Nevertheless, Steve’s approach to life, politics, illness and humour will continue to enrich my own. Thanks, Steve