OpinionJewish Diaspora

In memoriam: The man who fostered my love of Israel

I feel a deep sadness at the fact that my father left us in the middle of this ghastly trauma and won’t be here to see how it resolves.

Edward Cohen. Credit: Courtesy.
Edward Cohen. Credit: Courtesy.
Ben Cohen
Ben Cohen
Ben Cohen, a senior analyst with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, writes a weekly column for JNS on Jewish affairs and Middle Eastern politics.

I’ve been writing this column for more than a decade, but this week will, sadly, be very different for a few dozen of my readers.

I’m referring to a group of people—friends, family members, Israel advocates—who received my column every week courtesy of an email from my father, Edward Cohen, but who won’t be getting it from him this week. A fortnight ago, my Dad, who was 83, suffered from an overwhelming stroke at his apartment in Tel Aviv. Despite the best efforts of the doctors at Ichilov Hospital to revive him, he passed away about 12 hours later.

I traveled to Israel for his funeral—not an easy feat, given that most international airlines are not flying into Tel Aviv thanks to the war launched by Hamas with its pogrom in southern Israel on Oct. 7. If I’d flown directly from New York, I would likely have missed the funeral because of the lack of seat availability, so instead, I spent one night on a plane from JFK to London, where I met up with my brother, and the next night on an El Al flight from Heathrow Airport to Ben-Gurion Airport outside of Tel Aviv, where we landed, quickly showered and made our way to Jerusalem to bury our father at the cemetery in Givat Shaul. Then it was straight back to Tel Aviv for the shiva at the home he shared with his Israeli wife and their two daughters.

In truth, much of my trip is remembered as a blur. The combination of the awful news and the jet lag left me physically exhausted and not very communicative. But I do recall quite clearly several people coming up to me at the funeral, shaking my hand, wishing me a long life and then telling me, “You know, your Dad was very proud of you; he used to email me your JNS column every week.”

The point I want to emphasize, however, is that my Dad didn’t just passively shep nachas—admittedly, a very Ashkenazi phrase to use in remembering my proudly Sephardi father!—from my writings. He was an inspiration, and I learned an enormous amount from him, especially my Zionism, over the years.

As my brother memorably put it at the funeral, Dad loved Israel as if it were a person. His was an intense, joyous love, in which he garnered profound satisfaction from the mere act of waking up in a Jewish homeland, driving or walking along streets with Hebrew names, or buying nuts, baklava and other treats at the shuk. In both spiritual and material terms, he served our ancient homeland admirably, donating to numerous charities, sitting on the board of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs (JCPA) from its inception under the tutelage of his late, dear friend, Dr. Dan Elazar, as well as spending two very busy years as the chairman of the Israel Free Loan Association (IFLA). He was, in Jewish parlance, a macher. It was a fact I gleaned during my teenage years when I spent summers with him in Israel, where he’d moved after his divorce from my mother, often accompanying him to meetings and social events where he would invariably receive an enthusiastic welcome.

As sons and fathers tend to do, we argued a lot. There were times, I know, when he was desperately worried about me; I think, in particular, of my flirtation with revolutionary Marxism during my university years and the anti-Zionism that came with it. But equally, I think my Dad knew how supremely uncomfortable I was, deep down, with having to be an enemy of the Jewish state, so when I recovered my senses, he was pleased but not really surprised.

He knew, I think, that I would come back, and he was one of the reasons that I did so. Not to ingratiate myself back into my Dad’s good books, but because I couldn’t cast aside all the things I learned before I started reading Leon Trotsky, Isaac Deutscher, Ralph Miliband and other Marxist revolutionaries and scholars, most of whom happened to be Jews. Nor could I ignore my own family history; my mother’s family in Bosnia, all of whom were youthful Zionists, was decimated during the Holocaust, while my father fled with his family from Iraq, where he was born, in 1941. Along with so many other immigrants, my relatives came to the teeming city of London, where they lived happy and productive lives, my father included. But unlike many other Jews there, my Dad was never truly at home in England. He yearned to be in Israel, and as soon as he got the opportunity to live there, he seized it.

The last few weeks of my Dad’s life were, as was the case for the rest of us, overshadowed by the Hamas pogrom. During the 1980s and 1990s, he’d engaged with members of the Israeli peace camp, particularly a small group of Israeli Sephardic intellectuals who hoped that they could forge a common cultural bond with the Palestinians, but those efforts, well-intentioned as they were, didn’t get anywhere, and eventually, he became disillusioned. Following the failure of the Oslo process and the outbreak of the 2001 Palestinian intifada, he reverted to being a security hawk. He was never a hater—never someone to lump all Palestinians into the same basket—but neither did he trust their integrity. When the Hamas terrorists penetrated the border on Oct. 7, he was grimly vindicated.

I miss my Dad, and every day that passes drives home his absence from my life. I miss the phone calls, the WhatsApp chats, even the annoying questions he’d email my way at the height of a busy day. I will miss landing in Israel and going straight to his apartment—a ritual that is as old as I am. But most of all, I feel a deep sadness at the fact that he left us in the middle of this ghastly trauma and won’t be here to see how it resolves.

My Dad, you see, was confident that Israel would triumph in this latest installment of its battle to simply exist. I want to believe that he is right, and I think he is. And when victory does come, it will be a victory for him, too, as the Israel he loved so passionately will continue to flourish.

I have said my last farewell to my Dad, but his presence is with me. Every time I check the news from Israel, I think of him and am tempted to reach for my phone, call him and ask what he thinks … before remembering that I can’t. All that remains is his legacy, and it is one that I will treasure.

So, goodbye Dad, and thank you for shaping me into the proud Jew that I became. Thank you for being the person who introduced me to Israel, its land, its cultures, its food, its politics, its joie de vivre. Thank you for loving me, and know that I loved you.

May you rest in peace. And may your memory be a blessing.

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