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David Cohen – an advocate par excellence

Human Rights
United States
David Cohen

David Cohen - a man who was passionate about justice. © Cohen Family

Our much-loved friend and mentor David Cohen passed on last week. Although it’s over a decade since I last met David, I felt so in touch with him, as though an elder from my family, a precious community leader had left us. As well as his dedicated US circle, David had admirers all over the world, in India, Bangladesh, Indonesia. New Internationalist co-editors Jo Lateu and Chris Spannos wrote to me to say that they felt they knew him, from his detailed, well thought-out responses to my weekly blog. He had become a part of the New Internationalist online community. It touched me deeply that he took the time and trouble to respond so diligently. David’s comments were not hastily dashed-off emails. They came from his heart and head, a reflection of his deepest convictions, his political beliefs and ideology.

I first met David when I was chosen for an advocacy fellowship in Washington DC in 1991. I went there slightly bemused, not sure what to expect. David was co-founder of The Advocacy Institute in DC. All of us, Indian fellows, had spent the better part of a decade working to fight injustice in India. We worked with dalits, adivasis, women, children, farmers. We had been doing advocacy, apparently, albeit without the label. But in the US they had honed those skills into a science, lobbying for their causes on Capitol Hill, seeking to change government policy in a way that mattered, for the poorest, the weak and the vulnerable. He wanted to train advocates, he told us, in how to effectively pursue their causes – ‘how to work the system, how to bend it’.

David was an advocate par excellence. But he lobbied with passion for the public good, not for private corporates, not to grow rich. His ‘Giant Killers’ story about the fight against Big Tobacco held us spellbound. We visited Capitol Hill and watched lobbyists strategically convince Senators and Congress members to vote against policies. David actively fought and lobbied to end the Vietnam War. He was also President of the Professionals’ Coalition for Nuclear Arms Control. David was a part-owner of Politics & Prose, an iconic bookshop in Northwest Washington which his beloved wife Carla ran for nearly 30 years.

He was passionate about justice. After retirement, though he didn’t really ever ‘retire’ from public life or his most important causes, he made several trips to Israel to do his bit for a peaceful solution for the beloved country. He was proud to be part of a ‘pro-Israel, pro-peace’ American group who support a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He was kind and compassionate. A good and righteous man.

I have often found that people who are deeply religious, who care about truth, justice and peace, have a great deal of wisdom to offer society. As opposed to those for whom religion is a canker, injecting intolerance and inciting hatred towards people of other beliefs. David Cohen was one whose religious beliefs could provide a beacon of hope to the world. In the last few years, I learnt a lot from David about Judaism. He sent me beautiful readings, philosophy, things to think on, to ponder about. Chicken soup for the soul, as it were, though I hate the cliché!

I can’t believe he has gone. I had hoped to visit him and learn more, have discussions on the many thoughts and ideas which I hadn’t yet shared with him. I wanted to be part of a seder, perhaps a Passover meal over which he would preside. To meet Aaron and Eve, his offspring in whom he was, quite obviously well pleased, and his grandchildren.

It’s more difficult to write well, to do justice to a person who means a lot to you. I haven’t come close to saying the things I want to say, half as well as I should have liked to. But I will attach a link to a beautiful farewell written by his son Aaron. It tells you more about David, the man, the father, than I ever could. So over to Aaron Cohen.

Go well, David. You will remain in the hearts and minds of the many you touched all over the globe. You surely made the world a better place in your 79 years on the planet. And what more could anyone ask of any human being? 

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