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The "World's Number One Self-Hating Jew" Goes to Jail

Stanley Cohen has defended terrorists in court, but that's not what got him into trouble


In 1967, Stanley Cohen got his draft letter in the mail, summoning him to join the fight in the Vietnam War. The young anti-war activist should have had nothing to worry about; as an enrolled university student, he was exempt from military service. But Cohen was frustrated by people hiding behind their student status instead of loudly protesting American militarism. To force the issue, he dropped his classes at Long Island University, with the intention of dodging the draft and ultimately fleeing to Canada. His plan failed when a temporary draft suspension by President Richard Nixon landed Cohen at the bottom of the list. LIU's president, tired of the occupations and demonstrations Cohen organized, eventually asked him to leave.

Today, the 64-year-old Cohen raises hell by defending members of Hamas, Hezbollah, and al-Qaeda in court. He recently leveraged his connections in the jihadi community to arrange for the release of Peter Kassig (known as Abdul Rahman since his conversion to Islam), an American held by the Islamic State. The deal ultimately collapsed and Kassig was beheaded by IS militants. Cohen phrases it differently: “Abdul Rahman Kassig was murdered by U.S. foreign policy.” On Tuesday at 2 p.m., Cohen’s controversial legal career will come to a halt as he surrenders himself to the Canaan federal prison in Waymart, Pennsylvania. He was sentenced to 18 months in prison after pleading guilty to obstructing and impeding the IRS and failing to file tax returns: Government prosecutors say he neglected to report over $3 million in income and ran his practice largely off-the-books. His license to practice law is suspended, effective Tuesday.

Stanley Cohen (right) with Yasser Arafat and poet Peter Spagnuolo in Ramallah, West Bank, 1997.
Peter Spagnuolo

Growing up, the longhaired activist had no ambitions of being a lawyer. “That’s the last thing in the world I wanted to become. I was too busy as a revolutionary to practice law.” Even with three decades of criminal defense behind him, Cohen is more at home among the resistance movements than with the attorney crowd. Plenty of lawyers will represent the most abhorrent defendants based on the belief that everyone has the right to a fair trial. But for Cohen, it’s more personal. He won’t take a major case unless he personally likes his client or identifies with his politics. Any exceptions? “No. If you do a major case, you’re spending hundreds of hours with them, there has to be a connection,” he said. “I’m not the ACLU. Do I think the KKK has a right to march in Skokie? Sure. Will I represent them? Fuck no. I don’t like them and I don’t like their politics.”

Cohen does, however, like his former clients Mousa Abu Marzouk of Hamas and Sulaiman Abu Ghaith, the son-in-law of Osama bin Laden. He also likes their politics and frequently voices support for armed resistance against Israel and the United States. For this, the former Orthodox Jew has been called a traitor, an anti-Semite, and a terrorist mouthpiece. He, in turn, seems to revel in antagonizing his critics. His Twitter account, followed by nearly 19,000 people, is a stream of legitimate criticism of Israeli policy but also obnoxious, if not downright hateful comments like “I would rather spend 18 months in jail than to dine with a Zionist.” Or this:

In a section of his website devoted to his “haters,” Cohen calls it an honor to be voted the “world’s number one self-hating Jew.” Even for a lawyer, he's particularly hyperbolic. But in conversation, Cohen was nuanced at times. In place of vitriolic rhetoric, he spoke thoughtfully on the divisive impact of AIPAC, the inability of the U.S. to be an unbiased arbiter in the conflict, and the crushing effects of Israeli settlements on peace negotiations.

Cohen maintains that he is not guilty of tax evasion, saying he accepted a plea deal to put a stop to mounting legal fees and harassment of his family. “Look, prison for me will be a phase. I’ve never had a doubt in my life that I’d end up in prison,” he said. “It’s not something that I’ve wanted or aimed for, it’s not a vindication, but when you spend 30 years fighting governments all over the world, they come for you.”

Not everyone is buying Cohen's grandiose claims of political persecution. William Jacobson, a clinical professor at Cornell Law and blogger at Legal Insurrection, recently wrote, “The evidence [of tax evasion] was overwhelming, to put it mildly. When Cohen entered his plea last April, he admitted that the government could prove its case.”

After Cohen was denied further delay in his sentencing, he tweeted that the "judge denies it hour before he receives governments answer."

"Must be more of that Zionist conspiracy," Jacobson wrote.

In 1995, Cohen got a phone call from a friend asking him to take on a case. Cohen, who was about to leave for Maine to meet his then-girlfriend's parents, said no, it wasn’t a good time.

The friend, as Cohen tells it, pressed him. “It’s an important Palestinian figure,” the friend said. At the time, Cohen didn’t have much experience with terrorism cases, but was active in the Palestinian movement.

“Oh really? Who is it?”

“Mousa Abu Marzouk. The head of Hamas.” 

Cohen promptly canceled his trip and headed to the Metropolitan Correctional Center in Manhattan to see Marzouk, who had been picked up at John F. Kennedy International Airport; Marzouk didn't have any formal charges against him, but was suspected of financing and organizing terrorist attacks against Israel. Cohen's jeans were torn, his hair was a mess—Marzouk had a hard time believing he was a lawyer. When a code word convinced him, Marzouk said, “I don’t need a lawyer." Cohen replied, “You need a dozen lawyers."

Over the next 22 months, Cohen spent three or four hours every night with Marzouk, usually talking about things unrelated to his case. “I got the best gossip about the Middle East. We grew incredibly close,” said Cohen. When Marzouk was released on condition that he never set foot on U.S. soil again, he asked Cohen to look out for his two sons, who stayed behind in Virginia.

Stanley Cohen with Sheikh Ahmed Yassin (left) and Ismail Abu Shanab (right), Gaza City, 2002.
Peter Spagnuolo

Almost a decade later, Cohen got another call, this time in the middle of the night, from Lebanon. It was a request to represent Sulaiman Abu Ghaith, Osama bin Laden’s son-in-law, who had recently been charged in New York with conspiring to kill Americans in unspecified terrorist attacks. So Cohen made the familiar trip to 9 South, the maximum-security wing of the Metropolitan Correction Center, to meet with Ghaith. Cohen later learned that a corrections officer told Ghaith that Cohen was the only lawyer he had seen walk prisoners out of 9 South. Ghaith hired Cohen to replace his public defender shortly after. Cohen lost the case: Ghaith was sentenced to life in prison, which he plans to appeal—according to Cohen, who can no longer represent him given his own troubles.

Cohen is careful to distinguish between support for the political ideology of his clients and the tactics they are accused of using. He is opposed to martyrdom and the targeting of civilians—to a point. “People ask how I can be friends with people who support going into a café or a bus and blowing up 32 civilians. My response is, how is dropping a bomb from an F-16 any different? Death is death,” he said. “I have had political debates with clients of mine over acts that they may have approved or been involved with. It doesn’t change the fact that I like or respect the person.”

It is perhaps this contradiction, more than Cohen's self-righteousness, that irks his detractors the most. How can you oppose a tactic but befriend someone who practices it? It is one thing to understand the motives of a terrorist group, but quite another to like its members. No doubt the U.S. military deserves criticism for its own tactics, but few see outright moral equivalence between a suicide attack on innocent people and a U.S. strike on militants (even if, too often, those strikes kill innocent people, too).

When asked if he would have been willing to represent Osama bin Laden, Cohen said, “I’d go sit down and talk to him. Maybe he’s a miserable son of a bitch, a complete wing nut, and I couldn’t fathom spending the next year with him,” Cohen said. “Do I think he was involved in signing off on very ugly operations? Oh yeah. But I think Barack Obama has probably killed as many civilians as bin Laden.” 

Born in 1950, Cohen grew up in Port Chester, New York, about thirty miles north of Manhattan, raised by Orthodox Jewish parents. His father fought in World War II and helped liberate the Nazi concentration camps, instilling his and his wife’s conviction that the Jewish people needed a state of their own. They remained Orthodox their entire lives, but grew disillusioned with Israeli politics, and eventually abandoned Zionism.  

Though he had a bar mitzvah and kept kosher as a child, Cohen stopped practicing Judaism when he was 14.  “I discovered pot and thought, ‘you know what? This is pretty cool. I prefer this to worrying about mixing milk and meat,’” he joked. “No, but actually, I went down to Virginia when I was 14 with my father and came across segregated facilities that said 'coloreds only,'” he said. “As I became more politically sensitized, I became less concerned with the ritualism of religion.” By the Yom Kippur War of 1973 he was an outward critic of Zionism. He recalled learning that the socialist kibbutzim he read about in Hebrew school had been built on top of Palestinian communities that had been leveled. 

His older brother also left Orthodox Judaism—but to become a Baptist minister. The type, said Cohen, who organizes pro-life rallies in Washington and believes that God found him a good parking spot. The brothers haven’t spoken since the death of their parents eight years ago.

There is an apparent friction between Cohen’s abandonment of religion and the fact that some of his clients and closest friends are deeply religious. “I have no problem with people who talk to God,” he clarified. “My problem is with people who God talks back to.”

“My serious Muslims clients—yes, religion drives them, it’s the core of their universe. But they are pragmatic. They have a clear understanding of how to get from A to B.” The Islamic State is another story, said Cohen. “Those guys are loony-toon city. The U.S. did a terrible job organizing, funding, training and unleashing ISIS.”

Cohen counted as close friends Ismail Abu Shanab and Ahmed Yassin, both former high-ranking Hamas members who were assassinated by the Israelis in 2003 and 2004, respectively. A photo of Cohen, flanked by the two men, is currently his Twitter profile picture.

Though Cohen’s choices in friends have earned him the title of a self-hating Jew (David Horowitz went so far as to call him a Nazi), he insists that couldn’t be further from the truth. He sees himself more as a diplomat between Judaism and Islam, two religions that have more in common than not. According to Cohen, the late Senator Frank Lautenberg once asked him how his friends in Hamas were doing. “Why don’t you come with me to D.C., get on a plane to Syria, and ask them yourself!” Cohen responded. (“Diplomacy is much too important to be left to the diplomats,” is a favorite saying of his.)

Cohen still identifies as Jewish and says that his work is an essential part of his Judaism. “I embrace the part of the tradition that has historically sided with the oppressed, disaffected, disenfranchised, and politically unpopular,” he said. “My great, great, great, great grandparents were the screamers, the preachers, the yellers, and that’s what I do.”

After practicing law for over thirty years, Cohen is searching for a new hobby. Though he’ll be tempted to offer legal advice to prison mates, he is worried about tacking time to his sentence if he is perceived as practicing law without a license. “I don’t know how to do much else, though,” he said. He doesn’t even want Joni Sarah White, his partner of twenty years, to visit him. “We are both very independent—I don’t know how she will handle seeing me in a closed environment. I don’t know how I will handle it,” he said. (White declined through Cohen to be interviewed.)

Any lessons learned from his lawsuit ordeal? “I need a real accountant. It should have been a red flag that when I first walked into my accountant’s office, he had a shelf full of Western novels he had written.” Indeed, the government’s sentencing memo reads: "Suffice it to say, Mr. Cohen has always been more focused on practicing law and representing his clients to the best of his abilities, but has not handled his financial affairs in a businesslike manner."

After completing his sentence, Cohen plans to reapply for his license to practice law in New York, then relocate to the Middle East to work at an international law firm.

"I have been offered asylum in six countries, four of which are in the Middle East," he said. "You'll have to wait for the memoirs to find out which countries. 

Cohen failed to explain why he'd need asylum. To him, it's self-evident.