NEW YORK — Israel is a “terrorist state,” he says. Palestinians have no choice but to attack Israelis “by any means necessary,” he says. Yes, that includes suicide bombings.
Who is this bearded supporter of jihad and what’s he doing in a Lower East Side loft decorated with Syrian banknotes, a close-up photo of an AK-47 and his own mug shots? He is Stanley L. Cohen, Esq., defender of accused terrorists and possibly one of the most hated lawyers in this city.
Cohen, 49, hustles into his kitchen, his graying ponytail fluttering behind him as if attached to a coonskin cap. He points proudly to a recent picture of him sitting side by side with Sheik Ahmed Yassin, the Hamas spiritual leader who cheers on the shrapnel-laden Palestinian bombers from his wheelchair in Gaza.
“Look at the noses and foreheads,” he says. See how their profiles comport? Even their beards – the cleric’s is white and wispy, the lawyer’s black and rabbinical – line up in weird symmetry.
“Who says we’re not cousins?” He chuckles. “We’re cousins!”
Finally, Arab and Jew – brothers of antiquity – find common ground. Can’t you just feel the love?
“Who put the chutzpah in Hamas?” an item in the New York Post asked the other day. Who else but Stanley Cohen, who for years has represented the political head of Hamas, also called the Islamic Resistance Movement, designated a terrorist group by the United States. Last month Cohen gained further notoriety – if that’s possible for a lawyer who was quoted as saying he’d be willing to represent Osama bin Laden – when he filed a federal suit in Washington, hoping to suspend U.S. aid to Israel.
He worked on the case for a year, shuttling around the Palestinian-controlled territories as well as Lebanon and Syria. In Qatar, he appeared on al-Jazeera, the Arab news network, denouncing President Bush. He hopes to line up funding for his lawsuit from Saudi Arabian sources.
Cohen toils in a third-floor walk-up above a Palestinian-owned supermarket in a gritty Hispanic neighborhood. Usually he’s alone, although he has a long-term relationship with a Mohawk woman who visits him from the reservation in Upstate New York. His constant companion is Sadie, an aging chocolate Labrador who likes to munch carrots.
Sounding like a nasal stand-up comic, Cohen narrates a quick tour of the run-ins where he made his name: “There’s a picture of me being dragged away at a Tompkins Square demonstration…. The 13th Street squatters case, a big battle…. Bill Kunstler and I in the early days with the Mohawks in Quebec… sedition, possession of weapons and riot… the Red Squad in New Rochelle… fun memories.”
“I’ve been arrested on a good number of occasions – it comes with the turf – both before being a lawyer and since being a lawyer. But, as we say, inshallah” – Allah willing – “my record is perfect.”
None of the charges ever stuck, though a federal judge in Virginia recently held him in contempt and fined him $740 after he failed to show up at a hearing. It was an innocent mix-up and he’s appealing, Cohen says.
His walls are a shrine to his public persona: lacquered, mounted news clippings about cases of yore. “Defending Larry Davis” – that headline refers to a client who wounded nine police officers in a shootout. “Inside the Mohawk Civil War”: a Village Voice cover about militant Indians who ended up going to war with Canada in 1990.
“I just sent out for framing 30 new stories and pictures,” Cohen boasts. Of course the displays are strictly for the entertainment of clients, he says.
This man’s ego could set off car alarms blocks away. Okay, he later concedes, “I like picking up the newspaper or turning on a TV and seeing me.”
He strolls past a photo of Lenin atop his roll-top desk; a certificate admitting him to practice before the Supreme Court sponsored by his mentor, the late radical lawyer Kunstler; a poster that declares, “He who plunders always lives in terror.” Another that proclaims, “History cannot be written with a pen. It must be written with a gun.”
His e-mail address is “burnnloot,” which he says pays homage to a Bob Marley song. But another lyric comes to mind amid the throw-blanket decor and detritus of ’60s-style struggles: “Let’s do the Time Warp again.”
Stanley Lewis Cohen was only in high school but somehow he got addicted to left-wing activism during the Vietnam War. “He had some pretty serious run-ins with authority in his mid-teens,” says his law school classmate Patrick Brown. “He is fond of saying he fought the war on the home front, as a precocious youth.”
The son of a bookkeeper mother – who once raised funds for Zionist organizations – and a salesman who fought the Nazis at the Battle of the Bulge, Stanley didn’t want to become just another lawyer. “I kept putting if off,” he says. “It was expected for me to become a lawyer, and I didn’t want to do what was expected for me.”
He ran anti-poverty and anti-drug programs for a few years. But eventually he won a scholarship to Pace University’s law school. As a student in the early ’80s, he signed on with attorney Lynne Stewart to help fight the state’s prosecution of a cabal of revolutionaries.
“We were trying a case involving the Black Liberation Army and the Weather Underground – a fairly famous case involving Kathy Boudin and a couple of police officers who’d been killed in the course of a holdup,” recalls Stewart, who later became Cohen’s friend and law partner. (She is now under federal indictment for allegedly helping an imprisoned sheik direct terrorist activities from his cell.)
“We were amazed,” she recalls. “Not too many people were volunteering for that case.”
After graduating, Cohen worked for seven years at the Legal Aid Society in the Bronx, defending street thugs and rapists. (“All criminal cases are obviously political,” he declares.) In the late ’80s, he paddled a canoe to evade police roadblocks, working with the Mohawk Warrior Society, which he calls the tribe’s “national guard.” He later assisted Bosnian and Albanian Muslims, including mercenaries bound for Kosovo.
In 1995, a Muslim friend in Washington called to ask whether Cohen would represent Mousa Abu Marzook, the leader of the political wing of Hamas, who’d been detained at Kennedy Airport. Cohen didn’t hesitate. For the next 22 months he successfully fought Abu Marzook’s extradition to Israel on terrorism charges, including conspiracy to commit murder.
“The first time I saw Stanley, with his long hair and cowboy boots, I thought to myself, this guy is a hippie, not a lawyer,” Abu Marzook writes in an e-mail from Damascus. “It only took a few moments of speaking with him that I was reminded of the lesson that one should not judge a book by its cover…. He is very courageous in his stance for justice, even when those who are committing injustice are his fellow Jews.”
“My dear friend,” Cohen calls Abu Marzook.
In the Gaza Strip, where Abu Marzook’s older brother is an official in the Palestinian Authority, Cohen is treated like a visiting dignitary – plied with meals, supplied with well-armed bodyguards, given audiences with Sheik Yassin.
He was there in April, researching his latest civil case. As thick as the Manhattan phone book, the lawsuit says American tax dollars should not support a “program of killing, torture, terror and outright theft” by the Israeli government against Palestinians. Cohen names President Bush, Secretary of State Colin Powell, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, various Israeli military officials and sundry U.S. arms manufacturers, accusing all concerned of “genocide.”
Cohen is seeking an injunction against U.S. funding for Israel. He also is seeking damages on behalf of Palestinians who are American citizens and returned to Gaza and the West Bank to help build a Palestinian state – then allegedly faced “war crimes” perpetrated by Israel, armed mainly by American weapons makers.
A Justice Department official said yesterday that the government had just received the suit and had no comment. Israel says it wants peace and has scrupulously tried to avoid civilian casualties in recent military crackdowns. Israel says Palestinian terrorists keep stoking the conflict with bombings – including two in the past week by Hamas militants.
A Spiritual Person
For the sake of argument – and Cohen’s life is all about argument – he will concede certain points.
“I’m a pig. I’m a self-hating Jew. I’m a communist.”
Please, don’t hold back.
“I hate my mother. I hate my father. I hate my dead great-grandparents.”
“I write bad checks. I sleep with my dog.”
“Now, can we get to the real issues?”
This is tactic he used on a recent talk show, attempting to deflate an opponent – someone who accused him of being a traitor to his religion and his country. “That’s what it’s degenerating to,” he sighs.
Cohen describes himself as a “very spiritual person.” He attended Hebrew school and was bar mitzvahed while growing up in Westchester, but now he is a nonbeliever, a secular Jew. “I’m proud to be a Jew – very proud of it. Not the Judaism of Ariel Sharon. Not the Judaism of the generals of the Israel Defense Forces. But the Judaism that stands with the oppressed, the disadvantaged and the disaffected.”
He seems immune, at this point, to blistering criticism and death threats. That stuff happens when you generate headlines like LAWYER SAYS HE’D DEFEND BIN LADEN, which ran in the New York Daily News on September 26.
Cohen says he was misquoted and what he actually said was: “I don’t know if I would take the case. I wouldn’t take the case or avoid the case because of the allegations against bin Laden. I would judge the case the way I do all political cases. Do I connect? Is there a personal or political connection? These are the factors I use.”
“He believes very deeply in the Bill of Rights,” says his friend Brown. “At the time he made the statement it was a very courageous thing to do. On the other hand, it was insane for him to say that publicly.”
A splinter group here called the Jewish Defense Organization leafleted against Cohen, calling on Jews to boycott his law practice. Its hotline termed him “garbage that needs to be swept into the bag.”
Alarmed, Cohen sent his dog, Sadie, to a “safe house” for a couple of weeks until the furor died down.
“I don’t support attacks on civilians by anyone, but you know what?” Cohen says, working himself into a rant. “I think what Israel does is far more morally repugnant than what Hamas does.”
He later e-mails a slight clarification, saying, “People have a right to resist occupation; indeed they have an obligation to do so…. It is often a nasty, dirty and painful experience.”
In April, Cohen inspired another round of jaw-dropping, sputtering criticism when he appeared on Greta Van Susteren’s Fox News Channel show, blasting Israel’s military response to a series of suicide bombings aimed at civilians. He was beamed live from Gaza, alongside a Hamas spokesman, Ismail Abu Shanab, who declared, “We are defending ourselves.”
“Watching this troubling reenactment of a Woody Allen sketch, I couldn’t help wondering whether this same man would have felt just as comfortable representing Heinrich Himmler 60 years ago,” Avi Davis, a columnist for Jewsweek.com, wrote after seeing Cohen.
“He’s entitled, that’s what this country is all about. Do we consider him seriously? No,” says Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League. “The fact is that he’s making news because he’s Jewish. I think he is exploiting that identity to get attention.”
“Stanley Cohen, the attorney for Hamas,” mused Larry Miller, a columnist for the Weekly Standard magazine. “… A man who, if he listened very carefully, would no doubt hear voices in the next room planning to blow the eyes out of more of his nieces and nephews.”
In fact, Cohen says, a distant cousin was killed by a Hamas bus bombing about six years ago, when he was representing Mousa Abu Marzook. She was 25, a graduate student.
He doesn’t know his cousin’s name. He’d never met her.
An Old Friend
The phone rings, echoing sharply in Cohen’s loft. It’s his longtime friend Joel Blumenfeld, a justice on the State Supreme Court in Queens. A trustee of a conservative synagogue, Blumenfeld is about to depart for a week-long visit to Jerusalem, part of a United Jewish Appeal effort to boost the city’s spirits and its shattered tourist economy. He plans to give blood and visit with terror victims.
Don’t go, Cohen begged him last week. It’s too dangerous. Hamas operatives just killed five Americans with a bomb deposited in the cafeteria of Hebrew University.
Blumenfeld was undeterred. Canceling the trip would mean the terrorists have won, he says.
“We don’t listen to each other,” he says of Cohen, whom he supervised in the 1980s when they worked at the Legal Aid Society.
What about the Hamas connection – does that bother Judge Blumenfeld?
“It gives me pause,” he admits. “I suspect that many people in my synagogue wouldn’t be big fans of Stanley, but that’s their problem.”
But both take to heart what they learned in law school: Everyone is entitled to a defense. “And if we lose that, we lose what this country is about,” Blumenfeld says. “This whole country falls apart if the unpopular aren’t represented…. As I’ve said before, if this were 1941-42, he would be representing the Japanese people who were being detained.”
Cohen takes the phone and wishes his friend a safe trip. He signs off in Yiddish, “Zay gesund!”
Cohen’s parents are old and ill – he requests that a reporter not bother them. His father is 91, his mother 87.
Friends say Cohen pays for constant nursing care so that the couple can live out their last days in their own apartment. It’s the least he can do, the son says: “I’ve always had a tremendous amount of support from my parents.”
He and his older brother Joseph grew up in a Democratic household brimming with debate and political awareness. Stanley says his parents are “relatively Orthodox Jews,” but the boys were free to pursue whatever they believed in.
What became of brother Joe?
“He’s an ordained fundamentalist Baptist minister.”
Stanley smooths his beard. He isn’t kidding.
The Rev. Cohen couldn’t be reached for comment. His brother said he was traveling, doing missionary work in the name of Jesus Christ.
Eight TV cameras and about 30 reporters fill the Edward R. Murrow Room at the National Press Club in Washington. Strutting near an American flag, Cohen lays out his case, as if the media were his jury.
“What happened to this American citizen was outrageous, was uncalled for and was illegal,” he says, referring to his newest client, 37-year-old Ali Khan. An investment banker and official of the American Muslim Council, Khan says he was recently detained and interrogated by authorities at the Las Vegas airport.
Racial profiling “has taken over” in this country, Cohen says. He promises to file a “multimillion-dollar lawsuit” against the police, FBI and the airlines.
“He’s a good New York lawyer, a civil rights champion,” Khan says.
What about Cohen’s connections to Hamas, a reporter wants to know.
“The only hummus I know is the hummus in a Middle Eastern restaurant – the dish,” Khan retorts.
His attorney smiles in delight. It’s a great line for this Tuesday afternoon episode of what some call “The Stanley Show.”
The address of Cohen’s building is spray-painted above a thick gray door, blending in with the graffiti. He heads into the steamy din of Avenue D, complaining that the neighborhood has been going downhill… ever since more police started patrolling.
Things have gotten too law-abiding.
“It’s horrible!” he wails. “It’s cleaned up. It’s white…. I miss the drive-bys. This neighborhood was fabulous in the old days. The drug business is down tremendously, so their only base of economic support is gone.”
He’s been here 15 years. “If the owners ever sell this building, what would I do?” he frets. “I guess I’d have to move to Gaza.”
At least there, he knows he’ll always have friends and family.
© 2002 The Washington Post Company