LONDON — A familiar figure at anti-Israel demonstrations, with his gigantic bushy red beard and white crocheted deep skullcap, he could well be — at first sight — a white Englishman who has converted to Islam.
But Joseph Cohen, 32, is in fact a lone warrior, putting the case for Israel while standing in a sea of dissent. Intriguingly, Cohen says he draws much inspiration for his methods from young Muslim activists.
Cohen was a founder of the grassroots Campaign Against Antisemitism last year, but has recently decided that “anti-Semitism wasn’t the problem — anti-Israel/Zionism is.” He left the CAA and launched his own campaign, the Israel Advocacy Movement.
Today a strictly Orthodox Jew, Cohen was brought up in Langley Park, a small former mining village in County Durham in northern England, famous for its use as a rustic location for film (“Billy Elliot”) and television. His secular parents had moved there “to live the good life,” out of the rat race. His family was undoubtedly the only Jews in the area, and he only came to religious observance in his 20s.
However, as importantly, his parents brought him up on a diet of Marx and Engels, so unlike almost every other British fringe or maverick group drawn to challenge the anti-Israel narrative, his viewpoint is from left-wing politics rather than the right.
After his move to London, Cohen says he was “disappointed at the hostility between Jews and Muslim communities, in north-west London in particular.”
His answer was to launch a Jewish-Muslim bridge-building website in 2012 which he says gets “about a million visitors a year.” The site specializes in showing the similarities between the two communities — for example, showing a picture of a woman in a headscarf and inviting people to guess whether she is Jewish or Muslim.
“I got very positive feedback. I was in touch with lots of Muslims and I began to go to pro-Palestinian demonstrations, and I was shocked at the level of anti-Semitism,” Cohen told the Times of Israel.
“Now, as a Jew I feel generally very comfortable in Britain. It is generally a very tolerant country. But I felt there was a massive failure on the part of the organized Jewish community when it came to dealing with these demonstrations. We have failed to explain our case to the general public,” he says.
By signing up to the social media and newsletters of every pro-Palestinian and anti-Zionist group in the country, Cohen has kept himself apprised of their level of activity and reckons that he now attends a demo or an anti-Israel event every week. Often, he is the only pro-Israel voice there.
“Almost every time there is no presence from the pro-Israel UK organizations. I ask lots of people to go with me and they all say no,” says Cohen.
‘There was a massive failure on the part of the organized Jewish community when it came to dealing with these demonstrations. We have failed to explain our case to the general public’
Instead, rain or shine, with or without supporters, Cohen turns up and begins to engage in dialogue with protesters. Many, he acknowledges, think he is a Muslim initially. He says he gets the best response from women or religious male protesters.
His methodology includes an appeal to reason. For example, outside a McDonald’s fast-food place, he asks the demonstrators why they are picketing. “Because of the Jews,” they mumble. Painstakingly Cohen asks them to explain themselves and it emerges that they believe the company is owned by Jews, who control the world economy. He tells them that as far as he knows McDonald’s is not owned by Jews. The expression on their faces as they absorb this information can only be described as crestfallen.
As often as he can, Cohen gets his wife or brother-in-law to accompany him and record these encounters, which he then posts as short YouTube movies. And the film squibs get thousands of viewers, with follow-up comments — frequently from Muslims — saying things like “the Jewish guy is speaking sense.” He says that the organized community is missing a trick by not harnessing social media as an effective tool.
At some demonstrations he drapes himself in an Israeli flag.
‘The only way to challenge preconceptions is to reclaim the Israeli flag and be an incredibly proud Zionist’
“The only way to challenge preconceptions is to reclaim the Israeli flag and be an incredibly proud Zionist,” says Cohen. “I am everything they expect Jews not to be. Israel doesn’t have many friends in Europe and I feel by doing this work, I can make a difference.”
His inspiration and his approach come from the Muslims that he has met.
“Islam is the fastest-growing religion in Britain and their outreach programs train young Muslims. I was inspired by their evangelism and ability to convert thousands of people to Islam in Britain using similar tactics. You can see their stalls on many street corners where with free material and well trained advocates they persuade large numbers of people to join Islam,” he says.
“I want to channel a similar energy and technique into advocating for Israel and exposing the British public at street level to the Israeli cause,” says Cohen, who sets up tables with information on Israel at the pro-Palestinian protests he attends.
Those who know Cohen say he is “fearless in his opposition to Israel’s critics.” But the organized Jewish community, while applauding his actions, is unlikely to join him.
Luke Akehurst, director of the We Believe in Israel advocacy group, told the Times of Israel that since there are so many anti-Israel demos, organizing counter-protests is beyond their capacity.
“We have to pick and choose what we do as an organized presence. And people need to be cognizant of not starting a confrontation that might get out of control,” says Akehurst.
Akehurst says organized Jewry monitors the pro-Palestinian demonstrations, but all the organizations have limited resources and must maximize their impact.
“Mostly, it is of course important that we don’t concede the street, but we also shouldn’t think that just turning up will change minds,” says Akehurst. Pro-Israel organizations were “constantly aware of the need to up our game,” he said. “It’s very good that a courageous and selfless activist is leading by example.” He hopes to arrange a meeting with Cohen in the coming weeks.
Paul Charney, chairman of the Zionist Federation, also applauded Cohen’s work.
“All respect to him, I support him wholeheartedly,” he says, but ruled out bringing in Cohen’s Israel Advocacy Movement under the ZF banner. “There are demonstrations throughout the year and for us to make a credible counter-protest, and bring the numbers out, we have to pick and choose. It has less effect if we counter-protest all the time. It looks weak and feeble.”
“When we do demonstrate,” says Charney, “it’s because we have a particular message we want to get out. A negative message is not a rally.”
‘A negative message is not a rally’
Charney’s other concern was an issue of oversight and control.
“If people want to do something on behalf of the ZF we need to be in charge of it… People rely on us — the ZF — to be responsible and careful about what we are saying and sometimes that means we can’t respond on social media as fast as we might like.”
Cohen, meanwhile, continues to appear at every anti-Israel demonstration he can manage, backing the route of a two-state solution and dialogue. He privately funds the production of the written material he hands out, the leaflets and flyers, but insists he doesn’t want to be described as an activist.
“I look on it as a mitzvah to do something,” says Cohen.