How Stanley Cohen Went From Orthodox to Defending bin Laden's Son-In-Law

But Even Firebrand Lawyer Is Uncomfortable With This Client

courtesy of stanley cohen

By Nathan Guttman

Published March 25, 2014, issue of March 28, 2014.
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Still, Abu Ghaith wanted only him.

How a Jewish boy who grew up in a “fairly Orthodox” household in Westchester County outside New York City came to this courtroom is a story worthy of, well, Stanley Cohen.

Cohen’s father was seriously wounded during fighting in World War II, where he also participated in liberating concentration camps. This, Cohen said, was a formative experience for his father and later for himself. “It changed his view of the value of what is important and what is not important in life,” he said.

While Cohen’s family kept kosher and attended an Orthodox synagogue – where Stanley had a bar mitzvah – he now defines himself as a non-religious spiritual Jew. Stanley’s brother, Joseph, took a further step away from his Jewish upbringing and is now a Baptist minister.

Fulfilling the dream of his Jewish parents, Cohen became a lawyer, but from the start it was clear he was not in it for the money or the mainstream recognition. Cohen worked for the Legal Aid Society in New York and later opened his own practice specializing in criminal defense. He increasingly began taking on more political cases, from the Warrior Society of the Mohawk Nation, to the Weather Underground and Muslims on trial after 9/11. His partner in some of these cases was Lynne Stewart, who was later convicted of supporting terrorists by passing on messages from her client, the blind sheik Omar Abdul Rahman, to his followers.

A protégé of activist lawyer William Kunstler, Cohen stressed that he is “not the American Civil Liberties Union,” meaning he does not take on cases purely because he believes that every defendant has the right to legal representation. Cohen looks for a “general communality of ground” with his clients. Hamas fits this docket perfectly, whereas other clients, such as Abu Ghaith, are less of a match.

Cohen said that his parents, who have passed away, supported his work on behalf of Palestinian defendants. Both were “disillusioned from what has become of Israel and walked away from Zionism completely, ” he said.

Cohen seems to have inherited those views. He has been to Israel numerous times, mostly as an entry port to the West Bank and Gaza, where he meets with friends and clients. Not surprisingly, many of his encounters with Israelis were contentious: Soldiers pointing the barrel of a tank at a taxi driving him in the West Bank, an Israeli security guard arguing with him at a Jerusalem checkpoint, and a vocal confrontation with Shin Bet officers as he was about to leave Ben Gurion airport.

“I can be a handful,” he admitted.


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