Two-Gun Cohen: Artful dodger turned Chinese legend and hero of Israel

AuthorDANIEL S. LEVY
Publication Date27 December 2020
One day while Hayes was walking down the street with Cohen they came across Wellington Koo, the Chinese ambassador to the United States, Vice Premier H.H. Kung, and Premier T.V. Soong.

"And, by God, the first thing I know is they embrace the man."

It was April 1945, right before Nazi Germany surrendered and the thousand-year Third Reich died. Four-dozen nations had gathered in San Francisco to form the United Nations. Britain had controlled Palestine since they assumed stewardship of it following World War I, and many Jews were anxious about the future of the British mandate for the territory.

Representatives from such groups as the American Jewish Conference and the Jewish Agency of Palestine – along with prominent leaders like Rabbis Stephen Wise and Abba Hillel Silver – descended on the Bay City to lobby their cause.

Jewish organizations especially worried that Britain might abandon her commitment to establish a Jewish homeland. They sought to make sure the UN did not reduce or eliminate Jewish rights in Palestine under the 1917 Balfour Declaration – which states that Britain "view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people" – or the 1922 League of Nations-approved mandate over Palestine. They therefore hoped for the insertion of a clause within the UN charter that protected the rights of minority groups like those of the Jews living in Palestine.

Yet they were not the only lobbyists there. An Arab delegation hoped that the council would only recognize the rights of the single largest group in each trusteeship territory. In Palestine, the Arabs made up the majority.

The Jewish delegates held planning meetings and prepared for the formal sessions, yet struggled to gain access to some delegations. One group the Zionists could not contact was the Chinese. Then Rabbi Israel Goldstein, the head of the Zionist Organization of America, recalled that Morris "Two-Gun" Cohen had settled in Montreal during the war.

Goldstein had recently met the adventurer who had improbably become a general in the Chinese Army. The rabbi cabled him, "urging him to fly out to San Francisco and assist us with an introduction."

Cohen happily obliged.

Cohen, who had spent two decades in China, knew many of that nation's leaders and offered to introduce Jewish Agency leader Eliahu Elath and others to his friends in the Chinese delegation.

The group's lobbying of all the national delegates paid off. Palestine remained a mandated territory, and Clause 80 – nicknamed the "Palestine Clause" of the UN Charter – protected the rights "of any states or any people" within the trusteeships.

As Saul Hayes later said:

"I am not suggesting that if we didn't succeed there'd be no state of Israel… I am suggesting it would have taken a great many years of hard slogging if it had ever gone into the trusteeship division."

From London's East End to the Canadian prairies

Morris Abraham Cohen was an anomaly.

No one would have suspected that a man who started out as a juvenile delinquent would turn out so well. Born on August 3, 1887 in Poland into an Orthodox family, he arrived in London as a young child, and grew up in the East End of London. He was more of an Artful Dodger than a yeshiva bucher, and was arrested as a teenager for picking pockets. The authorities shipped him off to an industrial school for wayward Jewish kids.

Like many of those the British wished to be rid of, they then packed Cohen off to western Canada in 1905. On a farm outside the town of Whitewood, Saskatchewan he got to work planting crops, tending to the animals and helping with the chores. And for someone who would one day be known as "Two-Gun," he also learned how to handle a pistol. But a year working the land was enough for Cohen, and he began wandering from Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan to Winnipeg, Manitoba.

He was a talker in a traveling circus, peddled questionable goods, and plied his trade as a card sharp. Not...

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