In November 1947, the United Nations was considering the creation of a Jewish state in parts of Western Palestine and a new Arab state in the other parts.
The hopes of the Jews rested in large part on China. The five-member Security Council had to approve putting the resolution before the General Assembly, but China, one of the five, was threatening to veto it.
The head of the Chinese delegation was approached by a hero of the Chinese campaign against the Japanese during World War II, a man who had been a general and senior adviser to President Sun Yat-sen. The general persuaded the delegation to abstain. The Security Council voted approval and the Partition Resolution was sent to the General Assembly, where it passed. Modern Israel came into existence.
The general who persuaded the Chinese not to oppose the resolution was not Chinese himself – but, in fact, a Jew born in Poland in 1887.
Morris Abraham Cohen was brought to London from Poland when he was still a toddler and grew up in the impoverished East End of London. By the time he was 12 he had become a skilled boxer and a pickpocket.
He quickly amassed a police arrest record and his family sent him to reform school until he was 16. Once released, he went to Canada to work on a farm in rural Saskatchewan, near some Indian reservations. The farming bored him; he preferred work as a carnival barker and con man. This got him arrested yet again and he did some jail time.
While wandering the Canadian West he became friendly with the local Chinese. Cohen liked Chinese cuisine (what Jew doesn’t?) and the Chinese outlook on life.
One day Cohen wandered into a Chinese eatery and realized the owner was being robbed. Cohen beat the robber to a pulp. The Chinese were so impressed, they embraced Cohen as one of their own. He joined the local chapter of nationalist leader Sun Yat-sen’s political movement and started to pick up some basic Chinese. Cohen raised funds for Sun’s movement and helped procure arms.
After serving in World War I as a Canadian soldier, Cohen headed off in 1922 to China with plans to work as a railroad developer. But once in Shanghai he found work as a writer on the English-language newspaper associated with Sun Yat-sen’s movement.
The Chinese called him Ma Kun (“clenched fist”), which was as close as they could get to Morris Cohen. He procured arms for a warlord of Canton in the 1920s and was adviser to Wu Tiecheng, the Canton police chief who later became mayor of Shanghai. Cohen began to serve as part of Sun’s guard force, and eventually commanded the entire 250-man presidential bodyguard unit.
Always armed, Cohen managed to defend Sun from more than one assassination attempt. After Cohen was wounded in his hand while driving off one group of assassins, he started carrying a second pistol and local Westerners immediately dubbed him “Two-Gun” Cohen, the nickname he carried with pride for the rest of his life.
Eventually he was appointed head of the Chinese secret service. His sidekick was another Jew, an anti-Soviet Russian named Moses Schwartzberg who had been part of a plot to assassinate Lenin in 1918.
Because of the importance of the Schwartzberg-Cohen pair, Yiddish became one of the three languages of the Chinese secret service, after Mandarin and English. Schwartzberg would later organize a regiment of 1,200 Jewish volunteers to fight for Israel in its War of Independence.
After Sun Yat-sen died, Two-Gun Cohen was named commander of the Chinese 19th field army. He worked for a while for Chinese President Chiang Kai-shek. He led Nationalist troops in fighting against both the Japanese and the Chinese communists. He was the only European ever to serve as a Chinese general.
When the Japanese invaded China in the 1930s, Cohen worked for British intelligence. Just after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Hong Kong was invaded by the Japanese. Two-Gun got Sun Yat-sen’s widow out safely on one of the last planes to escape. Cohen himself was captured by the Japanese and thrown into the Stanley Prison Camp, where he was beaten and mistreated.
After the war he lived in Canada, where he helped the Zionists obtain arms for Israel’s War of Independence. He eventually returned to England, where he died in 1970. On his tombstone in Manchester his name appears in English, Hebrew, and Chinese characters. His funeral was attended by representatives from both Chinas, which were still at war with each another. It was the only thing in the world on which they could agree.
About the Author: Steven Plaut is a professor at the University of Haifa. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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