Moshe Avraham (Morris) Cohen, aka Mah Kun, was the right man in the right place when it came to the establishment of the Jewish state. The only foreign national hero from China, his lobbying at the United Nations’ debate on the Resolution on the Partition of Palestine influenced the delegation from the Republic of China to view the establishment of a Jewish state favorably.
A Stormy Start
One of eight siblings, Morris Cohen was born in 1887 into a poor Orthodox family in Radzanów, northwest of Warsaw. Soon after his birth, the family immigrated to London’s East End. Already sturdy, at just eight years old, Cohen was signed up by a boxing professional. But fearful of his father, Fat Moisha, or Cockney Cohen as he was known, never went into the ring on Shabbos. When he was thirteen, he was arrested for pickpocketing and sent to the Hayes Industrial School, where he should have been reformed into a respectable citizen. Three years later, Cohen’s parents shipped their son to Western Canada to work on a friend’s farm and mend his ways. A year later, however, he was traveling through the provinces making a living as a carnival talker and gambler.
Over time, perhaps bonding with strangers in a strange land, Cohen befriended some of the Chinese workers who had come to lay the Canadian Pacific Railways. Their camaraderie ran so deep that when Cohen saw a Chinese restaurant owner being robbed, he knocked out the thief. In an era when few white men came to the aid of the Chinese, Cohen’s act of rescue catapulted him into Chinese society. His sense of belonging was further solidified when Chinese revolutionary Sun Yat-sen visited Canada in 1908. To help Sun’s cause, Cohen began to recruit members of the Chinese community and train them in drill and musketry.
Cohen, who had become a successful real estate broker in Alberta, spent World War I fighting with the Canadian Railway Troops in Europe where part of his job involved supervising Chinese laborers. But after the war, in 1922, with the real estate boom over, he heard China calling.
Sun Yat-sen, who had been elected the provisional President of the Republic of China in 1911, was leading China into modernity. However, he was continually challenged by various warlords and, in 1917, China was still without a proper central government. Attempting to reunify the country, Sun joined forces with communist Chinese in the south to challenge the Beiyang government in the north.
Cohen, who arrived in China in 1922, became commander of Sun’s 250-man bodyguard detail. As military adviser and arms dealer, he accompanied the Chinese leader to conferences and into war zones. After one fight, where Cohen was nicked by a bullet, he began toting a gun on his shoulder in addition to the hip weapon he already carried, earning himself the name Two-Gun Cohen. Although he never led soldiers to war, in recognition of his efforts for China, Cohen was awarded the rank of general. Sun, who became known as the founding father of the Republic of China, died in 1925. Cohen was the only foreigner in the funeral procession. He remained in China and went on to work for a series of southern Chinese leaders.
When the Japanese invaded China in 1937, Cohen joined the fight, rounding up weapons for the Chinese. Cohen was in Hong Kong when the Japanese attacked in December 1941. Prompted by his loyalty to his former employer, Sun managed to place Soong Ching-ling, Sun’s wife, and her sister onto one of the last planes out of the British colony. But he stayed behind to fight. When Hong Kong fell later that month, he was imprisoned in the Stanley Prison Camp. He languished there until 1943, when he managed to secure his own release in a rare prisoner exchange by posing as a Canadian businessman. Back in Montreal, just as his father would have wanted, Cohen married a Jewish woman, Judith Clark, and tried to settle down to family life.
Historically, Chinese-Jewish relations were positive. When the Shanghai Zionist Association lobbied for China’s support for Britain’s Balfour Declaration, Sun Yat-sen expressed sympathy for the Zionist movement, calling it, in 1920, “one of the greatest movements of the present time.”
Zionism and China next met in June 1945, at the San Francisco founding of the United Nations where the debate on the UN Resolution on the Partition of Palestine was taking place. The United States, the USSR, Britain, the Republic of China and France were the five deciding powers. The Arab UN members were putting the pressure on, arguing that Palestine should revert to UN trusteeship rather than be transformed into a Jewish Homeland. To bolster their position, the Arab states stressed to China the need for Asian solidarity, a plea that could have swayed the Republic to oppose Zionism.
Dr. Israel Goldstein, who headed the conservative Congregation B’nai Jeshurun on New York’s Upper West Side and was president of the Zionist Organization of America, was on hand with a delegation to ensure that the Jewish rights in Palestine would not be jeopardized. While communication lines with other UN delegations were in place, reaching China proved to be impossible. Then Dr. Goldstein remembered Morris Cohen, aka Two-Gun Cohen, aka Mah Kun. He contacted Cohen and urged him to fly to San Francisco and provide an introduction to the inaccessible head of the Chinese delegation, General Tung Pi-Wu.
Upon meeting the Zionist delegation, General Wu, a recent convert to Christianity, said, “You are my spiritual brothers. There will be no true peace unless justice is done to the Jewish people.”* Cohen helped arrange additional meetings with the more reticent Chinese delegates to press the Zionist cause. When Jewish activists met with Chinese delegate and ambassador to Britain, V. K. Wellington Koo, Koo told them “the Chinese people, too, know the pain of persecution and discrimination based on race and nationality.” By convincing the Chinese delegation to abstain from voting, instead of opposing the partition, the activists helped to ensure that Palestine remained a mandated territory and did not revert to a trusteeship. The way to the establishment of a Jewish state had been eased.
Cohen eventually settled with his widowed sister, Leah Cooper, in Salford, England. He died in 1970 and was buried in Blakeley Jewish Cemetery in Manchester. His trilingual headstone, engraved in English, Hebrew and Chinese pays tribute to a man who stood up for the persecuted and who thus merited to be the right man in the right place.
Sources: The Museum of the Jewish Soldier in World War Two
*China and Israel, 1948-1998: A Fifty Year Retrospective, Jonathan Goldstein.