Yousef “Joseph” Cohen (Kohan) was born in 1927 C.E., the month of Aban 1306 of the Persian calendar, to a religious Jewish family of Tehran, Iran. His paternal ancestor, Chacham Rabbi Moshe “Moses”, the son of Hakim Reyhan, was a descendant of Mullah Abraham Shirazi, one of Tehran’s outstanding Jewish clerics. His father, Mousa “Moses” Cohen was a trusted member of the Grand Bazaar of Tehran, who traded in such Persian products as wood, hide, and so on. He passed away at the untimely age of 42, thus leaving the 13-year old Yousef and his siblings, one brother and four little sisters, in their mother’s care.
Yousef Cohen studied at the Kourosh “Cyrus” Elementary and Alborz High Schools. He then entered the School of Law at Tehran University to pursue his higher education in jurisprudence. Side by side his studies, being the eldest child and given his sense of responsibility toward his family, he worked in a bank. In 1950 C.E. he graduated from the university, summa cum laude, and he went on straight to work as an attorney.
Toward the middle of 1955, on the advice of Rouhollah Kohanim, the Secretary of the Tehran Jewish Association, Morad Arieh, then the Jewish Representative in the Parliament and the Chair of the Association, invited Yousef Cohen to join in with the Association. Shortly, as the youngest member of the Association, and through his extraordinary diligence and industry, Yousef Cohen was carrying out the legal issues, litigation, and other tasks assigned to him, with expertise. Awhile later, he was selected as the Vice Chair of the Association.
Yousef Cohen’s résumé of social activities is a display of enormous, remarkable and relentless efforts in resolving the legal issues that faced the Jews of Iran in various areas.
To put in order the status of the properties owned by the Tehran Jewish Association in Tehran and other cities, particularly when the issue at hand called for legal expertise and relentless judicial pursuit, Yousef Cohen laid out the plans and personally followed through with the case. He also published a monthly bulletin, which was provided for free to the Jewish community individuals and organizations, to inform his fellow people of the efforts and progress being made.
A major share of his work at the Jewish Association was focused on forming the Beith Din, known as dar-ol shar’e kalimian, i.e. the Jewish Religious Court of Arbitration. To that end, in 1962, following correspondence and meeting with the Minister of Justice, Cohen filed and registered the Beith Din with the State. By the order of the Supreme Court of Iran sent out to all Iranian courts, it was established that thenceforth, the private fatwa or “ruling” of individual religious offices were not to be sought, but instead, all inquiries involving the Jewish religious law should be directed only to the Beith Din of the Tehran Jewish Association. Thus, the Beith Din was formed, with the participation of all famed religious figures of the community, as an institution officially recognized by the government. Yousef Cohen would continue to supervise the Beith Din until the end of his services as the Jewish community Representative in the National Parliament.
Up until then, the Tehran Jewish Association was an “appointed office” that was chaired by the then-current Jewish Representative in the Parliament. A process began to transform the Association into a “democratic office” to be elected by the free vote of the Jewish people. At this point, Yousef Cohen, aided by the other members of the Association, put forward an objection to rectify the election code of the Association. The proposal, ratified and incorporated into the Constitution of the Association, clarified that the Jewish Representative to the Parliament could no more serve concurrently as the Chair of the Tehran Jewish Association.
Thus, during the first elections ever for the Tehran Jewish Association, held in 1956, the then Jewish member of the Parliament, Morad Arieh, resigned his position as the Chair of the Association, leaving the office to Haj Habib Elghanian.
Yousef Cohen made numerous trips to the other Iranian cities and towns, met with the representatives of the communities in various provinces, and became familiar up-close with their living conditions and the issues facing the individual members of the community. He tried to resolve their problems, and to that end, he took many steps to improve their social and cultural state. Among his most important services, he pushed forward the formulation and ratification of the new Jewish legal code of inheritance, in order to balance it for the fair treatment of the Jewish girls and women. Thus, through his many meetings with the Sephardic Chief Rabbi, Rabbi Ovadia Yousef, the Board of Directors of the Tehran Jewish Association, and the Board of Directors of the Iranian Jewish Women Organization, he played a significant role in resolving this crucial matter.
In 1972 C.E., by the advice and support of the Board of Directors of the Jewish Association, Yousef Cohen nominated himself to the City Council of Tehran. Once elected, he was put in charge as both the Speaker of the Legal Commission and the Chair of the Complaints Review and Investigation. As he would explain in his notes, by joining the Tehran City Council, he meant to let the other Iranians see the true face of the Jewish community. He was determined to defend their rights and to prove that the Jewish face was a manifestation of honesty, purity and a passion to learn.
By the request and support of the Jewish community, Yousef Cohen filed his candidacy with the Ministry of State to run for a seat in the 24th National Parliament as the Representative of the Jewish community; and in 1975, he earned the position by the majority vote of his people. Upon the inauguration, he was chosen to the Judiciary Commission of the Parliament, and for three consecutive terms, he served as the First Vice Chair of the Commission.
It should be noted that since the Constitutional Period, through the Parliamentary history of Iran, so far no other Representative of any religious minority has managed to ascend as high in parliamentary ranks as Yousef Cohen did.
In the Parliament, Yousef Cohen was chosen by the other religious minority Representatives to propose a bill to the Budget Commission in order to rectify the law as it pertained to the construction and development budget allocated to the minorities. The modified bill was ratified, and thenceforth, a budget was provided every year to the religious minorities for that purpose.
In 1976 C.E., the month of Azar of 1355 of the Persian calendar, Yousef Cohen traveled to the United States alongside the other religious minority members of the Parliament. They were meant to have an active role in the company of Muhammad Reza Shah, and to attract the attention of the religious minorities who lived in the United States, as the Pahlavi King met with President Jimmy Carter in the White House.
Following their return home, and toward the end of that same year, an intensifying crisis began to permeate Iran.
Threats were brewing against the Jewish community. Words of incitement were uttered against them in some speech circles. A synagogue in the city of Isfahan was vandalized. On occasion, the media would broadcast anti-Semitic material, which led to an unpleasant and unsafe atmosphere for the Jews.
To put an end to such acts of insult and anti-Semitism, Yousef Cohen spoke with the figures of the State, and to some extent he was successful.
In the winter of 1979 C.E., the month of Bahman 1357 of the Persian calendar, the Islamic Revolution succeeded. With the fall of the Monarchy, the government was dismantled, both the Parliament and the Senate were dissolved, and Yousef Cohen lost his office as the Representative of his people in the Parliament. Nevertheless, he kept on serving the Jewish community personally, as he made every effort to keep the community safe and to resolve their issues. One year later, although all former Members of the Parliament and the Senate without exception had been banned to leave Iran, he managed to obtain the exit visa to meet his family in the United States.
In Los Angeles, Yousef Cohen resumed his social and nonprofit activities. As before, he established contact and warm relations with old friends and the prominent figures and leaders of the society, participated in conferences, and exchanged ideas about the contemporary political and social situations.
He spent his spare time on collecting notes for his book, published in Persian under “Gozaresh va Khaterat” (1993, 2013, Ketab Corp., Los Angeles), that is, “Yousef Cohen: A Report and Memoir of His Political and Social Activities”, in which he recounted the highlights of his 30 years of services. He also laid the foundation, together with his journalist friend Dariush Fakheri, to publish a magazine for the Iranian Jewish community.
Yousef Cohen died unexpectedly in 1981 C.E., the 7th of Adar, 5741 of the Hebrew calendar, at the young age of 53, in Los Angeles, due to a heart attack.
Yousef Cohen’s long portfolio of services also includes:
1) Addressing the health and hygienic needs of kooyeh kalimian “The Jewish Alley”, a.k.a. the Oudlajan Jewish “ghetto” neighborhood, Tehran. Yousef Cohen met with the authorities, removed the obstacles, and obligated the City to pave the entire roads and pathways of the Oudlajan neighborhood.
2) The purchase of a building on the 13th Street, Yousef-Abad district, Tehran, where he established a cultural center for the young Jews. The building would house Sazeman Daneshjooyan or “The Academic Students Organization”, Kanoon Pishbord or “The Advancement Center”, and Jame’eh Faregh-oltahsilan or “The Graduate Society.”
3) Publishing Gozaresh “Report”, with 8000 copies per issue. The bulletin was mailed for free to the individuals, synagogues and other social organizations of the Jewish communities of Tehran and other Iranian cities and small towns, at Cohen’s personal expense.
4) Yousef Cohen took action to pave the streets leading to the mausoleum of the Prophet Habakkuk in the city of Toyserkan, Iran. He launched the plans to build a synagogue and a parking for the Shrine of Sarah Bat Asher, Isfahan, and had the large structure remodelled or rebuilt. He further obtained the deed of the historic Guilyard Jewish graveyard, located in the north of Tehran, and had a road built to the cemetery.
5) Yousef Cohen launched and followed through the case to obtain a lot for a new cemetery in Tehran, which would be known as the Beheshtieh “Eden”. The case piqued the attention of the government, which via an emphatic edict provided the Jewish community with a piece of land dedicated to that purpose.
6) Yousef Cohen obtained the permission from Prime Minister Amir Abbas Hoveyda to build a cultural complex for the Jewish community.
7) Yousef Cohen made numerous trips to various Iranian cities and towns to investigate the current situation and improve the living conditions and the status of Jews.
8) He took action and succeeded to acquit Haj Habib Elghanian from the charge of over-selling his products, thus freeing the man from his exile in the city of Sanandaj in the far western Iran.