If the United States decides to remove all remaining troops from Iraq and Syria, it would spell the end of the Yazidis and the Syrian Christians, says Rabbi Abraham Cooper. “They would essentially disappear.”
In this episode, we sit down with Rabbi Cooper, the associate dean and director of Global Social Action at the Simon Wiesenthal Center, to discuss efforts to combat religious persecution globally, from Christians being killed in Nigeria to genocide in China.
“That is supposed to be beyond the pale. That is supposedly why the United Nations came into existence in the first place—now forgotten by alliances of convenience and cynicism and hypocrisy,” says Rabbi Cooper.
We also discuss growing attacks on Jews around the world, fueled by propaganda from Hamas, and Cooper’s work facilitating tolerance and understanding in the Middle East, including his role in the Abraham Accords.
Jan Jekielek: Rabbi Abraham Cooper, such a pleasure to have you on American Thought Leaders.
Rabbi Abraham Cooper: Thank you. Welcome to Los Angeles.
Mr. Jekielek: It’s fantastic to be here, and it’s fantastic to be at the Museum of Tolerance. Let’s start with this. We just passed the anniversary of the Abraham Accords being assigned. When that happened, to me, it was something I really didn’t expect I would see.
Rabbi Cooper: You’re not alone.
Mr. Jekielek: You were actually quite important, I know on the side of the Bahrain relationship, for example. Let’s talk about the significance. Let’s talk about what it took. Let’s just start there.
Rabbi Cooper: Well, first of all, the significance of the first anniversary. It’s actually amazing how quickly this peace became real peace. It reminds me of something of a brilliant person, not me, who first said it, “That nations sign treaties, but only people make peace.”
So for political reasons, there are peace treaties that have [been] held between Israel and Egypt, and Israel and Jordan. But as far as a real peace between people, that hasn’t been possible.
In the case of the Gulf states, and Morocco, and amazingly Sudan, we’re looking at a real peace. I’ve been involved with the Wiesenthal Center since the day we opened over 43 years ago. And Simon Wiesenthal, the great Nazi hunter who was a survivor, barely, of the Nazi Holocaust, had a chance to know him and work with him for 29 years.
He always said that we need the Jewish people—can’t go it alone. We need friends. We need allies. We also have to be there for others. We take care of our own first and foremost. But if you really want to learn all of the lessons from the Holocaust, we need to have a broad array of friends and allies.
Not so simple in the world we live in today. You can’t be all things to all people. You have to be true to your own values. It’s something that’s reflected in our Museum of Tolerance. We believe a lot of our values are actually universal values, and that’s always inspired me.
For I would say the last two decades, I’ve been on a hunt for normals. What do I mean by that? Faith leaders who are self-assured in terms of their own religion, their own faith, but also can see beyond just their own group, or their own people.
So for us, it’s never been about interfaith so much as multi-faith. We’re not interested in converting anyone from anything to anything. We’re interested in the fundamental, underlying values.
Obviously 9/11 changed the entire world forever. And that meant that we had to be redoubling our efforts in our internet work against terrorism. So not a matter of kumbaya moments, but trying to figure out who we can deal with, and who the enemies were. Not always simple, not always easy to figure out.
I found that the best way to sort of figure out who we can work together with was to usually get on a plane, draw a straight line, and go meet people. I’ve traveled a great deal around the world. It’s been an unbelievable honor for me to do so, representing the center, but it also is an eye-opener for someone who spends a lot of time interacting with other cultures.
I heard about a place called Bahrain. My friend, who was the only Philo-Semitic Imam in France, we’re good buddies. I saw him about six years ago, and we met in Paris. I stopped there purposely to see Imam Chalghoumi. And unusual for an Orthodox rabbi and a Muslim leader to hug in the main area of one of the major hotels in Paris, not an every day.
We talked, and I asked him, so what’s going on? He said, well, the French police sat down with me. I have 24/7 security because of my views. But they told me a few months ago, listen, we’ll continue with you, but you’ve got five kids and a wife. We just can’t throw a total blanket over your entire family. And so I said, so what happened? He said, well, I relocated my family. To where? Bahrain.
So Imam Chalghoumi, you could have picked anywhere in the world, and you sent your family to Bahrain? I’d like to visit there. That was going to happen, because our center already scheduled a trip to Dubai. So I was going to go a few days before to Bahrain.
And then Rabbi Hier, my boss, my mentor, my leader, was invited to the Trump inauguration to give a prayer, which he did, which was an amazing moment for all of us. That was on a Friday. On Sunday morning at about 5:00 AM, I got a call from the deputy foreign minister of Bahrain. He said, “Oh, we’re so thrilled that you’re coming, we can’t wait to see you next month. Oh, and by the way, is Rabbi Hier coming with you?” And I had enough presence of mind to say, are we going to meet the king?
That’s how it started. I went to Bahrain. Friday, my host just took me to The Souk downtown, and said, walk anywhere you want. It happened to be the Hindu festival Ashura. And there was a 200 year old Hindu temple with thousands of Hindus going in and out, 50 feet from a Shia mosque, a block away from a church, with a cross on it, and bells, in an Arab capital. And there was also a small synagogue, not used—weren’t that many Jews around.
But suddenly, we saw that there was at least one Arab capital where in terms of people’s religion and faith, you didn’t have to hide it. And there were various Christian denominations. And I just found it completely shocking, in a positive way.
On Sunday, Rabbi Hier flew in, and we had a 45 minute meeting with King Hamad and his entire brain trust. Everyone was there; foreign minister, two of his sons, and the head of the Shura Council. It was an amazing meeting. Without us asking, he actually attacked the boycott of Israel, and said that his country would not in any way follow it.
And when it came time for me to ask my one question, I said, “Your majesty, what would you think if the Simon Wiesenthal Center were to invite your faith leaders, your citizens, to come and be our guests in Jerusalem?”
Without hesitation, he said, “My citizens are free to go anywhere they want in the world.” And within a year and a half, we were hosting 24 faith leaders in Jerusalem. Also, I think this little tiny country, which is almost like an afterthought of Saudi Arabia, and right across from the big, bad Wolf of Iran, right there in the middle.
The king authored the Bahrain Declaration on Religious Freedom, which was a game changer for everyone who’s looking to protect religious freedom and actually grow it around the world. An amazing statement. You don’t need to have a PhD to understand it—written in straight English and Arabic. He says that people have the right to pray as they see fit. They even have the right not to pray.
Again, in a lot of ways, very shocking, but something that moved the goalposts in terms of all our discussions. Now, also realistically, while we were having and continue to deepen our relations with Bahrain, it’s a small country, and its lifeline is a causeway.
I think it runs about 18, 20 miles, to Saudi Arabia. So while we really cherish and value this unique relationship, obviously the Crown Prince in Saudi Arabia, and the other leaders there, are watching very, very carefully, and seeing the most unbelievable thing, this little tiny place called Bahrain is suddenly garnering international headlines.
The freedom doctrine was released here in Los Angeles by Sheik Nasser, his son, and the first two signings were Rabbi Hier and Sheik Nasser. So I think what we sort of showed in advance of peace, that you could really advance things very quickly.
One other thing about Bahrain, and I’ll talk briefly about the UAE, is that Bahrain became the first Arab country to sign an MOU [Memorandum of Understanding] with the United States State Department. They were recognized by the State Department, by Pompeo, as a country doing best practices against antisemitism.
In the MOU they signed, they actually identified anti-Zionism as antisemitism and embraced the IRA definition of anti-Semitism, which identifies that if you demonize the Jewish state, that’s also antisemitism.
Well, there are a lot of universities in the United States that won’t sign such a document, unfortunately. So here we have an Arab country that’s openly embracing these points, and we continue to work closely with them to expand those ties.
The UAE, our first contact, meeting with the ruler in Abu Dhabi was 13 years ago. It goes back ways. And in a lot of ways, I would say there already was a sense of normalcy when it came to the international community. Jews wanted to come in, et cetera.
On occasion, there was an incident in which Shahar Pe’er, who was Israel’s top tennis star at the time, was refused entry into the United Arab Emirates to play one of the Grand Slam international matches. So we put out a statement saying, well, and they said, well, we can’t guarantee her safety.
Well, if you can’t guarantee her safety, we guess it’s not safe enough for Jews to visit the United Arab Emirates. And that led to a very quick breakthrough, visits, again, normalization, pushing that idea, and of course, also trying to focus on humanitarian.
What I would say is that I’m a big believer in humanitarian diplomacy, meaning the following. Let’s take a place like Shalva in Jerusalem. When you go the next time, you’ll do a big segment on it. It’s the world’s leading place for helping families with newborns, and little kids and older who have multiple handicaps.
It’s an amazing, amazing story. If you go up online, you will see, if you remember the Simon and Garfunkel, “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” You’ll find an amazing version of it that combines this amazing orchestra of these kids with four of the great singers and instrument would tell us from Dubai from the United Arab Emirates.
So we’re a big, big believer in trying to bring together, because the business people, you don’t have to worry about them. The Arabs and the Jews, you don’t have to worry. It’s now under three hours from any of those capitals to and from Israel. Leave business people alone. Probably the same is true when it comes to Israelis and Palestinians. If the politicians will get out of the way, the business folks will do their thing.
But we think that the real cement and the growth for the DNA of peace is that every society has people who are committed to help try to raise the level of life for those who are not as fortunate, for those who have difficult handicaps. When you can bring those people together, and they can work together to help float the boat for everyone, that’s what humanizes groups.
That’s what tears down stereotypes. Pretty much I’ll go anywhere if there’s a chance to try to tear down some of the stereotypes, and to further the cause of what we call tolerance. We’re obviously looking for something much deeper than just tolerating each other.
Mr. Jekielek: So in a nutshell, it’s really these connections that allow for this actual lasting peace, as opposed to just a treaty.
Rabbi Cooper: Right, treaties are extremely crucial, obviously, as the reshuffling of the deck. I think the person who gets most of the credit for these treaties is the Ayatollah Khamenei, because there’s an existential threat against each of these countries. It’s not that fellow Arabs suddenly don’t care about the fate of Palestinians, it’s just that they care about their fate more.
They’re still, as we speak, in a situation in which Iran, if it becomes nuclearized and if it re-emerges as that kind of regional power, can change the map and the realities very quickly on the ground.
So when you have a radical, thuggish, mafia-like regime in Tehran, threatening the region, people do what they have to do which is come together, and try to figure out how to be stronger together. So they don’t need the Simon Wiesenthal Center for intelligence, or military cooperation, or any of that. What we saw there was an opportunity to build different kinds of relationships—different building blocks.
My last trip in June to Bahrain, one of the most interesting meetings of all was with the Women’s Business Association. These are tough gals. In that kind of society, these are all self-made people. And what was really good about the meeting is that two or three of the top people there admitted that they were brought up to hate Jews, having never met one.
So I think that’s sort of the next level. After the fanfare cools, and after people are used to seeing guys with yamakas at 10 o’clock in Abu Dhabi, you really have to go quickly down to the next level. You have to deal with, openly, the stereotypes, the fears, the hatreds on both sides, and see what you can do to mitigate them.
If you never reach that point, it’s good that nobody’s fighting with each other. But if you’re talking about relationships, it has to be based on education, and real relationships. There are limits to Zoom.
Mr. Jekielek: I can’t help but think about a whole number of people reaching out to me earlier this year, when there was this Israeli Hamas conflict, and Hamas decided to launch some rockets into Israel. And that was connected with a pretty strong Israeli response.
And then it was connected with, in Toronto, in New York, and all sorts of places, London, very, very open and virulent antisemitism, just sort of coming out. And a lot of people reaching out to me saying, where did this come from? What’s going on? What did you make of that?
Rabbi Cooper: So two comments. I hope you’ll understand the first one. I think that a lot of nations will never forgive Israel for not carpet bombing Gaza.
Mr. Jekielek: Okay. I clearly need to hear more here.
Rabbi Cooper: Meaning that if they were in that situation, in which there was a group of terrorists that were launching rockets against cities like Tel Aviv, or Prague, or someplace in India, or wherever it might be, the response would be pretty much catastrophic for that whole area.
You can even ask some of the people in Afghanistan. And earlier in Iraq, when you had that middle of a war, what the limitations, or non limitations were, in terms of fighting back against terrorists.
Israelis have a whole different worldview. They probably would like to have different neighbors, but their neighbors are Arab Palestinians. So their long range view is, they’re not interested at being at war. They don’t wanna wipe them out. They wanna live in peace.
And I think for the last generation, people understand they want a divorce. Both sides would like a divorce, to be able to go on. Israel’s ready for that divorce. They’re ready to help with payments, but they are not prepared for collective suicide.
When you have, over and over and over again, the civilian populations, now you can include Southern Lebanon, with Hezbollah, that are used blatantly by terrorist groups to threaten a sovereign state recognized by the UN.
And by the way, none of those rockets were aimed at a quote unquote, “occupied territories.” They were aimed at Israel proper. So the whole business about occupation, and we can debate Israel’s presence on the West Bank, et cetera. That’s not what this is about.
This is about a game plan to eliminate the Jewish state. That’s why I started with the provocative statement. What do you mean? If Israel would just do what people do, and not say, then probably, after some time, the issue would go away. But Israel is not responsible to those nations.
They’re responsible to its citizens, and to its values. And I’d like to think that its values are a little bit different than some of those countries. You might even say that they’re Jewish values, that if you’re working against Nazis, wipe them out. If you’re working to defend yourself from neighbors, there are rules of engagement. Israel is a democracy, and a Jewish state, and it has those rules in place.
Now what happened in this last war is that Hamas exported the war, in terms of propaganda, to around the world. And what we saw very rapidly is first, attacks on Jews in Germany, then drive-bys in Jewish neighborhoods in London, and then places that are generally very quiet.
I lived in Canada for two years. My oldest daughter was born in Vancouver. Montreal and Toronto, hate crimes. And we’re gonna rape your women and daughters, and the same language exported, in all likelihood, but just by social media, and maybe a little bit more, we’ll find out down the line if it was really organized.
But then you had Jews being beaten on the streets of Manhattan, hunted down at night. Here in Los Angeles attacked at restaurants, and synagogues attacked. The language was all the same. What happened here was not just a changing of the goalposts—moving of the goalpost.
They changed completely to a different match, which was to take on the talking points, not of the PA, two state solution. East Jerusalem is the capital, you know, et cetera, et cetera. Get off the Golan, to, no no, get rid of Israel, Israel apartheid, Israel racist, anybody who backs Israel is open for attack, for violence or worse. Basically, the export of the Hamas war onto the streets of major cities on both sides of the Atlantic.
And we’re also right now on the verge of the 20th anniversary of the Durban Declaration. I happened to be the spokesman for the Jewish groups back there in 2001. And that was the most hate-filled, anti-Semitic public event since the end of World War Two, under the umbrella of the UN. And that, in the immediate time of the post-apartheid South Africa, what better place to introduce Israel apartheid than Durban, South Africa? And what better way to do it under the guise of 3,500 plus NGOs, and under the umbrella of the United Nations?
All of these things are tied in, and the fact that we have to lobby major countries to boycott the 20th celebration of Durban, Durban IV. Some major countries, including the U.S., Canada, Germany, France, Italy, Australia, are out, but other countries are still going. And it’s just another way of cloaking Zionism as racism.
So when you have politicians saying, oh, we’re shocked that we have antisemitism in our country, and we have to strengthen our laws. And at the same time, they continue to legitimize Jew hatred in the international arena, and at the UN, and sometimes domestically, within their own university systems.
That’s, at best, crocodile tears. But again, the only way you can fight back on that kind of an assault, so you have to have friends, you have to have allies, and you have to be able to educate generations who were born in the 21st century [who] don’t know anything about the Holocaust. Probably never heard of Simon Wiesenthal, including many Jews, and you have to make the case. Why is it important now, 70, 80 years later, to even talk about it?
Like, why is Anne Frank still relevant, and why should I be learning about it? And that’s now also a global question, because we find one of the candidates in Japan to be next prime minister is a woman who endorsed a positive book about Hitler, some years back. Where you have, throughout Asia, not a lot of understanding about the European theater in World War Two, but a fascination with the swastika, and with Nazi memorabilia.
It depends. I mean, obviously, I never felt any sense of danger on the streets of Hong Kong, or Tokyo. Quite the contrary—or in Mumbai or New Delhi. But these ideas are still being promoted. And we know one thing, the Jewish people knows one thing, that when people threaten you, when they invoke the Nazi symbols, when they celebrate what the Nazis stood for, you have to fight them with all you have.
You might say, well, it’s just a small group. When you look at the Hitler letter that we have at the Museum of Tolerance, you can find out how far and how fast an idea can be carried and promoted by one person, and what the consequences for the planet are. Eric, our Chief of Security is about to bring in what we consider to be the most important document related to Hitler, and his views of the Jewish people. It’s from the year 1919. So Eric, if you’ll bring it over to Rabbi Hier. This is the original, from our founder and Dean, Rabbi Hier.
Rabbi Hier: As Rabbi Cooper said, there are perhaps millions of documents on World War Two. I would say that this would rank, if not the first, as the most important document, because this was written on September the 16th, 1919. So to the Wannsee Conference, that would be about 22, 23 years before the conference.
Most people think that the idea of getting rid of the Jews, murdering the Jewish people, happened at Wannsee in 1942. Yes, that meeting took place. But the idea happened on September the 16th in Munich, in 1919.
The background is as follows. Hitler’s commanding officer at the time after World War One, was Karl Meier. One day, Karl Meier comes to Hitler, and he says to him, “I’ve been asked the question, as to the role of the Jews.” And he says, “I want you to write it. What can you tell me?”
So Hitler writes this letter as follows. And in this letter, he tells the whole story of his opinion of Jews and their danger to mankind. Then he comes to the most important thing. He says antisemitism, stemming from purely emotional reasons will always find its expression in the form of pogroms.
But antisemitism based on reason must lead to the systematic, legal combating, and removal of the rights of the Jews. But that’s not enough. Then he adds, its final aim however, must be the uncompromising removal of the Jews altogether. Both are possible under a government of national strength, but never under a government of national impotence.
This is September the 16th 1919. One other important fact. Karl Meier, who asked him to give his comments about the Jews later became a Social Democrat. When Hitler becomes chancellor, he can’t get over the idea that his former commander, right after and during World War One, became a turncoat.
Find me Meier, find me Meier. And they finally tell him, we found him, he’s in France. And as a result, Hitler orders the Nazis to immediately arrest him. They arrest him, and he basically dies in a concentration camp. And the background was that he wrote this letter to Meier, and he didn’t want Meier around in the world after the war was over—to tell the world. Oh yes, this is what Hitler wrote way back in 1919.
Rabbi Cooper: Rabbi Hier, could you show, it’s very unusual, Hitler’s signature? And the reason why the signature is so important is that many German historians and others said that the final solution wasn’t his idea. There were others who pressured him—Heydrich, whatever. Here you see that the actual game plan, the mindset, at this point, a nobody, 20 years later would become governmental policy, and industrial genocide would soon be unleashed on the Jewish people.
Mr. Jekielek: Incredible.
Rabbi Hier: The other remarkable thing about the letter is that we’re going to soon commemorate the 80th anniversary of Wannsee. Now at Wannsee, I would add the following. Hitler never imagined in 1919, that he would get intellectuals on his side. At the Wannsee Conference in 1942, eight of the 14 present were the recipients of PhDs.
So Adolf Hitler, that someone would probably think, oh, Hitler, he’s crazy, a lunatic. What influence does he have on the world? This lunatic, quote unquote, “influenced the Wannsee Conference.” That’s how the Wannsee Conference was organized, because of these words. And present at the Wannsee Conference were not only bums, hooligans, fanatics, but eight of them were PhDs from leading universities, including one that had a scholarship from the Rockefeller University.
Mr. Jekielek: So, with respect to this idea that Zionism is antisemitism, some people will just say, well, you’re just saying you can’t criticize Israel.
Rabbi Cooper: Well, for one thing, if you’ve ever been to Israel, and you get into a taxi, that’s when the criticism begins, with the taxi driver. If you get bored with that argument, by the way, I would listen more carefully to the taxi drivers than the politicians. If you get bored, you can go to their Knesset or their parliament, where they’re screaming at each other six days a week. Thank God for the Jewish Sabbath, when it’s closed.
And if you get bored with that, just turn on the TV, to the multitude of stations that there are or pick up a newspaper. So criticizing Israeli policies is a national bloodsport of Israel. You know, the old saying where you have two Jews and three opinions? It’s true in our diaspora, it’s true in Israel. Criticism is not the issue.
Attacking the idea of Israel, attacking the legitimacy of Jewish destiny, that includes a return to a land we’ve been connected to for 3,500 years. When you say you don’t have a right to be there, that constitutes crossing the line—that’s double standard. It’s de-legitimizing a sovereign state. It’s demonizing Jews everywhere. And that’s part of the problem, the big problem that we have.
Most people don’t know that around the United States and across Europe, for probably the last 30 years, you can’t get into a synagogue without going through security. That’s not true of any church, or any temple, or any mosque. I hope not.
But let’s say in Frankfurt, I went to the front desk of the hotel when I was staying there in a Shabbat, and I asked the lady at the front desk, how do I get to the synagogue? She said, oh, “I’ll show you.” She took me outside and said, “You go down to the third light, see that green light there? You make a right. And when you see the half track, and the soldiers, that’s the synagogue.“
That’s the reality for people everywhere. Jewish people, we celebrate midst of our high holy days. That is a part of our reality all over the diaspora—from Australia, to Canada, to the Americas, and certainly across Europe. It’s a sad fact of life that there’s always some group, whether it’s the Islamist terrorists, or its neo-Nazis as in Sweden, or just thugs that see an opportunity to attack Jews.
And you might say, well, where do they get all of it? We’re in the era of social media. So the hatred now is 24/7. And as you know, you can mass market your ideas to groups, to age groups, et cetera, et cetera. And right now, the evil doers in the world have never had a better marketing capability, free of any government interference than social media. And we have to deal with the consequences.
Mr. Jekielek: Rabbi Cooper, talking about anti-Semitism, I was recently reading this new report by the Jewish Institute for Liberal Values. They were looking at critical social justice ideology, which critical race theory is a part of. They see it as this ideology is something that’s actually fueling anti-Semitism in all these national centers that we’ve been just describing. What do you think about that?
Rabbi Cooper: Okay, so we have a number of swamps that have to be drained when you talk about anti-Semitism. You have the Islamists, a Muslim brotherhood. The Saudi seemed to be going in the right direction. The Iranians are another source of it. You have the neo-Nazis and far right, and not so neo-Nazis in places like Germany and Austria. These are live, and again, thriving off of social media and finding new recruits.
Then you have, here in the States, of course you have the far right extremists, including neo-Nazis. And you have people in the, I guess you might call it political left, or whatever. You have members of Congress now who use the safety net of being a member of Congress in order to promote antisemitic tropes. It’s the Benjamin’s baby stuff that’s just not true about Israel that’s put up on a tweet, and maybe or maybe is not removed.
You know, you have now within that political, and social, and cultural new era, open antisemites, with no price to pay, quite the contrary. And we’ve urged Nancy Pelosi and Democratic leaders to take the necessary steps that we’ve urged Republicans to do when they’ve had some of their folks going off the rails. That has not yet happened. And it’s a source of very, very deep concern.
So we have from progressives, we have from the far right, we have Islamists, and you have, again, the lone wolf, which is something that in the 21st century is an inspiration and a product of the internet and of social media. So we have our hands full, besides the terrorists who want to reconstitute themselves from Al Qaeda or ISIS? No problem. Just signal the Muslim world that we’re gonna help the Palestinians liberate Alakhsa—as if it’s under occupation.
So we have a wide array of enemies, and I think the best advice about how to begin to fight all of this was given by no one less than Natan Sharansky. When he was talking to young Jews, former head of the Jewish Agency, great human rights icon, the Soviet era.
He said, look, it’s not our job to tell young people whether they should be conservatives or they should be progressives, Democrats, Republicans, left or right. That’s not our job. But what we can tell them is that when they see or hear an anti-Semitic incident, act, or statement spewed forth from their own camp, they have a responsibility to be the ones to speak out first. It’s easy to rag on the opposition. See, we told you. Look at those crazy conservatives, or, what do you expect from leftists?
That’s not the way to defeat antisemitism. You have to show some courage. And I have to say that more and more. As some of these anti-Zionist tropes become embedded in part of left, that more and more progressive Jewish parents, who see it playing out against their kids in public school, and in private school, are speaking out, are organizing, and are saying is that you can’t dictate, to Linda Sarsour, for example, who elected you to be the gatekeeper for who can be a progressive and who couldn’t be a progressive?
Anybody who demands of anyone else that they offload their own identity in order to be a member of their club, I don’t care what religion, or nationality you are, run, do not walk. Run away from that. And in short order, if you wanna talk about woke and cancel culture, we’re all about council culture, not cancel culture.
If you wanna talk about Jewish values, we’re in the days of repentance, of reflecting on our, there are no perfect specimens. We don’t believe in saints to begin with. We’re all flawed in how we behave.
The question is, how do we do the day after we make a mistake? You know, do we learn from it? Do we move forward? The Museum of Tolerance, to date, I think we’ve hosted somewhere north of 7 million visitors.
And we train police, about 160,000 of them, and mostly young people, including gang members, and everyone else in between. And I think the underlying point of the museum, and the goal of the museum, is to promote critical thinking on the part of the individual, and personal responsibility.
There’s no hiding behind whatever ism, or group, or religion that you may feel very strongly about. You do, at the end of the day, have to take personal responsibility. And if there was ever a need for a generation to apply critical thinking, just look at social media.
I think without the Museum of Tolerance, the outreach that the center has done, and I’ve been privileged to be involved in a global way. Without it, I’m not sure we ever would have gotten there, because it allows us to be true to who we are, but at the same time, signal that we have broader responsibilities, especially when it comes to the issue, by the way, of genocide, to speak out.
Mr. Jekielek: Tolerance, one of the things that the followers of critical social justice will do, is they change the definitions of words to mean, you think you’re talking about the same thing, you’re not talking about the same thing. When you say tolerance, and I think you’ve given me a decent picture of what you’re saying, but when you say tolerance, what does that mean?
Rabbi Cooper: So, it’s a good starting point, tolerance. One of the great rabbis of the Talmud said, “What is hateful to you, don’t do to others.” So that would be a good starting point in the world we live today. And you’re absolutely right. This is a battle, in many ways, not yet engaged, over narrative, over a language. But when you boil it down, it’s also a battle over values. There are no shortcuts.
You know, I was lucky enough, I spent in 1972 foue weeks in the Soviet Union. I came to understand quickly what was meant by you’re in good hands with Allstate. I saw the price that everyday people were paying because they didn’t have access to personal freedom. And I met many heroes, everyday people, who said, I’m not gonna take this. This is my life, I wanna take responsibility.
So I learned at a tender age how lucky I was to be born an American. And it’s something that has always stuck with me. And here we are in the post Cold War era, where we hear a lot of the same ideas now, repackaged, and just having seen the abject failure of that experiment up-close before. It’s obviously, to me personally very disconcerting.
Mr. Jekielek: Yeah I think it’s failed something like 22 times. We don’t need to try more, right?
Rabbi Cooper: But that also goes to the issue of collective memory. So I think the most important contribution that the Jewish people has made to humanity is the concept of memory. There are a lot of cultures who say, who wants to focus on the bad stuff that happened in the past? There are a lot of philosophies and ideologies that say, no, no, you have to be able to purge the past so that you can live well now, and move on.
The Jewish people have always believed that you don’t deflect the lessons from the past. You absorb them, you incorporate them. And that makes you stronger to move on. And certainly my interactions, many times, for example, in Japan, on the issue of their failure to look squarely at what Imperial Japan did to its neighbors in the 30s and 40s. That’s always an interesting topic to get involved with.
But at the core, when you get to it, it’s really a matter of our saying to my friends, and I consider them to be friends, there is something we can teach you. And that is if you wanna be stronger going forward, however you describe that, economically, geopolitically, you can’t erase the past.
Look at the Jews and the Germans since World War Two. Uneven, but they’ve been working at it. And if you say, well, let’s just wait till everybody dies off from the Second World War, it’ll be fine.
And I said this to 40 members of the Diet, take a look at Turkey and the Armenians. 100 years later, the hatreds are much deeper. They run deeper, the distrust is there, because there’s been a failure to just deal with the facts of history. So memory is one of our key contributions.
And the other one, which maybe is more positive, and that’s the possibility of change. You can make a mistake and you can change. That’s what we’re just going through here in terms of the Jewish High Holy days. Every year, we look in the mirror, it’s pretty ugly. And you have to sort of come to grips with your own shortcomings.
Even if you don’t do it completely, it really does set the stage for you to have, excuse the term, a more tolerant view of people you meet, because unless you’re expecting that everyone’s gonna be Mother Theresa in this world, you have to deal with flawed individuals, with people who don’t necessarily see the world the same way as you do. And then you have the tools to deal with that in order to forge meaningful relationships.
Mr. Jekielek: So you wrote a book with Reverend Johnny Moore about the plight of Christians’ persecution. And recently, I attended this event where you were talking about deep, deep concerns with him and others, about what would happen should the U.S. exit Iraq completely, following the withdrawal from Afghanistan.
Your specific concerns were around Yazidis and Christians in the area. And again, given everything you’ve told me right now, makes a lot of sense why you would be involved with this. But tell me, what is going on here? What’s the concern, and how does the Simon Wiesenthal Center and your work fit in?
Rabbi Cooper: The book that we wrote together, “The Next Jihad,” is about a silenced minority. Actually, not a total minority in their own country. In this case, Nigeria. Where Christians are being killed, by a variety of groups, for many reasons. But first and foremost, I think because of their faith. And they’ve been silenced.
And I know from my own previous experience in another century, and there’s no direct parallel, but nonetheless, when you had three million silenced Jews in the Soviet Union, they needed help for their concerns and cries, and profound problems that they had. They needed help from the outside.
So after visiting with the Soviet Jews for a month, that became an important part of my life for quite a few years. I felt a sense of moral obligation to be, if you will, a bit of a megaphone for their voices—to make sure they were heard.
Here we are in the 21st century, totally different circumstances, the largest and richest nation in Africa. And yet I just kept reading these stories of Christians being killed in their churches, in their homes, driving, Christmas Eve, or during Easter, between cities to visit families, and nothing.
You would just read about the story, another CNN international story, nothing was there. So I actually just kept pushing Johnny, and said, we gotta go. And I’m not sure he was too crazy about it. I’m sure our wives weren’t. But just felt that we had to go, because we had to. I’ll use the term, first of all, witness what was going on, verify what was going on. And then we could maybe figure out how we could help. That was just before COVID hit.
And here we are in 2021, and that’s a disaster that continues to unwind, a kind of slow motion genocide which could be stopped. We haven’t yet found the right levers in order to see it stop.
But at least we can serve as, I don’t think use the term megaphone anymore, not in the age of social media, but we could be there to try to push and control, and to try create alliances, to try to change the situation, in this case, for one religious minority.
In Iraq, after what we just watched in Afghanistan, we have a pretty good idea of the Taliban too, what their plans are for that nation. It’s way too big for any NGO or groups of NGOs to really make that much of a difference. But when you take a look at Syria, with 900 U.S. troops left in a particular area, in Iraq with a few thousand U.S. soldiers, if the administration decides to remove those people, based on what happened already to the Yazidis and the Assyrian Christians, that would mean, I think in very rapid succession, the end of those two people. They would essentially disappear.
Already, 90 percent of Assyrian Christians were either killed or fled their historic homeland. It’s one of the ancient Christian communities in history. Their history would effectively come to an end. And the Yazidis, their numbers are not very large to begin with. They could also be erased. So this is not so much to talk about the geopolitical situation, or where we should be putting our troops and all the rest.
We have 1.3 million troops in NATO, so this is not about numbers. It’s really about the values of a nation. And in which generation after generation, we ask young Americans to go out there and try to make that change, and fulfill American policy and do the decent thing.
And the idea now, after the Afghanistan debacle, that similar actions are being considered in places like Iraq, you really have to speak out. Will it make a difference in the end? We don’t know, but we have signaled to the Yazidis and to the Assyrian Christians, that there are people who care, and to the extent that we can help, we will.
Mr Wiesenthal taught that one of the things that the Nazis succeeded at, even before they mass murdered the Jews, is emphasizing to them they were no longer human. No one in the outside world cared, and they were already as good as dead. And that is part of the legacy of the Holocaust, the nightmare of the Shoah, that even the survivors carried with them every single day.
And just give one interesting example. There’s a Japanese diplomat named Sugihara, who helped give visas to a few thousand Jews fleeing the Nazis back in 1940 in Lithuania. And, over the objection of his own government, he saved thousands and thousands of people, including all of the students and staff of the famous Mir Yeshiva, which today in Jerusalem has 3000 plus post-university level scholars learning, because of the guy named Sugihara.
But what I remember was one of those scholars who I met many years later, who told me when they got off the ship from the Soviet Union to Japan, and they started walking through this town. Nobody there had ever seen a Jew, and they certainly had never seen anyone Japanese.
But he said, he’ll never forget, he saw that the people were poor. A woman went back inside of her little house, and came out and gave him an apple. And he said he was sure that they didn’t really understand the full impact, because for already fleeing refugees, no one treated them like humans.
And here you had cross cultural and linguistic divides that would never be breached. Nonetheless, the underlying humanity between two people helps save a life and helps save a soul.
Mr. Jekielek: I can’t help but think about this recently now well-documented genocide of the Uyghurs in Xinjiang province in China. And there’s at least two other likely genocides against the Falun Gong and against the Tibetan people. Attempted eradication, slow motion, you suggested.
Yet, one of the biggest powers in the world now that’s overseeing these genocides. So the question is, again, as we finish up here, how can we address this from the perspective of someone who’s been looking straight at the face of genocides for decades?
Rabbi Cooper: Obviously, there’s no magic formula, magic solution, but a couple of points. It’s especially true, for example, when we talk about Iran. It’s not about the people, it’s about a regime.
So I think that first and foremost is to make sure that we don’t land up being guilty of what we say extremists always do. Which is to stereotype against an entire nation, entire culture, entire people, when you really need to focus on the decisions of a government.
And having said that, I think it really comes down to, is there a price to pay for that kind of behavior? That means that nations that have to do business with China will continue to do business with China. Nonetheless, draw a line when it comes to this kind of behavior.
Some NGOs have done a good job in identifying a slave labor chain of products that reach the world. And that means that each of us could be making real time decisions, and expressing our views to the companies in that chain that may land up having more impact than any speech at the United Nations.
The world is a very, very different place than it was 80 years ago. But nonetheless, in terms of the human condition, it’s never changed. Just the numbers, the scope of what can be done, the scope of what was done is shocking. And I think it’s important for humanity, without being Pollyannaish about it, that there has to be a price to pay when you’re prepared to use those kinds of tactics to eliminate potentially an entire people, an entire culture. That is supposed to be beyond the pale.
That is supposedly why the United Nations came into existence in the first place. Now forgotten by alliances of convenience, and cynicism, and hypocrisy. But it does mean also that in the era of social media, individual citizens, including very young people, can do a lot to try to bring about a sense of responsibility and accountability for those kinds of behaviors.
Just to give one example, a lot of people are disappointed in the NBA and some major stars. They’ve got millions and millions of followers. If some of those folks were to come down, the fans, and make it clear to the NBA that there will be a price to pay for silence over this kind of scenario.
I remembered something that Mr Wiesenthal said in wake of Saddam Hussein’s gassing of 5,000 Kurds. He was one of the few people, international figures, who spoke out against it. And what he said in part was, the silence of the world will be understood differently by tyrants, than what we think.
There are lessons to be learned. And I always look back and say to myself, imagine if there had been a coalition of the willing when Saddam gassed 5,000 Muslims, his own citizens, to deal with that issue back then, the world would have been a different place.
So it’s not just a matter of being a good global citizen. It’s also a matter of trying to steer a course so that we’re not gonna be thinking, and dealing with, and confronting, or maybe, God forbid, suffering, from even greater crimes in the future.
Mr. Jekielek: It’s often said for evil to flourish, it requires only, “for good men to do nothing.” Those words were first said by Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal. After barely surviving the Holocaust, he dedicated his life to tracking down Nazi war criminals from Brooklyn to Buenos Aires, so they could be brought to trial.
Rabbi Cooper: This is the actual office.
Mr. Jekielek: The actual?
Rabbi Cooper: The actual. Mr Wiesenthal wrote to us, and said, when I pass, I want you to send a team, take my office, and bring it to LA to the museum, so that people will know what I did. So the Nazis knew who he was. And he was a very courageous man, going to work every day.
Later in his career, the neo-Nazis actually bombed his home, on a Friday night. Luckily, he and his wife had just gone up to bed, and they survived it. Cyla never wanted to be there. She said to him, Simon, you promised me only three or four years, so let’s get the hell out of here. And he said, I can’t leave. He is a tough, tough guy. And, he had no training. He just drew a line and said, this can’t go unanswered.
[Narration]: Once, Wiesenthal was asked, “Simon, if you had gone back to building houses, you’d be a millionaire. Why didn’t you?” Wiesenthal replied, “When we come to the other world, and meet the millions of Jews who died in the camps, and they ask us, what have you done? There will be many answers. You will say, I became a jeweler. Another will say, I have smuggled coffee and American cigarettes. Another will say, I built houses. But I will say, I did not forget you.”
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
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