2 min read
Discussion on the Rise of Antisemitism in the US with Rabbi Abraham Cooper

Following the recent spike in antisemitic incidents over the last couple months, Platform got the chance to interview Rabbi Abraham Cooper, the Associate Dean and founder of the Simon Wiesenthal Center and a leading figure in the Jewish American community on his political background, the legacy of the Shoah [Holocaust] and the Jewish community’s efforts to combat antisemitism.

The Platform: Hi Rabbi Cooper and welcome to Platform. We’re honored you could join us and we appreciate the chance to hear and learn more about your work in politics.

Rabbi Cooper: No problem.

The Platform: Let's start with your political background. What inspired you to become involved in Jewish advocacy in the US and abroad?

Rabbi Cooper: I was born in 1950 in Brooklyn. My interest in politics began to develop at around age 14, when I became interested in the student struggle to help Soviet Jews (known as refuseniks) escape the Iron Curtain. After attending college, I spent a month in the Soviet Union in 1972, getting to know many of these refuseniks. These were people who didn't take America or its freedoms for granted, and that had a tremendous commitment for being Jewish that inspired me, despite the fact that many didn’t know the Alef Beit [the Hebrew alphabet]. This involvement taught me at a young age the impact we can have, when people unite behind a meaningful and moral cause, to create positive change.

The Platform: A few months ago, we had Yom HaShoah - What lessons, if any, can be drawn about human behavior that allowed the Holocaust to happen?

Rabbi Cooper: There are a few important lessons to be learned. The first is, when someone threatens evil, they need to be taken seriously. I remember when I first met Mr. Wiesenthal he told me that in the 1920’s, the first response Jews had when they saw Hitler, was to view him “As a funny guy with a moustache”. Later in Mr. Wiesenthal’s life, in 1980, a student asked him if the Holocaust could happen again, to which he responded “if you have hate, a crisis and technology, anything is possible.” Mr. Wiesenthal saw the implications of developments in propaganda and the consequences it could have.Another lesson is the need to confront evil. In 1988, Saddam Hussein gassed five thousand Iraqi Kurds as the world stood by. With actions like these, the international community can’t afford to be passive and allow this type of behaviour to go unpunished. We also learned that appeasement doesn’t work as a strategy for confronting evil. Winston Churchill had a great analogy for appeasement, comparing it to “Someone who’s feeding the crocodiles, in the hope that they’ll be the last one to be eaten.”

The Platform: We’ve seen in recent weeks a rise in antisemitic incidents across the US, what efforts can the American Jewish community make to ensure their safety? And how can they work with elected officials to ensure their safety?

Rabbi Cooper: We need to demand that our elected officials take our concerns for our safety seriously and be less polite and more direct. In 2019, the number one target of religious based hate crimes were Jews, at 62%. Jews have legitimate concerns regarding our safety and we need to hold our leaders accountable for providing the necessary security. However, we can’t rely solely on our relationships with our leaders, we as individuals, each have to take action and reach out to our neighbours and explain our values. We need young Jews to be our front-line warriors in this effort. What I’ve found consistently, is that there are good people everywhere and that we’ll find there will be many values that intersect. We also need to be able to explain our support for Israel and Jewish causes and build bridges with our fellow citizens, but there needs to be an openness to learn and understand: where are you coming from?

The Platform: There’s been an ongoing debate internal and external to the Jewish community over finding a working definition for antisemitism, how do you define antisemitism and does that include anti-Zionism as well?

Rabbi Cooper: I think the IHRA (International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance) definition is a good one. We’ve seen in the last month the conflict moved from Gaza to America and I reject separating the two (anti-Zionism and antisemitism). Our enemies want to decouple their hatred of the State of Israel and their hatred of Jews, but the issue is not about Bibi, a political party or Israeli politics in general, anti-Zionism has just become the new justification and defense these people use. When you look at the wave of anti-Israel demonstrations we’ve been seeing, it has led to violence against Jews and our enemies aren’t choosing symbols of just the state of Israel, but symbols for Jews. In Lod, Arab mobs lit a synagogue on fire and attacked Jews in the streets, a move right out of the Nazi playbook.

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