An in-depth interview by Lenny Giteck, publisher and editor
Rabbi Abraham Cooper is the associate dean and director of Global Social Action Agenda for the Simon Wiesenthal Center, headquartered in Los Angeles. He has worked at the center since its founding in 1977.
According to the center’s mission statement, it “confronts anti-Semitism, hate and terrorism, promotes human rights and dignity, stands with Israel, defends the safety of Jews worldwide, and teaches the lessons of the Holocaust for future generations.”
During his decades-long career fighting antisemitism, Rabbi Cooper has testified before the United Nations, the U.S. Senate, the Japanese Diet, the French Parliament, and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe. In addition, he was one of the founders of Israel’s Global Forum on Antisemitism.
We spoke with Rabbi Cooper about the role of Holocaust education in reducing antisemitism in the world.
Rabbi, ever since the Holocaust, Jews have believed that if we educate people about the Nazi genocide, it will inoculate the world against hatred of the Jewish people. Given the enormous rise of antisemitism in recent years, is education really the answer?
One fundamental to keep in mind is that there always are going to be people who don’t like us — who, in fact, even hate us. Other than being stronger than they are, there is not much we can do to defend ourselves from such individuals, groups, and movements. We need to be aware that when anyone threatens us, we’d better take it seriously no matter how ridiculous those people seem.
Why do I say there always will be people who hate us? Because at its core, antisemitism is irrational. I’m not so worried about those people. I’m more worried about people who don’t start out hating us, who get an acquired taste for hate, whose minds get poisoned by what they hear from others.
In your view, what is the goal of Holocaust education?
For Jews it is a bitter lesson, that A. We must always take seriously when anyone threatens the Jewish people; and B. The Jewish people must never again put its fate in the hands of others; hence the need for a strong Jewish state of Israel. Holocaust education must also educate about Jewish heroes — those who resisted physically and those who resisted spiritually.
The goal of Holocaust education for our non-Jewish neighbors is to make sure people understand the capacity for evil that human beings have. To make sure each person understands the importance of taking personal responsibility for the moral decisions we make in life. It also should explain why a Jewish homeland is so crucial after six million European Jews were murdered.
But none of what we do to educate people about the Holocaust guarantees anything. The idea that educating people about the Shoah [the Hebrew name for the Holocaust] is automatically a game-changer, one that will ensure there will be a lot less anti-Semitism… I don’t think that has ever been realistic. But Holocaust awareness has impacted millions of non-Jews and set the stage for new alliances and inter-group relations.
Seems rather gloomy coming from someone who has dedicated his life to Holocaust education.
Notice I said education doesn’t guarantee anything; I didn’t say it can’t or doesn’t make a difference. We’ve had about seven million people come through the Museum of Tolerance [at the Simon Wiesenthal Center]; I believe the experience has had a profound impact on most of them.
We’ve even had a couple of neo-Nazis over the years who have changed their views. Not too many, unfortunately.
The Jewish people believe in the possibility and power of change. And we believe in the importance of education, of imparting the idea of remembrance and memory, and of learning the right lessons from the past.
What do you mean when you say the “right” lessons?
People who are basically decent are capable of drawing necessary lessons. Since the Shoah, there have been many powerful, evil leaders -— the Saddams, the Assads, the Pol Pots. Evildoers like them -— they, too, drew lessons from the Shoah. The wrong lessons, such as that the bigger the crime you commit, the easier you can get away with it. That’s why the work of heroes like Simon Wiesenthal, the great Nazi hunter, is so crucial to holding latter-day committers of genocide culpable for their crimes.
Studies show that despite 75 years of providing Holocaust education, a disturbingly high percentage of people don’t know much about it or don’t care much about it. That includes people in Europe, even in Germany. What’s your take on that?
If lessons about brutal events in the past are important — and they are, in my opinion — they must be imparted from one generation to the next. With the general population, you’re probably having to start from zero with each generation. For seven decades, Nazi war crimes trials were important to touching younger generations. Going forward, we’ll will have to rely on education — including via the Internet and museums — to reach young people born in the 21st century.
Does that apply to Jewish youth as well?
If we’re going to be totally honest, we have to bring the education even closer to home. We didn’t get this far historically as Jews by teaching our children through osmosis. There are a lot of young Jews today, including many who attend yeshivas, who really don’t know much about the Shoah.
Unless there is an effort made — not only in the classroom but also in the home — the memory of the Shoah can dim even within the Jewish world. As we get further away from the event, there is nothing automatic about awareness of the Holocaust.
For one thing, it is vital for young Jews in the diaspora to understand the importance of the state of Israel to our safety and well-being. Had there been a strong Jewish country in the 1930s and 1940s, it would have been a completely different historic narrative.
I would make another point, however: We cannot build a Jewish identity exclusively on the horrors that have afflicted our people. Just as the Exodus from Egypt is an important part of Jewish DNA, so too is the Shoah. But the Holocaust is not the defining moment or full essence of who the Jewish people are, or why young Jews should identify as such.
As part of your work, you’ve traveled all over the world. What have you learned from your travels?
One thing I’ve learned is that the vast majority of the billions of human beings aren’t thinking about Jews on a daily basis. In fact, they may know little about us. And if they do think about Jews, it is not front-and-center in their minds.
Especially in Asia, where there are very few Jews, I’ve learned from the many presentations I’ve made and interactions I’ve had that antisemitism is not ingrained there. It exists but it’s not ingrained. There is, however, deep curiosity about Jews even in places where the people have never met one personally.
How has the Simon Wiesenthal Center acted to change that?
We have two Japanese-language versions of our educational exhibition. As a result of our tours to Japan, more than two-and-a-half million Japanese have been introduced to Anne Frank and Chiune Sugihara. He was the Japanese diplomat stationed in Lithuania during World War II who helped thousands of Jews escape the Nazis.
What did you find in Japan?
One time we stopped a major Japanese company from publishing the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. As part of the agreement we reached, two of us came over to give a lecture to their top 75 executives. I brought copies of the Protocols in different languages and explained there’s a book that completely debunks it and proves in detail why it’s not true.
At the end I asked, “Are there any questions?” Usually with a Japanese audience there are none; asking questions is not that acceptable culturally. But the executive vice president of the company stood up and said, “Yes, Rabbi Cooper, thank you for coming and sharing this information with us. We now know that Jewish people don’t go to synagogue to plot the economic downfall of Japan.”
Then he went on for about two minutes summarizing the rest of my speech. I said, “Well, you did a really good job of summarizing the points I was trying to make, but what’s your question?” He replied, “Rabbi, what do Jews actually do in synagogue?”
So, they’re curious about us.
They do have a curiosity about our people. Like… “Can you explain why a Jew in Toronto cares about a Jew in Paris?” Or… “Why do you love that land so much?” People want to know who the Jews are. What our values are. From my four decades with the Simon Wiesenthal Center, growing up in the movement to free Soviet Jewry, and more, one thing I’m clear about: We must never back down from who we are.
If you’re a Jew, you should sit with anybody who’s ready to respect you and learn from you. Don’t wear our historical experience as a chip on your shoulder. Be knowledgeable so you can explain the fundamentals. You’ll find that sometimes even people who maybe don’t particularly like the Jewish people can wind up saying, “Really? Jews pray? We didn’t know that.”
When I say we shouldn’t wear our historical experience as a chip on our shoulder, I definitely don’t intend to imply we should bury our past. We need to teach everyone about what our people have gone through, what it means to us, and what it would mean to any civilized human being. By the way, telling our story in no way diminishes the suffering of other people.
The threat of antisemitism will always be there, but the opportunities to at least put our case forward — who we are and what we stand for — and to be able to find more allies and friends, those are there as well.
These days many people use the Israel-Palestine conflict as a way to downplay antisemitism.
There are deep psychological reasons why that thinking resonates with people. “Okay, we were bad, but you’ve been just as bad” — that type of thing. On the other hand, there are many millions of Germans and others who do get it. They may not fully embrace all the lessons we would like them to, but I think the majority still gets it.
Unfortunately, the anti-Israel crowd has been very effective. Based on research, we’re looking at well over 150 million Europeans who absolutely believe Israel is doing today to the Palestinians what the Nazis did to the Jews in the last century. The comparison is preposterous, insulting, and hurtful.
What will happen if we don’t educate people about the Holocaust?
Antisemitism will grow. So, we need to come up with strategies to put our story before new generations in a meaningful way. This is especially important now because soon we’ll no longer have direct access to the voices of Holocaust survivors.
Of course, there has been a huge game-changer: social media. Social media is an unbelievably powerful tool that can be used for good or bad. Winston Churchill famously said that “a lie can travel halfway around the world before the truth puts its pants on.” Today a lie can go around the world instantaneously.
Luckily, with social media you also have platforms through which you’re able to share your perspective, push back on lies, and disseminate the truth. It’s a technology we can use to put a human face on history and explain again and again to new generations why the Shoah was unique, why it’s important to remember.
You’ve been combating antisemitism for much of your adult life. Why?
There is no easy vaccine to deal with antisemitic hate. It is history’s oldest virus. Fighting it is a frustrating, tough job. Some of us devote our lives to the fight simply because antisemitism still is part and parcel of the world we live in.
We’re facing many profound new challenges today, but we also have many profound new opportunities. The most important formula going forward is not to shrink from the challenge; it is to engage with people.
If we choose to sit back and be apathetic, there are many powerful forces out there that are ready and eager to create false narratives about who we are. If we’re not in the battle, we’re going to be in deep trouble because we’ll allow others to define us.
Jews today, especially in Israel, have amazing opportunities unfolding before our eyes. The challenge is, like Moses, to always remember to carry Atzmot Yosef (Joseph’s bones) representing our past — even as our people moves forward to a future in which we fulfill our destiny: being “a light unto the nations”! |||||
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