Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, Los Angeles, tells Team Viva there is a commonality of trade route that binds all cultures
Born in New York in 1950, Abraham Cooper has been a long-time activist for Jewish and human rights causes on five continents. He believes the Jewish people may be spread all across the globe and may have battled anti-semitism but have been tied to the Holy Land through a “love affair of the mind” and an invisible connective tissue of a larger value system.
His efforts have resulted in the UNESCO recognising his carefully put together exhibit, People, Book, Land: The 3,500 Year Relationship of the Jewish People with The Holy Land. This exhibit has been presented at UNESCO Headquarters in Paris, the UN Headquarters in New York, the Vatican, the US Congress, Israel’s Knesset as well as in Copenhagen and Chicago. The exhibit traces the 35 centuries of the Jewish people’s relationship with its land, emphasising the universal and particularistic values that inspired their journey throughout history. It outlines the historic raison d’être for the UN vote to recognise a Jewish homeland in 1947.
Recently the exhibit was showcased at the Indira Gandhi National Centre for Arts, which the Rabbi insisted was not political but an attempt at a cultural dialogue, which had not found much space in popular narrative dominated by stereotypes. Said he, “It is appropriate that the Asia launch of this exhibit take place in New Delhi as the Jewish people know that throughout history they have always been welcomed by the assimilative people of India. There has been enough contact between our two civilisations to ensure that negative stereotypes never took hold here. There is a commonality of the historic trade routes that have bound us. India was a very wonderful intersection for the Jewish people.”
The exhibition, Rabbi pointed out, was done in a series of panels on historical timelines, to understand why and how the Jewish people maintained their loyalty to a land for 2,000 years without “an army, internet, radio or TV.” He attributed it to the values of Judaism that were largely universal in nature. For example, one of the panels focussed on Moses not just as a prophet who led sufferers to the promised land but as a law-giver, ecologist and a community leader who made it mandatory for everybody to take care of the poor. “These humanistic values are extremely important and relevant today. He told us, ‘Remember that once you were the stranger. So in your own land you have to remember the way you treat the stranger.’ So we may have been aliens once but now it is upon us to take care of minorities. We have many Arab Israelis today who refuse to go over to the Palestinian side because of better quality of life here. It sounds simple here but it comes from thousands of years ago. And no matter how horrible the turbulence and suffering of Jews — the crusades were a mega disaster — its leaders never shunned the sense of the larger value system, upholding them even in times of turmoil. And there was no obstacle to cultural synergies.”
The rabbi went on to deduce how the land we know as modern-day Israel did not respond to anybody and continued to be fallow till its inheritors came and worked upon it. “No matter who conquered, Jerusalem was the capital of nothing.”
The exhibit panned history and the early Zionist reformers like Donia Gracia, a woman who helped revive the local community around the Sea of Galilee and Tiberius much before nation-builders went about rescuing the potential of the land. There was also a panel of king Cyrus of Persia instructing that the Jews be allowed to return to their land. And then there were the words of prophet Jeremiah, who was against idolatorous practices and expensive sacrifices at temples, saying they could not buy people insurance if they didn’t serve society.
The exhibits served as a learning tool in the struggle against a rising tide of anti-Semitism and barbarity. “By showing it here in India, we hope the Jewish and Indian peoples will build upon interfaith cooperation and strengthen ties during these difficult times,” Rabbi Cooper said. An attempt at soft diplomacy, the exhibit helped us learn a little more about Jewish history and figure out some shared philosophies.
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