(photo credit: KKL)
A delegation of members of William Cooper’s family took part yesterday (December 14th, 2010) in a ceremony in Yatir Forest, where they unveiled a plaque in appreciation of his actions of over 70 years ago. William Cooper was an activist, an Australian Aboriginal leader, who fought for equal rights for Australia's indigenous communities and was sensitive to human suffering wherever it surfaced. After the events of Kristallnacht in 1938, Cooper headed a delegation that marched to the German Consulate in Melbourne to present a petition in protest against the Nazi regime’s brutal persecution of the Jews.
The trees were dedicated to Cooper’s memory at a moving ceremony in Yatir Forest; some were planted in the South Australia-Israel Friendship Forest, which forms part of the Yatir woodland, while others were planted at the Martyrs’ Forest near Jerusalem. Among those present was Cooper’s grandson Alfred Turner, more familiarly known as Uncle Boydie. “The Jewish People have suffered a great deal throughout history, and so have the Aboriginal People,” he said. “There is a special link between these two nations, and this visit to Israel has taught me that the sense of connection is mutual. My grandfather believed that we have to come to the aid of people who are suffering. When he read in the newspapers what was happening in Nazi Germany, he decided to take immediate action. He was ahead of time in his recognition of the importance of the struggle for Aboriginal rights in Australia, and also in his understanding of the terrible danger presented by Nazi Germany.”
Many of those present emphasized the shared experiences undergone by Jews and Aborigines: prolonged oppression, the loss of their ancestral lands – and the refusal to give up hope.
Kevin Russell, Cooper’s great-grandson and one of the organizers of the delegation, told those assembled: “This visit to Israel symbolizes for us the belief that it is possible to grow and succeed. We have learned a great deal about forestry and ecology from KKL-JNF staff, and I’m sure that we can put much of what we’ve learned into practice back home in Australia.”
The profound connection between Land and People is common to both Jews and Aborigines. Members of the Yorta Yorta tribe, to which William Cooper belonged, lived in a region called Cummeragunja, which means “our home.”
“We should like to invite all members of the Australian Jewish community to come and visit our home,” said Russell. “Many Australian Jews show support and sympathy for the Aboriginal community,” he added.
The members of the delegation were joined by Aboriginal clergyman Norman Miller, who movingly expressed his great respect for William Cooper and for those of his descendents who carry on his tradition. “It is our duty to pass the story of our heritage on to the next generation,” he said. “Although I myself belong to a different tribe, I hope that you will regard me today as your brother, because that’s how I feel towards you,” he told members of Cooper’s family.
Several members of the younger generation also took part in the Israeli tour. Among them was Danny Ferrari, William Cooper’s great-great-grandson, who, after ten years in London, regarded the group visit to Israel as an opportunity to reconnect with his family. “I’m sure that my great-great-grandfather would have wanted the family to remain united,” he said. “I hope that we have learned the lesson of what happened to the Jewish People during the Holocaust. When such terrible things happen, it’s very important that there should be people like William Cooper to get up and express their opposition.”
Colleen Marion, Director of a care, education and social center for members of
the Aboriginal community, had likewise joined the delegation, together with Avraham Schwarz, a member of the Australian Jewish community who works at the center. “We have a great deal of work to do where promoting the interests of the Aboriginal community is concerned,” said Marion, “and we regard the Melbourne Jewish community as a partner than can help us and contribute to our efforts.”
KKL-JNF veteran Dr. Yossi Sapir escorted the delegation members during their visit to Israel. As he had conducted his doctoral research into botany and ecology in Yatir Forest, he was able to supply the guests with detailed information about the area.
KKL-JNF planted Yatir Forest using ancient surface-runoff water-harvesting techniques copied from the Nabateans, who lived in the region in antiquity. Rainwater is collected in stone terraces, like those used in the past for farming. The terraces slow down the water flow, enabling a greater quantity of liquid to be absorbed into the ground. In this way, since the early 1960s, KKL-JNF has succeeding in planting a green woodland in this arid desert region, and today Yatir is Israel’s largest forest, covering an area of 30,000 dunam (approx 7,500 acres). It attracts tourists and holidaymakers, and many families come to stroll along its paths, enjoy its natural surroundings and contemplate its vegetation and historical sites.
After the visit to Yatir Forest, the Australian guests met Erez Rota, who grows grapes and makes wine on his Negev farm. Rota greatly moved his guests when he told them that Rota Farm was named in memory of his grandfather, all of whose relatives had perished in the Holocaust. For this reason, he said, he felt that he himself had a personal right to cherish the memory of William Cooper.
Before they left the woodland in the heart of the desert, all those present drank a glass of wine made from vines growing in an area that had once consisted only of sand dunes – proof that with vision, belief and determination one can achieve anything. And when the members of the Aboriginal group raised their glasses and said le-hayim – “to life” – the traditional toast assumed a special meaning.
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