Can we talk?

For the Wiesenthal Center's Rabbi Cooper, the answer is usually yes.

handshake 63 (photo credit: )
handshake 63
(photo credit: )
When Abraham David Cooper was arrested by Washington police during a 1970 sit-in across from the Soviet embassy and put behind bars in a jammed holding cell, the then 20-year-old Yeshiva College student drew two conclusions. First, he didn't enjoy being in jail. Second, the established Jewish organizations had been less than active in what Cooper considered the defining Jewish struggle of the time. In the intervening 37 years, though present in many of the world's hot spots, he has managed to stay out of prison. During roughly the same time span, he has also played a key role in creating one of the most activist Jewish institutions in the world, outside the boundaries of the traditional organized community structure. Ordained as an Orthodox rabbi, Cooper's formal title today is associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center. The curious academic rank is a holdover from his initial work with the SWC-affiliated Yeshiva University of Los Angeles, but it hardly defines his role and influence in an institution whose mission is to promote understanding among people. He is, in most respects, the alter ego of Rabbi Marvin Hier, the founder and dean of the Wiesenthal Center, and the 33-year relationship between the two has been described as "a marriage without sex." As in many successful, long-time marriages, their interaction and division of labor are defined by a kind of shorthand telepathy, requiring no organizational chart or chain of command. But if today the SWC is a worldwide presence, with seven offices at home and abroad, a landmark Museum of Tolerance, a reported 400,000 member families, high-profile donors and entrée to presidents and kings, a considerable share of the credit goes to Cooper. While Hier is the ultimate decision maker and both men respond interchangeably, and instantly, to the endless real or perceived crises facing Israel and the Jewish people, Cooper has certain areas of responsibility and expertise. One is for interfaith relations, another for the burgeoning area of cyberspace. Cooper testified before Congress as long as six years ago that the increasing sophistication of Internet propaganda by hate groups, white supremacists and Islamic extremists was exerting growing influence among younger people. From his Pacific-oriented vantage point in Los Angeles, Cooper is the point man for relations with Japan, China and other Far Eastern nations, introducing Holocaust exhibits, exposing anti-Semitic literature and establishing ties with political and religious leaders. "Abe is the Wiesenthal Center's ambassador to most of the world," says Hier. THIS "AMBASSADOR" also shows up in some unexpected places and situations. Last year, for instance, Cooper was drafted as the guarantor of a peace treaty signed by the so-called O.G.s (original gangsters), the founding elders of the Bloods and the Crips, two of the most fearful rival gangs in south central Los Angeles. He was recruited for the assignment by Katy Haber, a London-born film producer, who has been working for many years with at-risk youth and the homeless in the African-American community. Haber had met Cooper while working as a docent at the Museum of Tolerance and had no doubt that he was the right man to win the confidence of the gang members. "Who would be more appropriate than a man who works on conflict resolution with world leaders?" Haber asked. "Besides, he is a man of deep intellect, extraordinary sensitivity, and one of the major humanitarians in our community." Cooper said he has no particular formula or technique for bringing opposing sides to the table or bridging differences. "Part of it is my background as a New Yorker, an American and a Jew, which has given me a certain quiet self-assurance," he said. "Another part is the example set early on by my father." By way of contrast, Cooper was on the other side of the world last summer, on the Indonesian island of Bali. He was there as the organizer of the "Tolerance between Religions" conference, which brought together such unlikely participants as leading Muslim, Hindu and Jewish religious leaders, victims of the three faiths targeted by suicide bombers and a Holocaust survivor. In one speech, carried by Arab networks and worldwide, former president Abdurrahman Wahid of Indonesia, the most populous Muslim nation, upbraided Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for his denial of the Holocaust. Cooper's organizing partner was C. Holland Taylor, CEO of the Libforall Foundation, which works with Muslim religious, educational, business and entertainment leaders to stem the spread of Islamic extremism. After the Bali conference, the two led a high-profile peace delegation from Indonesia, which has no diplomatic relations with Israel, on a week-long mission to the Jewish state. The experience impressed Taylor, who in a phone call from Indonesia described Cooper as "a brilliant strategist, who grasps immediately what can be done and who can juggle a dozen issues simultaneously." IN THE relationship between the Wiesenthal Center's two top men, Cooper's loyalty and admiration for Hier is unquestioned, but there is one easily noticed distinction between the two. As the center's clout has increased over the years, so has criticism of the institution within the general, and Orthodox, communities. Complaints, mostly sotto voce, are aimed at the center's alleged intrusions on the turfs of older community organizations, its political influence, the high salaries paid its top executives, violations of standards for non-profit organizations, alarmist tactics, fights with neighboring homeowners and, in Israel, plans to build a $200 million Center for Human Dignity/Museum of Tolerance in the heart of Jerusalem. In practically all these criticisms, the target is Hier, who is sometimes described, in awe, fear or derision, as a "New York street fighter." By contrast, Cooper gets off unscathed. Part of the unequal distribution of criticism lies in Hier's assumption of responsibility for some of the center's most controversial and daring decisions, such as the Jerusalem project. Neither is Cooper involved with the sometimes contentious affairs of the center-affiliated Yeshiva of Los Angeles, nor with such community frictions as complaints by some in the Armenian community that the Museum of Tolerance has neglected to properly commemorate the genocide of their people. But beyond these factors lie differences in personality. Cooper can be blunt and tough, but there is a saving aura of good fellowship and humor about him that seems to take the edge off any confrontation. Physically, too, the two men differ, with the lean, sharp-featured Hier a contrast to his round-faced, stocky colleague. Cooper himself will not brook any criticism of Hier. "Moish [Marvin] is an unbelievably visionary and courageous man," said Cooper, who repeatedly recalled some of Hier's pointed comments and unorthodox style during a two-hour interview. For instance, there was the time in 1991 when Duke Snider and Don Newcombe came to Hier's office. The two baseball greats said they had tried to persuade the Tournament of Roses committee to accept a float honoring Jackie Robinson, a Pasadena hometown hero and the man who broke the major league color barrier, but had been turned down. As Cooper tells it, Hier picked up the phone, called the committee, but was told that no more entries were being accepted. Five minutes later, John Van de Kamp, the outgoing state attorney-general and a member of the committee, phoned Hier. Well aware that Hier could unleash a blizzard of protest letters and unfavorable media stories, he begged him to hold off any action for the night. Next morning, a committee functionary called to inform Hier that the Jackie Robinson float had been approved, but because it was entered past the deadline, it would be the last float in the parade. Hier, realizing that the last floats were frequently shut out of national television coverage, asked, "So you want us to go to the back of the bus?" On New Year's Day, the float took its place in the middle of the parade. For all their mutual admiration, the working relationship between Hier and Cooper is not always placid. "We have disagreements every day of the week," said Cooper. "We are talmudic that way, but we're open with each other." Apparently the only irreconcilable differences between the two men is that Lower East Sider Hier is an ardent Yankee fan, while Flatbusher Cooper has transferred his loyalty, and frustrations, from the Dodgers to the Mets. Even in the frequently contentious Jewish community of Los Angeles, it takes hard digging to find somebody who will speak ill of Cooper or who dislikes the man. One prospect was Salam Al-Marayati, director of the Muslim Public Affairs Council of Los Angeles, who has had some sharp exchanges with Jewish leaders over the years. Marayati hasn't met with Cooper for some time, but worked with him when Muslim, Jewish and other religious leaders drew up a code of ethics aiming at respectful interaction. His discussions with Cooper, he said, "were cordial and there were no confrontations." The one hint that Cooper may have some human failings came from Mohammed Khan, a Pakistani-American and Muslim activist for interfaith relations, who was Cooper's traveling companion on a trip to Sudan and Israel. After describing "the rabbi" as "dedicated, a tireless worker and a great teacher," Khan allowed that Cooper, like most everyone else, "tends to picture other communities in broad brush strokes. The rabbi is very visionary and sophisticated, but he, like all of us, could sometimes go deeper in analyzing another community." The Jerusalem Post then asked Cooper and Avra Shapiro, the Wiesenthal Center's communications director, to put their heads together and come up with somebody who could give us the lowdown on the real Cooper. The best they could do, reported Shapiro, was to refer the reporter to Cooper's mother. Finally, we asked Cooper himself to justify his mellow reputation. For one, he answered, he is in step with Hier's guiding rule never to attack another Jew or Jewish organization in public. "I realized early on that when your work is in the public domain, not everyone is going to pat you on the back," he said. "It's not that I don't care if someone criticizes my views, but I don't take it in a personal way." Cooper recalls that when he was traveling in the Soviet Union, some in his group got quite upset with the KGB agents who were their constant shadows. "Relax," he counseled at the time, "they're just doing their jobs." Cooper was asked about the differences in negotiating with high dignitaries abroad on one hand, and local gang members on the other. "I feel much more intense when I'm dealing with people in my own community, because the consequences of what you do are much more immediate," he answered. THE GRANDSON of Polish immigrants on both sides, when he calls up his childhood memories, he paints a picture of a different universe. His paternal grandfather, whose last name was changed by a helpful Ellis Island functionary from Krupinsky to Cooper, worked in a slaughterhouse. The maternal grandparents ran a kosher restaurant in the early 1900s, and when his grandfather died, Cooper requested two mementos. One was a set of kiddush cups, which Abe and Roz Cooper use every Shabbat. The other was a curious set of instruments, consisting of a beaker and two thermometers. "I discovered that my grandfather regularly made some bathtub wine and schnapps, just enough to make a little extra money to tide the family over," said Cooper. "I keep the set as a reminder of just how poor our immigrant ancestors were and that they went through very tough times, which are not that far away." Young Abe attended Yeshiva Flatbush in the 1950s, where his father also taught, and the combination of the two helped shape Cooper's lifelong outlook. "My father was the greatest educator I have ever known. He treated his youngest students with respect, was an ardent Zionist - as was the yeshiva - and was completely non-judgmental about other Jews," said Cooper, "He loved them all." In 1968, Cooper spent 18 months at a more rigidly Orthodox yeshiva in Jerusalem, then earned a bachelor's degree in history at Yeshiva College, the undergraduate division of New York's Yeshiva University, in 1972. His older brother had become a doctor, so it followed, according to American Jewish family rules, that the next in line would become a lawyer. He applied and was accepted by the New York University law school. But before he started, Cooper wanted to visit the Soviet Union. "I couldn't stand any more Soviet Jewry demonstrations," he recalled. "I had to go over and see for myself." The one-month trip to six Soviet cities, his encounters with refuseniks and the KGB, changed Cooper's life and priorities. "I learned what it really meant to be an activist, it was more than signing petitions or attending protest rallies," said Cooper. "Here were people who put their lives on the line to live as Jews. This was serious business." In 1974, the recently married Coopers (they now have three daughters and four grandchildren) experienced a different aspect of the Jewish struggle. They volunteered to work in Kiryat Shmona, the site of a recent terrorist attack. A couple of years earlier, Cooper had accepted an offer to run a summer youth camp in Vancouver, Canada, and there met Hier, then the young spiritual leader of an Orthodox congregation. "The first time I saw Rabbi Hier I thought, 'That man is really something else,'" said Cooper. "He was also the first pulpit rabbi I knew who seemed to be enjoying himself." Hier subsequently asked Cooper to serve as principal of the synagogue day school and then take over his pulpit during a six-month sabbatical. The Cooper family had just settled down, when Hier announced in 1976 that he was moving to Los Angeles to establish a yeshiva and asked Cooper to come along as teacher and director of admissions. Shortly afterward, Nazi-hunter Simon Wiesenthal acceded to Hier's request that he lend his name to a new activist center in Los Angeles. In 1977, the Simon Wiesenthal Center for Holocaust Studies was in business with no furniture and one phone, with a very long extension cord. NOW, THREE decades later, Cooper's reminiscences and anecdotes of battles, mostly won, meetings with world leaders, campaigns organized and new causes advocated could fill a hefty book. He likes to quote Rabbi Norman Lamm that "90 percent of leadership is showing up" and Cooper, following the dictum, accumulates well over 160,000 kilometers a year, on American Airlines alone, during business trips. He could probably have saved some flying time if the Wiesenthal Center had joined all other major national Jewish organizations in establishing headquarters on the East Coast, but Cooper has no regrets. On the contrary, he said, in New York or Washington you have the "Jewish one foul tip law - one mistake and you're out." On the West Coast, by contrast, "it's not a sin to fail now and then. We're more open minded out here and we could never have achieved what we did if we were on the East Coast." Cooper is sometimes asked what the Wiesenthal Center will do after the last Nazi war criminal has died. "While we will never waver in our responsibility to the memory of the six million, we have never been just about the past," he responds. "We Jews have had a lousy record in anticipating future attacks and threats, but they will come. The earlier we recognize and oppose them, the better." One crisis Cooper sees on the horizon is the UN World Conference Against Racism, which debuted in 2001 in Durban, South Africa, and turned into a hate fest against Israel and the United States. Cooper was part of the Jewish defense team in Durban and fears a repetition in 2009, when the conference reconvenes at a yet undetermined location. He and Dr. Shimon Samuels, the center's European director, traveled to Jerusalem last month and met with leaders of Jewish organizations from other countries to map out a joint approach. "Some of the nations most hostile to Israel and the United States will play leading roles at the 2009 conference," Cooper warned. "It may turn out to be even more invidious than the Durban meeting, so we had better prepare for it now."