The Simon Wiesenthal Center is a Jewish global human rights organization based in Los Angeles, California (U.S.). Rabbi Abraham Cooper shares with us his insights on Japan’s diplomatic relations in the Middle-East and what needs to be done to protect and promote human rights in the Asia-Pacific region.
Join us in this episode as Timothy Langley and Rabbi Abraham Cooper discuss human rights, anti-semitism and Japan-Middle East relations.
Full Transcript below:
Tim: The Jewish people in Japan: we have an amazing guest today, don’t forget to hit the subscribe button. Hi, everyone. Welcome back to Tokyo on Fire. Today is February 20th, 2019. Today, we’re going to talk about Israel and the relationship between Israel and Japan, once again. During our last episode of Mission Japan, we were honored to have the ambassador to Israel and today I’d like to welcome from the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, Rabbi Abraham Cooper. Welcome!
Rabbi Cooper: Thanks for having me.
Tim: It’s great to have you here. You’re in Tokyo very frequently, you’re talking to people at all levels of government, you are a champion of the downtrodden, you represent the Simon Wiesenthal Center on Human Rights issues. I’ve seen you in the newspaper and the New York Times, you are a prominent, I mean, you’re one of the top rabbis in the world.
Rabbi Cooper: I wouldn’t go that far but I am a troublemaker. Originally from New York, and you know, I represent an institution that’s based on the Asia Pacific Rim. The Simon Wiesenthal Center is based in Los Angeles and so what goes on in the neighborhood, including and especially our Democratic allies and trading partners here in Japan. It has always been very important for us.
Tim: You got an early start, I mean, you grew up in Brooklyn; when you were 23 you went to Russia. I don’t know why your mother let you go to Russia at that time, but this was a
critical period and it kind of helped launch your career. You’ve been at the forefront of, you know, championing these issues of the Israelis, the Jews, and how they are kind of besmirched by certain pockets in Japan and also all around the world.
Rabbi Cooper: Yeah, it’s been a really amazing experience to visit here since 1985. We’ve come a very very long way but I think for some of the Japanese elite, including people who probably never actually met at Jew, the idea of a Jew, nor the reality. I’ve been here 40 times, you can walk at 2 o’clock in the morning no one’s gonna say “oh there goes a Jew or rabbi, let’s go get him”. It’s the safest place to walk but the idea of another who you don’t really fully understand, and many Jews are quite prominent involved in economics and diplomacy, in business, so I think there’s been a lot of mystery surrounding Jews and especially one particular book “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion”, written in the end of the 19th century, that accuses Jews of conspiracies to take over the world. That’s embedded itself culturally here for quite a long time.
Tim: No, apparently that caught fire here and a lot of people ascribe to it because it’s a cool conspiracy theory. It seems to make sense, you know, the Jews have all the money, they had all the diamonds, they got all the gold and, of course, they’re ruling the world.
Rabbi Cooper: And of course, Jews and Zionists like the late Tip O’Neill, Al Gore, Rockefeller, I mean for those of us who deal with real problems of anti-semitism where there are significant Jewish populations, this seems almost like a sideshow. But Japan is very important, not only in the region but globally. I’ve always felt that we could be part of a solution here by replacing stereotypes and introducing who we are, what our values are, and I would say that over the course of three decades, I’m not taking all the credit for it, there’s been I think a seismic shift in terms of, first of all, understanding who the Jewish people are. No, we don’t go to synagogue, our temple, to plot the economic downfall of Japan. And also there are, I would say, some fundamental values that we both share so there’s a lot to learn; it’s a huge learning curve but for many reasons, but especially including that today Japan is a strong democracy (we know one thing democracies don’t go to war with each other) and while we need profound help in cultural interpretation, this program being one of them, it is very important for us to make that effort and over the years, we’ve found some really great people here.
Tim: You know, the thing that strikes me is the relationship between Israel and Japan, it’s really a long history and a lot of it is clouded in mystery and myth, but even after Israel retained independence the first diplomatic relationship between in the Middle East was between Israel and Japan in 1952.
Rabbi Cooper: It was quiet, I think an amazing moment: Japan was really yet to get back on its feet fully after World War II but was at beginning of the process of taking its place among the nations of the world and Israel was the old new country 3,000 years old and three years after Auschwitz, the death camps and gas chambers, 1948 the modern State of Israel comes about. So, the good news is that diplomatic connection was made early. On the other hand, it’s been a rocky road over these decades.
Tim: One of the things that I think our viewers would appreciate a little bit of an understanding on is you can live in Japan for many years and you’ll run into Mormons, you’ll run into Catholics, you’ll run into Protestants, but it is quite rare to run into somebody who is Jewish and you don’t always have the hat (kippah*) or you know the long beard etc. but there are. There’s a huge community here and it’s important it is involved in a lot of things and, you know, why is it not more apparent to people and why isn’t more actively engaged?
Rabbi Cooper: Well, the numbers I think are probably under 2000, so it’s not huge but you do have a Jewish Community Center, you have the fantastic group known as Habbad, the Hasidic Jews, who I think made a real impact here historically. Kobe is an important venue for the Jewish people, they found the initial safe haven running away from the Nazis before many of them made their way to Shanghai. So, nonetheless other than reading about Jews or seeing a Jewish sounding name or maybe meeting someone in a business venture, you don’t really get that opportunity for significant interaction, unless you go overseas and representing Japan. Either diplomatically or yourself working for a major company or going to school, there’s not enough of that impact today. Things are changing because the State of Israel and Japan you have many more tourists coming and maybe even more significantly after losing its way, Japan is now, I think, gained its mojo in terms of potential economic deals and investments in the Jewish state.
Tim: It is incredible the number of delegations that are coming, especially related to high-tech and science, numerology, cryptology, that sort of thing, it’s probably been going on at some volume, but it just seems recently it’s really blossomed and increased.
Rabbi Cooper: It really has blossomed, and you know, what’s also interesting, we Jews are known to have a very long memory about our enemies but what’s lesser-known is how much we revere people who step forward to help us when we were down. So believe it or not, you can draw a straight line between some of these developments and the great story of Chiune Sugihara, who made a decision back in 1940 as a Japanese diplomat and saved over 3,000 Jews from certain death. His name actually, I think, he was a Jewish hero long before the Japanese people came to understand why he should also be a Japanese hero, so despite all of the problems that have sometimes plagued us, there’s a deep reservoir of goodwill from the point of view of the Jewish world and Israel and Japan. I think the more that people get to actually just interact, especially younger people, I think it could really take off. And again, I want to emphasize the realities are that because Japan absent in itself for so many years in terms of investments and interactions and academic, the Chinese are way ahead of the game, however, we know one thing it’s something that Mr. Wiesenthal himself said: where democracy is strong, it’s good for Jews; where it’s weak, it’s bad for Jews. Japan is the strongest democracy here in Asia and that is part of the reason why, I think, you know, Israelis have just been chomping at the bit “when are we gonna be able to create those kind of synergies, so we could move on and build on it?” and, speaking personally, I’m quite optimistic.
Tim: You know, there are great signs of more change and better relations, there’s now a direct flight between Japan and Israel: that’s relatively recent. One of the things that strikes me as somewhat odd is this relationship between Israel and the Foreign Ministry and Israel and the Prime Minister. The Prime Minister is a known advocate of Israel, he’s a good friend of Israel. He’s visited Israel before, he has a good relationship with Netanyahu. But, the Foreign Ministry led by Mr. Kono has apparently a different drift on that and I don’t quite understand that. Can we go into that without hurting people’s sensibilities?
Rabbi Cooper: I think it’s worthwhile. First of all, since we both of us are involved in sort of locking politicians at every opportunity, let’s say something good about two of them. Prime Minister Abe and Prime Minister Netanyahu deserve tremendous credit, they’ve transformed the relationships, the stuff that we can see publicly and some of the things involving North Korea, Iran, etc that we don’t see, but I think the thing that really changed the dynamics of the relationship was a speech that Mr. Abe gave at Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem. That speech was a tremendous signal to the Jewish world that we were dealing with a friend who understood the psyche of the people and it really, I think, changed the hearts and minds of a lot of people in the Jewish world, myself included. Now, far Mr. Kono is, as you know, a very seasoned veteran, politically and diplomatically. He has taken a special interest in the Palestinians, nothing wrong with that, but the concerns that we have with Japan, with Germany, after President Trump vacated the finances for the UNRWA, a UN group that deals with Palestinians. Both Japan and Germany double down. If I was speaking to the Foreign Minister, right now, I would just say one thing: if Japan wants to continue, and maybe it should, to help Palestinians who are in need, by all means. But, what they need to do, same message to Berlin as Tokyo, you need accountability, you need transparency. Right now, a lot of that money, especially when it comes to UNRWA and schools in Gaza, is going directly to the control of Hamas, which is a terrorist organization. So, this is an area of concern. I think the issue here is not to get rid of UNRWA but to reform it and as it happens Tokyo, with its checkbook, has tremendous unused leverage. I think another area which remains unresolved is the insistence on the part of the Foreign Ministry to treat the Golan Heights as quote/unquote “occupied Syrian territory”. Thank God for thousands and thousands of injured Syrians and the UN rights activists that Israel is on the Golan Heights and was able to do amazing humanitarian things during the course of that horrible Civil War. And that sort of 1980s mentality extend even to like travel advisories to the West Bank or East Jerusalem. People in Japan and elsewhere need to understand just by way of size Israel with the West Bank is 1/20 the size of California, so, you know, anything about the States about the size of New Jersey. There’s no margin for error there and if young business people want to come and do business with Israel, they can’t come around with a GPS saying “I can’t go on this block, I can’t go there”, so I think that, with respect to the Foreign Ministry and a lot of people there, they need a refreshing course and they need to push the reset button on their website.
Tim: Yeah, I’m sure somebody’s gonna be doing that right away. It seems to me that Japan’s foreign policy was largely not dictated but guided by what the United States wanted because they were in this this tight relationship and with the oil embargo and with the war in the Middle East, Japan kind of figured out “we need our own foreign policy, we need to do it based on on our own self-interest” and it seems that the the Palestinians got the advantage when they made that decision and that’s a kind of decision that sometimes gets set in stone when you’re defining, you know, foreign policy. It’s hard to change it once it’s set. So, the work that you’re doing and you’re coming to Japan and talking about these issues I think is so important, but is there, do you notice, this movement, this shift, that’s going forward.
Rabbi Cooper: There’s a massive change. I go to Israel, just there about ten days ago, and it would be highly unusual to see any people from Japan and now you see, you know, young people in the streets with their iPhones and they don’t even know English or whatever “I’ll push how do I get the X Y or Z”. I just hosted, for the second time, from the second country, delegations from Gulf states, Arab States, I’ve posted them in Jerusalem. The Holy Land sort of sells itself, when you go there it kind of belies all of the stereotypes. It’s not a dangerous place to be, it’s an inspirational and a fun place really. And it’s very much a young place, again. So, I have very high hopes that that kind of exchange would be useful but I think there might be another strategy that needs to be put in place and it could be done theoretically from here in Japan, or perhaps in conjunction with us at the Wiesenthal Center, a bilingual traveling exhibition about our two cultures, about our two people, a traveling museum ,and in fact, yes, along those lines in which you know we’ve brought various exhibitions here when we brought our Holocaust exhibition the first time, then American Ambassador, former Vice President Walter Mondale and the late Mrs. Sugihara cut the ribbon on an exhibition that was at the Shinjuku City Hall for ten days, 82,000 Japanese came. So we know one thing: the curiosity is there and so the responsibility from people and institutions like the one I represent, as well as good people here who were involved with NGOs and soft power, if we can simply, now use social media and the internet and other devices to replace the mythology of the Jew with the reality. Then, I think we’ll be doing our children and grandchildren a great service.
Tim: So, I’m gonna ask you about the Wiesenthal Center but I think you just answered that. Who funds you; what is the breadth of your activities that you’re assigned?
Rabbi Cooper: I’ve been lucky… probably the only way I ever could have gotten a job is I helped fund the place 41 years ago. Our funding is primarily from private sources, we have about 400,000 members who voluntarily give us, relatively, modest sums and then we also have a very strong relationship to the entertainment industry in Hollywood, many of them are supportive of our work. And most importantly, the name Simon Wiesenthal: this is a man who lost 89 members of his family during World War II to a genocide and his mantra for the rest of his life was justice, not revenge; that reaching out to young people using education; looking for convicted criminals and not modders for extremist causes. And also, something I learned from him over 29 years, if you’re concerned about genocide you can’t just talk about your own people you have to be a much broader. So you’re talking about mass murder, human rights, I’m very proud of the fact I’ve been involved for twenty years with the North Korean Freedom Coalition, very concerned that there needs to be a voice. It’s a long time standing and now we have upcoming meeting again, you know, with President Trump and the North Korean leader, but wherever it takes place we want to make sure that the folks who don’t have a voice or suffering, that they’re not just shunted aside and said let’s solve the nuclear issue first, and some decade we’ll get back to it. That’s something that we try to fight every day.
Tim: You’re also championing the digital hate speech coalition, that’s an initiative that you’ve started just recently, right?
Rabbi Cooper: Well, actually although I don’t understand technology, I understand a little bit about hatred. We launched a quarter of a century ago a project called “Digital terrorism and hate”. Fact: March 14th will come out with our annual report and something I’ve a lot of fun with, I have to admit, a report card. We actually grade Facebook, Twitter vk.com in Russia and others, on the issue of what do you do about the extremists who want to leverage your platform. Not to wait for governments or lawsuits, but in your day to day operation… are you watching it very very carefully? And, I think the long range is something I’ve lectured here about in Japan and Singapore, around the world anywhere you have a democracy, well those democratic values are under assault by extremists. How do we balance privacy and intervention? And since I’m an American born activist, I’m a big believer in trying to minimize the need to go to governments and try to maximize citizens, NGO, and soft power to lead the way.
Tim: That’s great. You were just recently in South Korea, there’s a little bit of a kerfuffle going on there, isn’t?
Rabbi Cooper: It’s interesting in Asia because there is no real history of anti-semitism, not in India, not in China, not really in Japan, maybe let Malaysia but for political reasons might be the only place, but what we find, and it’s been happening too often, is the embrace and utilization of Nazi imagery and symbols, the swastika, used to sell. But I think maybe for some, you know, looking and hoping for that strong leader and since they didn’t experience Hitler or the genocide here at Asia Pacific, you had tremendous disasters here, so the whole notion of Hitler is a strong man and and whatever, the bottom line is that we don’t want it to become a cultural trend anywhere in Asia. So, we have the opportunity to meet with some of the creative people in in Korea to explain to them, yet again, we’ve had the issue here with Sony Music in Japan, to explain this is what happened during World War II, and most important the swastika today is not a relic, it’s a live symbol for racists and bigots on both sides of the Atlantic. When you see those girls, the teenyboppers are wearing t-shirts with a swastika… try to explain to people from Asia, if you walked around Berlin about 10 o’clock at night with that t-shirt, they beat the hell out of you because you’re a person of color. So, if you have any idea of what Nazism actually represents you’d be right out in front, you know, against it and maybe doing what you can to embrace the message of Anne Frank, or someone along those lines. So we have some work to do, but again we’re especially inspired. I am also living in California, so as long as Japan is the democracy, that’s our most natural ally here across this pond. And you know, we talk about markets and the Big Brother and China, yeah they’re big players but in terms of alliances, friendships and values, I think that’s something that we can continue to develop together.
Tim: You arrived just last night. You’re here today and tomorrow. Thank you very much for making time to be on Tokyo On Fire, I really appreciate it.
Rabbi Cooper: I hope you have me back.
Tim: Yes, absolutely. What else is in store ? You’ve got one more day here in Tokyo, then you’re going back home?
Rabbi Cooper: I’ll be back in Los Angeles. Actually, at the end of November, I’ll be in what we call the old days Burma, Myanmar, we’re going to be opening our UNESCO exhibition on the history of the Jewish people in that country so for us at the Wiesenthal Center and I think for Jewish people around the world, Asia is a very very special place. It’s always been almost exclusively a welcoming location and I hope that we can, you know, help, build, do our share from the vantage point of the United States, and from Israel, to build out real relationships, real friendships.
Tim: Welcome, please come back again. The relationship between Japan and the Jewish people is really significant: it’s deep, its historical. We’re going to continue to follow that. Thank you very much for joining us, please stay tuned as we delve into it further.