SYDNEY, Australia (JTA) — William Cooper’s name does not appear on Yad Vashem’s list of the Righteous Among the Nations, but the Aboriginal elder should be regarded as highly as Raoul Wallenberg, Oskar Schindler and the 22,000-plus others who risked their lives for the Jews.
That was the message delivered by the Jewish Community Council of Victoria at a Dec. 4 ceremony at State Parliament in Melbourne to recognize Cooper, who in 1938 protested the “cruel persecution” of the Jews.
Some 300 Jewish and Aboriginal leaders joined Australian government officials and Israel’s ambassador in paying tribute to Cooper and the Australian Aboriginal League on the 70th anniversary of their petition to the German Consulate in Melbourme on Dec. 6, 1938, just weeks after the Kristallnacht pogrom.
Cooper, then 77, and his delegation were denied entry to the consulate with their petition. But 70 years on, the German consul general, Anne-Marie Schleich, attended the ceremony. Also on hand were Federal Indigenous Affairs Minister Jenny Macklin and Victorian Premier John Brumby.
John Searle, the Jewish Community Council president, said Cooper understood what it was like to be a minority and to suffer oppression.
“He had long been fighting for his own people, the indigenous Australians," Searle said. "He was a remarkable man. He could not sit by, watch such oppression and do nothing.”
At the ceremony, Israeli Ambassador Yuval Rotem, Jewish National Fund of Victoria president Sara Gold and Kristallnacht survivor Shmuel Rosenkranz presented a certificate to Cooper’s grandson, Boydie Turner, stating that 70 trees will be planted in the Martyrs’ Forest near Jerusalem to honor the protest. The Israeli Embassy said it will pay for a member of the Cooper family to fly to Israel in April for the tree-planting ceremony.
Rotem said Cooper “defied the silence” of the majority of humanity.
“If there were more like William Cooper in every nation of the world, then perhaps, just perhaps, the Jews of Europe may have defied their fate,” he said. “He deserves to be remembered as a hero to the Jewish people and an inspiration to mankind. His message is clear: The convenience of silence is as evil as the greatest crime.”
Rosenkranz, 86, lost 32 members of his family in the Holocaust.
“I think back 70 years and recollect that nobody of the so-called Western civilized world raised the voice of opposition against this pogrom," he told JTA. "But in faraway Australia, an ancient people still not recognized by the Western world as owners of the land that they live on raised their voice.”
It was not until 1967 that the Aborigines were recognized as Australian citizens or given the right to vote, even though they trace their origins back more than 40,000 years.
“The Jews are an ancient people, too,” Rosenkranz said. “We have a long, long memory that recognizes good deeds and help that has been given to us over millennia by Righteous Among the Nations, just like William Cooper.”
One of Cooper’s descendants, Kooramyee Cooper, described her great-uncle as “a visionary who realized that others were similar to Aborigines. There was no equality and no justice for Aborigines at that time. Uncle William knew what was happening to Jews was wrong.”
Kevin Russell, a great-grandson of Cooper, told JTA, “It’s an amazing thing to be acknowledged by the Jewish community. It’s remarkable, phenomenal, just fantastic that the Jewish community is putting it out there."
Russell, who is helping reunite some of the 100,000 Aboriginal children forcibly removed from their families between 1910 and 1970, said he intends to invite the Jewish community to a ceremony at Cooper’s gravesite in his Yorta Yorta homeland to thank them.
According to Professor Colin Tatz, a research fellow at the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies, the 1938 protest was “quite remarkable, if not astonishing, given that there wasn’t a single Jew involved in the Australian Aboriginal League in those days or in any form of pro-Aboriginal advocacy.”
Since then, however, Jews have been more active in Aboriginal reconciliation. In the mid-1960s James Spigelman, now the chief justice of the New South Wales Supreme Court, was a leader of the so-called “freedom rides” into rural Australia to highlight the plight of Aborigines. Between 1980 and 1982, the Liberal Party’s Peter Baume was the federal minister for Aboriginal affairs.
More recently, Jewish members of the legal fraternity, notably the late Ron Castan, have represented Aborigines. Castan was the senior counsel for Eddie Mabo in the 1992 landmark case in which the High Court of Australia abolished the notion of Terra Nullius — that Australia was an uninhabited land — and recognized Aboriginal land rights for the first time.
Today, Mark Leibler, a veteran Jewish community leader, is the co-chair of Reconciliation Australia, the major national organization promoting reconciliation between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians.
Leibler called Cooper’s actions “extraordinarily defiant and courageous.”
Noting that Cooper also wrote to then-Prime Minister Robert Menzies in 1940 to protest the “oppression of Hitlerism,” Leibler said, “Such acts of solidarity will never be forgotten by Jews in Australia and beyond.
“At a time when his own peoples’ rights were also being ignored, William Cooper had the generosity of spirit and the clarity of vision to draw connections from the mutual struggles of two persecuted minorities,” he said.
“By linking the Jewish and Aboriginal plights, William Cooper’s legacy will forever extend to the people I belong to.”