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Noam Schimmel

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An Extraordinary Act of Solidarity

Posted: 16/12/2012 17:37

In 1938 the Nazis had not yet decided upon their genocidal plan to murder the Jews of Europe.

But by December of 1938 the persecution of the Jews of Germany was already taking on an extreme form.

In November, Kristallnacht, the 'Night of Broken Glass' took place, in which approximately 100 Jews were murdered, tens of thousands were arrested and sent to concentration camps, more than one thousand synagogues in Germany and Austria were burned, and thousands of Jewish shops were attacked and destroyed.

It was more than sufficient warning of Nazi Germany's attitude toward the Jews and its assault on their rights and their lives.

Someone was moved to take action and protest in a very distant land as a result of these attacks.

William Cooper, an Aboriginal elder of the Yorta Yorta tribe in Australia led a march to the German consulate in Melbourne in December of 1938 to protest Germany's persecution of the Jews.

It was an act of extraordinary empathy, conscience, and solidarity - and one which I believe needs to be better known, honored, and celebrated.

This year, William Cooper's grandson, Alf Turner, along with family members, Holocaust survivors, friends, and supporters re-enacted the march and submitted a copy of the petition of protest of the persecution of the Jews to Germany's consulate in Melbourne, on the 74th anniversary of the march.

It stated, "We plead that you would make it known to your government and its military leaders that this cruel persecution of their fellow citizens must be brought to an end."

William Cooper led this delegation in December of 1938 at a time when Aboriginal Australians suffered from intense persecution and discrimination themselves.

They had no right to vote and were not recognized as citizens until decades later in the late 1960s.

Cooper was a passionate and dedicated activist for Aboriginal rights and the principles of freedom and equality, securing in 1940 a National Aborigines Day and working tirelessly to secure Aboriginal land rights and greater honesty about and accounting for the theft of Aboriginal lands and the racist persecution Aboriginal peoples faced since Australia was settled by the British.

Under Australia's racist government policies Aboriginal cultures and languages were denigrated and marginalized.

The Australian government attempted to destroy them outright through policies of forced assimilation, coercive breaking up of families, and schooling that denied any recognition to Aboriginal heritage and language.

Today, Aboriginal Australians still suffer from discrimination and intense social and economic marginalization despite substantial improvements in recognizing the value of their communities and heritage and increased - though far from complete - recognition of their rights.

I write this with the deepest gratitude to William Cooper and his descendents and to thank them in the words of the great American rabbi and activist for civil rights, Abraham Joshua Heschel, for the "moral grandeur and spiritual audacity" of William Cooper's act.

Very few, if any such private protests were made; it was an act of exceptional ethical boldness, prescience, and compassion.

At Yad Vashem, Israel's memorial to the Holocaust, a garden will be planted to honor William Cooper's protest and demand for justice, freedom, and equality for the persecuted Jews of Germany and Austria in 1938.

 
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