A Devout Rabbi’s Case for Religious Freedom for All
“One rule of thumb — if someone asks you to park any part of your faith as the price tag for a free trip on an airplane, take the bus.”
This week at the annual International Religious Freedom Summit in Washington, D.C., I sat down with one of the most influential rabbis in the United States, Rabbi Abraham Cooper, and talked about the importance of religious freedom for all. Appointed by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) to the United States Commission on International Relgious Freedom (USCIRF) and recently elected USCIRF vice chair, he shared why he has passionately committed his life to combatting antisemitism and championing human rights, and why every American should care.
History has a way of repeating itself, and Cooper is a firm believer that it is important to remember what has happened in the past: “If you’re able to understand what happened even 100 years ago or 50 years ago, and you see the signs coming again, then you’re in a position hopefully to take some action.”
Cooper’s life’s work has practiced what he preached — with action towards fighting for human rights and religious freedom. As the associate dean and director of Global Social Action for the Simon Wiesenthal Center, Cooper has spent over four decades traveling the world fighting for Jewish human rights. As both a rabbi and an activist by profession, he feels blessed to be working on behalf of his organization, a leading Jewish human rights NGO, people of faith, and the state of Israel. He was a part of the Abraham Accords peace treaties between Israel and the UAE and Bahrain. With his work bearing the name of Jewish activist, concentration camp survivor, and Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal, Cooper shared with me why he has devoted himself to being an agent and advocate of change and peace.
“If we talk about antisemitism, which is history’s oldest virus, it keeps metastasizing.” Cooper traced how the Jewish people have historically been discriminated against as a minority. History remembers events such as the horrific events of the Holocaust in Nazi Germany and suffering persecution at the hands of the Catholic Church in the Middle Ages. Recent years have brought the threat of terrorism against Israel from neighboring Middle Eastern countries and hatred from extremist political or religious groups. Even the past two years of the COVID-19 pandemic proved an avenue for antisemitism with some blaming the Chinese and Jewish people for the invention of both the virus and the cure.
“The number one target of religion-based hate are Jews,” Cooper said as he shared how antisemitic hate crimes skyrocketed amidst COVID lockdowns. According to Cooper’s expertise in online hate and terrorism, the two biggest cesspools of antisemitism today are American college campuses and social media, where activists and extremists berate Zionism and tout Palestine as stolen land.
Though a devout Jewish rabbi, Cooper argues that every American, every person — religious or not — should care about freedom of worship for everyone. “If a house of worship is attacked anywhere, that makes all houses of worship less safe.”
What role does the United States play in promoting religious freedom worldwide? Cooper says America’s voice still matters on the international stage, claiming his American passport as his greatest gift. “What Americans say and do matters because these people there know what we have. Sometimes they cherish what we have more than we just take for granted. But Americans can still impact.”
“I think why our founding fathers embedded freedom of religion in the Constitution is that if you don’t have freedom of religion — and by the way, that could also mean freedom from religion — you’re not really free. So, if freedom of religion is absent in a society and people want it, I think you’re serving a very profound cause, even if you’re an atheist,” he explained, pointing out how the communist dictatorships in Russia and China have taken to destroying religion, churches, and people of faith as a means of gaining power.
“What’s so interesting is that we don’t often think about the power of faith, but the people who want to take our freedoms away know the power,” Cooper observed. “It’s often the first thing they go after.”
Marjorie Jackson is a reporter for The Washington Stand and FRC's Digital Media Specialist.