Israel honors Aboriginal Australian who protested against Nazis

(Ha'aretz) An Aboriginal Australian was recognized in Israel this week for having led a protest against Nazi persecution of the Jews less than a month after the Kristallnacht pogrom in 1938. William Cooper was honored Tuesday with a tree-planting ceremony in his honor.

On December 6, 1938, Cooper led a delegation from the Australian Aborigines League - which he founded - to the German consulate in Melbourne, carrying a petition calling for an end to the "cruel persecution" of the Jewish people by Nazi Germany. Cooper, then aged 77, and his delegation, were denied entry to the building.

Notably, the protest took place at a time when Australia's Jewish population was less than 30,000. It was still 29 years before Australia's indigenous people would be recognized as citizens in their own home land and around half a century before Jewish leaders, lawyers and politicians would take up senior positions in the fight for Aboriginal land rights and national reconciliation.

Australian historians Bain Attwood and Andrew Markus attribute Cooper's empathy at the time to the education he received under the tutelage of Reverend Daniel Matthews.

According to their book, "Thinking Black," Matthews encouraged Cooper's Yorta Yorta people - the traditional owners of the land around the junction of the Murray and Goulburn rivers in northern Victoria and southern New South Wales - to identify with the Jews of the Bible and to similarly think of themselves as a people united through a common experience of disempowerment and persecution.

To mark the 70th anniversary of Cooper's brave act, the Jewish National Fund planted 70 trees in his honor at a special ceremony at the Martyrs' Forest near Beit Shemesh on Tuesday. Eight of Cooper's descendants flew to Israel from different parts of Australia for the ceremony. They poured water on the newly-planted trees that they had collected in small cups from the Murray River, before sprinkling earth gathered from their native Yorta Yorta land around the plants.

In attendance was Australian ambassador to Israel, James Larsen, as well as Cooper's grandson Alfred "Boydie" Turner, who said the ceremony meant a lot to him, particularly because he had lived with his grandfather when he was a young boy.

Turner described his grandfather's journey by foot from his home in the suburbs of Melbourne to the protest in the center of the city. "It was pretty hard for him. He was only on a pension and at times he didn't have money for tram or train fares and he walked," Turner said. "My mother's sister had died and left two other grandkids. There were four grandkids staying with him and I was the youngest."

According to Turner, Cooper made the move to Melbourne from the countryside because it would help him serve his people better. Cooper passed away in 1941. But several of his descendants have continued his legacy of activism within the Aboriginal community, including Turner, who serves on the boards of several Yorta Yorta organizations.

William Cooper was formally recognized at Victorian state parliament last December, at an event attended by Israeli Ambassador Yuval Rotem, Victorian Premier John Brumby, Federal Minister for Indigenous Affairs Jenny Macklin and local Jewish community leaders.




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