“This was not a move that was instigated by MBS. This was a move instigated by the people who were upset about the direction that MBS wants to take Saudi Arabia.” Rabbi Abraham Cooper speaks to NEXUS about his recent visit to Saudi Arabia

By Kobby Barda and Uriel Simonsohn

On March 17, 2024, NEXUS held an interview with Rabbi Abraham Cooper, the chair of the US Commission for Religious Freedom, who had been in the news for having been asked to remove his kippa while on an official trip to Saudi Arabia. The interview was conducted by Uriel Simonsohn, the head of the Haifa Laboratory for Religious Studies, and Kobby Barda, a member of the Editorial Board.

Uriel: Rabbi Cooper, perhaps we could start by just a general introduction about who you are and what are your current responsibilities.

Rabbi Abraham Cooper: So, my name is Rabbi Abraham Cooper. I’m speaking to you from Los Angeles, California, where I live . . . Over the course of the last 46 years, plus, I worked with Rabbi Marvin Hier, first to help found the Simon Wiesenthal Center, the Yeshiva University of Los Angeles, back in 1977. Rabbi Hier retired at the end of 2023. I’m currently serving as associate dean and director of global social action.

In addition to that, I have served as a commissioner on the United States Commission and International Religious Freedom. That is a congressionally mandated group of nine commissioners pre appointed by the president of the United States and two each by the Senate and House, republican and democratic leadership. Interestingly, this particular group may be the last of its kind, in a sense, because under the law that was written, it’s mandated to act in a bipartisan fashion. We look at about 28 countries looking at human rights, but through the lens of religious freedom. And the only reason why I think any country cares what we have to say, I mean it’s nice that we have annual reports that go to the secretary of state and the president and people in Congress. However, there is a category called countries of particular concern, and if that is adopted by the US State Department, that opens the way for sanctions. So on that issue, everyone pays attention. And it’s been my first year I was on, I was selected to be the vice chair.

And until mid May of this year, I’ll be completing the year as the chair of this commission, which has been an eye opener in many ways. We have a staff of about 20 young researchers who do the research on each of the countries, we’re mandated to present a presentation at the end of the year on each of the countries that make our suggestions to the State Department. Very often they wish, I think, we didn’t exist at all. But being Jewish, I’m used to being rejected. It doesn’t stop us too much.

Uriel: This might sound a bit of an awkward question, but still I’m wondering whether your rabbinic background plays a role in your work as an advocate for human rights.

Rabbi Cooper: Well, it’s an interesting question. I’d like to think at the end of the day, it’s had some impact. My problem is that my activism, if you count Soviet Jewry, as a human rights issue, sort of began before I really was seriously involved with Gemara and Mishnah, although eventually spending time learning in Israel and then getting [unclear] by Yeshiva University. So I think the bottom line is, yes, I would also throw in having been a person who’s been raised all my life here, that I think the other major factor besides my very strong Jewish, Judaic background and Zionist upbringing, is the fact that I possess a United States passport. I don’t see a stira [conflict] between Jewish and the US, or American, or should you say, identities. But I think the way I’ve always looked at it is that my American passport allows me about the, initially in the Soviet Jewry days, a degree of protection. When I went with a friend for a month to the Soviet Union in 1972, knowing basically that whatever what happened to us in the end, we will probably just be sent back to the states. But more profoundly, I think growing up, my mother, of blessed memory, was born already in Brooklyn. My father came over in the early 1920s as a youngster, maybe. I was born 1950, pretty typical second generation American, meaning that I was lucky enough to be born to parents for whom hinukh [education] was everything. They gave up a lot economically. My father, of blessed memory, was a very strong mekhanekh [educator] … So very strong Jewish upbringing. But at no point did I ever feel that my Jewish upbringing was a problem for my American identity or vice versa.

I also think that the concept of human rights should not be a left–right issue, a Democratic or Republican. It should be an American issue. And that without a doubt, without the US involvement, without people like George Schultz and many others in the House and the Senate and religious leaders, there would have been a different ending to the whole Soviet Jewry issue, I think this was very much of a guide to me in my future activities.

Uriel: Rabbi Cooper, obviously, then, you’re not the average American type in the sense that you’re also very much connected to your Jewish heritage and to your Zionist convictions and to your obviously very strong connection to Israel. And now that you’re in a position in this national office, does this play a role in how you observe, for instance, the current state of war in Israel, both as an American, as a Zionist, as a Jew? perhaps differently from the way someone who doesn’t have your background would observe it?

Rabbi Cooper: I think it’s a given. When I was with Saudi officials or the guy who called me the other night from the Times of London, I think the story for this week is in this Sunday’s edition, I told him straight out, I don’t pretend objectivity. On the other hand, I’ve been working at the Simon Wiesenthal Center for decades, and I think that our approach has always been that we support and defend Israel’s rights to exist, to defend herself. I never was involved in any way with a leadership . . .to us, the core has always been to defend Israel’s fundamental rights to exist and the right for her to defend also itself. You haven’t asked me yet, but I will say that I am one of those Jews from the diaspora, who believes that the destiny of the Jewish people, its future, is squarely in the land of Israel.

Kobby: Moving to the Abraham accords, now, some of my writing about the option of the Saudis entering into that pact was about the idea or the notion that the only way of Biden getting the 66 hands in Senate, will be adding up Israel into the package. And Lindsey Graham, as much as I know, was one of the permanent leaders in Senate that was pushing that very strongly. Given the fact that you were appointed eventually or nominated by the Republican Party in Senate, perhaps you might be able to shed more light about the forces “behind the scenes” in this context.

Rabbi Cooper: So, again, just for full disclosure, always try to be honest . . . I was appointed by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. I met Mitch McConnell before I got the phone call one time in my life. In fact, when they called me, I said, oh, this is really amazing. And I have actually sat through some of the hearings over the years of these, as I’m involved with human rights . . . when they called me, I said, oh, it’s really very nice, but I think you got the wrong guy because the Simon Wiesenthal Center approaches the human rights issues and everything else right down the middle, not left and not right. So thank you very much, but I think you should tell the senator he’s got the wrong guy, but they came back and said “no, no, we know who you are. This is who Mitch McConnell wants to appoint, it doesn’t have to go through Senate, etc.” So as far as any macharai ha-pargod [unofficial] profound insights, forget about it . . .

But, I will say this, and I think it’s true. First of all, our involvement with Saudi Arabia was limited to one person. If you know Washington, the Four Seasons Hotel in Georgetown is probably like the Tel Aviv Hilton. Meaning if you’re going to have a secret meeting, you go to the Tel Aviv Hilton. One of the waiters sees you, he calls up. Everybody in the country knows. The first meeting is going to be secret, but already you can tell if they’re making it there, it means they’re about to come out … so one of the most important and influential people and impactful people for the Abraham Accords is Dr. al-Issa, Muhammad al-Issa who’s the head of the Muslim World League. He was brought in by MBS [Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman] to change the, you know, to shift the oil tanker 170 degrees. And I give him a lot of credit. e

The fact of the matter is that we we’re intensely involved with Bahrain, and as you know, Bahrain can’t do anything without the rashut [permission] of the Saudis. Not that they like it, but that’s their reality. They’re a tiny little country and they cannot. So it’s like, you know, we have in the United States, the prom, you know, the high school prom. So everybody wanted to go to the prom with MBS. We went to the prom with King Hamad [of Bahrain] with some tremendous achievements. As you know, the kingdom of Bahrain, declaration on religious freedom, and the fact that we hosted 24 faith leaders in Yerushalayim over a year before there was the signing, we were able to achieve quite a bit, and that had a lot to do also with personal diplomacy. Rabbi Hier and King Hamad hit it off amazingly well the first time they met.

But again, we had also a note from then Secretary of State Pompeo to make it clear the Simon Wiesenthal Center is one of the few Jewish organizations that does not claim credit for the Abraham Accords. But there’s a note which I think is pretty accurate, from Pompeo, when he wrote a note to the two of us thanking us for helping with the building blocks towards peace. And I think that is a role you play at University of Haifa as well. What we can do, if we’re not in the spies and geopolitical or military or even business people is we can help deconstruct the stereotypes and try to make the interaction normal.

It’s like today I see that there’s still one program in Dubai for Pesach [Passover]. I just spent three weeks ago two Shabbatot [Saturdays] in a row in Abu Dhabi, and there was a minyan each Shabbat. I was still saying the kiddush. It’s very important to me. But the point is that in the UAE overall, if someone shows up with a kippa or 20 people do, no one pays attention anymore, like 600,000 Jews have come to UAE.

Uriel: And perhaps we could focus on that for a moment. You just mentioned that the Jewish presence in the UAE is quite notable. It’s irreversible, in fact. And the scene of Jews congregating for prayer or for other events has become not out of the ordinary. And that’s, of course, very commendable and something we’re all very glad to know, but we were somewhat, how should I say, surprised, to say the least, to hear about that incident that you’ve experienced recently in Saudi Arabia. Do you want to shed some more light on what happened there and how it happened and about the reactions?

Rabbi Cooper: I think you’ll be a little bit surprised by my analysis. I think it’s accurate. But who knows? We’ll learn more later. Again, because we’ve already spoken about it. I’m a known commodity to the Saudis. They know all about the Simon Wiesenthal Center and believe me, they know all about the United States Commission and International Religious Freedom because they’re one of the targets, if you will, and their embassy interacts regularly with the commission. They care what’s written, et cetera, et cetera.

So when we came, I’ll just say that when we arrived in Riyadh, the first formal meeting that we had was with the president of the Saudi Arabia Human Rights Commission and her colleagues. So, a brilliant woman. This is also part of the revolution that MBS is bringing with two other women and three other men on one side. And across from them is our group of five from the commission . . . The deputy ambassador from the United States embassy was there. We had a two-hour meeting. We got to speak about some specifics, especially about protection of children, internet related issues. It was a really powerfully positive beginning for our meetings because there are obviously areas that we brought up that are of concern. But we also learned of a much broader involvement of the commission on a lot of issues that we might be able to work together. We meeting could be the, we took official photos taken. I was wearing a kippa no one batted an eye, et cetera.

That evening we were hosted in Diriya. Diriya is the ancient part of Riyadh. It’s got this huge UNESCO site that includes khafirot [archaeological digs] from hundreds of years ago and what old Riyadh looked like. And it started with a video presentation. We had a lovely young lady who’s wearing a hijab who gave us the basic introduction and eventually we made our way out to the golf carts that were going to take us up. It’s a huge area. And suddenly they said, well, it’s very busy up there. We have to wait…I was told, please go up in an elevator where the rest of the people would be. They’re actually like bleachers because they also project their films onto the walls, onto the ancient walls. So I assume that that’s where we’re going to see a particular film. But then one of the minders from the Saudis came over to me with the phone and said, there’s a call for you. And I don’t recall this individual gave his name, although there was still some noise. Maybe he did, maybe he didn’t.

But the bottom line is I have to sit here with foreign ministry because the handlers on the ground ministry, this gentleman said, we have a law here in Saudi Arabia that religious symbols of any other faiths may not be exhibited in public. What you do privately, we don’t care, but in public, you cannot do that. So we’re asking you to remove your kippa. I was, to say the least, a little bit shocked. I said, are you absolutely sure you’re asking me to remove my kippa. Yes, that’s the law. Okay, let me make two comments to you. Number one, you’re asking me that is the equivalent of asking someone in Saudi Arabia to remove her hijab. You’re talking about something that’s just part of my identity. And number two, fifty years ago, I was in the Soviet Union for four weeks. I didn’t take my kippa off then, and I’m surely not taking it off for you. So I’d like to ask you, please check back to make sure that you’re asking me to remove my kippa, as I am the chair of the United States government commission that is investigating religious freedom. I never raised my voice, did not be accusatory, but I gave him another chance.

Meanwhile, my colleagues are quite concerned. They’re sort of listening. And the Arab American person from the US embassy, an absolutely fantastic young lady, she was just going crazy. She said, don’t they understand you’re the guys who try to protect the rights of Muslims all over the world? Like, what’s going on here? So he called back less than ten minutes later and said, I checked and you have to take off your kippa. And if not, you must leave. And if you don’t leave, you’ll be escorted out. So our executive director said, well, we are supposed to have dinner here. It’s very expensive, by the way. And can we at least stay and have dinner in the restaurant. No, you have to leave right away. So I told them, okay, I am leaving and I’m leaving. I’ll be leaving in Saudi Arabia, because under these conditions, I can’t do my job.

I think maybe the most amazing moment of all came from my vice chair, Fred Davie, who is an African American pastor, gay. So you had an Orthodox rabbi, a black pastor. We’re the two leaders of this commission. He says to me immediately, I’m out of here. We can’t stand in these circumstances. I thought that was quite remarkable. Cut a long story short, because there’s the US embassy and others. In short order, I spoke to the Saudi ambassador to the United States, who called me, and I had a call, also, tough call, from the deputy foreign minister. And at the end of the call, he said, will you come by tomorrow at 12:00 I’d like to meet you and the group . . .

However, I think we’d be kidding ourselves, after all of those decades of Wahhabism, you don’t shut that on and off with like a light switch. Especially, I would imagine, with older Saudis, more conservative members of Saudi society. They probably have a long list of issues that they would take issue with, with MBS, starting, for example, like what happened with the women. Every meeting I went to, there were at least two women in the other delegation, including Ministry of Interior, including the foreign ministry, I mentioned that the first meeting we had was led by a woman. That genie won’t be put back in the bottle. So through the conversations that I had, some of them private, which I can’t, I just don’t feel comfortable right now talking about, I came to understand, using my Talmudic logic, that this was not a move that was instigated by MBS. This was a move instigated by the people who were upset about the direction that MBS wants to take Saudi Arabia.

Kobby: So you were talking about the incident that happened in Saudi Arabia in one hand, and in the other hand, about the very important things that are being done in the UAE. To the extent that it become just normal to see people with the kippa. What I’m trying to understand is the future from your perspective.

Rabbi Cooper: Okay, so . . . let me say something about Saudi [Arabia], and then I’m going to go back to the UAE. My sense is that Saudi Arabia’s leader is rushing. He has a long list, a big menu to 2030 where he wants to get to. It also would seem to me that despite the discussions with the Iranians, they don’t trust each other and he still considers the direction they’re going to be an existential threat. Therefore, to the extent that assuming the current battles are finished, especially with Hamas, Hezbollah might be a whole different kind of mix. I didn’t hear anything from anyone saying to me at know, it looks to me like Abraham Accord stuff is on life support. It’s going, gone. I think the fundamentals for any country, Arab or otherwise, about making a deal with Israel or any other country is, is it good for my country or is it not good for my country overall because of Israel’s technology and the can do attitude and the fact also this is true, whether it’s a tiny country like Bahrain or a bigger country like Saudi Arabia.

Here is another issue I don’t know if it’s talked enough about. I hope it is. If they don’t create jobs for the youngsters coming up in their societies, they’re screwed. They can have all the money in the world. But if you want to walk away from that paternal type of thing, we have all this oil money and everybody can be taken care of a direction which obviously MBS is going away from. They have to throw off thousands of jobs in order to do that. They have to be like real jobs, and in order to do that, the Israeli part of the mix, as well as many other countries who want piece of the action in Saudi Arabia, could be significant for many, many reasons. Having said that, I don’t think this is such a … but having said that, it’d be very difficult to move as quickly as he wants to move. If there’s either a stalemate right now or for some reason Israel pulls back, the perception will be that Israel is weak. When the perception is Israel is weak, don’t hold your breath for Arab countries, especially those run by monarchs, to go rushing and embrace a weak country. Their interest is that Israel should be strong, not weak, never mind what’s said at the UN . . . or any of that other stuff. Overall, you think you have to really say that the reaction in the Arab world has been rather muted to all what’s been going on, and in part that’s because the Palestinians have unearned the respect and friendship of a lot of their benefactors. They’ve sort of had it with them, and between that and between them, the Iranian threat grows, it doesn’t come down.

From where we sit, the excitement over the involvement, the change of direction of Saudi Arabia, and already putting someone like al-Issa in charge of the Muslim world, taking practical public steps that don’t win him a lot of brownie points in the Muslim world, to me, is an indication that his boss is serious about the direction where he wants to take his nation. And as he said something that, unfortunately for me, 2030 is not so far away, then, of course, we should try to do whatever we can to move things forward, to show respect to the Saudis. I know that someone might say a human rights commission in Saudi Arabia, come on. But when you sit and talk to these people, and she is the president of this group, has direct access to MBS, there are just a lot of things that are going on right now, not all of them going in the direction. . .

We’re in this for the duration, and that’s the way I’ll approach it. . . . I know I have the invitation to return. We shall see if that comes to fruition. But I think the bottom line is, if I thought that MBS was the guy who unleashed someone to say, take off your kippa, I wouldn’t be speaking this way. I think he’s the target of it, not the initiator.

Uriel: I think that last statement that you just gave is a wonderful concluding statement for our interview. Thank you very much sir for this insightful conversation.