With his heart in Jerusalem:
Arthur Cohn - Guardian of Zion
By Toby Klein Greenwald
The warmth and cordiality of Swiss-based producer Arthur
Cohn permeated the crowd of several hundred invited guests who turned out to
honor him on May 27 in a location that could not have been more appropriate
- in the historic King David Hotel, across from the Old City of Jerusalem.
Cohn, an ardent Zionist whose intensive connection to the Jewish people and
Israel informs many of his films, was there to receive the prestigious
Guardian of Zion Award of Bar-Ilan University's Ingeborg Rennert Center for
Previous Guardian of Zion Awardees included Elie Wiesel,
Herman Wouk, A.M Rosenthal, Sir Martin Gilbert, Cynthia Ozick, Dr. Charles
Krauthammer and Professor Ruth Wisse.
Cohn, who has made films throughout the world, is the only
producer to have six Oscars to his credit and his own star on Hollywood's
"Walk of Fame", but in his lecture, "Roots and Wings", he made it clear that
his heart is in Jerusalem. "The earliest memories of every Jew are tied to
Jerusalem," he said. "In our most supreme moment of happiness, at our
wedding, we break a glass, because no joy can be complete while the Temple
Among Cohn's most famous films is the legendary The Garden of
Finzi-Contini, about two Italian families who lived during the Holocaust and
who cannot escape their Jewish destiny. Professor Joshua Schwartz, director
of the Rennert Center, when introducing Cohn, told the crowd that
Finzi-Contini was rejected by 36 film distributors in America and Europe,
and finally premiered in Jerusalem, before it went on to international fame
Uncharacteristically, said Schwartz, film companies - Sony,
Paramount, Buena Vista, Universal and Miramax - put aside their differences
and competition to pool their copyrighted films into one DVD set of 9 of
Arthur Cohn's films.
Cohn described his upbringing in Basel, where his grandfather
was the chief rabbi, who, unlike rabbis in Germany and Austria, supported
the Zionist vision and facilitated the first Zionist Congress taking place
in that city. His father was a specialist in Jewish law and his mother was a
"I never created a professional work about Jerusalem," said
Cohn. "Nevertheless, Jerusalem is an integral part of all my creations…[and
it] symbolizes three basic elements in our collective consciousness:
identification with the Jewish tradition, yearning for the Land of Israel
and a desire for a divinely inspired, just society."
Cohn punctuated his address, "Roots and Wings", with the
screening of excerpts from Finzi-Contini, Children of the Night (about
children during the Holocaust) and One Day in September, about the murder of
11Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics in 1972. Among the murdered was
weightlifter David Berger, an American-Israeli from Cleveland, Ohio.
Apparently, it was only after the making of this film that the German
government agreed to compensate the families of the victims.
Cohn has worked on many films that highlight social problems
and seek their resolution, such as Two Bits starring Al Pacino and Central
Station, made in Brazil. "In both movies…children do not despair, but rather
seek ways to transcend their situation and build a society based on
brotherly love," Cohn said, recalling the midrash about the two brothers,
whose love was expressed on the place where the Temple was subsequently
built, and speaking of tikun olam – the importance of creating a just
Just as he does in his films, Cohn used the opportunity of
the Rennert lecture to make statements. "Contrary to often repeated claims,
terror did not begin after the Six Day War. The PLO, which later was to
metamorphose into the Palestinian Authority, was established three years
earlier, in 1964, when there were no so-called 'occupied' territories to
liberate." He described the "great emotional difficulty" that he experienced
in deciding to interview the last surviving terrorist of the terror team in
Munich. "I do not regret our attack at the Olympic Games," the terrorist
told Cohn's team, who had located him in a hiding place in Africa. "We
succeeded brilliantly in bringing the political aims of the Palestinians to
the knowledge of untold millions all over the world," said the terrorist.
"Terror," Cohn concluded, "which sabotages our lives in every possible way,
unfortunately is succeeding in winning the sympathy of public opinion it its
war against Israel."
He went on to lament the "ideological terror" being
perpetrated against Israel today, and the "delegitimizing of the Jewish
presence in the Land of Israel…old myths and libels…are being revived…[T]hey
are trying by the use of the term 'occupation' to further delegitimize our
right to the Land of Israel. However, the accusation of 'theft' in the Arab
textbooks…[makes] no distinction between Nablus and Tel Aviv, between
Jericho and Haifa."
Cohn issued a call: "It is crucial that all those who are
faithful to Jerusalem join in the struggle against the anti-semitic slander
that denies the Jewish people's rights to its land and to its spiritual
heart…If Jerusalem does not belong to us, our entire connection with this
land is in question. Every person needs both roots and wings. Only he who is
nourished by the firm ground of his past can give creative expression to his
personal dreams. Nations, too, can only soar to new horizons if they are
established on sound foundations…We must all be defenders of Jerusalem. We
all are Guardians of Zion."
Toby Klein Greenwald is a journalist, playwright and
theater director who lives in Israel.