Arthur Cohn: Guardian of Zion

May 9, 2009

6 min read


The Academy-award winning producer has made films throughout the world, but his heart is in Jerusalem.

The warmth and cordiality of producer Arthur Cohn permeated the crowd of several hundred people 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. Swiss-born Cohn, an ardent Zionist whose intensive connection to the Jewish people and Israel informs a number of his films, was there to receive the prestigious Guardian of Zion Award of Bar-Ilan University's Ingeborg Rennert Center for Jerusalem Studies. In attendance were also Ministers Bibi Netanyahu, Uzi Landau and Natan Sharansky.

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.

Foto: ©


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 remains unbuilt…" He made no secret of his political views. "Jerusalem is mentioned no fewer than 667 times in the Bible -- and not even once in the Koran…when Egypt's President Sadat visited the Temple Mount, he turned his face in prayer to Mecca -- and his back to Jerusalem."

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 and awards.

Uncharacteristically, 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 who was closely attached to Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, first chief rabbi of Israel, and his mother was a poet. Cohn's wife, born in Jerusalem, is the daughter of the late Minister Moshe Chaim Shapira.

"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. 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," said Cohn, recalling the midrash about the two brothers, whose love was expressed on the place where the Temple was subsequently built. He spoke of tikun olam - the importance of creating a just society.

Referring to his film Children of the Night, Cohn said, "These are the very same children who stand at the center of the Jewish historical experience of the Seder night…"

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 encountered 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."

Only he who is nourished by the firm ground of his past can give creative expression to his personal dreams.

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, theater director and editor-in-chief of

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