Fight for Your Rights: One Man’s Story

By Kathleen Peratis

Published August 29, 2003, issue of August 29, 2003.

After the Passover Massacre in Netanya in 2002, there was an outpouring of speculation that Jews again, still, faced the end of history. In an essay in The New Republic titled “Hitler is Dead,” literary editor Leon Wieseltier demolished those predicting a roundup of Jews in Times Square, a new Kristallnacht and a second Holocaust, calling such overheated insecurity by American Jews “purely recreational.” “Such thinking was overthrown in the modern period by Jews who decided that their myths would not ameliorate their misery,” wrote Wieseltier, “that historical agency required historical thinking, that is, concrete thinking, empirical thinking, practical thinking, secular thinking.” Aryeh Neier, former executive director of practically everything, is just such a thoroughly modern Jew.

Neier was born in Germany in 1937. His parents were Jews from Poland who had established a comfortable middle-class life in Berlin before they left for England in 1939 “at the last possible minute.” In his new memoir about his professional life, “Taking Liberties: Four Decades in the Struggle for Rights,” Neier does not indicate whether there was any Jewish observance in his home; the only “faith” he mentions is his faith in human rights, “a less dangerous faith than most others because it is not about the exercise of power.”

His professional life began as a student at Cornell, where he created the school’s chapter of Students for a Democratic Society (but dropped out in disapproval of what he perceived as its increasingly doctrinaire leftism). He landed a job with the American Civil Liberties Union as a field organizer and was soon chosen — at the age of 26 — to be the executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union. Five years later, he became the executive director of the ACLU, and 15 years after that, of Human Rights Watch. He is now, and has been since 1993, president of the Open Society Institute and thus (as I am not the first to observe) “secretary of state” to George Soros, the only private American with a foreign policy.

Neier was at the center of the famed 1977 Skokie case, in which the ACLU represented neo-Nazis whose application for a permit to march in the Illinois neighborhood — home to many Holocaust survivors — had been denied by local authorities. Neier wrote about the case in his 1979 book, “Defending My Enemy: American Nazis in Skokie, Illinois, and the Risks of Freedom.” In it, he offered an odd rationale for his defense of the Nazis: A small neo-Nazi movement in the United States is a positive force for the Jewish community, a deterrent to the expression of antisemitism by more palatable groups and a constant reminder to Jews and Christians alike of the need to safeguard the rights of a people that had been through the Holocaust.

In “Taking Liberties,” written 25 years later, he offers two other arguments. The first is pragmatic: The success of the “minuscule” group of neo-Nazis led by George Lincoln Rockwell “depended upon efforts to silence” it; local officials obliged them all too often. The second prong, of course, is principle: The free speech guarantees of the Constitution apply to all opinions. Or as I learned when I was about 9: Freedom for the idea you love is no big gedille.

In addition, Neier also points out that the ACLU had, in fact, represented Nazis many times before. Not one member of the ACLU’s 80-member board of directors expressed any

doubt about the organization’s involvement in the case, not at the beginning and not later, even as it caused a significant loss of membership.

Interestingly, the organization was not quite as united in its decision to represent the Ku Klux Klan. Neier identifies a reason for some of the dissent: The influence of “leftists,” such as those in the National Lawyers Guild and the neofeminist movement (the kind who labeled pornography “our Skokie”), who identified with victims of racism and sexism, and to hell with the First Amendment principle. “Reluctantly,” Neier observes, “I concluded that this attitude reflected a noxious form of political correctness that made some members of the national ACLU board and of various affiliates more sympathetic to black victims of racist violence than to Jewish survivors of the Holocaust.”

This perception also bedevils Human Rights Watch. For example, despite its many reports on racism and ethnic and religious discrimination around the world, Human Rights Watch has not yet undertaken focused research on antisemitism. There has been pressure to do so, both internal and external, and intimations have emerged that the organization, like the ACLU in the 1970s and 1980s, is more sympathetic to other victims than it is to Jews. Human Rights Watch’s mandate and methodology are so different from those of the ACLU that a simple comparison is not possible. That said, however, it is true that there is not broad agreement on the extent of governmentally espoused or tolerated antisemitism in, for example, Western Europe. The organization will likely take up the issue as part of broader research on religious discrimination in general.

Neier anticipated contention when he founded the Middle East division of Human Rights Watch in 1989. He writes, “I knew that our reports on the Israel-Palestine conflict would inevitably generate controversy in our own ranks and among our supporters,” he writes. “We would not pull our punches in reporting Israeli violations of human rights; nor would we focus on those abuses to the exclusion of what were often appalling abuses by other governments in the neighborhood.” He cited Human Rights Watch’s 2002 report on the Israeli Defense Forces in Jenin as “a high point” of “reliable information on abuses as they take place in war zones where no one else ventures…. None of its findings about events that had been hotly disputed has been seriously questioned. It is definitive.”

As with Skokie, though, the organization has paid a price. Roth has written to angry donors in an effort to dispel the accusation that Human Rights Watch “rushed to judgment” in Jenin and was part of the chorus that labeled it a “massacre.” Though it never used this term, there remains a perception by many that Human Rights Watch applies a double standard in the Israel-Palestinian conflict — with Israel-supporters alleging it favors the Palestinian cause and Palestinian-supporters believing it has a pro-Israel bias.

Over the years, Neier has found himself at odds with spokespeople for the Jewish community on many of the community’s most hot-button issues. What does that say about Neier’s “Jewish identity”? If a Jewish identity is not something Neier has (and I do not presume to know), it is certainly something he is. Leonard Fein recently noted in this paper, “We may be dim about our past and indolent about our present, but a Jew who is either ignorant of or indifferent to the promise of a better tomorrow has at best a constricted Jewish identity.” In “Taking Liberties,” readers will learn that Neier, whose work has ensured a better tomorrow for peoples of the world, indeed has a Jewish identity in one of the ways it counts most.

Taking Liberties: Four Decades in the Struggle for Rights

By Aryeh Neier

PublicAffairs, 400 pages, $30.

* * *



Would you like to receive updates about new stories?






















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.