Shulamith Koenig often quotes the French Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Lévinas, insisting that if only one person was missing from the world, the absolute truth would be different.
“This is what I do,” Koenig said. “I want to include every individual so everyone can understand human rights.”
Last month Koenig, 73, became only the fifth American to receive the prestigious U.N. Human Rights Award, joining the likes of Eleanor Roosevelt and Martin Luther King Jr. Granted every five years, the award recognizes the work of individuals who have advanced human rights around the world.
“I’m walking in the footsteps of giants,” said Koenig, who received the award with four other activists. “It’s very exciting to be the fifth American to win this award, which gives a big push to human rights work.”
Koenig is the founder and executive director of the People’s Movement for Human Rights, a nonprofit organization founded in 1988 that trains human rights activists across the world. One of the organization’s most recent initiatives is the Human Rights Cities project, which encourages municipal governments to adopt political, economic and social guidelines for protecting rights. Participating cities include Dinajpur, Bangladesh, and Graz, Austria.
A trained industrial engineer and native Israeli, Koenig lives in New York with her husband Jerry, the advertising manager of the Forward. In Israel, Koenig was active in social and political causes, including the establishment of Peace Now. Although she is secular, Koenig said she draws strength from the Jewish religious tradition, which she describes as a way of life encompassing an intricate system of laws that “our grandparents were taught.”
Koenig has big aspirations for her organization and hopes the award will provide a helpful push. “My big dream is that everyone knows that they are owners of human rights and [will] claim them,” Koenig said.
In addition to her efforts to train young activists, Koenig is also focusing more on women’s issues. “I’m working now on a large campaign to initiate dialogue, in order to transform the current patriarchal world system to a human rights world system.”