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April 12, 2020 7:11 am

Remembering a Member of ‘Jewish Royalty’

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avatar by Ira Stoll


Morris Abram (left), chairman of National Conference on Soviet Jewry, with Ed Koch, former Mayor of New York City, and Natan Sharansky, former Prisoner of Conscience. Photo: Center for Jewish History via Flickr.

In need of a break from the grim coronavirus news? Here’s what I did, and I recommend it: Get a copy of, and read, Touched With Fire: Morris B. Abram and the Battle Against Racial and Religious Discrimination by David E. Lowe.

Morris Abram, who died in 2000 at age 81, is a great American story. From a childhood in the small town of Fitzgerald, Georgia, Abram rose to argue, with Robert Kennedy, before the US Supreme Court the 1963 civil rights and voting rights case of Gray v. Sanders, in which the court endorsed the standard of “one person, one vote.”

His life is also a great Jewish story. He had no bar mitzvah, and his first marriage was solemnized by both a Reform rabbi and a second ceremony by a Methodist pastor. His daughter Ruth Abram is quoted in the book responding to a question about what role Judaism played in their family life: “Hardly any.”

Yet after a summer stint on the staff of the chief prosecutor at the Nuremburg trials of Nazi war criminals, Abram’s trajectory eventually changed. He wound up as president of Brandeis University, president of the American Jewish Committee, chairman of the National Conference on Soviet Jewry, and chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations — “Jewish royalty,” as the Conference of Presidents’ Malcolm Hoenlein tells the biographer.

As Max Gitter, who was one of Abram’s partners at Paul, Weiss, puts it, “There’s a phrase in Yiddish; it’s actually in English as well. It’s a term of art; the term is ‘a good Jew.’ And a good Jew doesn’t mean an observant Jew. It’s a person who is an advocate for Jews. And a good person. And a good person for Jews and for everybody else. If I had to write a book about Morris Abram I would describe him simply as a good Jew.”

Steven Bayme, a longtime American Jewish Committee staffer, says that Abram “became increasingly conscious of the degree of hostility Jews faced, increasingly proud of what Jews had done as a people, and increasingly convinced that the Jews cannot relax their guard, but the key to Jewish survival lies with strong Jewish identity, Jewish education, Jewish culture.”

Abram’s Jewish identity informed his legal practice. Gitter recalls:

Morris would tell the story of when he argued some important case early in his career. In the course of the argument, he used “dayenu,” Hebrew for, “it would have been enough,” to say, a fortiori, my client is innocent. He kept repeating “dayenu” [i.e., even this would have been enough to acquit]. He ran into the chief judge at some function after the argument and the judge said to him in a very deep southern accent, “DA-EINU!” So, he obviously made an impression on that judge.

Lowe, admirably thorough and sensitive, even turns up a 1951 Georgia Bar Journal article in which Abram summons biblical arguments against the county unit system that was eventually outlawed in Gray v. Sanders.

After a stint serving President George H.W. Bush as American ambassador to the UN’s European headquarters in Geneva, Abram stuck around in Geneva and built an organization there, UN Watch, that was a watchdog against, among other things, anti-Israel bias.

Does Abram merit a full-length biography? Throughout it, there are tantalizing glimpses of what might have been — a possible run for the Senate from New York, a nomination to the Supreme Court if Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson had won the presidency in 1976. Abram, New York campaign chairman for Jackson, is one of many prominent Scoop Jackson Jewish Democrats who eventually wound up in the Reagan-Bush camp.

Even though Abram never was elected to the Senate or named a Supreme Court Justice, his story is an inspiring one, well worth telling and reading. Dayenu — it’s enough that he rose from a humble background, won a signal Supreme Court victory, helped to free Soviet Jewry, and is remembered as both a good American and a “good Jew.”

Ira Stoll was managing editor of The Forward and North American editor of The Jerusalem Post. His media critique, a regular Algemeiner feature, can be found here.

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