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Aryeh Neier

I was aware of the number of people in my family who had been killed

Aryeh Neier in an interview by Irmtrud Wojak and Joaquín González Ibáñez

New York, USA (in English language)


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Aryeh Neier, born 1937, survived National Socialism in Germany because his parents managed to flee first to England in 1939 and then to the USA. He became a human rights activist, co-founded Human Rights Watch and served as the president of George Soros’s Open Society Institute philanthropy network from 1993 to 2012. Aryeh Neier had been National Director of the American Civil Liberties Union from 1970 to 1978, and he was also involved with the creation of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). Read the whole interview below. – The editor

 IW: Mr. Neier, I would like to start in Berlin. We just talked about Berlin and that you were born in Berlin.

AN: I was born in Berlin, but I have no memory of Berlin. I was two years old when we left Berlin. My family is Jewish. After “Kristallnacht” my father realized that we had to leave, and he tried to find a place where he could go. It was difficult at that point to find a country that would take us, but the British did agree to take us. The British actually accepted more refugees from Germany and Austria at that point than any other country. I think that in about the year leading up to the beginning of the war and for a short period after the start of the war, the British accepted about 70,000 Jews trying to leave Germany and Austria. My oldest sister had gone to England first. She was eight years older than me and so at the age of ten she went to England on the Kindertransport. And she was there for a few months before the rest of us were able to go. We actually arrived in England on August 16, 1939. It was about two weeks before the beginning of the war. At that point, the British where concerned that there would be spies and saboteurs among the refugees. And so, they interned the men, some for brief periods, some for longer periods on the Isle of Man and eventually had them identify each other and then released them. Because my father was subject to internment – he actually wasn’t interned very long, but he was subject to being taken for internment – and my mother needed to work in order to pay for her existence, she hadn’t been able to take anything out of Germany, I was put into a hostel for refugee children.

JGI: Sorry to interrupt, what was the profession of your father?

AN: He was a teacher.

JGI: Okay, that’s the most important profession. And if you could continue later on about when you realized of where you came from. If you could tell a little bit about the values in your family who were embedded into your vision of life?

AN: Because my mother needed to work, and she couldn’t take care of me, I was put into a hostel for refugee children. And I spent eleven months in the hostel. After that my father was free from any possibility of internment and was able to put the family back together again. I hated the hostel, I have only a couple of moments that I remember. But I remember behaving badly and I was put behind a bench in the corner of the room where the children were playing, and I stood behind that bench while the other children went out to play. I remember that incident, and I remember that when I was leaving the hostel, I had a new striped shirt and I had a cup of cocoa before I left which I threw up over my striped shirt. Those were the two memories that I have of that hostel. I’m told that I stopped speaking when I was in the hostel. But I have no memory of that.

But then the family was together, my elder sister, my father and mother and I. We were living in a flat in London, it was under the roof of the building, a small flat. When there were air raids at the time of the battle of Britain, we would go with the other people into the underground where one would be safe from the air raids and people spent the whole night in the underground. At a certain point my mother refused to go into the underground anymore. She hated it. We went into the cellar of the building where we lived. English cellars are very well constructed, and number of other people were in the cellar and our house was hit by a bomb. It largely destroyed the building but no one in the cellar was hurt. Everybody was fine in the cellar. But after that we had no place to live and people were being evacuated from London. The way you were evacuated is: you went to one of the train stations in London and you got on a train and at each stop of the train, somebody came on board and said we can take so many… You got off at that point, and we got off at a town about seventy miles from London called Kettering. Kettering is a boot- and shoe-manufacturing town. It’s a pleasant town of about 30,000 or 35,000 people and it has a famous park called Wicksteed Park. Initially, the people who got off the train at Kettering were housed in a school. My elder sister was playing in the school yard with a girl from the neighborhood. The girl apparently asked her parents, could they take my sister in. The family said yes. It was not a well to do family, the father was a bicycle repairman. The girl told my sister, she could come and live with them and my sister said, you also have to take my mother and my brother. My father had stayed in London because they only evacuated at that point the women and children. The family agreed, so the three of us, my elder sister, my mother and I moved into the home of the bicycle repairman. A little later, my father was able to join us and he also moved into the house.

In a typical English house, there is a front room and the front room is not used most of the time. It’s where some formal occasion takes place, some fancy occasion, but the main room of the house is usually the dining room. But because the front room was empty, we were in the front room of the house. And we lived there for a little while, a town councilman in Kettering had decided to become our protector. His name was Mr. Good or Goode as it would be pronounced there. He looked after us, and he wanted to get a job for my father. And he found a job at a milk bottling factory. But the milk bottling factory was far away, and my father did not ride a bicycle and so Mr. Goode found us another house to move into and this was a more well to do home. It was the home of an insurance agent. We moved into the front room of the insurance agent. And then Mr. Goode found us a place of our own to live in Kettering and helped get my father work, teaching languages. We lived through the war in Kettering, and we later moved to a town nearby because of my father’s working arrangements of the school. A town called Northampton which is the county seat of the area where Kettering is located. We lived in Northampton for two and half years. My elder sister, quite young got married to an American soldier who had been stationed in England. She came to the United States as a war bride. My parents didn’t want to lose contact with their only daughter and so they applied to come to the United States. That’s how we came to the United States.

IW: And that was when?

AN: We came in June 1947.

I was given a Hebrew name, Aryeh, which means lion

IW: I have another question about your family. This was a religious family or not?

AN: It was not a religious family, but it was a family that very much identified as being Jewish. My parents would go to a synagogue quite often. They celebrated all the Jewish holidays and they didn’t quite keep a kosher household, but they didn’t eat pork or shellfish. But mixing meat and milk, that was okay. It was a very consciously Jewish family but not really orthodox or not really religious. But being Jewish was very important to them. It was the way they defined themselves. And I was given a Hebrew name, Aryeh, which means lion.

IW: Did they later on talk about their experience in Germany before the war?

AN: Not a great deal. My father had been fired from his job as a teacher because he was Jewish and was then employed by the Jewish community in Berlin and was a teacher under their auspices. They talked about Germany. They weren’t born in Germany. They were born in what is today Poland. They lived in a place, which they tended to refer to as Dreikaisereck, where the three empires, the Prussian, the Austrian, and the Russian empire came together and my father as a child earned some money smuggling cigarettes across these borders. My father was born in 1899 and after the war, after World War I, he wanted to leave to go for an education and he went to Berlin. After he left, sometime later, my mother joined him in Berlin. So, they got married in Berlin, and then lived in Berlin until they went to England.

IW: And your family, you have had family in Berlin or in Poland?

AN: No, originally my mother’s family had eleven children. Eight survived into adulthood and of the eight, five died during the war in different concentration camps. A brother survived and he had lived in Berlin for a period, but he had gone to what is now Israel before the war. And a sister survived in Poland, the sister survived because her husband was very capable of living in the woods. He had the skills and the strength to survive in that way. Although he died at the end of the war, he kept his wife alive during the war. She survived in Poland during the war. After the war, a few years later, she was able to migrate from Poland to Israel. The only family then got to be the family of my mother’s brother who had gone to Israel. We had distant relatives in western countries. My father was an only child, he didn’t have any brothers or sisters. We learned about what happened to my mother’s family because she had a cousin who had gone to Canada and he worked for an organization called the Joint Distribution Committee. And he had locked into what happened to the family, and one day completely unexpectedly, we had had no contact with him, he turned up at our house in Northampton England and told us what had happened to various members of the family.  Up to that point we didn’t know anything about what happened to various members of the family.

IW: He found you in Northampton?

AN: In Northampton, England. Through his work in the Joint Distribution Committee he was able to track down various people.

JGI: What about your awareness of an idea of justice and solidarity because you mentioned at the age of sixteen you have to be very proactive to invite someone like Lemkin (Raphael Lemkin). My point is, how through the passage of time you probably realized what was the catalyzer for you to be in the justice world; how was that process of your commitment with the cause of justice and human rights?

As president of the history club I invited Raphael Lemkin

AN: I came to the United States and I went to the high school called Stuyvesant High School. I attended the school from 1950 to 1954. That was precisely the period in which senator Joseph McCarthy was a significant figure in the United States. He made his famous speech, denouncing communists in the State Department in 1950 and his decline came in 1954 in what we called the Army-McCarthy hearings. In that period, everybody in the United States was caught up in discussion of McCarthyism. At my school there were a couple of teachers who were called before congressional investigations. We were very conscious of McCarthyism in that period. The school was overcrowded and so it was divided into two sessions. In the first two years one attended classes from one in the afternoon until 5:30. And in the last two years one attended classes from eight in the morning until 12:30. So in my last two years of school, I had the entire afternoon off. In school, there was something called the history club. We were called the history club because the teacher who was the advisor was a history teacher and this was the setting for discussions of political developments, and I became the president of the history club. In my role as president of the history club, I arranged activities and because we had the afternoon free, we could invite speakers to events that would take place in the afternoon. So students who attended from eight to 12:30 would then have lunch and then there would be an event of the history club. So, I invited the local member of congress, I invited various other people who would be of interest. And because the school was particularly well known and located here in Manhattan, convenient to various public figures, it was quite easy to get the speakers that I wanted to bring to the school. And so one of the issues of concern at that point was ratification of the genocide convention. And so I wrote a letter to Lemkin at the address of the UN which reached him and then he invited me to come and see him at the delegates’ lounge and I told him what I wanted and he agreed to come to the school to talk about American ratification of the genocide convention.

JGI: You would not invite at that time anyone form the circle of McCarthy, but you invited other people?

AN: Yes, and many of the speakers were people who were critical of what was happening during the McCarthy period in the United States. I can’t remember that we invited anyone who was in favor of McCarthy.

JGI: And when you went to school, to university what did you think at that time, you wanted to persevere in the idea of justice or…?

AN: We didn’t have any money and so the question of going to university was an issue. We had come from Germany to England with nothing, and we had come from England to the United States with almost nothing. There wasn’t any money in the family. I found a way to go to university without significant expense. One of the universities in the United States, one of the well-known universities is Cornell University. And Cornell University is principally a private university but there are also a number of departments that are publicly supported or were supported and still are supported by the State of New York. And one of the divisions that was supported by the State of New York is the School of Industrial and Labor Relations. Tuition was free at the School of Industrial and Labor Relations. And once one entered the school, one’s course work was largely voluntary. One could take a liberal arts curriculum and have no cost for tuition. In addition, New York State had scholarships for students who attended universities within New York State and these scholarships were awarded on a competitive basis. You took a test and depending on how you did the test, you got one of those scholarships, so I also got one of the state scholarships. And then while I was at Cornell, I also worked. I worked at jobs on the college campus while I was a student. And the School of Industrial and Labor Relations found me jobs for the summers. So, between free tuition, a state scholarship and what I earned, going to college cost my parents nothing. I could cover the cost myself. So that’s where I went to school. And while I was at Cornell, I also became active in political matters and matters in involving rights.

IW: And how do you explain this for you? You came involved in human rights or the law because of your experience during the Third Reich or where does it come from?

I was aware of the number of people in my family who had been killed

AN: I would say, I didn’t have memory myself of the Third Reich. But I was aware of my family’s situation. I was aware of the number of people in my family who had been killed and that had a big effect on me. But it a sort of combined with the effect of having gone to high school, to secondary school during the McCarthy period. And the two things came together and made me somebody who was interested in rights. And the rights issues I got involved in at Cornell, the two biggest issues were that in January 1955, I started in Cornell in September 1954, in January 1955, there was the Montgomery bus boycott. This was a refusal by the blacks in Montgomery (Alabama) to ride the buses because the buses were segregated. And the first article I ever wrote for the Cornell newspaper was about the Montgomery bus boycott. And the other issue that loomed largest for me was that in 1956, there was the Hungarian revolution against the Soviet Union. There was a speaker on the Cornell campus; a man named Norman Thomas.

Norman Thomas had been the socialist candidate for president six times. I think the last time was…, I don’t remember whether it was 1956 or 1960 (it was 1948, editor’s note). But he was a socialist candidate for president. He had been a founder of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU, IW) and he was a socialist, very anti-communist.

And he spoke, and he was a great public speaker, probably the finest public speaker I ever heard in my life. He spoke at the Cornell campus and there must have been three thousand students in the hall to hear him. And after his speech, he went to one of the houses on the campus. And a certain number of people who wanted to talk further went there. And I was one of those who went there. And he said that he had just had a visit from a woman name Anna Kethly. Anna Kethly was the foreign minister appointed by the Hungarian government during the period of revolution from the Soviet Union. She was appointed by Imre Nagy the prime minister of Hungary. Anna Kethly was a socialist anti-communist like Norman Thomas. And when she arrived in New York what was then called Idlewild Airport before it was called Kennedy Airport, she went directly from the airport to Norman Thomas’ office. And she talked to him about the Hungarian revolution. And the next night he was to speak at Cornell, and when we went and gathered at the house and listened to him, he talked about the Hungarian revolution. So, that was also an important event for me. And after I listened to Norman Thomas, I went to a few faculty members I knew at Cornell and asked them if they would become advisors if I established an organization on the Cornell campus to bring different speakers to the Cornell campus. We called that the Cornell forum. I was the president of the Cornell forum. And Norman Thomas had been, before he was a candidate for president, he had directed an organization called the League for Industrial Democracy founded in 1905. A socialist anti-communist organization and it had a student organization. The student organization had chapters at a few other universities at Yale, at Harvard, at a couple of other institutions. And they had organized events dealing with the Hungarian revolution. I affiliated it with the Student League for Industrial Democracy. Then I became part of that group and a year later I became president of the national organization. The person who preceded me died a few years ago but he was an American publisher named André Schiffrin, a well-known American publisher. He was a student at Yale and headed the group from there then I succeeded him and became the president of the Student League for Industrial Democracy. I was involved in these activities both in secondary school and high school and in college.

JGI: So wonderful. I would like you to tell us – this is not a psychoanalysis, but I would like you to tell us – together with Norman Thomas, what are the human beings, I see there Hannah Arendt (points to the wall where is hanging a painting with a portrait of Hannah Arendt) – I really like and identify with George Orwell being a socialist but anti-communism – how difficult it was at that time to have that attitude?

AN: I have a copy of Animal Farm at home and I didn’t have much money but I bought the book when it was initially published, and if I looked at it, it was the first edition I think printed in the United States in 1953 (1946, editor’s note). So, maybe earlier…

JGI: He passed away 1950.

AN: It’s the first edition of the book and I bought it when it was published and later 1984, they had an enormous impression on me during that period. A lot of the literature that I read during that period had a significant political element. There were books by André Malraux, there was Albert Camus there was George Bernanos. There was all the literature of Engagement from France that I read during that period and I liked those books a great deal and learned a great deal from that. Malraux wrote a book like Man’s Fate that made a big impression on me.

JGI: Besides the literature authors, what other human beings…? You know this quotation from Newton when he was asked how he had been able to create his theory on physics and he said, because I had a vision standing on the shoulders of all the giants who let me understand this view. What other human beings causing you an impact, because you were close to them, because you were inspired? I mean we had Norman Thomas and you probably really enjoy and learned and admire him, but what other human beings were there in this process in the years?

AN: Well in my high school, the teacher who was the advisor to this history club, Mrs. Brody, certainly had a significant influence on me. When I went to college there were a few members of the Cornell faculty who had an influence on me. There were two or three faculty members in what was called the government department. One was a man named Clinton Rossiter who became a well-known figure in the United States and among other things at a certain point there was a series of books conditioned by something called the Fund for the Republic, “Communism in American Life” which discussed communism in labor unions, communism in various other settings. He was the editor of that series of books. Another government professor at Cornell was a man name Mario Einaudi. His father, Luigi Einaudi was president of Italy at one point. But Mario Einaudi had a big effect on me. And then there was a younger faculty member in the government department named Andrew Hacker who is still alive. He’s a few years older than I am and until two or three years ago, one would always find his articles in the New York Review of Books. But Andrew Hacker was an influence. In the Labor Relation’s School, there were two women who had a big influence on me. One was a woman named Alice Cook, and he she was a labor historian and for a period she had teaching with her a woman who played an important role in American history. The woman was named Frances Perkins. She had been the first woman who ever served in the cabinet of the United States. She was very close to Franklin Roosevelt, served as Secretary of Labor under Franklin Roosevelt and was generally considered the person who pushed the various laws that became the New Deal. Franklin Roosevelt was very heavily influenced by Frances Perkins. But after she retired, she came to live at Cornell and became a friend of this professor of labor history Alice Cook and joined Alice Cook in the teaching at Cornell. And then there was another woman named Jean McKelvey who was also a figure, I think, and then at the Labor Relations School a man named Milton Konvitz and he was somebody who taught American constitutional law to undergraduates at Cornell and I very much enjoyed his classes. I became personal friendly with all of these faculty members.

Students have limited ability at large universities to become friendly with faculty members, but I became friendly with all of them. They all had significant influences on me. And then aside from Norman Thomas, another speaker I had heard at Cornell was a man named Arthur Garfield Hays. He was a lawyer associated with the American Civil Liberties Union, General Counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union. I became very interested in the American Civil Liberties Union in part through listening to Arthur Garfield Hays.

IW: Can you explain a little bit more what was the idea of the American Civil Liberties Union?

The most important organization in the United States protecting individual rights

AN: The American Civil Liberties Union is about to celebrate its 100th anniversary. It was founded in January 1920. Actually, there was a predecessor organization during World War I called the Civil Liberties Bureau. That organization had been created to defend people who opposed American entry into World War I or opposed the draft. A lot of those people were sentenced to long terms in prison, five years, ten years, or even twenty years in prison. World War I was probably the most repressive period in American history, or the 1917-1918 period when the United States were engaged in World War I. During much of that period, Woodrow Wilson’s presidency was not functioning very well. His attorney general was a man named A. Mitchell Palmer who was a repressive figure.

There was also violence by anarchists during World War I. In 1919, after World War I, anarchists blew up the home of A. Mitchell Palmer. The only person who was injured was the person who carried the bomb who was killed. Nobody else was injured but that was a violent period. And after the war, there were letter bombings. In one letter bombing, the secretary of a senator lost her hand opening a package. There was anarchist violence in that era, but there were also people who were peaceful opponents of entry into the war and peaceful opponents of the draft during that period who were treated very harshly. Initially the organization was seen as a temporary organization while the war existed but because the attacks on civil liberties continued after the end of the war a permanent organization, the American Civil Liberties Union was established. And in the hundred years since the establishment of the American Civil Liberties Union, it has been the most important organization in the United States protecting individual rights. Today it’s a very, very large organization. It has about a million and a half members. It has a budget of hundreds of millions of dollars a year. It has offices with staff attorneys every place in the United States, all fifty states and in many states, many offices and it handles thousands of court cases each year. It’s also active lobbying in congress and in a variety of other ways to protect civil liberties. It was much smaller when I first got involved. When I got involved it had sixty thousand members. It had state affiliates in about half of the states and staffed offices in about fifteen cities around the United States. I went to work for the organization in 1963. I was 26. I went to work as field director and a year and a half later I became the director of the New York Civil Liberties Union dealing with New York State and then five years after that in 1970 I became the national executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union which I did until 1978. So altogether I worked for the organization from 1963 to 1978, fifteen years, and the last eight years as the national executive director. I was much more well known as a figure then than any time since then.

JGI: Where did the idea of founding Human Rights Watch come from? It was a different concept?

IW: Please, Joaquín, let me ask one more question before we come to Human Rights Watch, the events which took place in Chicago, the Skokie case. Could you explain or talk about this a little bit because it’s important for our translation of your book Defending My Enemy.

Defending My Enemy – When the Nazis decided to demonstrate in Chicago’s Skokie district

JGI: I read it twice and I thought about being stubborn, if it was a virtue and what made you not to change your course of action because what you’re telling in the book even the Jewish organizations were so critical with your position. Did you realize at that time that you really were focused in the pursuit of the defense of freedom of speech?  Now with the passage of time, was it really necessary to have the strength to keep the compass that you followed at the time?

AN: The American Civil Liberties Union had always defended freedom of speech for everyone. Even in the period leading up to World War II when there were Nazis or supporters of fascism or communists in the United States. It had defended the freedom of speech for everybody and issued publications in the 1930s about why we defend freedom of speech for everyone. This was the well-established point of view of the organization. In the period before I joined the staff of the American Civil Liberties Union, there was a very well publicized case involving freedom of speech for Nazis here in New York City. The most famous American Nazi had been a man named George Lincoln Rockwell. Rockwell at one point sought a permit for a demonstration in Union Square Park in New York City. And the city turned him down for that and the American Civil Liberties Union had represented him and got him the right to hold a demonstration and to speak in Union Square Park. That case took place in 1960, and I joined the staff of the ACLU in 1963. I was very familiar with the fact that ACLU defended free speech for everyone. And during the period that I was director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, we had been involved in a number of cases involving Rockwell and people of similar variety. The Skokie case took place somewhat later when I was the national executive director of the ACLU. It started in 1977. The case involved a group calling itself American Nazis and they had originally demonstrated in the city of Chicago and had focused on an area of Chicago called Marquette Park. Marquette Park is a small park in Chicago. One side of the park has a population or then had a population that was predominantly African America. The other side of the park had a population that was predominantly made out of east European immigrants, Lithuanians, Poles, etc. There was racial tension between those two groups. The Nazis originally held their demonstrations in Marquette Park to try to exploit those divisions. They had been banned from holding the demonstration in Marquette Park by a court order. The Nazis came to the Chicago office of the ACLU and asked for representation and the Chicago office agreed and it was considered a routine matter. During the period that the Nazis could not demonstrate in Marquette Park, they wrote letters to different suburbs of Chicago saying we want to demonstrate in your community. All but one of those suburbs ignored the letters. Skokie didn’t ignore the letter. It said don’t you dare come here. The Skokie town council quickly adopted a number of laws, ordinances to make it impossible for the Nazis to demonstrate. They would have to post a 350,000 dollar bond to cover any damage, nobody could be permitted to parade in uniform. There was one other ordinance of that sort they adopted.

IW: And how many were they, the Nazis?

AN: About fifteen or twenty. The Nazis then decided they would demonstrate in Skokie, but they went back to the ACLU when these ordinances were adopted, and the Chicago ACLU agreed that they would represent them. It was considered so routine a matter that the Chicago ACLU didn’t bother to let us know in the national office that this was going on. This was just something standard. And then suddenly the press discovered this incident and the issue that became the press story: Skokie was a town of about 40,000 people and about 7,000 people in Skokie could more or less be described as Holocaust survivors. An unusual number had come to this one place and that became the issue in the press.

I hadn’t known about the case until it became a press story. I went to Chicago to talk to our people there and agreed that we would back them up in this and it became a bigger and bigger story. And a number of court cases emerged out of this and there was a newspaper story about this Skokie case, every day some new element of it. I started getting invitations to speak at great many places about Skokie and I particularly accepted the speaking invitations from different synagogues. I spoke at a great many synagogues and at the synagogue in Skokie. The discussion of the case was very interesting. Initially, most people were opposed to the position of the American Civil Liberties Union. Over time, that changed. Over time as people discussed the matter more and more, the free speech side of the argument got to be stronger and more and more people were persuaded about it. Over time, I would say most Americans probably would agree today that the ACLU did the right thing. I’m not sure what the outcome would be. But it would be even most Americans or it would be close if any poll were taken on that subject today. As people debated the issue the free speech side got stronger. One of the things I would do when I spoke, I would ask people how many of you have taken part in dinner table debates of Skokie and almost all the hands would go up. Everybody had argued about it. And the free speech side got stronger in those arguments that took place over the dinner table. Eventually what happened is we had won all the court cases and the demonstration could go forward. And then the day the demonstration was supposed to take place the Nazis didn’t show up. Not long thereafter, they did hold a demonstration in Marquette Park where they had originally wanted to demonstrate. But they only had a handful of people who came to that and after that the Nazi group dissolved and no one ever heard of them again.

IW: The idea or the attempts to stop the demonstration gave them more publicity than anything else.

AN: It gave them more publicity but when they won, it was all over. And there were some nasty things that took place along the way. There had been a radical American rabbi who then became a radical rabbi in Israel Meir Kahane. Kahane held demonstrations including on one occasion inside the ACLU offices in New York. He wanted us to call the police to throw him out that would have been good publicity for him. We managed to get rid of him without that. My home phone number is unlisted, and people didn’t have my address but apparently a group of the Jewish defense league followed me home on one occasion and found out where I lived and held demonstrations at my apartment building. But there is an entrance to the building where I lived that is on a different block, which is an entrance for a garage in the basement of the building. So for a period my wife and I were using the garage entrance to the building to avoid the demonstrators who were in front of the building. At one point the Jewish defense league presented me with a gift, which was a kind of board with a lampshade on it and what looked like blood on it and things like that. There were things like that took place.

JGI: I have just one question. I’m thinking about the European system and the American system. In the US freedom of speech also entitles people with speeches that incite the commission of crimes or incites hate onto other people? Is that included here within freedom of speech?

Cover of “Defending My Enemy”, first edition 1979, new edition 2012 with a photo of the leader of the American Nazi party, Frank Collins

AN: The key court decision in the United States is a case from 1969 called Brandenburg versus Ohio. Brandenburg involved a rally by the Ku Klux Klan in Ohio. In the case, the clan members had been convicted on the basis of incitement. And the Supreme Court ruling said that you can convict someone for incitement only in circumstances in which incitement is likely to lead to the actual crime being committed. So, one example I used to use is one of our Supreme Court justices famously said that freedom of speech doesn’t cover the right to shout “fire!” falsely in a crowded theater. And I tell people that the most important word in that phrase is the word crowded. But if you go into an empty theater and you shout “fire!” falsely nothing will happen. But if you go into a crowded theater then a panic is likely to take place and people would get injured. So, you have to be concerned about the context and not only the content. The content of speech is what people say, the context is one which deals with the circumstances in which the speech takes place. And if the circumstances are such that violence is likely to take place or if you take for example a lynch mob and there’s an atmosphere that someone is about to get lynched and someone who’s a speaker says “Go get him, string him up!” and in those circumstances the speaker himself has not engaged in any violence, but the speaker has incited people in circumstances in which the violence is likely to take place, so the speaker in that circumstance can be punished. But if it’s on a New York street and somebody stands on the street and says: “Go get him, lynch him!” everybody will sort of walk away. No violence will take place. You have to be concerned with the context of speech as well as the content. And I think that’s probably the main difference between American law on speech and European law on speech. The context is not a crucial factor in European law.

IW: Yes, that’s right.

JGI: There was a famous situation during the Obama administration that, from the European perspective, we were really surprised. It was in Gainesville, Florida, the pastor Terry Jones announce his plan to burn Korans. In the end he did not, but if he had, it would have costed serious damages for individuals and American interest overseas and I remember that president Obama, I mean he was aware of the potential crisis, but he never dared to intervene in that situation. Remember that case?

AN: Yes.

JGI: Everything was behind freedom of expression, but should he have let the book fall in the fire? That would have initiated lots of violence overseas.

We have a very strong commitment to freedom of expression in the USA

AN: Yes, you see that’s an area that is similar to the free speech issues that arise in terms of the internet that you say something over the internet and it goes to the whole world and you don’t know the circumstances in each part of the world. And that creates a difficulty that I never encountered when I dealt with these kinds of issues.

JGI: I see.

AN: It’s a very difficult area and I don’t have a well-defined view on the internet-incitement issues.

JGI: Let me, just before getting back to the human rights. Let me share with you some real cases in Spain were people have been prosecuted because within their artistic performances they have been willingly offensive against the crown, against people who were victim of terrorism. They would laugh in the lyrics of a song, for instance, that someone has lost on of the limbs because of a terrorist attack. And they have been prosecuted. And the dilemma in Spanish society is not that it was of course an obvious lack of taste, an obvious lack of respect.  But they were indicted by serious offenses that would imply penalties of two years of imprisonment, even five years of imprisonment. So, when it comes to art performances, rap music, theater, what do you think is the threshold? Because in a way, I do believe that we as a society and citizens are needed of a kind of “gymnastics”: the gymnastic, the flexibility of having a real democratic approach to freedom of speech. I mean that the rule of law embodies human rights principles anddemocratic values, but it also requires tolerance for opposing opinions and the existence of some tension. This kind of art expressions trigger a mechanism which leads to the question of what limits should be taken into consideration. In Spain, for instance any issue related to freedom of speech that affects the Catholic Church will come up in the public arena with a special concern.

AN: In the American context the fact that it’s art would not be a significant factor. A factor that would matter is whether there is an immediate relationship between some violation of law that the state has a right to prevent and the speech. If the speech is directly connected to violence, then that would be not protected speech. If the speech takes place let’s say in the hiring of an employee and it leads to discrimination at that moment that would not be protected. But unless there is some direct and immediate consequence that involves a violation of law, speech would be protected in the United States. And speeches of all sorts take place at all times in the United States. We have a very strong commitment to freedom of speech in the United States.

JGI: That leads me to the current questions with president Trump. What´s your opinion about the head of the state targeting people who are actively strengthening the rule of law while they perform their duties as journalist. ln this sense, the denial of access to the White House to some journalists has no precedent. But in the end, it’s even much more dangerous because that’s the core of American civil rights tradition and the rule of law.

AN: Well, if a person is acting in an official capacity, there are more restraints or there should be more restraints on the person than if the person is acting in a private capacity. One denounces a Trump for those kinds of things, but unless he actually commits a violation of law there’s really nothing one can do about it. And if he does commit a violation of law, the question is then who is going to act in such a case? That’s something that free speech law doesn’t really address.

JGI: Yes, but you expect, I don’t know if this is the right word, some majesty of the people who exercise a public function that should be representing and pursuing the common interest for all the citizens.

AN: You see a circumstance in which I consider that he has incited in circumstances where violence could take place is when he has been at rallies and he has in effect called on people to beat up somebody who is annoying him with the question they ask or with the position they espouse, then he’s really crossing the line in terms of incitement because violence really could take place under those circumstances.

JGI: Okay, thank you, and what about solidarity for you? What about the principle of the solidarity for you? The European Union treaty and some European constitutions have as a legal pilar incorporated in the constitutions the principle of solidarity. It’s not a political principle but for us it’s a legal principle. You, being a human rights activist, being a lawyer defending this kind of causes, I would like you to elaborate a little bit about your idea of justice.

AN: I’m not sure how I define the principle of solidarity as a legal concept. It’s very difficult. What does it actually mean? What obligation does it impose on anyone?

I very strongly believe in resistance

IW: What about the obligation to resist when human rights are violated? I mean that is what for example Fritz Bauer’s idea was: that the struggle for human rights through history always was resistance and there is an obligation to resist when human rights are violated.

AN: I’m a very strong believer in resistance. I have the picture of Hannah Arendt there, Hannah Arendt is most controversial for her Eichmann in Jerusalem book. There she is highly critical of the Jewish leadership in Nazi occupied Europe for not leading the resistance to the Nazis. I very strongly support her position on it. But can you then hold accountable those people who do not resist, or do not provide leadership. I don’t think you can. If they are frightened or if they think that it will make matters worse if they resist, they may be wrong about saying that it will make matters worse but they maybe right about that and I don’t think you can hold them accountable. I think you can advocate resistance.

IW: Yes, you can advocate resistance but what about the German society during the 1920s or beginning of the 1930s. Weren’t the people obliged to resist against national socialism and the coming up of the Nazi party? I mean weren’t we obliged to help the Jews or to rescue the Jews?

AN: I’m a great believer of the German philosopher who wrote about guilt at the end of World War II…

IW: Jaspers.

AN: Karl Jaspers. Jaspers divides guilt into four categories. He deals with political guilt, he deals with moral guilt, he deals with metaphysical guilt and I’m forgetting the fourth category. But in effect his position becomes this that only one of those, that only guilt which actually involves participation in the crimes can be criminal guilt. And criminal guilt from his standpoint is always individual whereas political guilt and metaphysical guilt and moral guilt are collective, and they cannot be prosecuted as crimes. You can be critical of people for these collective forms of guilt, but you could only actually punish those who are criminally guilty, who are guilty on an individual basis. I think, I generally would accept the Jasper’s point of view.

IW: Yes, me too. This is also the idea of Fritz Bauer, I would say, that you can’t judge people from the point of view of being morally guilty. You can’t because if someone has failed or something like that what can you do? But from the point of the law, you have to punish him. You have to ask, what have you done to the Jews, to the Roma, to the… and so on.

AN: Yes, but you can only deal with that individually.

IW: But human rights are individual rights, not collective rights.

AN: Yes, right.

IW: Can we talk about the time after Skokie, what did you do after these experiences?

Reagan turned his back on the promotion of human rights

AN: After the Skokie case, initially my thought was to simply take it easy for a while and so I became a visiting professor of law at New York University and I also became associated with a humanities institute in New York University and directed the humanities institute. Around the time that I left the American Civil Liberties Union a friend of mine was in the process of organizing what became the Helsinki Watch which was simply concerned with abuses in the Soviet bloc countries and initially principally in the Soviet Union. He was the head of a large publishing firm, the largest publishing firm in the United States, Random House. And he asked me to join him. He became the chairman, I became the vice chairman of the Helsinki Watch. I was active in that while I was teaching at New York University Law School and at the Humanities Institute. And then, in 1980, November 1980, Ronald Reagan was elected presented of the United States. The previous president Jimmy Carter had tried to promote human rights internationally. Reagan was turning his back on efforts to promote human rights. And at that point it seemed to me that the human rights issue was going to become a large factor in the United States.

So, I agreed to become the director of the organization provided that instead of just focusing on the Soviet Union and Soviet bloc countries we would be engaged worldwide. I decided to expand the organization into a worldwide organization piece by piece. I didn’t think we could deal with the whole world at once. That was too much to do. So, I thought if we took on one region of the world and then another and then another. That would be the way to do it. Reagan was particularly contradicting the Carter human rights policy in Latin America. Then, I started with Latin America and created an America’s Watch and two or three years later an Asia Watch and then an Africa Watch and then a Middle East Watch. So altogether it took about ten years until I felt I could operate on a global basis. And when it became global, I used the name Human Rights Watch rather than the individual names of the different regions.

JGI: Or “Planet Earth Watch”…

IW: And how could you organize all this? There were people coming together in every place or how did that work?

AN: It had to be piece by piece. When I decided to deal with Latin America and the America’s Watch, I needed to find people who were particularly expert on human rights in Latin America and I needed to have a board that was knowledgeable about issues in Latin America. I could do that one area at a time, I couldn’t’ do it all at once.

IW: You personally called them?

AN: Yes, I asked people who I knew, who do you respect most in terms of human rights in Latin America? And I got different names and one of the names I got was an Argentine lawyer named Juan Mendez. I went to see Juan Mendez and persuaded him to join the staff. Juan Mendez had been a lawyer in Argentina. He had defended political prisoners when the military dictatorship was in power, he himself had been tortured. He was a disappeared person.

JGI: Yes, I know Juan Mendez, he is currently a professor at American University – Washington College of Law, and he has been the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture, a very nice human being.

AN: He survived because when he was a high school student in Argentina, he had taken part in an exchange program where he lived with a family from Iowa in the United States. When he disappeared his Argentine family called his Iowa family and his Iowa family went to see the Members of Congress from Iowa and the neighboring state of Illinois and got them active in his case and that probably kept him alive. After a year and half in prison he was released and came to the United States.

IW: As an immigrant?

AN: Yes, various Members of Congress were involved in his case and supported him. Over the years he has been a distinguished figure in the human rights field. He became president of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, when Kofi Anan was Secretary General of the UN, he was the special adviser to the Secretary General on the Prevention of Genocide. He was the UN-Rapporteur on Torture. He has had various distinguished positions and he teaches today at American University Law School. He’s about 76 now but he remains a close friend of mine and a close associate of mine, we work together. I introduced him to Kofi Anan.

I remember after he became the Special Advisor on Genocide after a few months Kofi Anan called me and told me how grateful he was to me for introducing him to Juan, because Juan was so effective and so good in that role. So, he’s one of the people I feel, he maybe at the top of the list of other people. But I found other people from other parts of the world and today Human Rights Watch is quite a large organization. None as big as the American Civil Liberties Union but it’s quite large and the American Civil Liberties Union limits itself to the United States while Human Rights Watch deals with the whole world.

IW: Human Rights Watch was founded before or after Amnesty International?

Today, there is no significant difference between the agenda of Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch

AN: Amnesty International was founded in 1961. The first part of Human Rights Watch, the Helsinki Watch, was founded 1978 and then it took ten years until we became global.

IW: Can you describe what are the main differences or the main goals of both organizations, Amnesty and Human Rights Watch?

AN: When Human Rights Watch was created, Amnesty had a very limited agenda. It was concerned with prisoners of conscience and torture. And then it had added a concern with capital punishment. Human Rights Watch took a much broader approach. The most important innovation at Human Rights Watch is that we concerned ourselves with the violations of the laws of war that is international humanitarian law. At that stage Amnesty didn’t do anything on laws of war, violations of the laws of war. Many years later, it took that on. But it resisted taking on international humanitarian law. Human Rights Watch also dealt with violations of rights that didn’t involve political abuses so that women’s rights issues or gay rights issues or rights to a fair trial for ordinary persons or rights of prisoners who were not political prisoners but ordinary prisoners. So Human Rights Watch had a much broader agenda than Amnesty. Over time Amnesty changed and today, there isn’t a significant difference between the agenda of Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. But in those days, it was completely different. Another thing is that initially Human Rights Watch was an American organization and it was concerned with American foreign policy and the way American foreign policy affects human rights. Amnesty wouldn’t do deal with that in those days. Amnesty took the position that it would only deal with American foreign policy if it could also deal with Soviet foreign policy. It couldn’t deal with Soviet foreign policy or Chinese foreign policy. It didn’t deal with American foreign policy. Human Rights Watch immediately focused very much on how American foreign policy affects human rights. It also tries to deal with everybody else and how their policies affect human rights. Human Rights Watch today incidentally has a very, very good relationship with Angela Merkel. Ken Roth, my successor, he meets her maybe once a year or once every two years. But he’s always very enthusiastic about his meetings with her.

JGI: What has been the role of NGOs and the evolution of their functions in the last decades?

AN: Over time NGOs I think have become more important. There was a period in which NGOs did not play a significant role in public policy. I think the earliest NGOs to play a significant role in public policy and the earliest human rights efforts really were the anti-slavery efforts that developed in England starting in the latter part of 18th century and then in the United States in the 19th century. I think the anti-slavery movement essentially was an NGO movement that led to government policy. You know England abolished slavery first in the colonies and then abolished the slave trade and abolished slavery in England itself and the United States did so somewhat later. NGOs played a critical role in that. But NGOs in the United States began to play a broader role at the beginning of the 20th century. The NAACP, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People was founded in the United States in 1909 and the American Civil Liberties Union in 1920. Those became the principal NGOs dealing with human rights here in the United States. There was a civil liberties organization in England during World War I led by people like Bertrand Russell and they were concerned with the rights of conscientious objectives to participation in the war. And then the English organization disappeared after World War I, then was recreated in 1934 and today there’s an organization in the United Kingdom called Liberty which is the same organization as the National Council for Civil Liberties created in 1934, but there had been this gap between about 1920 and 1934 in the United Kingdom. In France, there was a human rights organization created in the 1890s as a result of the Dreyfus case and the Federation in France is an outgrowth of the Dreyfus case. In the 1922, it established an international organization. And it did have a certain number of prominent people from other European countries who were associated with the Federation. In Italy for example Matteotti (Giacomo Matteotti) who was murdered by Mussolini was associated with the Federation. In Germany Carl von Ossietzky who received the Nobel Prize and who reported on German re-armament was a member of the Federation. After Carl von Ossietzky won the Nobel Prize Hitler decreed that no German could ever receive a Nobel Prize. So, you know, in Spain I think Miguel de Unamuno was a member of the Federation.

JGI: Yes, indeed, as a matter of fact a wonderful film about Unamuno as Rector of Salamanca University during the first months of the Spanish Civil War has just been released in 2019.

AN: In the United States, efforts to establish international human rights came about during World War II. What happened is that there were a certain number of French exiles in the United States who had been associated with the Federation in France. The leader of the Federation in France was murdered by the Nazis. I’m forgetting his name. But there were some members of the group in the United States. And they contacted a man named Roger Baldwin and he had been the founder of the American Civil Liberties Union and was still the leader, still the director of the America Civil Liberties Union. They joined with them to create an organization called the International League for Human Rights. It was first called the International League for the Rights of Man and then they changed it to include women and became the International League for Human Rights and that was active at the time of the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and that was an organization supporting ratification of the Genocide Convention. It no longer exists but it was a small organization.

IW: In Germany, I think, it still exists. It is called Internationale Liga für Menschenrechte.

AN: Yes, I’m not sure they were ever connected. I’m not sure that was the same, I think the German organization was separate from that.

The people who fought against slavery invented human rights

IW: Yes. What you were telling us reminds me of a quote from judge Thomas Buergenthal. When we interviewed him, he said human rights didn’t exist before the II World War, “we invented them.”

AN: I consider the anti-slavery people invented human rights and I feel that way for the following reasons. First, the anti-slavery movement was international and had to be international because slaves were imported from one country to another. And the second thing about the anti-slavery movement is that a lot of the people involved were engaged in those efforts altruistically. That is, they weren’t concerned with their own rights, they were concerned with the rights of others. To me the essence of the human rights movement is to be concerned with the rights of others. As you can go back throughout history and find people concerned with their own rights. But what is novel about the anti-slavery movement is there were people concerned altruistically about the rights of others. People quarrel about what’s the start of the human rights movement. I take the position that it’s the anti-slavery movement.

IW: I have one more question, why did you never enter into politics?

AN: (Laughs) I never really thought I would be very good at politics. I have one experience which was a somewhat political experience. When I was director of the New York Civil Liberties Union in 1966 we had a referendum in New York about whether there should be civilian review of complaints against the police. And I was the director of the effort to have civilian review. We had a large operation and I had enlisted many important figures on my side of the debate. I persuaded myself that we would succeed. And we lost by a margin in percentage terms of 63 to 37 percent. That was my one experience in a campaign that involved the general public. And if I ever thought about being active politically that one experience deterred me from going further along those lines.

IW: And also, never became a member of a party? A political party?

AN: I’m a member of a political party. But that’s to be able to vote in primary elections, I never was active in a political party.

JGI: Let me ask you this question that to me is important as a law professor, Thomas Bingham, who is British judge, said that rule of law is the soul of democracies. It’s the inner garment of democracies. What is for you rule of law when it comes to the protection of human rights. I think you cannot separate the rule of law from the protection of human rights.

AN: I think that you cannot protect human rights except with the rule of law. And rule of law means everything to me.

JGI: Yes, I do agree with you. My question is important because if you believe in democracy, by definition you are a human rights defender. It implies that everyone who believe in democracy is an active defender of human rights. And that is one of the challenges for us, it this is not the task for judges, it is not the task for legislation or lawyers, it’s for active citizens being involved in their common interest.

AN: I agree with that.

IW: But how is it possible to strengthen human rights in this political situation?

AN: It’s very difficult I mean I’ve never seen the polarization of opinion greater than we have today in the United States but all over the world. The polarization is extreme today.

IW: For example, Jakob (Jakob Gatzka) made a film about the migration to Europe during the last years and this famous quote you mentioned from Angela Merkel, when she opened the frontiers  for immigrants. This divided our country completely.

AN: You know, look, I regard her as a hero.

IW: Yes, but some people say it was only to keep political power. I really don’t know, it’s ambivalent, because she now is very famous because of this quote and on the other hand it divided our country.

AN: Well I say that I never met her, but my successor at Human Rights Watch speaks admiringly of her. He says that when he meets with her, he finds a decent human being. And when he says something, and something she doesn’t know about, she will answer “I didn’t know that.” And he said, politicians never do that…

(All are laughing).

AN: You know, a different kind of person than the other people in positions of power with whom he deals.

IW: Interesting.

AN: And she has acted also in very many individual cases. I’m aware of efforts she has made on behalf of particular victims of human rights abuse. I mean if I would to say one case that concerns me most of this moment. I have a friend in Turkey, a businessman named Osman Kavala. Osman is a well to do man, a philanthropist in Turkey, great supporter of minority rights in Turkey and also supporter of cultural programs. A typical act of him is establishing a cultural center in the Diyarbakir, main city of the Kurdish population in Turkey. And it’s now more than two years since he has been in prison in Istanbul. Erdogan accuses him of financing the protests that took place in 2013 over a spot in Istanbul called Gezi-Park and Erdogan regards that as a preliminary coup attempt. It’s absurd. But Osman Kavala has been in prison for more than two years on these charges. There hasn’t been a trial. I know that Angela Merkel has spoken to Erdogan about this case more than once. And there are many cases like that worldwide where she has intervened.

When the wife of Liu Xiabo arrived in Berlin, she was photographed with her arms like that. And that was because of Angela Merkel’s dealing with Xi Xingping. She has been as world leaders are concerned more active on individual human rights cases than anybody else. The closest to it has been in Canada and Trudeau but Angela Merkel has been the most active leader in this area.

IW: Yes, that’s true. That’s what Teng Biao said yesterday in our interview about China that Angela Merkel was the one who asked for the prisoners. But he also said, this is not enough.

AN: Yes.

JGI: Can I ask Mr. Neier your question Irmtrud, the one you asked me, who is for you the most important human rights defender in your life?

The most important defenders of human rights

AN: I don’t have one person I could call the most important defender of human rights. I can think of people in different parts of the world who I consider to be the most important defenders of human rights in that part of the world if I think of Russia and the Soviet Union. I think of two people. I think of a woman named Ludmila Alexeeva who died not so long ago at the age of 90 or 91. She was a friend of mine. She lived in the United States for a number of years and we became friends during that period and when she went back to the Soviet union in the latter part of Gorbachev’s tenure I went to visit her in Moscow and I went, I saw her there many times and when I stepped down from the position of president of this foundation, even though she was then 85, she traveled to Budapest to take part in a dinner for me. But look Ludmila Alexeeva would have been the very much, then another man, another person Sergej Kovalev who is still alive who is also about 90 today. He had been a microbiologist and he was an early dissident and was the principal person in publishing something called the chronicle of current events which was the best information source repression in the Soviet Union, and he served seventy years in prison and thereafter was in internal exile in Siberia. He stands out in the former Soviet bloc countries.

Adam Michnik in Poland is a friend of mine. I saw him here recently. Vaclav Havel in Czechoslovakia. In China, I never met Liu Xiaobo, but I knew about him for a very long period. I had known that he was here in the United States teaching at the Columbia when Tiananmen Square took place and went back to China and was there at the time the military crackdown on Tiananmen Square. And probably saved a lot of lives at that moment because the students who had occupied Tiananmen Square gathered at the monument in Tiananmen Square and the debate was whether they should leave or whether they should stay to confront the military. He said let’s take a vote and he presided, and he said those had voted to leave had the majority and so almost all the students actually left the square and they survived as a result of that. But everything I knew about Liu Xiaobo I admired immensely.

If I think of Latin America, there are a number of people. There’s a man who’s still alive in Chile named José Zalaquett (he died on February 15, 2020). He really played immensely valuable role in Chile. And in Argentina a man named Emilio F. Mignone he was the founder of an organization called CELS in Argentina. He had been a rector of the university. His daughter disappeared. And after his daughter disappeared, he stepped down from his post as director of the university and founded what became the leading human rights organization in Argentina. There was nothing anybody could do to him after his daughter disappeared. There was no way to intimidate him because the worst thing had already happened to him. But he played an immensely important role in Argentina.

In Brazil, the person I particularly admired was Cardinal Arns, the Cardinal in Sao Paulo, he was the principal opponent of the military when the military ruled Brazil. He documented their crimes and there’s a book called torture in Brazil which results from his documentation of their crimes and to the degree that the church in Latin America in certain countries became a strong opponent of human rights abuses. The influence of Cardinal Arns was particularly important. So those are the people in Latin America. If I go to different parts of Africa, I think Archbishop Tutu in South Africa would be one of my heroes. I think he’s a marvelous human being and also has a great sense of humor. But I think Archbishop Tutu at every point played a critical role in resisting apartheid in South Africa and I pick other people but yes…

IW: Thank you.

JGI: We are really thankful and happy to have had this quality time with you.



The interview took place in New York in December 2019. It was reviewed and approved by all participants.
Interview: Dr. Irmtrud Wojak (BUXUS STIFTUNG), Prof. Dr. Joaquín Gonález Ibanánez (Berg Institute Oceana Aufklärung)
Kamera: Jakob Gatzka

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