Morris Abram’s Life-Long Struggle for Human Rights—for Jews Too

February 21, 2020 | Jay Lefkowitz
About the author:

Born in a small town in Georgia to a Jewish family, Morris B. Abram (1918–2000) began his legal career assisting in the prosecution of Nazi war criminals at Nuremberg, before turning his attention to civil rights and electoral reform in his home state. He would go on to serve several presidents, lead multiple Jewish organizations—including the National Conference on Soviet Jewry, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, and the American Jewish Committee—and play a role in establishing both the office of the UN high commission on human rights and the organization UN Watch, which has worked to point of out the hypocrisy and anti-Semitism emanating from that office. Reviewing a new biography of Abram by David Lowe, Jay Lefkowitz—who worked with Abram in many capacities—writes:

Abram’s family was part of a small group of about a dozen Jewish families in Fitzgerald, [Georgia]. There was no synagogue in the town and Abram never had a bar mitzvah. But there was no way to avoid the complexities of growing up as a Jew in Georgia in the 1920s. I remember, more than a half-century after he had left the Peach State, Morris would open the dinners he hosted in Geneva with Jews and non-Jews alike by retelling the story of Leo Frank, the young Jewish man who was framed for the murder of the thirteen-year-old Mary Phagan in Atlanta and then hanged by a lynch mob three years before Abram was born.

Though he later became an active supporter of the state of Israel, in his youth he was anti-Zionist. He also had no interest in joining a Jewish fraternity when he entered the University of Georgia in 1934 and recalled in later years that he was “far too proud to assimilate with Gentiles” and “too ‘anti-Semitic’ to associate with exclusionary Jews.” Lowe reveals that when Abram was invited to join a Jewish fraternity, he responded that “he was personally opposed to groups that were segregated by race or religion.” That sentiment, vehemently anti-exclusionary and color-blind, became familiar to me in the course of the countless conversations I had with Morris about race relations.

Because he was a tireless advocate for civil rights and anti-discrimination, he was also a steadfast opponent of affirmative action and racial quotas of any kind. Though he had no formal Jewish education, was completely non-observant, and intermarried twice, he led major Jewish organizations in some of their most pivotal moments and was a passionate Zionist for the last quarter-century of his life. He served with enthusiasm under Presidents Kennedy, Johnson, and Carter, and then later with equal vigor for Presidents Reagan and George H.W. Bush.

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