civil rights activist, ‘drive of nature’ – The Ahead

The shortest interview I’ve ever had was with the most powerful woman in the world, Naomi B. Levine, who died today at the age of 98.

Naomi Levine from the striker

Courtesy Andy Bachman

Naomi Levine.

Naomi was senior vice president of foreign affairs at New York University, and I was a young rabbi hoping to serve as executive director of the Edgar M. Bronfman Center for Jewish Student Life at NYU. Most thought I had insufficient experience for such an important position as I represent America’s leading Jewish philanthropist and a university on the rise.

After five minutes of rapid-fire questions, which became more and more difficult as the course progressed, she offered me the job. “If I see you sitting at your desk, I’ll fire you. I want you to be on campus and there for students. I will collect the money. “Then she said with a wink,” Now we just have to set up a search committee so that a number of professors can believe that this is where they make the decisions. “

Naomi Levine was really a force of nature. Hailing from humble roots in the Bronx, she graduated from Hunter College and earned a law degree from Columbia University, where she said, “I was much more interesting to talk to than your average student with Justice Ginsburg and Bella Abzug . “

Leonard Levine, her husband for half a century, landed in Normandy, was on the Bulge Offensive and was one of the soldiers who accompanied General Dwight D. Eisenhower on his tour of concentration camps, which were at the center of the Nazi genocide death machine.

He was one of a number of soldiers who were sick and overwhelmed by what they saw and experienced. When they put questions to their general about the assignment, Eisenhower said what he would eventually put down in writing: “The things I have described as a beggar. The visual evidence and verbal testimony of hunger, cruelty, and bestiality were so overwhelming that I made the visit on purpose in order to be able to prove these things firsthand, if anything, in the future there is a tendency towards these allegations to submit to propaganda. “

More than 70 years later, Eisenhower’s words are particularly memorable and particularly important. In our currently divided nation, where anti-Semitism and racism are on the rise again and dangerous, violent forces are aligned, Naomi has always reminded us that the past is a prologue and our struggle for justice is an immortal flame.

Naomi worked in the Civil Rights Division of the American Jewish Congress during a period in American history when Jewish communal leadership was deeply concerned with issues of racism, anti-Semitism, desegregation, and support for the young state of Israel. It was an era in which the enormous structural problems America faced in the second half of the 20th century were directly addressed. and in a world with broad shoulders and oversized egos, Naomi was usually the only woman in the room. “I knew I deserved to be there because I was so smart and often smarter than everyone else in the room,” she said. “And if I shut up I could do a lot.”

Naomi’s mentor at the American Jewish Congress was Justine Wise Polier, New York’s first female judiciary and daughter of Rabbi Stephen Wise, a social justice advocate who was a founding member of the American Jewish Congress and the NAACP. For Naomi, meeting blacks and Jews about civil rights was not just tactical, it was downright American. The fiercest struggles for justice for all Americans had to be waged by those for whom fairness and equality were most important.

Naomi worked very closely on two notable cases and formulated part of the crucial language in both the Sweatt v. Painter and Brown v. Topeka’s Board of Education, in which Plessy v. Ferguson, the heinous Supreme Court case of 1896, successfully challenged and overturned, coded the segregationist structures of “separate but equal” in US law.

Naomi and her team at the congress commissioned the critical sociological studies of the well-known scholars Kenneth and Mamie Clark, who showed in the famous “Doll Case” that black children in separate classrooms suffered severe psychological damage due to the legal separation of white students. Future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall would successfully discuss both cases. and law students find Naomi’s fingerprints in the footnotes.

It was always just as good with her. She didn’t need the attention. She had other fish to fry.

Less than a decade later, Naomi’s hands would make history again.

She was the co-author of Rabbi Joachim Prinz’s speech “Sin of Silence”, which he gave after Mahalia Jackson’s appearance and before the speech by Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King held “I have a dream” during the march in Washington, in which Prince Black’s civil rights linked his own fate as a Jewish refugee from Hitler’s Germany. (Prince, Berlin’s most charismatic and daring reform rabbi, fled the Gestapo to a safe haven in Newark and appeared heroically in Philip Roth’s dystopian, but now prophetic, The Plot Against America.) On that August day, 1963, Prince spoke Naomi’s words: “The most urgent the most shameful, shameful and tragic problem is silence. “

At NYU, Naomi worked with a new generation of American economic titans of industry, transforming the university into a world-class international institution, expanding its influence in an ever-changing city, and leaving another legacy gift for future generations. The idea that excellent education is a human right and the first principle of building a just society enlivened their work. Of the many attempts that businessman Donald Trump made to join NYU’s board of directors, she was proud to say, “There is no way our trustees would ever welcome him.” She was even more appalled by him as President.

Until well into the 1990s she gave speeches for universities nationwide; Lobbying state capitals for strict ethical guidelines for philanthropic giving; advocates universal childcare; and in what was close to her heart, she worked vehemently towards the strengthening and renewal of Jewish life. Naomi took pride in claiming she was never a believer and loved telling us stories about how to walk head to toe with leading rabbis from Joseph Soloveitchik to Arthur Hertzberg. But her passion for being a learned Jew, pursuing justice, and leaving the world in a better condition than the one she was born into is her eternal gift to us all.

As Larry Tisch said of Naomi on the NYT in 2001, “There is no After Naomi.”

When I told my daughters that Naomi had died, they wrote how many young women wrote when Justice Ginsberg died: “May their memory be a revolution.” Naomi Levine would have shrugged at the suggestion, probably arguing that revolutions are bloody and dangerous; But a bright mind, critical thinking, and solid legislative work can go a long way in building peace and justice for all.

Max Bendich from the striker

Rabbi Andy Bachman is the executive director of the Jewish Community Project in Lower Manhattan

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of Forward.

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