Longtime crusader for human rights dies

NEW YORK — Morris Abram, long known as a champion of democracy and equal rights for all, died March 16. He was 81.

Most recently known for his efforts in founding U.N. Watch in Geneva, a cooperative undertaking with international organizations monitoring and combating anti-Semitism, Abram advocated for social justice in leadership positions for almost 40 years.

"His span and imprint extended the entire latter half of the 20th century," said Elan Steinberg, executive director of the World Jewish Congress, a partner with the American Jewish Committee in U.N. Watch.

"He's one of the last giants."

Abram served as the chairman of U.N. Watch since its inception in 1993 and as the U.S. permanent representative to the United Nations in Geneva under President Bush.

He served as chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations from 1986 to 1989, president of the American Jewish Committee from 1963 to 1968, president of Brandeis University from 1968 to 1970, and chairman of the National Conference on Soviet Jewry from 1983 to 1988.

"He guided the organization and movement through some of the most difficult times," said Mark Levin, executive director of NCSJ. Abram led the group during a time when Soviet Jews were being denied free travel. "He had leadership and strength of character that few possess."

Abram was buried Sunday in Hyannis, Mass., where the family vacationed in the summer. Family, friends and prominent Jewish leaders attended the services held at the Cape Cod Synagogue.

Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents, called Abram's death "a great loss for the Jewish community.

"He was a man of unique stature and achievement. He earned respect throughout the world."

A native of Georgia and a Rhodes Scholar, Abram began his career as an attorney and served on the American prosecution staff in the 1946 Nuremberg Trials. "Everything I have ever done on behalf of Jewish interests is part of a quilt," Abram once said, "to try to create tolerance for all of us."

Abram's influence extended past the sphere of Jewish concerns as he played an integral role in the civil rights movement.

Serving under five American presidents, Abram was co-chairman of the White House Conference on Civil Rights in the mid-1960s.

"I do not believe that many Southern white people have had a longer experience in support of civil rights than Mr. Abram," said the Rev. Martin Luther King Sr., who'd worked with Abram, in support of President Reagan's nomination of Abram in 1983 to the U.S. Commission of Civil Rights. Abram argued in favor of "one man-one vote" in the landmark voting-rights case before the U.S. Supreme Court.

He "accomplished so much in the U.S. and around the world in areas that were outside the Jewish community," said Shai Franklin, director of governmental relations at NCSJ, who worked with Abram in Geneva.

"Morris had an overriding sense of fairness. He insisted on looking at issues fairly but always with an eye to how can we make a difference."

The AJCommittee honored Abram in December with its National Distinguished Leadership Award.

"Morris is an icon," said AJCommittee President Bruce Ramer at the reception. "In the laws in civil rights, in academia, in the Jewish world. He is a great and innovative leader."

Abram served as chairman of the United Negro College Fund and as a board member of the Weizman Institute of Science in Israel. He also contributed to many publications, including The New York Times Magazine and USA Today. He overcame leukemia during his lifetime, describing his experience in his 1982 autobiography, "The Day Is Short."

"He made outstanding contributions to Jewish and general human rights of all people," said Hyman Bookbinder, Washington representative emeritus of the AJCommittee, who worked at the group under Abram's presidency. "He was the first in 10 presidents under whom I worked. He was clearly one of the best."