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One Man’s Passion for Freedom - And Encounters with Extraordinary People

Allan C. Brownfeld
Summer 2004

by Leonard R. Sussman,  
Prometheus Books,  
432 Pages,  

Leonard R. Sussman has led an extraordinary life and his contribution to the advancement of freedom - in particular, freedom of the press - has been notable.  

As the executive director of Freedom House for twenty-one years and now its Senior Scholar of International Communications, Sussman had the opportunity of both leading and serving an organization that has been at the center of the struggle for freedom for more than sixty years.  

Founded by Eleanor Roosevelt, Wendell Willkie and other prominent Americans, both Democrats and Republicans, Freedom House has championed worthy causes from the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s to the new democracies that have emerged around the world since the 1990s. It was prominent in the battle against Communist tyranny and in advancing freedom in societies which lived under dictatorships, whether of the left or right.  

Courageous Men and Women  

In this memoir of his relationship with courageous men and women in 59 countries, Sussman pays tribute to those mostly unsung heroes who contributed to freedom and humanistic ideals and in some cases paid the heavy price of imprisonment, torture or death. Among the individuals profiled are Helen Suzman, a white parliamentarian who fought apartheid in South Africa for three decades; Milovan Djilas, a leading Yugoslav opponent of Communism who suffered years of imprisonment; philosopher-activist Sidney Hook; Luis Munoz Marin, Puerto Rico’s first elected native governor, and many other journalists, political leaders, activists and intellectuals.  

Of particular interest are the years Sussman served as a member of the staff of the American Council for Judaism, in which capacity he helped to develop nationwide religious education programs and, finally as executive director, sought to advance the vision of a universal Judaism which rejects narrow nationalism but embraces the prophetic vision of the founders of American Reform Judaism.  

Whether it came to opposing narrowness and tribalism within Judaism, or rejecting other forms of political and ethnic intolerance, Leonard Sussman emerged as an effective and articulate spokesman for freedom and as an example of the influence a single individual can have in making the world a better and more decent place.  

Seeking the “middle way” in religion, in his case Judaism, can be a difficult enterprise. Sussman notes that, “... the midway in politics is harder to traverse than the streets of midtown New York. More difficult still is the middle way in religion, especially in Judaism, with its bitter clash between the politics of Israeli nationalism and the diverse theology of the Jewish religion. Where politics and religion meet, the victim can be not only the human spirit but the physical well-being, even the life of the believer or the dissenter. Holy wars, Inquisitions, and unspeakable brutality conducted in the name of religion or religious nationalism continue in the Middle East, a ‘middle’ that is often an extreme.”  

Non-Zionist Tradition  

Recalling his own religious upbringing, Sussman writes: “I grew up in the non-Zionist (non-nationalist) tradition of Reform Judaism. The middle way of Judaism blended religious practice with one’s civil life in a democratic society. Various degrees of religious orthodoxy or religious conservatism retained many separatist practices developed in earlier times and more restrictive places. Jewish opposition to Zionism originated in Western Europe in the mid-nineteenth century and was widely converted into politicoreligious code by Orthodox-born Jews who became Socialists or Bundists in Eastern Europe. In 1885, opposition to Zionism was formally adopted by the American Reform rabbinate as the Pittsburgh Platform. The organization of Reform rabbis declared two years later, ‘Zion was a precious possession of the past ... As such it is a holy memory, but it is not our hope for the future. America is our Zion.’ The Reform tradition modernized some religious rituals and emphasized the prophetic books of the Old Testament, rather than the nationalistic aspects of Judaism. This was Judaism’s middle way - integration of the religion into the new democracies rather than assimilation out of Judaism.”  

Sussman recalls that, “I absorbed this form of Judaism when I attended the religious school of Congregation Emanu-El, New York ... At ten I conducted a service and at twelve delivered a sermon and thought of becoming a rabbi. Rabbi Samuel H. Goldenson, one of Reform’s leading American rabbis, confirmed me ... several years later, he was to help form the American Council for Judaism, the anti-Zionist organization I headed for many years. In 1934, my confirmation year, I played the role of ‘chairman’ of an organization raising funds to help Jews threatened with death in Nazi Germany. Before six thousand people, I spoke from the stage of the Roxy Theatre, then New York’s largest ... It would be fifteen years before I would face the dilemma of helping Jewish victims without supporting Jewish nationalism.”  

At Temple Emanu-El, Sussman points out, “there was no support for the nationalistic campaigns of Zionism, though members practiced Judaism and contributed liberally to appeals for Jewish refugees. The congregation included influential leaders in business, politics and journalism. On High Holy Days, I would see Herbert H. Lehman, then governor of New York, walk down the center aisle to the first row. He was joined by brother Arthur, an eminent jurist, along with the Sulzbergers of the New York Times and the Newbergers and Loebs of Wall Street.”  

Religious Education Program  

After joining the staff of the American Council for Judaism, Leonard Sussman created the Council’s religious education program. He writes that, “I took seriously ‘for Judaism’ in the organization’s title. Indeed, we had often been criticized for being only ‘negative’ - anti-Zionist. I recognized that many families wanted to enroll their children in religious schools that emphasized Reform Judaism, not Jewish nationalism, Elmer (Rabbi Elmer Berger, an early leader of the Council) gave me a free hand to develop this program. Indeed, despite his reputation of being involved only in Middle East issues and especially eager to advance Jewish-Arab contacts, he took special interest in the religious education program. He led me through many of Judaism’s original sources and appropriate commentaries.”  

Under Sussman’s leadership, the Council completed a religious school curriculum for kindergarten through twelfth grade, with weekly classroom themes and supporting texts for each grade for the entire school year. “I traveled the country establishing schools in thirteen cities,” writes Sussman. “Teachers in almost all cases were parents who wanted this kind of religious education for their own children ... The schools grew into complete congregations in Denver and Highland Park, Illinois, housed now in their own temples. Historian Thomas A. Kolsky, recently describing the influence of the American Council for Judaism, said that this religious education program was the organization’s most successful undertaking. While gratifying, I do not accept this as a true evaluation of the ACJ and Elmer Berger’s role in it. His analyses and prescience may be rediscovered long after the names of many Zionist heroes are forgotten. His life is a major clue to the changes, for better or worse, in American Judaism during his lifetime and perhaps beyond. Elmer died at the age of eighty eight in 1996.”  

Distorting Judaism  

Those Jews who have substituted the State of Israel and the Jewish people for God as the proper object of worship are, in Sussman’s view, distorting the moral and ethical essence of Judaism; “One cannot fulfill even the minimalist interpretation of Judaism, I believe, without a commitment to the obligations of ethical practice and social justice that are inherent in the religion. That obligation goes beyond the family and the fellowship of Jews; it commits Jews to the uplifting of oppressed human beings, whatever their religious beliefs. This commitment impelled Jews in the civil rights movement to march in Alabama for the liberation of blacks. It calls on Jews to understand the travail of Palestinians as well as Israelis. Such a commitment is imperiled by the tribalistic worship of false gods: the equating of the future of Judaism with the success or failure of the state of Israel, as well as emphasis on Jewish survivalism - for its own sake - as the common objective of modern Jews. If one must draw sustenance from tragedy, suggests Rabbi Michael Goldberg, turn to the Exodus rather than the Holocaust. Exodus, he says, is the ‘master story’: God led the Israelites out of Egyptian slavery in order to fulfill an eternal covenant, a linchpin in God’s redemption of the world - not survival for survival’s sake.”  

Many respected Jewish thinkers have shared this perspective, although the dominant organized Jewish community has moved in a different direction, The rabbinical scholar, Professor Jacob J, Petuchowski of the Hebrew Union College, declared: “Jews who so recently have been the victims of nationalist emotionalism run wild in Europe should be the last to wallow in an aura of nationalist self-satisfaction which permits of no rational analysis of the true state of affairs.”  

Sussman believes that “the clearest advice to American and Israeli Jews for dissipating the dilemma came from an assistant secretary of state - after years of discussions with Elmer Berger.” Rabbi Berger provided a detailed statement for Secretary of State John Foster Dulles’s visit to the Middle East in May 1953. Dulles adopted the Berger position and declared: “Israel should become part of the Near East community and cease to look upon itself, or be looked upon by others, as alien to this community,” This, he added, “will require concessions on the part of both sides,”  

Middle Eastern State  

A few years later, Assistant Secretary of State Henry A. Byroade told a meeting of the American Council for Judaism that, “Israel should see her own future in the context of a Middle Eastern state and not as headquarters of worldwide groupings of peoples of a particular religious faith who must have special rights within and obligations to the Israeli state.”  

On April 20, 1964, after extensive discussions among Rabbi Berger, Professor W.T. Mallison of George Washington University, and the State Department, another assistant secretary, Phillips Talbot, issued this clarifying letter for publication in international journals: “The Department of State does not recognize a legal-political relationship based upon the religious identification of American citizens. It does not in any way discriminate among American citizens upon the basis of their religion. Accordingly, it should be clear that the Department of State does not regard ‘the Jewish people’ concept as a concept of international law.”  

This statement, Sussman declares, “rejects the fundamental concept of Zionism, or Jewish nationalism, as operative in American and international law. Decades of pro-Zionist lobbying in Washington and fund-raising across the U.S. has been based on precisely this irrevocable linkage of Judaism and Israeli nationalism.”  

Cited in this book is a 181-page biography of Elmer Berger entitled One Man Against Many, prepared in 1990 by Mark Glickman as a requirement for his ordination as a rabbi at Hebrew Union College.  

De-Zionized Israel  

Glickman concludes this way: “I began my research very sympathetic to Zionism and actually quite hostile to Berger and his views ... I have come to believe that Berger’s notion of a democratic, de-Zionized Israel is one which carries a great deal of merit. I have not come to this decision lightly ... An Israel which would cease seeing itself as a Jewish state, and which would instead be a Western-style island of democracy in the Middle East would ideally (and I am admittedly speaking in ideals here) be a much calmer place than it is today. All citizens of the country, regardless of their religion or original nationality, would have equal status in its national life. Legalized discrimination against Arabs would cease to exist. The benefits would be external as well. A de-Zionized Israel would lead to a radical redefinition of Israel-Diaspora relationships. No longer would Israeli sh’lichim (agents) enter the Diaspora communities and rouse the ire of Jews there by urging that all leave their ‘homes’ and make aliyah (emigration to Israel). The Law of the Return (automatic citizenship offered all Jews in Israel) would have to be repealed, and the very notion of aliyah eliminated ...”  

Finally, Glickman states, “Although Israel as a Jewish nation would cease to exist, Jewish culture could continue to flourish ... The break would be mitigated by a certain affinity which Israeli and Diaspora Jews would feel for one another as members of ‘the mishpocheh’ (the larger family) ... There would be a separation of ‘church’ and state within Israel ... American Jews can be shown that Judaism can be thrilling, exciting, and most importantly can address their own needs in very deep and significant ways ... As a Jew I feel impelled to dream - to dream with perhaps the naive hope ... that someday we will be able to look each other in the eye - Jew to Jew, Jew to Arab - and that together we will be able to sit under our own vine and fig trees, and be afraid no more.”  

Freedom House  

After his years with the Council, Leonard Sussman moved on to Freedom House and expanded his efforts worldwide to promote freedom in areas which had long lacked not only representative government and institutions but very basic human rights as well.  

He developed the widely used “Map of Freedom,” which showed the numerous not-free countries in black, the as-numerous partially free countries in gray, and the one-third minority of free countries in white. Among the many prominent Americans with whom Sussman worked on the Freedom House board were Senators Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Margaret Chase Smith and Paul Douglas, philosopher Sidney Hook, and civil rights leaders Roy Wilkins and Bayard Rustin.  

Of Hook, Sussman writes: “Sidney’s philosophy of freedom in a free society meshed with Freedom House’s fundamental beliefs. Early in 1949, he was invited to the Sorbonne in Paris to report on the Freedom House demonstration earlier that countered the cultural and Scientific Conference for World Peace, a creation of the Soviet Union held at the Waldorf-Astoria in New York. Sidney declared: ‘I have more in common with a democrat who differs with me on economic questions, hut who firmly believes in civil rights and a peaceful method of resolving our economic differences than with any professional Socialist who would seize power by a minority coup, keep it by terror, and, take orders from a foreign tyrant. Hitler and Stalin (both of whom invoke the term Socialism) have written in letters of fire over the skies of Europe this message: Socialism without political democracy is not socialism but slavery.”  

Sidney Hook  

As an undergraduate at New York University, Leonard Sussman majored in philosophy and Sidney Hook, chairman of the department, became his intellectual mainstay, and for fifty years afterward a friend. Sussman writes: “Just a year before he died, I called Sidney to refresh my memory about a point he had made in class fifty-five years earlier. For a book I was writing on press freedom. I wanted to include a chapter I would call ‘Don’t Fear the Slippery Slope.’ Sidney had held forth decades earlier on the logical fallacy of the slippery slope. Now, he gave me a complete replay of that lecture, and I made it the centerpiece of my chapter. I have since used it often in my own classes. The point is simple: it is erroneous to assume that because you take an initial position it must follow that your entire subsequent course irrevocably follows from that first decision. You may halt and reverse at some point; outside interruptions may alter your course; time may change the flow of events; or you may simply stop dead and choose another way. I use the analogy of the skier. Just because you are poised at the top of the mountain does not mean you cannot alter your course, stop your movement, or even fall willingly or unwillingly. The slippery slope is only as unalterable as you care to make it.”  

Sidney Hook once said that “a great teacher is a sculptor in the snow,” pointing out that, “We remember teachers rather than courses - we remember their manner and method, their enthusiasm and intellectual excitement, and, their capacity to arouse our delight in, or curiosity about, the subject taught.” Hook, declares Sussman, “was a great teacher.” One suspects that Sussman, who has taught for many years at New York University, has followed in his mentor’s footsteps.  

Press Freedom  

In recent years, promoting press freedom has been one of Sussman’s major tasks. In the 20th century, he laments, we have witnessed “a diverse crew of censor-propagandists. Vladimir Ilyich Lenin set down the Soviet credo in 1902. A newspaper, he said, should ‘become part of an enormous bellows that would blow every spark of class struggle and popular indignation into a general conflagration.’ Italian dictator Benito Mussolini took up the cry in 1912, saying, ‘Journalism is not a profession but a mission. Our newspaper is our party, our ideal, our soul and our banner which lead us to victory.’ Joseph Goebbels, who ran Nazi Germany’s Ministry of Propaganda, declared that ‘not every item of news should be published; rather must those who control news policies endeavor to make every item of news serve a certain purpose.’ And so he did. All three censor-propagandists clearly rejected Benjamin Disraeli’s admonition; to be news reporting must be diverse in subject and balanced in presentation, and it must reflect differing points of view. Or one can take Disraeli literally (as would developing countries and critics of Western journalism): news coverage should include people and events from all points on the compass, not mainly the like-minded and, the power centers. Indeed, North, East, West and South produce the acronym NEWS.”  

Sussman is particularly hard on intellectuals in the West who failed to understand the enormity of the crimes of the Soviet Union: “It must be remembered that the Cold War was two-sided: Lenin took power in 1917, destroyed the Russian economy, precipitated a famine that claimed five million lives, and began a massive campaign of terror. Stalin, Lenin’s successor did even worse. He created a privileged class, the nomenklatura, ran purges whose killing rate was the greatest in history, enslaved the peasants, and further impoverished the vast population - all in the name of high idealism. The other side of the Cold war: widespread U.S. anti-Communist policies informed by a small band of intellectuals and politicians in the West who understood the horrors of Communism and its expansionist potentIal worldwide and persuaded America to deploy military and public-diplomacy deterrents.”  

What Sussman calls the “anti-anti-Communism, the popular cry of the liberal left,” was, he writes, “a threat to Freedom House. It was a direct challenge to cultural freedom, and ultimately to democratic societies.” He cites those intellectuals who stood firm against these trends and did their best to identify Communism’s evils, among them Leopold Labedz, Arthur Koestler, Raymond Aron, Robert Conquest, Edward Shils, Irving Kristol, Vladimir Bukovsky, and Melvin Lasky.  

Election Observer Team  

Leonard Sussman participated in the first election observer team which, in 1979, traveled to Zimbabwe to monitor the fairness of the election in that newly independent country; “This Freedom House election observer team was the first of its kind. Since then, many other groups have engaged in such activity. Jimmy Carter’s center at Emory University, created after he left the White House, has become a regular monitor of elections on several continents. But our first mission set the pattern for our future observer jobs in Africa, Asia and Latin America, and for other groups that followed.”  

Among the chapters in this book devoted to individuals with whom Sussman has worked closely over the years are those devoted to Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Bayard Rustin, Andrei Amalrik, Helen Suzman, Percy Qoboza, Milovan Djilas, Margaret Chase Smith, Lucia Thorne, Isaac Sartawi, and The Dalai Lama.  

In the case of The Dalai Lama, Sussman writes that, “in 1959, China exiled from Tibet the fourteenth Dalai Lama, temporal and spiritual leader of six million Tibetan Buddhists. The Chinese government systematically invaded the Jokhang temple, beating and killing thirty monks and dragging their bodies ‘like dead animals and threw them in the back of the trucks.’ More than 87,000 Tibetans were killed in Lhasa alone, according to Chinese sources. The slaughter continued for years, as did China’s effort to obliterate the culture and religion of the Tibetans.”  

Dalai Lama  

In 1979, Sussman arranged for the Dalai Lama’s first visit to the U.S. He recalls that, “The Dalai Lama is a remarkable man. Soon after receiving the Nobel Peace Prize, he invited to Dharamsala, a remote town in the Himalayan foothills of India, eight rabbis and Jewish scholars, wanting to discover the mystery of Jewish survival for two thousand years ... The Dalai Lama wanted to learn about the ‘inner life’ of Jews. He wondered how Judaism provides for transforming the human being, for overcoming ‘afflictive emotions’ such as anger ... The rabbis found the Dalai Lama a man of humility and kindness, with a ‘quiet mind.’ They admired the Buddhist practice of meditation ... They addressed the sensitive issue of Jewish converts to Buddhism. The Dalai Lama said he never urged anyone to change religions, but to honor all faiths. Many monks and nuns around the Dalai Lama had Jewish roots, including the greatgranddaughter of Henrietta Szold, founder of Hadassah ... The rabbis changed their opinion of these former Jews; they were no longer regarded as ‘cultists’ but ‘witty, even radiant in some cases, certainly not brainwashed zombies.’ The converts said they had found something valuable in Buddhism that they had not found in Judaism ... As he left Freedom House in 1979, the Dalai Lama handed me a clear-white scarf. It was a traditional greeting from an honored guest. Coming directly from the Dalai Lama, the scarf has the quality of a talit.”  

Less than a year before he died in 1987, Bayard Rustin, the man who taught Martin Luther King, Jr. the methods of Gandhi and spearheaded the 1963 March on Washington which brought the civil rights struggle to the forefront of the nation’s consciousness, was interviewed by Leonard Sussman, with whom he had been a long-time colleague at Freedom House. This previously unpublished interview with a man Sussman calls “the least publicized hero of the American civil rights movement,” is included in this book and is worthy of serious attention.  

King and Wilkins  

Rustin contrasted the role of Martin Luther King, so widely honored for his role in the civil rights effort, with that of Roy Wilkins, longtime executive secretary of the NAACP and for thirty years a trustee of Freedom House, which has largely been forgotten: “King ... responded to situations, responded to crises. Roy was a longtime planner and a great diplomat. Roy was an urbane, extremely careful person who knew each step of the way. Roy came to a position out of conviction that he had a role to play. Martin, on the other hand, was thrust into a situation ... One incident indicates how Roy’s planning was so integral. I was in the courtroom with Martin one day. He was telling me before the court opened how things were getting bad. People had been marching for more than a year then. It was almost impossible to continue people-walking; something had to happen ... While we were sitting there, somebody came in and handed Martin a note. He looked at it, grabbed me by the arm, and began to smile and shake my arm. ‘What’s happening?’ I asked. He said the NAACP had won the case - and that meant the Montgomery bus protest had won. In other words, without the long-range planning that Roy had done we’d never have gotten through. That’s an illustration of the differences between the men.”  

While not diminishing King’s role in the civil rights struggle, Rustin urged Americans to consider the role played by Roy Wilkins, A. Philip Randolph, Thurgood Marshall and other black leaders. Both Rustin and Wilkins opposed tying the civil rights movement to the left-wing anti-Vietnam War groups which King, late in his career, began to embrace. “Roy felt that blacks already had enough against them. They didn’t need to take on what would be a triple-threat jeopardy by becoming left-wingers,” states Rustin, Perhaps someday, the critical role played by Roy Wilkins, Bayard Rustin and others will be rediscovered.  

Reagan-Gorbachev Summit  

Before President Ronald Reagan departed for the 1986 summit meeting in Reykjavik, Iceland with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, Sussman was one of a group invited to the White House to discuss the question of human rights and their role at the summit. After he left the presidency, Reagan delivered the Churchill Address at the Guildhall in London. He called for a pro-democracy program to assist the former Soviet states and used some material from Sussman’s book, Power, the Press and the Technology of Freedom: The Coming Age of ISDN (Freedom House, 1989).  

Reagan stated in his address: “In a book coming out this fall, Leonard Sussman, a senior scholar at Freedom House, writes that the speed, variety, and number of new communications tools defy control. At some point, Soviet citizens will he permitted to interact live and on-line with people in other countries. They will share information in a working relationship ... When that happens, the Goliath of totalitarian control rapidly will be brought down by the David of the microchip.”  

There is much more in this important book, including a glimpse into Sussman’s personal and family life. His daughter Lynne, for example, was born without any fingers. He describes the long, hard medical effort to resolve this problem which was accomplished in an unprecedented manner through new surgical procedures developed by Dr. J. William Littler, a young doctor just back from World War II. This medical breakthrough was highlighted by an article in the Saturday Evening Post. Lynne went on to earn a doctorate from Harvard, where she later taught. Sadly, she died of cancer in 1999.  

Philosophical Mean  

In the introduction, Sussman writes that, “This book is about people whose own striving, sometimes successful, sometimes tragic, reinforces my early attachment to the golden and philosophical mean, the Center. To advance human progress, however defined, the democratIc center must hold. That is often derided as compromise ... Yet, in the long run (if there is to be one) human interaction, whether in a medical trade-off for a patient, in democratic policymaking or election, in labor negotiation or in the murderous confrontation of enemy states - in every human interaction, the moment of truth comes when the extremes give way to the center, however defined... One person cannot change the world, as even presidents and dictators discover. But anyone can help diminish outrages and inhumanities. One does that by talking and walking in the right places. New York is my springboard to those places.”  

While some have spoken of the progressive nature of history, in which things steadily improve, the twentieth century, with its twin barbarities of Communism and Nazism, indicate that man’s nature and tendency toward selfishness and brutality remain much the same. Human nature, it seems, is a constant.  

Where Excesses Lead  

At the present time, as we proceed into a new century, we see where the excesses of nationalism, ideology, and religious extremism can lead. In all too many places, civilization seems a thin veneer indeed. Those who are committed to advancing humane values and genuine civilization always have a formidable task before them.  

Those men and women who wish to make the world a better place do, however, have examples to follow. They would do well to ponder Leonard Sussman’s words - and follow in his footsteps. He has set a standard for the rest of us.  

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