This Day in Jewish History / A Pioneer of Human-rights Law Is Born in Belarus

Louis Henkin, religiously observant Silver Star recipient, never understood how the U.S. could have so much power, yet reject treaties.

November 11, 1917, is the birthdate of Louis Henkin, the American legal scholar who was, following World War II, a pioneer in the creation of the field of international human-rights law.

Eliezer Henkin was born in Smolyany, Russia (in present-day Belarus), the youngest of six children of a rabbi and Talmudic scholar, Yosef Eliyahu Henkin (1881-1973), and the former Freyda Rivka Kreindel. When Leizer, as his family called him, was 2, his mother died of dysentery, which she contracted during an epidemic in her community while tending to sick neighbors.

In 1923, the family immigrated to the United States. There, Rabbi Yosef Eliyahu became director of the organization Ezras Torah, which provided financial assistance to families of Torah scholars, many of them newly arrived in the country. Laizer - his principal gave him the name "Louis" when he entered kindergarten - grew up speaking Yiddish, in New York’s Lower East Side.

Henkin attended Yeshiva College, where he excelled at mathematics. In fact, it was only after seeing a roommate filling out an application to Harvard Law School that he decided he too would try his luck at getting into law school.

He was accepted to Harvard and borrowed the tuition money from a sister.

Convincing Germans to surrender, in Yiddish

After graduation, he clerked for a year with Judge Learned Hand, the senior justice in the Second Circuit Court of Appeals, in New York. Later, he clerked for Justice Felix Frankfurter in the U.S. Supreme Court, where - because the judge’s staff held its weekly meetings on Saturdays, and Henkin was shomer Shabbat - he would spend Friday nights camped on the couch in Frankfurter’s chambers.

Between the two clerkships, however, during World War II, Henkin served in the U.S. Army in Europe. He received a Silver Star for an August 1944 incident in France, when he used his knowledge of Yiddish to communicate with a German commander, convincing him to surrender together with his entire company, even though the Germans outnumbered Henkin’s artillery unit by six to one.

It was in the decade that followed that Henkin became involved in the two elements that characterized the remainder of his long career: human rights – and its interaction with constitutional law; and teaching.

He worked at the U.S. State Department in 1948-1956, and helped to draft the international convention related to refugees and asylum. He also briefly taught at Columbia University and the University of Pennsylvania law schools, before returning to Columbia in 1962 as professor of international law and diplomacy.

Through both a number of seminal law texts – including “How Nations Behave” (1968), “Foreign Affairs and the U.S. Constitution” (1975) and “The Age of Rights” (1989) – and through institutions like the Lawyers’ Committee for Human Rights (now called Human Rights First) and Columbia’s Center for the Study of Human Rights, that he helped found, Henkin developed the field and trained hundreds of specialists in human-rights law.

During the Vietnam War, Henkin tried to understand how the president had wrested the power to wage war out of the hands of Congress even though the Constitution had been clear in delegating that power to the legislative branch. He pushed for the United States to rectify what he saw as the anomalous situation by which it was the major state with the power and moral heft to advance the cause of human rights in the world - but itself has always been so reluctant to become a party to international treaties related to human rights, or to recognize the equivalence of economic and social rights to political and civil rights.

Henkin taught at Columbia University until well into his 80s. He died on October 14, 2010, at the age of 92. He was survived by his wife, Alice Hartman Henkin, and three sons: Joshua, a novelist; David, a historian; and Daniel, a music teacher.

Twitter: @davidbeegreen

Columbia Law School
Wikimedia Commons