September 17, 2014

Dr. Jack Minker’s 2011 Pagels Award Acceptance Speech

By Jack Minker, Vice-Chair for Computer Science
Dr. Jack Minker

Dr. Jack Minker

I would like to thank the New York Academy of Sciences Human Rights Committee for honoring me as a co-recipient of the 2011 Heinz R. Pagels Award together with Dr. Binayak Sen of India. I have spoken to several of my colleagues from India at the University of Maryland, who have confirmed that Dr. Sen is an extraordinary humanitarian eminently worthy of the Pagels Award. Regrettably, Dr. Sen is not able to be here to receive my congratulations and the many accolades due him.

I also want to thank Dr. Henry Greenberg for his generous comments and Professor Joel Lebowitz and Dorothy Hirsch for nominating me for this prestigious award. It has been my privilege to work with Joel and Dorothy from the time they joined the Committee of Concerned Scientists (CCS). Joel’s leadership, as Co-chair for many years has been an inspiration as has been the leadership of all the Co-chairs. I have enjoyed working with Dorothy who was Executive Director, and who served longest of all CCS Executive Directors. She and I have partnered in many adventures. Dorothy is a treasured friend.

It is a distinct privilege to know that the first Pagels Award was bestowed upon the great physicist, human rights advocate, and Nobel laureate, Andre Sakharov, whom I have admired since the 1970s. Sakharov and his wife Yelena Bonner, who died June 18th of this year, were formidable human rights advocates. The list of Pagels Awardees with whom I am now associated is very impressive. It includes many of my friends and co-workers at the CCS, including Lipman Bers, Dorothy Hirsch, Joseph Birman, Zafra Lerman, and Joel Lebowitz.

Four individuals played major roles in both my life and my work in human rights. I am forever indebted to my late wife, Rita G. Minker, who encouraged me to become active as vice-chair, computer science for the CCS. She reviewed and edited the reports and papers I wrote, and made many suggestions as to actions I might take. My children, Michael and Sally, put up with their father and his efforts in support of human rights. They cheered me up during difficult times and cheered me on in continuing my effort. My wife, Johanna has been supportive of my work in SFHR and made many constructive suggestions for my forthcoming book, Scientific Freedom and Human Rights: Scientists of Conscience During the Cold War. She has been patient while I spent many hours on the computer.

I have had a long career in scientific freedom and human rights. I first became Vice-chair, Computer Science for the CCS shortly after it was founded in 1972 and still remain active in that position. I have worked with all the past Chairs and Co-chairs, and all of the Executive Directors and found them all to be devoted collaborators for our cause.

In addition to my efforts with the CCS, I worked with three other scientific organizations: the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) as Vice-chair for the Committee on Scientific Freedom and Human Rights; Scientists for Sakharov, Orlov, and Sharansky; and the International Coalition in Support of Sakharov. These organizations as you all know work for all scientists in all countries in the world who’s rights have been violated regardless of their color, religion or sex. With the ACM I published four reports that listed over 300 computer scientists who’s human rights had been violated, from Argentina, Chile, Czechoslovakia, East Germany, Hungary, Iran, Kenya, Pakistan, Peoples Republic of China, Poland, Romania, South Africa, Uruguay, and the USSR. I also served as Honorary Board member of the Washington Committee for Soviet Jewry; and worked with the Union Council for Soviet Jewry. It was an honor to work with all of these organizations. All of the organizations supported individuals whose SFHR had been violated and were not concerned with which organization would take the credit for any accomplishments.

During our lifetime, many of you who are here witnessed the Second Exodus of Jews – both scientists and non-scientists from the former Soviet Union. How this came about has been documented in several books. It is due to the persistent efforts of many organizations including those I already mentioned as well as other interdisciplinary organizations such as the NY Academy of Sciences; the National Academy of Sciences; and the American Association for the Advancement of Science, as well as other scientific organizations. Many non-scientific organizations contributed as well. Synagogues were supportive of their fellow Jews in the Soviet Union. In addition to aiding individuals, the organizations worked to engage the Congress and the Administration in their efforts. There was bipartisan support in Congress for the plight of Soviet Jews. But not all administrations believed that our country should be involved with human rights as a foreign policy issue.

I would like to share with you a short story of how I learned that the Second Exodus would come to pass. On December 8, 1987 President Mikhail Gorbachev of the USSR was to meet with President Ronald Reagan in the White House to discuss a nuclear arms treaty. On Sunday, December 7, to coincide with President Gorbachev’s visit, a March in Support of Soviet Jewry was organized by Jewish Organizations to start at the Ellipse behind the White House and to march to Congress for speeches. I joined that march together with 250,000 others in probably the largest rally of any kind in the United States. On the morning of December 5, Chancellor John Toll of the University of Maryland phoned, telling me he had a meeting with Ambassador Richard Schifter, Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights and Humanitarian Affairs, to speak to him that very day about human rights. Chancellor Toll knew of my efforts on behalf of SFHR and asked me what he should say to the Ambassador. I suggested that Schifter propose to President Reagan that he give President Gorbachev a list of five names of scientific refuseniks who should be released as a good will gesture. I reasoned that if these refusenik scientists were released it would open the flood gates for other scientists and non-scientists to follow. I do not recall all those who I suggested, but the first person was Professor Alexander Lerner and the second was Dr. Naum Meiman. I had done many things on behalf of Lerner. Starting in 1974, I wrote and spoke to him on the phone, wrote letters to support his release, and dedicated panel sessions at international conferences in his honor. Lerner was the first well-known scientist to ask for an exit visa and among the last to receive one.

Chancellor Toll phoned me in the afternoon of December 5th and told me that Ambassador Schifter had just returned from Moscow and had proposed to his Soviet counterparts what Chancellor Toll suggested to Ambassador Schifter. Schifter informed Toll that the Soviets said that under no circumstances would Lerner ever be given an exit visa.

Two weeks after the Gorbachev-Reagan meeting, on December 21, I received a phone call from Alexander Lerner’s daughter, Sonya Lerner-Levin, who lived in Israel. Sonya told me that her father had received an exit visa and thanked me for my being a “real friend”. I was thrilled with the news and stunned by the turn-around in Soviet policy. On January 10, 1988, I had dinner with Ambassador Schifter and I asked him how Lerner received an exit visa. He told me the following. When Gorbachev came to the White House, Reagan greeted him and then guided him to the windows in the Oval office, and pointed out the Washington Monument, and the Jefferson and Lincoln Memorials. He then told Gorbachev of the March in Support of Soviet Jewry that started at the Ellipse outside his window the day before their meeting. Gorbachev listened quietly and when Reagan was finished, he tried to move the conversation back to the reason for his visit, to discuss the nuclear arms agreement between their two countries. Reagan was undaunted, persisted several times and finally said, “Mr. President, the marchers are my constituents. If there is to be rapprochement with the United States, I must convince my constituents and give them something.” He walked Gorbachev back to his desk, opened his drawer, pulled out a sheet and gave it to Gorbachev. Reagan then said, “As a sign of good will, I would like you to release these five people.” Both Lerner and Meiman were on the list. The idea of a list of people to release had nothing to do with my suggestion or the suggestion of anyone in his administration. It was Reagan’s idea that he had nurtured for a long time.

In his memoir, Ambassador Max Kampelman, head of nuclear arms negotiations with the USSR, wrote that he told Secretary of State George Shultz that as part of his negotiations with the Soviets, he “felt we should demand the release of victims of Soviet repression, many of whom were in prison or unable to obtain visas to leave the country.” Shultz thought that such a decision was beyond his pay grade and they went to speak to President Reagan to propose the idea. President Reagan agreed, went to his desk, took out a sheet with a list of names of Soviets, handed it to Kampelman and told him, “get these people out.”

In September 1978, ten months after the meeting between Gorbachev and Reagan, and after negotiations between Ambassador Schifter and his counterpart in the Soviet Union, restrictions on exit visas for Soviet Jews were no longer a problem. The efforts to engage the US administration to support Soviet Jews succeeded, because individuals in the executive branch, and President Reagan himself, made the issue an integral part of their foreign policy. Ambassador Schifter, in discussing how the exodus of Soviet Jews came about, stated that all those “. . . engaged in human rights work had thus succeeded in putting their issues first on the U.S. Government’s agenda and second, persuading the United States to put the issue on the agenda of countries guilty of human rights violations.”

I would again like to thank the NY Academy of Sciences Committee for Scientific Freedom for honoring me as co-recipient of the 2011 Heinz R. Pagels Award.