Joseph Birman, Vice-Chair of the Committee of Concerned Scientists and one of its longest serving Board members, CUNY Distinguished Professor of Physics, passed away at age 89 on October 1, 2016, with his wife Joan at his side.
I met Joe in 1979 at the unofficial refuseniks’ science seminar in Moscow, held for scientists that where denied exit visas and subsequently lost their academic positions and their access to the academic institutions in the Soviet Union. Joe Birman was a major force behind helping refuseniks. In late 1980s, when many of them were finally allowed to emigrate, he and Pierre Hohenberg helped to set up the Program for Refugee Scientists at the CCS. Joe personally raised significant funds for that program from private foundations. In 1990s the program helped over one hundred émigré scientists to secure academic, research, and industrial positions in the United States.
- Joseph L. Birman, Physicist Who Aided Dissident Scientists, Dies at 89 (nytimes.com)
- Joseph L. Birman (1927-2016) (aps.org)
- Joseph L. Birman (1927–2016) (nature.com)
Joe Birman was also widely known for his work on human rights in China. In 1970s – 1990s his effort on behalf of oppressed Chinese scientists was hardly matched by any other U.S. scientist. Joe also played an important role in developing and implementing joint research programs with China. He visited China many times and for many years maintained personal contacts with Chinese political dissidents. The word of mouth among Chinese scientists coming to the United States at that time was that their first contact had to be Professor Birman.
Over the years I was blessed by having many conversations with Joe about human rights, science, and life in general. His integrity and his judgment were impeccable. From my first meeting with him, Joe always struck me as a very modest person. His dedication to human rights was the urge from within. He never looked for any recognition of his work but it shined in the eyes of others. For his effort on human rights of scientists he was awarded the 2006 Heinz R. Pagels Prize of the New York Academy of Sciences and the 2010 Andrei Sakharov Prize of the American Physical Society.
For more than 30 years Joe Birman was one of the most active members of the Governing Board of the Committee of Concerned Scientists. In 2015 he and his wife Joan made a generous donation to the CCS, the biggest in its history. Joe also served as Chair of the Committee on the International Freedom of Scientists of the American Physical Society and Chair of the Human Rights Committee of the New York Academy of Sciences. He will be dearly missed by his friends at the CCS and remembered by hundreds of people he helped.
—Eugene Chudnovsky, Co-Chair of the Committee of Concerned Scientists
Dear friends and colleagues!
It is a real grief to know that Joe Birman passed away.
Only special people, people of special non-indifference became the active defenders of human rights of scientists – hence the members of CCS or SOS. There are not too many people of this sort in the Mankind but these people determine the ways of history. And we here in Russia owe Joe Birman and all of you for our survival in the times of USSR.
—Boris Altshuler, Moscow, P.N. Lebedev Physical Institute, RAS
Joe was indeed an effective champion of refuseniks, and inspired my own trip to the USSR in’87.
—Stanley Deser, Member of CCS Advisory Board and Professor in Physics Department at Bradeis University
Joe Birman was an internationally highly respected physicist and an uncompromising fighter for the human rights of scientists. He stood up for the rights of refusenik and dissident scientists in the Soviet Union, in China and in all places around the world where scholars were persecuted for their political views.
When going to the Soviet Union in the 1970’s and 1980’s to participate in scientific conferences and exchanges Joe would take every opportunity to meet with refusenik and dissident scientists. In fact this was the main reason for his going to these meetings. He used these trips, and his scientific eminence, to arrange meetings with Soviet bureaucrats who were directors of various scientific institutions. At these meetings he would challenge these scientist managers, to their face, about the refusenik’s who had lost their jobs at their institutes. Some of these scientists were not being permitted to emigrate on the pretext that they knew secret information. Joe demanded that these directors certify that in fact these scientists had no access to any classified information. He managed to shame some of these tough guys to actually do so.
I remember Joe from scores of meetings of the Committee of Concerened Scientists and of the Human Rights Committee of the N.Y. Academy of Sciences (before it was disbanded.) He was always the most active person present and the most insistent on taking action in defense of human rights.
He will be greatly missed by all of us.
—Joel Lebowitz, co-chair, Committee of Concerned Scientists, and Professor, Center for Mathematical Science Research at Rutgers University
Joe was a giant when it came to issues of human rights.He was never too busy to help get a person out of jail,bring a dissident to freedom,and stop harassment by governments.He supported the work of the Malta Conferences Foundation for peace in the middle east. Joe was never too busy to make the world a better place for humankind. The human rights community lost one of it’s best.His legacy will continue for ever.
—Zafra Lerman, President of the Malta Conferences Foundation
I have very fond memories of Joseph Birman. He introduced me to the Committee of Concerned Scientists (CCS) in 2008. Through his work with CCS, including efforts to help Soviet refusniks in the 1980s and more recently with dissidents in China, I was inspired and saw virtues in his advocacy for human rights. Joe served as a role model for many of us though his dedication to human rights. I will always value the memory of his positive influence and mentorship, and I will miss him greatly.
—Alexander Greer, co-chair of the Committee of Concerned Scientists, Professor, Department of Chemistry, Brooklyn College
One of the earliest supporters of the Committee of Concerned Scientists, Dr. Birman, who served as Vice-Chair for Physics, was steadfast in his support of the human rights of scientists and academics around the world during his long tenure on the Committee. His commitment took many forms: in participating in the material and moral support of Jewish scientists in the former USSR (the “refuseniks”), in his active participation in all of the Committee’s yearly meetings and policies, and finally in his and Joan Birman’s generous financial support over the years. When the American Physical Society recognized Dr. Birman’s contributions to the human rights of scientists by awarding him the Sakharov Prize in 2010, Joe (as he insisted in being called) stunned the Executive Secretary of the Committee by turning over the monetary prize to be used for CCS. Only a few years ago, Drs. Joseph and Joan Birman ensured CCS a sound financial future by their generous contribution. Those who knew Dr. Birman will best remember his strong and vital voice in the ever-present struggle to maintain academic and human freedom around the world.