A career of pricking consciences
Rubenstein is undaunted, even under fire from his fellow Jews
By Cara Hogan Advocate Staff
Joshua Rubenstein traces his career as a thorn in the side of authority to spring of his freshman year at Columbia University.
“I was part of the student demonstrations,” said Rubenstein of the Vietnam-era protest. “I occupied one building for six nights. Thankfully I was not arrested.”
The 61-year-old Brookline resident is Northeast regional director of Amnesty International, and this year marks his 35th anniversary with the organization. It also marks the publication of the paperback version of “The Unknown Black Book,” a chillingly detailed account of the Holocaust in the German-occupied Soviet territories. Rubenstein helped translate and edit the book. It’s the seventh book he has worked on in the capacity of author, editor and/or translator – moonlighting as a scholar while working full time for Amnesty.
Both pursuits tap into his commitment to human rights. By day, he fights for them; by night, he chronicles their abuse.
“I just don’t feel I can only be an activist or alternately only be a scholar,” he said. “I’m fortunate to combine both passions.”
A member of Temple Israel in Boston, Rubenstein said his activism is a “reflection of my time as a student in the ’60s and of my Jewish background.”
Being Jewish and a member of Amnesty, which has been critical of the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories, can be challenging.
“At moments of particular attention – the Intifada and the Gaza war – people have asked me questions about my own role that they wouldn’t be asking in the same way if I weren’t a member of the Jewish community,” Rubenstein said. “They’ve been more comfortable at being direct.”
And Rubenstein, with his rapid-fire delivery and encyclopedic memory, is equally direct in his responses.
“There are people in the Jewish community who don’t want to hear any criticism of Israel,” he said. “Then there are people who have broad concerns about human and civil rights; they find it troubling to learn and read Amnesty’s reports about Israel’s behavior. … Rather than read our message, they want to question the messenger.”
Rubenstein recalled a time when Jews rallied around Amnesty. “When Amnesty was the most active in uncovering how Jews were disappearing in Argentina and singled out by an anti-Semitic regime in the late ’70s and early ’80s, the Jewish community was very pleased at the leadership role we had,” he said. “Amnesty was in the forefront of defending Soviet prisoners of Zion, and I was invited to speak at umpteen rallies and demonstrations.”
Rubenstein said Amnesty plays no favorites in its investigations. “Our latest annual report covers 150 or so countries,” he said. “We have a lot to say on Iran, Jordan, Libya. We had critical reports on Hamas and condemned suicide bombings. A case could be made that Amnesty is anti-Muslim because of all the work we do on Muslim countries.”
Robert Leikind, executive director of the American Jewish Committee Boston, criticized Amnesty for not placing Israel’s actions in context. “The failure to distinguish between the acts of a democracy operating in extreme circumstances and the acts of totalitarian states that as a matter of policy violate human rights can and does lead to gross misunderstandings,” Leikind said.
“Israel has every right to defend itself, but must do so in the context of international law,” Rubenstein said. “The fact is that 1,300 Palestinians were killed, but under 10 Israelis [in the 2008-09 Gaza incursion]. We’re convinced more could have been done to avoid that and still defend Israel.”
Their differences on Israel aside, Leikind said he respected Rubenstein’s integrity and Amnesty for its overall efforts to promote human rights.
Nancy Kaufman, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Boston, expressed similar sentiments.
“Over the years, we’ve had substantial disagreements with Amnesty,” said Kaufman. “[Rubenstein] has facilitated many a meeting where he has heard our concerns, most recently about the war in Gaza. His organization is controversial, but I have always found Josh to be evenhanded and thoughtful; he reaches out to engage the community in supporting Israel rather than bashing Israel.”
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Born and raised in New Britain, Conn., where his father owned a fur store, Rubenstein attended Hebrew school at a Conservative synagogue and spent summers as a camper and later counselor at the Jewish overnight Camp Ramah.
After graduating from Columbia University – where he studied philosophy and Russian – he moved to Jerusalem for a year, teaching English to Israelis. He moved to Boston in 1972 and taught Hebrew school, writing in his spare time.
Joining Amnesty as a volunteer in 1975, he established its first chapter in Boston and Cambridge. Hired as a part-timer at a “subsistence wage,” he worked out of his North End apartment.
During those early years, he helped set up Amnesty chapters across the country. At the same time, he was working on a book about Soviet dissidents.
Rubenstein said he became interested in Russia not for personal or political reasons but for the intellectual challenge of learning the language. In the summer of 1970, after his junior year at Columbia, he toured the former Soviet Union.
“I met a refusnik and smuggled out a hand-made book of his,” Rubenstein said. His first published article was a profile of the man and his book, which assailed Soviet censorship.
Rubenstein, who never obtained a graduate degree, went on to write and edit several books on dissidents and anti- Semitism in the Soviet Union.
“The Unknown Black Book,” which he co-edited, is primarily a compilation of eyewitness accounts from Holocaust survivors. Much of the material in the book was suppressed by anti-Semitic Soviet authorities in the aftermath of the war and only became available with the fall of the Communist regime.
“That aspect of the Holocaust has not gotten the attention it deserves,” said Rubenstein, who will discuss the book at Brookline Booksmith Oct. 14. “About two and a half million Jews were living in German-occupied Soviet territory at the time of their deaths. They were shot in open air massacres, near their homes, not taken to concentration camps.”
He worked on the book for two and a half years. “I was in the interior of the book. I was literally reading it line by line and refining the English translation. I was very aware of the voices of these survivors, and I felt intimately connected with their horrific experiences.”
Rubenstein is now working on a concise biography of Leon Trotsky for a new series on Jewish Lives published by Yale University Press.
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Amnesty’s offices long ago moved out of Rubenstein’s North End apartment. He now oversees four staff members from an office in Davis Square, Somerville. He has been active throughout the Northeast in urging legislatures to repeal capital punishment and drawing attention to death penalty cases. In addition, his office has been assigned the task of organizing protests and letter-writing campaigns for Aung San Suu Kyi, the pro-democracy leader held under house arrest in Burma.
For someone who has witnessed so much abuse of human rights, Rubenstein is surprisingly optimistic.
“When I started in the mid ’70s, Amnesty was responding to the overwhelming events in South America – torture, disappearances. Today [many of those nations] are functioning democracies,” he said. “Look at South Africa, Eastern Europe, where former prisoners are becoming presidents.”
Rubenstein credits these advances to governments – not people – becoming better. “Maybe I’m speaking as a native Western liberal,” he said, but “I do believe human institutions can be created that can curb our worst instincts and encourage the better parts of our nature.”
For more information on Amnesty International, visit www.amnesty.org.