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Human rights activist for Soviet Jews dies

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(JTA) — Micah Naftalin, a leader in human rights activism on behalf of Soviet Jews, has died.

Naftalin, 76, the national director of UCSJ, an independent grassroots human rights organization operating across the former Soviet Union, died Thursday in Washington, D.C.

Under Naftalin’s leadership, UCSJ monitoring became the principal source of primary data on religious discrimination and, especially, anti-Semitic and xenophobic hate crimes and propaganda across the countries of the former Soviet Union, with special emphasis on Russia, Ukraine and Belarus.

In 2007, he initiated, with cooperation from the Moscow Helsinki Group, the Coalition Against Hate, an unprecedented consortium of 30 religious freedom and human rights NGOs from Russia, Ukraine and Belarus, pledged to provide cooperative activism and monitoring of hate crimes.

He served as Chief Counsel and Deputy Director of the U.S. House of Representatives’ Select Committee on Government Research and as a senior policy analyst with the National Academy of Sciences. In 1982, he was appointed Deputy Director and, later, Acting Director of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council, where he served for five years.

Naftalin regularly briefed U.S. officials on anti-Semitism and the general human rights situation in the former Soviet Union.  He represented UCSJ at the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe, as well as at other international human rights conventions throughout Europe and North America.  

In 1989, Naftalin as a leader of UCSJ helped organize the USSR’s first human rights conference, in Moscow. A year later, he presided over the founding of the Russian-American Bureau on Human Rights, the first Western human rights organization ever registered in the Soviet Union. Naftalin later oversaw the establishment of six more human rights and rule of law monitoring bureaus in Tbilisi, Lvov, Minsk, Almaty, Bishkek and Riga, and traveled extensively throughout the region.

Naftalin was a graduate of Brandeis University and the George Washington University School of Law. He served in the U.S Army in Korea.

“He was an inspiration to all activists who are concerned about the persecution of Jews throughout the world and specifically those in the former Soviet Union. His abiding concern for the security of Jews there — and his deep humanitarian impulse to bring transformation and reform to this area so that it becomes a democratic, tolerant and pluralistic society — was unmatched. He will be sorely missed,” said Gideon Aronoff, president & CEO of  HIAS, who worked for Naftalin for eight years.

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