Larry Lerner has never been one to avoid conflicts. In fact, two themes have run through his life and career as an attorney. As he built a preeminent intellectual property firm in New Jersey, he applied his talents to social justice and the rule of law. In the 1960’s he handled dozens of racial discrimination cases and led the coalition of groups fighting for fair housing and employment in New Jersey. At the same time, he successfully pursued cases before the state’s Supreme Court that reapportioned New Jersey Legislature on “one man, one vote.”
Lerner’s activism would take a new turn in the 70’s. With family origins in the Ukraine, his visit to the area in 1979 would spark over six missions dedicated to Refusniks; persons who were typically but not exclusively Soviet Jews who were denied permission to emigrate abroad by the authorities. Lerner said, “I became heavily involved in the Refusnik Movement because it was something I could do.” His efforts also helped lead an organization that filed legal pleadings for political prisoners based on Soviet treaty obligations and the Constitution of the Soviet Union.
For Lerner, his trips abroad would be just the beginning of a journey that would lead him to champion the rights of countless individuals. Lerner is currently the President of Union for Councils for Jews in the Former Soviet Union (UCSJ). He has been on their board of directors since 1986 and recently also became their Executive Director.
Since 1970, UCSJ has been the voice of emigration, Jewish survival, and human rights in countries including Russia, Ukraine, Moldova, Belarus and Kazakhstan. UCSJ recognizes that religious discrimination and xenophobia are connected with human rights abuses and the absence of the rule of law. UCSJ helped form human rights organizations in areas of the former Soviet Union and is the unofficial representative of over 55 Pro-Democracy Human Rights, Non-Government Organizations (NGOs) in the region.
UCSJ has been an agent for considerable legislative action in Washington. When the Magnitzky Bill* was passed into law in 2012, UCSJ was a prime mover of the bill by providing petitions in support to over 170 prominent United States Senators and Congressmen. This effort was considered to be a substantial credit to the bill’s passage. Lerner said that the passage of this bill is just one element of his activism that has angered Russia’s President Vladimir Putin.
Lerner stated his own impressions of Putin. “Putin’s government cannot handle any dissent and takes it out on people that are pro-democracy or human rights and gay rights activists,” he said. “Unfortunately, Putin has supported the resurgence military subjugation of dissent by supporting the re-emergence of the Tsarist Cossacks who persecuted religious dissidents.”
Lerner believes that his role in the UCSJ is instrumental to a larger mission. “At times, the Jewish establishment has considered us to be too involved in the total mission of human rights,” he said. “I consider this to be a badge of honor. Even during the Refusenik era, we were supporters of Andre Sakharov, and Natan Scharansky who were not supported by the Jewish community.”
Lerner represents the UCSJ on the International Religious Freedom Roundtable. This informal group is made of over 100 NGOs that meet more than a dozen times each year in Washington, D.C. in pursuit of religious freedom throughout the world. The other NGOs that participate include the American Islamists, U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Hindu American Foundation, and the Southern Baptist Convention. Lerner is a major Jewish voice in this group. The group prepares detailed petitions about religious persecution to be presented to American authorities. At least a couple of dozen times a year, they file petitions to advocate for human rights with the United Nations, the United States Congress and the State Department.
”In the near future, the International Religious Freedom Roundtable is sending a five person group including a representative from Lerner’s organization, the UCSJ, to the Khazaki Republic to discuss its religious freedom laws. The International Religious Freedom Roundtable is currently petitioning the Obama Administration, the State Department and the Helsinki Commission to put pressure on Putin to stop the suppression of the human rights, religious freedom and pro-Democracy NGOs in Russia.
Lerner is leading the UCSJ to develop a bi-lingual website for NGOs in Russia to communicate with them and report on human rights violations. Lerner said, “We are also hoping to develop a program for use in the Russian school system to teach tolerance to affect long term human rights in the country.”
With energy, enthusiasm, and a complete dedication to the cause, Larry Lerner looks forward to leading the Union for Councils for Jews in the Former Soviet Union into a new era and continuing his work with the International Religious Freedom Roundtable.
*The Magnitzky Act will deny visas to and freeze the assets of those in the Russian ruling elite implicated in the murder of Sergei Magnitsky’s and other human rights violations and corruption. Sergei Magnitsky was a 37-year-old lawyer who was beaten, deprived of vital medical attention, and left to die in a Russian prison nearly a year after uncovering a massive fraud allegedly committed by Russian officials to the tune of $230 million.