AU professor retires, leaving an impact from Washington to Israel

Professor Herman Schwartz in his office at the American University Washington College of Law. Photo by Jared Foretek.

The first time Herman Schwartz visited Israel was in 1983, and the American University Washington College of Law civil liberties professor saw a need.

“There was nobody there to talk shop with,” Schwartz says.

What he means is that the civil liberties legal field in the Jewish state was barely in its infancy. To hear Schwartz describe it, there was really only one game in town at the time, a public interest organization in Tel Aviv. But when it came to minority protections and more, according to Schwartz, civil liberties law just wasn’t a priority for the Israeli legal community.

There was one person Schwartz found to bounce ideas off. Haim Cohen, the famous Israeli jurist and politician, agreed that there was a need. Some sort of exchange between American and Israeli legal organizations, he said, would be helpful.

A year later, Schwartz started what would become the university’s U.S./Israel Civil Liberties Law Program with the New Israel Fund, which brought Israeli attorneys to the United States for a year of classes and internships in the human rights field before placing them in an Israeli public interest position the following year. When the program ended in 2018, he said, it was a victim of its own success. The growth in Israeli public interest law was such that the fellowship’s cost wasn’t justified.

Now, Schwartz himself is retiring at the end of the current semester. At 83 and having worked at Washington College of Law since the 80s, he says he’s ready to not be on anyone else’s schedule. But he promises he’s not done working. The author of three books plans to continue writing for publications and isn’t ruling out leading another seminar down the line.

His office’s bookcase is filled with what appears to be four decades worth of texts, and his wall is filled with mementos from his time teaching and as a civil rights lawyer in the 1960s and ’70s. There’s the cartoon caricature of himself, photos of family and colleagues, and a poster for the 1973 documentary “Attica.” Not that he needed to see the movie; Schwartz served as a legal intermediary between prisoners and the prison administration during the 1971 uprising at New York’s Attica State Prison in 1971, and went on to represent a number of the prisoners.

“The way I came up in the ’60s, so many law professors were activists; it was the height of the Civil Rights movement,” Schwartz says. “And still, I’m more of an activist than I am a scholar. You’ve got to have people who know how to bring a lawsuit, who know how to litigate.”

That was also the central idea for the Israeli fellowship, to grow the clinical legal field in the country. From behind his desk — nearly every inch of which is covered with documents — he talks with pride about the Israeli public interest lawyers the program had a hand in developing.

Professor Neta Ziv of Tel Aviv University, for example, credits the program with setting her up for her current career, in which she directs the Israel Affordable Housing Center and the Housing, Community and Law Clinic at the university. She came to the United States as a fellow in 1985.

“Without the program, I probably would not have chosen this career track. My internships in civil rights organizations — the Women’s Legal Defense Center and the ACLU in the United States … formed the basis of my commitment to this field,” Ziv said in a presentation honoring the fellowship.

Israel “Issi” Doron was working in private law in Israel when he agreed to intern with the American Association of Retired Persons as a fellow in 1993. Now, he lectures at the University of Haifa, teaching about Israel and international elder law and the “interaction of law, aging, ethics and social policy.”

“It is no exaggeration to say the program actually changed my life,” Doron said. “As a private lawyer who volunteered and was interested in human rights in the broader sense, I was exposed to the area of rights of the elderly, which turned out to be the focus of my career.”

Schwartz said he hasn’t been to Israel in quite some time, but in retirement he plans to return again to catch up with old fellows. He expects there will be plenty of lawyers to “talk shop” with this time around. He and his wife would also like to travel to London for its Shakespeare festival.

Travel, at this point, is the top priority.

“This is a whole new world. I haven’t stopped working since I graduated from law school,” he said. “But teaching has been very good to me. I like to talk, maybe not so much to listen. And there’s something quite vivifying about being among young people.”

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