David Littman, July 1933 to May 2012
David Littman has been the World Union for Progressive Judaism delegate to the United Nations Human Rights Council and later Human Rights Committee since 1986.
Sadly, I never met David but corresponded with him frequently by email and by phone in my capacity as chair of the WUPJ Advocacy Committee. We would have a continual stream of emails for days, while David prepared our statements for him to read in the UN HUC chamber.
David was one of the most articulate and fearless advocates for human rights particularly concerning antisemitism and anti Zionism. He was passionate in his fight over the abuse against women and children especially when it concerned religiously based discrimination.
David was born in London in 1933 and earned his BA and MA degrees in Modern History and Political Science from Trinity College Dublin. In 1959 he married his Egyptian born wife Gisele (better known by her nom de plume, Bat Ye’or) and they moved to live in Lucerne, Switzerland.
Soon after arriving in Switzerland David became involved in a clandestine humanitarian mission to evacuate from Jewish children from Morocco who were living under an oppressive regime. David, his new wife and daughter posed as Swiss Christians, and he set-up a system of sending young Jews to Israel via Switzerland, ostensibly for a holiday. “Operation Mural”, as it became known, successfully sent 530 children to Israel while increasingly placing him and his family in great danger as the local authorities grew wise to what was happening. Later the children’s families joined them in Israel. David was recognised by the State of Israel for his work, and in 2008 by President Peres and some key Mossad agents who were, unknown to David, involved with the operation. (Click here to read the full article in WUPJnews#372).
David and Gisele became involved with publishing studies on the Middle East and in 1986 he became a delegate for the World Union for Progressive Judaism and several other organisations at the United Nations Commission on Human Rights in Geneva. In 1987 he caused a walk-out of the whole Russian delegation when he brought Natan Sharansky to speak on behalf of the Russian Refusniks.
Since the late 1990s David prepared statements on the illegal sex trade, slavery, female genital mutilation and generally on violence against women.
He spoke eloquently against the continual anti-Israel, anti-semitic diatribes that many in the Human Rights Council continually placed on the UN agenda. He attacked Iran for the stoning of women and allowing marriage of girls aged only 9 years. He exposed numerous blood libels, particularly the Syrian Blood libel in the 1990s and clashed with many diplomats in the process.
David was not without his detractors as he felt so strongly on critical issues that diplomacy was always secondary to speaking up for those who could not speak for themselves. David never flinched from what he saw as his duty to expose hypocrisy and racism and was not averse to pushing the boundaries to make a strong point. His statements were detailed and, of course, well researched and usually ended with a Shakespearean quotation often misunderstood, particularly by his non English speaking opponents. David was often censured for his outspoken statements but treasured by many for being so forthright and honest.
And David never gave up, often writing strong statements while in his hospital bed, receiving a blood transfusion and then reading his statement later in the day at the Human Rights Council.
David was one of the very few voices in Geneva who spoke up for Israel and the fundamentals of liberal Progressive Judaism and while he often ruffled feathers he was greatly admired by many diplomats who were unable to say what they really felt.
We paid tribute to David last year at WUPJ’s 35th international biennial convention which was held in San Francisco and I know he was very delighted to receive such an accolade.
For me, David was a larger than life character who showed time and time again that you achieved nothing by being intimidated. “Say what you have to say but make sure your references are spot on.”
Our hearts, prayers and sympathies go out to his devoted wife Gisele, children and grandchildren.