Cornell University Memorial Statement
March 12, 1908 - September 5, 2003
Milton Konvitz, a Cornell University faculty member and authority on constitutional and labor law, and civil and human rights, died Sept. 5 at the age of 95. Konvitz was a founding faculty member in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations from 1946 until his retirement in 1973. He was also a professor in Cornell's Law School.
Konvitz is perhaps best known for his American Ideals course, which he taught to more than 8,000 students over the course of his career, never giving the same lecture twice. "I saw the U.S. Constitution as it has been interpreted as a magnificent depository of our ideals, both individual and social," he said. His course exposed students to the great intellectual thinkers and philosophers throughout history whose writings had shaped those ideals. They included Sophocles, whose play Antigone is Cornell's New Student Reading Project this year. One student he influenced was U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Cornell Class of 1954, who considers him a mentor.
At Cornell Konvitz also was a founder of the university's Department of Near Eastern Studies and Program of Jewish Studies. "I felt it was essential for a college interested in the humanities not to leave out Hebrew language and literature," he said. "And the knowledge of Jewish history, which began 4,000 years ago and has contributed to civilization no less than Greek, Roman or English history, is important to today's students -Jewish and non-Jewish." He often hosted students at his Ithaca home and helped start the first Kosher dining option at Cornell, Young Israel House.
In addition, for nearly 30 years he directed the Liberian Codification Project, which drew up the official body of statutory laws that is still in force in the Republic of Liberia today, despite the current political upheaval there. Konvitz also edited the opinions of Liberia's Supreme Court and received the Grand Band of the Order of the Star of Africa, the highest award given to foreigners, as well as an honorary degree from the University of Liberia, one of seven honorary degrees he received in his lifetime.
Active as a scholar and writer until his death, he wrote books and articles on American constitutional law that won him wide recognition and were cited in U.S. Supreme Court opinions. Among his nine books is Fundamental Liberties of a Free People: Religion, Speech, Press, Assembly, which was republished earlier this year with an expanded introduction by him that is strongly critical of the Rehnquist Supreme Court. Other books include A Century of Civil Rights (1983) and Judaism and Human Rights (2nd ed. 2001). He also edited a dozen volumes, including two on American philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson, whose thinking shaped his views. One Emersonian idea he absorbed was that readers give life to books, which Konvitz recast as follows: "It is in their hearing that students bring life to the words, the thoughts, the teacher."
Konvitz was born in Safed, Palestine (now Israel ), in 1908, the son of a rabbi. He immigrated to the United States in 1915 and became a naturalized citizen in 1926. He received a bachelor's degree in 1929 and a law degree in 1930, both from New York University, and a Ph.D. in philosophy from Cornell in 1933. Before joining Cornell's faculty, he was one of three assistant general counsels to Thurgood Marshall at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund for three years.
He is survived by his wife, Mary, of Oakhurst, N.J.; a brother, Phillip, of Elberon, N.J.; a son and daughter-in-law, Josef and Isa, of Paris, France; and two grandsons, Eli and Ezra. Josef Konvitz, who grew up in Ithaca, is now an official at the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development.
— Reprinted from an article by Linda Myers of the Cornell News Service — September 8, 2003.