In an era of young and old keen on fighting for — or against — the freedom of speech, Burton Caine can teach them a thing or two.
The private practice lawyer and Temple University Beasley School of Law professor has dedicated his professional and personal time to advocate for constitutional rights. And his work has always circled back to the Jewish community — namely, the heart of it all: the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia.
Caine has collaborated with the Jewish Federation through the many organizations he’s worked with: The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Tel Aviv University and the Jewish Federation’s education committee, and as the director of the Israel program at Temple Law, where he taught in the summers.
He spent 25 years teaching constitutional law at Temple, which is what initially drew him out of private practice, working on antitrust cases.
Perhaps the most significant case he tried, which involved the Jewish community, was for the ACLU, defending the American Nazi Party and upholding the First Amendment right of free speech.
The Nazi group wanted to march past the Liberty Bell in 1979 with derogatory signs, and many within the Jewish and Philadelphia communities filed lawsuits to stop them.
“I was defending the Constitution, and people were claiming I was defending the Nazis,” he recalled. He met with Holocaust survivors to hear their concerns, but emphasized that the country they live in now is one that honors minority rights.
“The most important minority right is the First Amendment freedom of speech. That is an absolute right against the majority,” he said.
Instead, he encouraged them to protest, which convinced the Nazis to cancel.
Decades later, the encouragement to protest continues in light of recent events.
“Jews ought to stand up for civil rights, even if it’s a message they can’t tolerate,” he added. “This is the American way. … If you deny them the right, it denies us the same right.”
Caine also served as president of the Philadelphia Lawyers of Soviet Jewry.
He visited the Soviet Union a couple times, having been asked to defend Soviet Jews’ civil rights.
Vouching that Western society was onto the Soviet oppression of Jews, Caine’s testimony saved a man’s life. On another trip, he urged the Soviets to release Anatoly Sharansky — now known as Natan Sharansky, chairman of the executive of the Jewish Agency for Israel.
With help from Caine and Temple Law, he was released.
Caine has donated much of his time and energy to Jewish causes, and continues to do so.
“[The Federation] has always been my largest contribution,” noted 89-year-old Caine, “because Federation is the one that runs the Jewish community.”
This article is part of an occasional series of profiles of Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia supporters.
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