Photo: Jim Silk and his brother, Spencer Silk

Yale Law School honors Michigan native Jim Silk for human rights advocacy

The Jewish News
Shari Shari

Shari Shari

What does it mean to be a leading human rights advocate in the unstable, violent world of 2017? Some would find it an impossible mission, but Professor James J. Silk, 70, who grew up in Lansing, “never bemoans the state of our world,” according to a colleague. Silk, who prefers to be called Jim, was honored recently as the first Binger Clinical Professor of Human Rights at Yale Law School, where he teaches at the Allard K. Lowenstein International Human Rights Clinic.

Silk was introduced at his Binger inaugural lecture as “a brilliant professor, mentor and friend known for his empathy, humility and optimism.”

The dean of Yale Law School said that he is considered the “dean of clinical human rights work in the U.S.”

Jim Silk with his son Jonah, wife Jean and daughter Kira. Photo credit: Harold Shapiro, Yale Law School

Recently Silk was interviewed by phone about his human rights work and how he maintains his dedication during what he describes as a “dark time.” He has said that he was born a pessimist but became an optimist by necessity.

Here is the interview, edited for length and clarity.

Q: What is clinical human rights work?

JS: There was a change in legal education so that it should not be just case law but needed to be experiential. Law students help with legal services for people who don’t have them, and professors oversee their efforts. Every state has these clinics. International human rights clinics mostly work with organizations all around the world that are trying to advance human rights. Our clinic is diverse. We draft and file petitions and friend-of-the-court briefs. In the U.S., the clinic is opposing state statutes that violate the rights of the homeless and allow the overuse of solitary confinement in prisons. In Norway, we are opposing new oil drilling licenses in the Arctic that would contribute to global warming and violate Norway’s constitution.

Q: How did you become interested in human rights work?

JS: It was long before I became interested in law. As a young person, I was motivated by the big questions. I was very interested in the Holocaust, apartheid, genocide and massive discrimination. In my 30s, I started working in the field — for an organization in D.C. that focused on refugees. I was writing about legal issues and realized the role law and lawyers played and went to Yale Law School. In grad school, I had pushed for businesses to divest in countries such as South Africa. I became a member of the local Amnesty International. I lived in China and saw firsthand how a repressive government affected people I knew. I ran a small human rights organization in Washington.

Q: Did you have a Jewish education, and do you bring a Jewish perspective to human rights?

JS: I had a Midwestern Reform Jewish education with Hebrew school, Sunday school and a bar mitzvah. I grew up during the Civil Rights Movement and saw Martin Luther King Jr. with Jewish people by his side. My understanding of the foundation of Jewish values is why I chose this work. Tikkun olam (Hebrew for repair of the world) is who I want to be.

Q: When was the field of human rights created?

JS: The idea of rights that belong to all people in all places at all times really came into being after World War II with the creation of the United Nations’ proclamation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948.

Q: Do human rights advocates focus on preventing violence and genocide or is their mission broader, including environmental and quality of life?

JS: It encompasses civil, political and legal rights including prohibition of torture and oppression of free speech. Human rights also include economic, social and cultural rights — poverty and the effect of environmental conditions on the most vulnerable. In the U.S., the focus is on civil rights although we may talk about social justice.

Q: Can you tell me about your work for the U.S. Committee for Refugees?

JS: I was a senior writer and senior analyst from 1984-1986. It was an advocacy organization for refugee protection, encouraging the U.S. to accept more refugees. It was aimed at U.S. policy and the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees.

Q: How did you come to clerk for Retired Israeli Supreme Court Justice Aharon Barak?

JS: Aharon Barak shaped constitutional law in Israel and had been president of the Israeli Supreme Court. He taught at Yale. He served on the Israeli Supreme Court during the trial of Ivan Demjanjuk, accused of being Ivan the Terrible, a Nazi concentration camp guard responsible for many murders. His conviction and death sentence were appealed when new evidence became available indicating that another man was Ivan the Terrible. I spent 10 weeks in Israel in 1990 during the appeal hearings, working for Barak. We discussed the case every night after court. (The conviction and death sentence were overturned by the Israeli Supreme Court.)

Q: What was your role in the Oslo Principles on Global Climate Change Obligations?

JS: It began as an informal effort from a group of experts without any authority who had the idea of taking existing governmental obligations and developing principles to protect the environment. We had experts in climate change, environmental law, tort law, human rights. It is a way to understand states’ obligations regarding the environment. It took several years and was published in 2015.

(Silk was one of 13 international lawyers and judges who comprised the Expert Group on Global Climate Obligations that developed the Oslo Principles.)

Q: It seems that there is so much abuse, neglect and violence in much of the world. Are we becoming a more brutal society, or do we simply know more about what is happening globally?

JS: I can say it’s a dark time. Industrialization has taken a toll on the environment. However, some have written that there is less violence; there are fewer deaths from war; there are better gender rights.

Q: How do you remain optimistic in today’s world?

JS: We work on difficult issues, sometimes painful issues. You couldn’t sustain yourself in our kind of work without hope. I am a hopeful person. I am inspired by the students who are wonderfully committed, generous and appreciative.

Q: Tell me about your family.

JS: My wife, Jean, had a career leading international study abroad programs. She was president of the synagogue in New Haven and recently helped establish a Jewish Community Alliance for Refugee Settlement with five other local congregations. Our daughter, Kira, is a social worker interested in reforming the foster care system and our son, Jonah, is a full-time soccer coach.

Jim Silk and his brother, Spencer Silk.

An Indirect Path
Jim, 70, and his brother Spencer, a West Bloomfield resident, grew up in Lansing. Their late father, Leonard Silk, was an engineer at General Motors and their late mother, Dorothy, was a housewife who was involved in Jewish and other causes.

Jim graduated from the University of Michigan with a B.A. in economics in 1969 and later earned an M.A. in the humanities from the University of Chicago. Spencer says that Jim “always cared about the underdog and the human rights of people.”

After college, Jim backpacked extensively, served in VISTA and worked as a handyman among other jobs, painting barns at one point, according to his brother.

Silk taught English in China for a year and later worked as a policy analyst and senior editor at the U.S. Commission for Refugees. He was almost 40 before entering Yale Law School, graduating in 1989. Silk then served as an attorney at a Washington law firm, where his pro bono work included representing a death-row inmate in his appeals. He joined Yale’s law faculty in 1999.
Silk is co-director of the Law School’s Orville H. Schall Jr. Center for International Human Rights and administers the Robina Foundation’s $13 million grant for Yale’s human rights clinic and other human rights education programs. The Binger Clinical Human Rights Chair is named after James Binger, founder of the Minnesota-based Robina Foundation.

Jim Silk

Silk’s inaugural lecture is titled “From Nuremberg to the Netherlands to Ninevah? The Book of Jonah, International Justice and the Promise of Human Rights.” It is online at

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