Strays of the Jewish legal world have found a lawyer, and his name is Steven Perles.
The Washington, D.C., attorney has helped represent Hugo Princz – who won a decades-long battle with the German government for compensation as an American citizen held in Nazi concentration camps – as well as some of the most vocal critics of the Israeli government.
“A series of my past Hebrew school teachers who decided I was nothing but a total reprobate would probably be shocked by my current client list,” said Perles, 44, who runs a private practice specializing in international law. “It’s totally a blessing.”
Among Perles’ clients: Schmuel Cytryn, an Israeli originally from northern Virginia who was imprisoned in Israel for two months without being charged. Rabbi Yitzhak Ginzburgh, who was jailed for allegedly urging revenge against Arabs after the terrorist bombings in Israel earlier this year. Rabbi Abraham Hecht, who was barred from Israel and dismissed from his New York synagogue for reportedly using biblical text to justify Rabin’s assassination.
Perles has also been approached by friends of Jonathan Pollard, sentenced to life imprisonment in 1986 as an Israeli spy in the United States. Pollard recently was granted Israeli citizenship.
“For reasons I don’t completely understand, I seem to be enjoying something of a reputation as the attorney of choice for the Jewish underground,” Perles said with a grin.
“And frankly, I don’t know why. There are lots of other good Jewish lawyers in town who could probably do a far better job at this than I could.”
About four months ago, Rabbi Herzel Kranz, from silver Spring Jewish Center, contacted Perles after receiving rejections from a half dozen local attorneys.
Kranz, dean of the Hebrew Day School of Montgomery County, in Silver spring, Md., had been searching for someone to represent a number of American Jews allegedly mistreated by Israeli authorities.
Perles’ claim to fame was the Princz case, for which he served as lead council. In a 10-year battle settled last year, Perles helped Princz win compensation from the German government for Nazi imprisonment and maltreatment as an American citizen during World War II.
Kranz came to Perles’ DuPont Circle office and unloaded a pile of cases provided by Manof, a Jerusalem-based organization dealing with alleged religious rights’ violations.
Manof has compiled a list of seven or eight Americans who claimed to have been abused by Israeli authorities. Kranz charged that the incidents occurred because the government was trying to crack down on political dissent.
Not one to rush to judgment, Perles told Kranz: “Politically, we’re on opposite ends of the spectrum because I’m Peace Now,” a reference to the organizations that supports the Israeli government’s peace process with Palestinians.
Kranz recalled, “I told Perles: `You’re going to find out what Peace Now is all about. When I get done with you, with these Israeli Bolsheviks, you’re going to be a quick convert.'”
Perles does not consider himself a convert.
However, he was convinced that one of the cases had particular merit – the one involving Cytryn.
Cytryn, an Orthodox Jew who moved from Fairfax, Va., ton Kiryat Arba, near Hebron, had been placed under “administrative detention” by Israeli authorities in December.
Under the military order, a carryover from British rule, authorities can hold individual for three months without charging them.
After speaking with Cytryn’s relatives in Israeli, Perles accepted the case and became Cytryn’s American legal advocate. Not knowing why Cytryn was being held, Perles defended him because, he said, no one should be jailed under these conditions.
As with the Hecht and Ginzburgh cases, Perles represented Cytryn on a pro bono basis.
“When there are Jews with serious legal problems overseas that I can assist in some modest way, I don’t want them to go unrepresented because they don’t have $300 an hour,” he said.
Profits from corporate and other clients allow Perles to represent people such as Cytryn, he said. The Princz’ case, in which the German government paid millions of dollars, earned Perles a substantial amount.
Cytryn already had an attorney in Israel. From U.S. soil, Perles worked to gain Cytryn’s release using high-level contacts at the State Department, Israeli Embassy and elsewhere. This task was made easier by Perles’ past government experience.
After graduating from the law school at William and Mary in 1975, Perles worked as staff counsel for the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation. Between 1976 and 1981, he served as staff attorney for Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska). He also gained experience dealing with foreign governments.
When Perles opened a law practice in 1981, he focused primarily on private international law.
Perles used his preferred method of “quiet diplomacy” to help gain Cytryn’s release. He felt that raising a public furor might embarrass the Israeli government but not help Cytryn.
“If I got the president of the United States to stand up and complain about Cytryn, it would make his predicament worse because it would put Israel in a situation where it could suffer an extraordinary loss of face and not back down,” Perles said.
Israel’s “image in the United State’s is extremely important to them,” he added. “My role is limited to causing, in this case, the Israeli government to understand that their conduct will be subject to serious scrutiny in the United States.”
Perles demonstrated this point after Cytryn broke his ankle in prison. Within 24 hours, Perles had contacted the State Department. The State Department contacted the American embassy in Israel, which in turn sent a representative to the prison to investigate an incident involving an American national.
While the injury was determined to have been an accident, the reaction showed that the United States was closely monitoring Cytryn’s status.
Accompanying Perles’ efforts were those of several American Jewish groups, which distributed press release calling for Cytryn’s immediate release.
Cytryn was released from prison in February, one month ahead of schedule, and allowed to return to Kiryat Arba.
Not surprisingly, the man who brought the Cytryn matter to Perles has developed great respect for the lawyer.
“Here is a man, Perles, not a religious Jew,” said Kranz. “He has the identity and feeling of a Jew that even I define great rabbis” as having.
While some of Perles’ well-knows clients are fervently Orthodox and abrasive critics of the peace process, the soft-spoken Perles is less religious and supports the peacemaking efforts of Prime Minister Shimon Peres.
“I’m about as mainstream Jewish community as anybody can get,” Perles said.
After the Cytryn case, Perles took on a new client in Ginzburgh, dean of the Od Yosef Hai Yeshiva in the West Bank town of Nablus.
Ginzburgh had been placed under administrative detention in March, Although no formal charges were filed, after the February and March suicide bombings in Israel, the government accused Ginzburgh of promoting a “theology of revenge” against Palestinians.
After serving 17 days in solitary confinement, Ginz-burgh was released March 28, when the Israeli Supreme Court overturned the decision, determining that he did not constitute a threat to the public.
This preventative detention statue is “fraught with potential abuse and should be repealed,” Perles said.
Perles’ most controversial client has been Hecht, president of the Rabbinical Alliance of America.
Hecht, who apologized for his controversial remarks about Rabin prior to the assassination in November, was subsequently barred from Israel discharged as a rabbi at Shaare Zion congregations in Brooklyn, N.Y.
Conceding only that his client is “flamboyant,” Perles denies that Hecht engaged in an a priori theological justification for assassination.
One should not confuse what Yigal Amir, the convicted murderer, “said with what Hecht said,” according to Perles. “Nobody alleges that Amir ever even heard of Hecht when he engaged in his act.”
Perles is making an effort to convince Israel that Hecht does not present a security threat and, therefore, should not be denied entry to the Jewish state.
The attention Perles has gained from these cases has made him something of a celebrity in the local Jewish community. Area rabbis call Perles regularly to discuss topical issues.
“I enjoy this more than you know,” Perles said. “I don’t take their advice too often, but I listen respectfully every time one of them calls. They get very excited about these cases.”
Perles claims he receives no negative feedback on his choice of clients.
“The Jewish community in Washington is very sophisticated,” he said. “They understand that you can have ideological differences with someone and still respect their civil rights.”