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Israeli lawyers get an American perspective

WASHINGTON, May 23 (JTA) — When it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and human rights in Israeli society, few Israelis have the luxury of stepping back from the daily crises.

A handful of Israeli civil rights lawyers get some perspective, however, from a program that brings them to the United States to gain some perspective on the situation in their home country.

About to complete the yearlong, American-based portion of the New Israel Fund’s Civil Liberties Law Program, the participants soon will return to Israel to work at nonprofit organizations for a year, where they will apply their newfound knowledge.

This year’s participants said they learned to look at the situation in Israel in a global way, strengthening their resolve to work toward eliminating discrimination and injustice in Israeli society.

NIF is a philanthropy that seeks to promote equality for all of Israel’s citizens and strengthen the country’s democracy.

The Civil Liberties program has graduated 25 fellows since 1984.

While the American Jewish community generally is well-informed about issues in Israel, there needs to be more of a dialogue between Jews in the United States and Israelis who want to stop Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip and the continuing Israeli-Palestinian violence, fellow Yohanna Lerman said.

“Palestinians are part of society. We need to stop discriminating against them,” Lerman said. “We need a real peace for the people, not the government.”

All three fellows, coming from the left end of the Israeli political spectrum, seem intent on making Israel more democratic. Whether through bettering the court treatment of Israeli Arabs, or seeking equal rights for Jewish women in the religious courts, the fellows came to the United States to learn strategies that will make their advocacy at home more productive.

Fellows learn about networking, organization and structure — in other words, the business side of human rights. Such practical information is essential for non-profits to succeed, but are not areas in which Israel generally excels.

“In Israel, people say, Yihiyeh b’seder,” Hebrew for “It will be all right,” Yisraela Gratzyani said. “But in order to make a project work, you need a framework and structure.”

As part of the program, fellows attend master’s degree classes at the Washington College of Law of the American University in Washington, then intern at various human rights organizations.

Gratzyani, who interned at the National Partnership for Women and Families and will start another internship at the American Civil Liberties Union before returning to Israel, says many of the top human rights lawyers in Israel participated in the NIF program.

The past eight months of Israeli-Palestinian violence has made life particularly difficult for the fellows, both personally and professionally. When talking to groups of American Jews or participating in panel discussions, they are asked to interpret the volatile changes in the Middle East.

Banna Shoughry-Badarne maintains that American media coverage of the violence is “poor and unjust” — and biased against the Palestinians. Disappointed by those on the Israeli left who she said have “disappeared” from the debate, Shoughry-Badarne places her faith in nongovernmental organizations to make changes in Israeli society.

An Israeli Arab who is proud of her Palestinian heritage, Shoughry-Badarne plans to return to the Association for Civil Rights in Israel and work to end discrimination in Israeli society. She hopes to examine how shared identity — such as nationality and gender — affects group and individual rights.

As far as the media coverage is concerned, both Gratzyani and Lerman believe that what people see on CNN is not really what’s going on and that neither side’s voice is heard properly.

On another level, the struggle for peace in Israel affects how the rest of the country’s problems are dealt with. Often, those problems are simply left unanswered, according to Gratzyani.

“The issue of security is overshadowing everything else,” she said.

Of course, nothing can happen without peace, Gratzyani says, but without changes in other areas there may be another kind of struggle — one of frustration that will intensify the already deep rifts in Israeli society.

Israel might one day be at peace with its neighbors, but if its citizens do not feel they have full rights, the country could be hurt from within, Gratzyani said.

The last eight months of violence have intensified her commitment to work on making Israel a better place, she added.

The other fellows also indicated that they know Israel must improve in certain areas before it can claim to be truly democratic.

There are areas where Israel professes to bring equal treatment to all groups — such as promising religious autonomy for all — but the reality is somewhat different, Shoughry-Badarne said.

For example, Israel is one of the major international destinations for “white slavery” — women imported to the country to work as prostitutes, according to Lerman. Working to stop such human rights violations requires not just the financial support of the American Jewish community, but its active involvement to improve the situation.

Lerman said she hadn’t been aware that many American Jews still look to Israel as their “dream” — making it doubly important that Israelis work for social justice in Israel.

“It’s not only us,” she said. “People in the U.S. care.”

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