It was a parking ticket some 30 years ago that taught Morton Klein the power of the law.
Klein parked on the pavement in Philadelphia while aiding an elderly friend of the family. When he came back, he found a parking ticket on his car.
Klein fought the ticket in court, and refused to pay even after he lost. However, when he was placed in jail for contempt of court, he relented — and learned a valuable lesson.
“That’s when I became aware that when a judge says something, it’s enforced,” said Klein, the national president of the Zionist Organization of America.
Now, the ZOA is hoping to get judges to rule where the government has failed to act. The group hopes to take some of its more prominent battles to the court system with the establishment of its Center for Law and Justice.
One of ZOA’s major issues has been the plight of American victims of Palestinian and other Muslim terrorists. The organization has pressed the U.S. government to seek rewards for the capture of those responsible for killing Americans in the Middle East, and won a partial victory last year when some of the information was posted on the State Department’s Rewards for Justice Web site.
But Klein and others believe that more needs to be done to bring justice to the victims and their relatives, and the organization is looking to the court system.
“We’re in the worst crisis Israel has ever faced,” Klein said. “The situation is so dangerous that it is time to go further, and the legal system allows us the opportunity to be effective.”
Even in cases where the courts have intervened, however — such as the case of Stephen Flatow, who sued Iran after his daughter was killed in a 1995 bombing in the Gaza Strip by Iranian-backed terrorists — the U.S. government has made it difficult to collect damage awards.
Klein said the center also will focus on trying to shut down American-based Web sites of foreign terrorist organizations and preventing the State Department from consistently waiving a statute that forbids PLO officials from entering the United States.
The center intends to file briefs in cases in which it has an interest, and hopes to take action against entities that misrepresent Israel in the media and other venues.
In addition to litigating cases, ZOA hopes to create an on-line library of briefs and key documents that other lawyers could utilize and maintain a Web site with updates on significant cases and precedents.
Currently, the legal center is staffed by one person, Ezra Reinstein, a former corporate litigator who joined ZOA last month. A graduate of Harvard College and Harvard Law School, Reinstein says he believes the justice system will allow ZOA and other Jewish groups to find relief that is not accessible via Congress or television interview shows.
“There’s nothing like the judicial system,” Reinstein said. “Lobbying is wonderful and media relations is wonderful, but neither of them has the inherent neutrality and fairness of the court system.”
Reinstein said he has heard from numerous people who would like to get involved, and he hopes to hire additional staff down the road.
The legal center also is being supported by a prominent board of advisers that includes Kenneth Bialkin, a former chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, and Nathan Lewin, an expert on criminal and constitutional law.
Reinstein said he was unsure what role the board would play in the organization.
The seed money was contributed by “a number of prominent individuals,” said Klein, who refused to identify them.
Klein said his organization is not changing its tactics, but simply adding another weapon to its arsenal.
Several Jewish groups frequently file briefs and bring cases to court to promote their issues, and Klein said he believed the courts could be an effective tool of persuasion.
“I know when I get a lawyer letter complaining to me, it makes me move faster,” he said. “Lawyers have a lot of impact.”
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.