By Alan Lubel
Resilience and humanity are two of the characteristics of Israeli society that I observed in a recent law and justice mission trip to Israel: resilience in the continuation of vibrant life, commerce and tourism as normal, which belies the image that we receive from reports of terror attacks, and humanity in the extreme kindness and caring demonstrated by the Israeli community partners and social service agencies that we visited.
Thus, just before Thanksgiving, I was fortunate to be one of 31 lawyers, judges and law enforcement officials from across the nation who participated in a weeklong study mission sponsored by the Jewish National Fund USA and its Lawyers for Israel Society.
Our trip included lectures and meetings with Israeli law professors, judges, prosecutors, the deputy national public defender, practicing attorneys, Chief Inspector Micky Rosenfeld, a spokesman for the Israel Police, and officials of the Israel Military Justice System.
We saw firsthand confirmation that Israel is a democratic nation governed by the rule of law with a well-established civil and criminal justice system available equally to all Israeli citizens. We also had the opportunity to meet with the Yona Yahav, the longtime mayor of Haifa, a city with a diverse population and history of coexistence among Arab and Jewish residents, and to visit communities and social service agencies supported by JNF in the Galilee and Negev.
Before the formal trip, I was able to begin my stay in Israel visiting with personal friends representing different sectors of Israel society. First, I enjoyed a dinner in Jerusalem with a young, American-born Israeli social media entrepreneur, Eliyokim Cohen (son of Richard and Sheryl Cohen, whose brother and sister-in-law, Jason and Danielle Cohen, live in Roswell). Cohen is the founder of Jews News, one of the largest Jewish-content Facebook sites, with over 1.2 million followers worldwide.
I then headed to the Arava region of the southern Negev desert to spend a weekend with Ezra and Debbie Ravins at their lovely home in Zofar, a moshav farming community on the border with Jordan.
Ezra and Debbie are true Israeli pioneers. As newlyweds they moved to the Arava over 30 years ago to farm the land and raise five children; one of their daughters, Netta, lives in Zofar with her husband, Dany, and two daughters. Ezra is the former mayor of the Central Arava Council and recently completed a two-year stay in Atlanta as a JNF emissary.
In addition to learning about the rigors of agriculture in the desert (they grow varieties of peppers, primarily for export) and touring ancient Nabatean sites, I also had the adventure of accompanying Ezra across the border to visit his farmland inside Jordan. A product of the border adjustments in the 1994 peace treaty between Israel and Jordan, this arrangement to allow Israelis to continue to farm land in Jordan stands as a little-known example of coexistence and cooperation.
Legal System and Terrorism
During the JNF trip, we gained a greater appreciation for the role lawyers and the Israeli legal system have in promoting stability, normality and humanity. While Israeli law is an amalgam of Turkish, British Mandate and Israeli statutory law, many concepts and procedures are familiar to U.S. lawyers, such as the protection of intellectual property rights.
Despite the absence of a written constitution, Israel has a well-developed constitutional jurisprudence. The Israeli Supreme Court heard more than 9,000 cases in the past year, compared with fewer than 100 by the U.S. Supreme Court.
In addition to acting as an appellate court, the Israeli Supreme Court sits as the High Court of Justice with original jurisdiction primarily in matters regarding the legality of decisions of state authorities. Exercising a relaxed concept of justiciability, the court rules on petitions when it considers it necessary to grant relief in the interests of justice.
Faced with Islamic State and Iranian-backed militants on Israel’s borders, we also learned how Israeli lawyers are on the forefront of dealing with terrorism. Israel has pioneered the concept — now gaining broader recognition in the United States and Western Europe — that because terrorist acts are equivalent to acts of war, traditional criminal law and procedure may be inadequate to combat terrorism. Instead, internationally recognized rules of war, including principles of military necessity, proportionality and humanitarianism, are applicable.
In fact, Israel assigns an independent legal officer to all military units. As one military officer explained, the importance of law is not just to protect territory, but “to protect the values of Israel,” including respect for individual and human rights.
Another highlight of the trip was the opportunity to hear from Nitsana Darshan-Leitner, the founder of Tel Aviv’s Shurat HaDin Israel Law Center, a civil rights institute providing representation and resources for victims of terror. The center is recognized as a world leader in combating terrorist organizations and regimes that support terrorism.
Following the model of the Southern Poverty Law Center in its landmark legal actions against the Ku Klux Klan, Shurat HaDin has represented the victims of terrorist attacks to obtain hundreds of millions of dollars in judgments against terrorist organizations and against countries and entities that aid and abet terrorist activities and to tie up terrorist funding through enforcement actions.
The law center has brought an action against Facebook to enjoin the posting of anti-Israeli hate speech and incitement to violence.
Developing Communities and Special Needs
No JNF trip to Israel would seem complete without planting trees in a forest or park. While we were no exception, our tree planting took on special significance because we planted fruit trees in the new Halutza region community of Yevul in the northwestern Negev, hard against the borders with Gaza and Egypt. (These communities were originally settled by Israelis displaced from the Gaza community of Gush Katif after the Israeli withdrawal from the strip in 2005.)
Atlantans may remember Yedidya Harush, one of the dynamic young leaders from the Halutza community, who was honored last spring at JNF’s community breakfast. Besides planting trees, we met young families with newborn babies and observed a new school and housing being built. Our group hoped that the growth of our fruit trees would parallel the growth and development of these young families and their new communities.
We also visited several partner programs and social service agencies that are further examples of JNF’s vision for improving the lives of all Israelis. The agencies we visited included a tour of the ALEH Negev state-of-the-art residential facility, which provides a high level of medical and rehabilitative care for people with severe cognitive and developmental disabilities. This revolutionary facility is the home to over 500 adults and serves more than 12,000 children and young adults each year on an outpatient basis.
And no part of our trip was more inspiring than our visit to the Palmachim air force base, where we met young Israelis with special needs who are serving their country and receiving job training through the Special in Uniform program supported by JNF.
A central lesson of our trip was summed up by Yohav, the Haifa mayor, who is a childhood family friend of Atlantan Aviva Gruber Postelnik’s. While this longtime political leader shared a sophisticated depth of knowledge on Middle East and world affairs, as well as a quick wit, he offered a simple explanation for the harmonious relations among the residents of Israel’s third-largest city: respect and honor for the traditions and cultures of all groups.
If you would like additional information on future legal study missions to Israel, please contact me or JNF/Atlanta.
Alan Lubel (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a lawyer in Buckhead and co-president of JNF’s Southeast Region.