Michael Sfard, a leading Israeli human rights lawyer in the prime of his career, came to NYU Law School last Thursday evening to give lawyers, law students and political activists from Students for Justice in Palestine (“SJP”) and Jewish Voice for Peace (“JVP”) a sense of what it is like now to fight for the rights of both Palestinians and dissenting Jews in Israel and the West Bank. The picture he painted was not pretty.
Sfard, the grandson of Holocaust survivors and the son of parents who were deported from Poland because of their pro-democracy activity, has for years represented Palestinians seeking relief from the confining constrictions of the occupation and Israeli activists and peace organizations like Peace Now and Breaking the Silence who protest and resist it.
Since 2006, Sfard said, “the atmosphere of human rights in Israel has become more violent and toxic.” When Israeli human rights activists responded in 2009 to Operation Cast Lead in Gaza by speaking outside Israel, they were considered traitors. Right wing monitoring organizations like NGO Monitor stepped up their targeting of Israeli peace and human rights organizations and their sources of financial support. In 2011, a settler from Kiryat Arba was indicted after calling for Sfard’s assassination in an Internet posting.
“We can no longer resist with complete freedom. One has to be brave to participate in non-violent dissent, and unfortunately there are many more decent than brave people. Israeli politicians are afraid,” and there have been a “tsunami of bills to close the democratic space available to us.”
As examples, Sfard noted that, last month, “the Knesset ordered the civil administration and army to commit a war crime,” authorizing the expropriation of private Palestinian land across the West Bank for the exclusive use of settlers. Under this “Regularization Law”, Palestinian land would be confiscated if Israelis have illegally built settlements or outposts upon it or have cultivated it. Thousands of Palestinian families stand to lose the right to their land under the new law.
One of the interesting sidelights of his work is the question of whether to go to court to challenge such a law. On the one hand, Sfard said, there is a good chance the Israeli courts would strike it down. On the other hand, the passage of the law has increased the chances of intervention by the International Criminal Court (“ICC”), whose prosecutor is in the midst of a two or three year preliminary inquiry. The moral dilemma is whether to fight in the Israeli system to remedy the abuse to one’s individual clients – a fight which can sometimes help legitimize the abusive system itself, by cleaning up its worst aspects but leaving the occupation itself in place, for example – or whether to try to promote “regime change” of the abusive system – by leaving the most egregious parts in place to encourage outside intervention and pressure, like an ICC prosecution, or the growth of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (“BDS”) Movement across the globe, which he thinks is of critical importance.
Because there is virtually “no left left” and democratic space is dwindling in an Israeli regime “which has abandoned all moral principles,” Sfard argued, “we must maintain dissenting voices” both within and outside the country. The Israeli government fears the perception of a “tightening ring” that both the ICC and BDS represents.
“Israelis think of themselves as people of the globalizing world,” and if it becomes more difficult abroad to say, “I am an Israeli,” that will ultimately have an impact on a “massive abusing machine” – as such machines never remain stable no matter how placid they appear on the surface. Sfard’s hope is that BDS and other outside pressure will help widen the cracks that he hopes his day-to-day human rights work is creating in a regime he hates, in the country he loves.