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Celebrating 25 years of civil liberties in Israel

Posted By Karin Kloosterman On July 22, 2009 @ 10:35 am In | No Comments

Thanks largely to the US/Israel Civil Liberties Law program, Martin Luther King’s dream is being realized in Israel as well.

 

Martin Luther King’s dream was that blacks and other minorities in America would enjoy the same civil rights as every other citizen of the United States. He paid for his dream with his life, but it eventually came true.

When Prof. Herman Schwartz, an American civil rights lawyer, first came to Israel 26 years ago, he saw a profound difference between the post Martin Luther King era in the US and the civil rights movement in Israel, with the movement in Israel lagging far behind.

To change that, in 1983 he founded the US/Israel Civil Liberties Law program to develop a human rights bar in Israel.

With two handpicked Israeli law fellows supported by the program every year, over the last two and a half decades the program has profoundly affected Israel’s civil rights movement, both in the legal sphere and in communities across the country, where the program has had a positive impact on the rights of Arabs and new immigrants from Ethiopia, as well as on laws that help to protect the environment and the elderly.

This year, prestigious guests from Israel and the US gathered in Tel Aviv to celebrate 25 years since Schwartz, who currently administers the program, started following his dream, with the help of the New Israel Fund and the American University Washington College of Law.

The anniversary celebrations included seminars with Prof. Aharon Barak the former Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Israel, Prof. Claudio Grossman, the dean of the American University Washington College of Law, and Prof. Naomi Chazan, the president of the New Israel Fund. US Ambassador James B. Cunningham was also among those in attendance.

Fighting for justice and mercy

Schwartz, a director at the Washington College of Law Center for Human Rights and Humanitarian Law, as well as a member of the boards of the Foundation for a Civil Society, Helsinki Watch and other domestic and foreign public interest organizations, says that he came of age in the US civil liberties movement.

“I didn’t see that here in Israel and it seemed to me that both our precedence and practices in American law would be very helpful here,” he tells ISRAEL21c in Tel Aviv.

“I’ve always been strongly Zionist in believing in Israel as a proper place for the Jewish people; and it should be a place informed by what I consider to be main trends in the Jewish culture – justice and mercy and those things.”

As part of their fellowship, the chosen fellows spend one year in the US. While obtaining a Master’s degree in Civil Rights Law, they also intern with American groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union, Human Rights’ Watch and the Council on American Islamic Relations.

According to the New Israel Fund, co-sponsor of the US/Israel Civil Liberties Law program, its fellowship alumni have argued dozens of landmark cases, which have affected legislation and shaped public policies in Israel. Lasting effects can be felt in environmental and disabilities law, as well as in religious freedom and pluralism in Israel.

Helping Arab Israelis to help themselves

With Israel being the only true democracy in the Middle East, there is no doubt that the effects of this program have resonated throughout the region.

“People in my school and students from other countries have interacted with the fellows over the years,” says Schwartz, noting that the fellows have been an integral part of the large international civil liberties community.

“One of the major purposes of the program was for Arab lawyers in the Arab community to develop their own competent effort and not be dependent on the Jewish community,” says Schwartz. The Israeli Arab rights group Adalah has “been one of the shining examples of success in our project, with worldwide reputation and support,” he adds proudly.

A past fellow from the program is Bana Shoughry-Badarne, a Palestinian Israeli human rights attorney who now sits on the steering committee that helps to choose future fellows. She has worked on behalf of the Israeli Bedouin community and other vulnerable groups in Israel and inside the Palestinian community.

As part of a marginal community in Israel, the Bedouin “lost their land and their communities and had to build everything again and without basic rights like health clinics and schools,” says Shoughry-Badarne.

Copied in other countries

Today Shoughry-Badarne works in the sphere of prisoners’ rights to ensure that they aren’t mistreated.

The fellowship allowed her to obtain an advanced degree in the US and to help the communities she cares about.

Ensuring equal rights for Palestinian women living in Israel is also one of her priorities. Not only do these women have to fight the unfair norms in their own society, they also have to fight the Jewish establishment which may discriminate against them according to the nation’s religious law, she tells ISRAEL21c.

Based on its success in Israel, the program has expanded and now accepts applications from Central and East Europe. It has also been replicated at Columbia University Law School with the help of Schwartz, who has worked for human rights both in the US and abroad for over four decades.

He currently advises a number of former Soviet bloc countries on constitutional and human rights reform, and has represented the US a number of times at United Nations conventions.


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