Controversial Israeli human rights attorney to speak at Pitt

Controversial Israeli human rights attorney to speak at Pitt

Michael Sfard
Michael Sfard

Michael Sfard, a prominent Israeli human rights attorney known for representing Palestinians in cases against the Israeli government, will deliver a lecture entitled “Can the Occupier Provide Justice? The Dilemmas of Human Rights Litigation in the Israeli Courts,” Thursday, March 28, 7 p.m., at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law.

The talk is free and open to the public; attorneys can earn one credit of continuing legal education for attending.

“Sfard will be speaking on the illegalities and human rights violations committed by the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories and the dilemmas faced by human rights activists in pursuing justice in Israeli courts,” according to the flyer promoting the lecture.

Some of Sfard’s best known cases include challenges to the Israeli security barrier, and a petition against the government’s targeted assassination policy.

Sfard was invited to speak at Pitt Law by Jules Lobel, a professor at the law school.

“I know the lecture is controversial, sure,” Lobel said. “But one of the problems is, this side of the issue is not presented much in the United States. I am trying to get some balance. I haven’t heard many Israeli lawyers in Pittsburgh on the issue of human rights violations in the occupied territories. I thought this was a topic the American public should be educated more about.”

The lecture at Pitt Law will be Sfard’s only speaking engagement while in the United States next week, but he frequently lectures on the challenges of pursuing justice for Palestinians within the Israeli justice system.

“There is tension for every human rights lawyer when they work in an environment where, according to their assessment, there is a regime that violates human rights on a daily basis,” Sfard told the Chronicle, speaking from his office in Tel Aviv.

“Israeli occupation in the West Bank is a regime of domination. Millions of people are absent of their fundamental human rights.”

One of the challenges for attorneys in pursing human rights cases, he said, is balancing the cause of the individual client with the cause of the people.

“For every human rights attorney in the justice system of the oppressor, there is a tension between what is good for your client, and what is good for ending the regime that oppresses people,” he said. “There are many cases where the two do not operate in the same direction.”

Sfard used as an example cases involving the “separation fence.” While his Palestinian clients ended up with more land as a result of some of these cases, “at the same time, there was a cost for litigating the cases,” he said: good PR for the Israeli military.

“It became a very good public relations tool for the military authorities to show that Palestinians can get justice in the Israeli justice system,” he said.

While Sfard is often successful in defending the rights of his Palestinian clients, there is a limit on how far the courts can go, he said.

 “This is the dilemma facing lawyers when fighting against regimes that are not democratic: it is like a glass ceiling,” he said. “There is a limit to the amount of rights you can expect the system to provide. I have found that I have managed to get some remedy, but there is a glass ceiling. Some things are beyond the Israeli justice system to fix.”

Sfard pointed out the incongruity of Israel’s “human rights violations” and its otherwise generally liberal approach to social issues.

“Israel has some of the most liberal human rights rulings in the world,” he said, noting rulings upholding gay rights and freedom “of and from religion.”

“But when you get to cases that deal with Palestinians, and the security of the State of Israel, that’s where all the ideals get twisted,” he said.  “Palestinians do get remedies in the Israeli justice system, but they are partial and limited, and most importantly, they are limited to the specific cases.”

Sfard does not mince words when describing the relationship between Israel and the Palestinians living in the West Bank, freely using controversial labels like “occupier,” “oppressor,” and even “apartheid.”

While he maintains that the State of Israel itself is not an apartheid regime, he has come to believe that the term does indeed apply to its relationship with the Palestinians in the West Bank.

“The Israeli regime in the West Bank is an apartheid regime,” he said. “I was reluctant to use this term, even for the West Bank, but I had to be honest with myself. Israel is running a regime that is based on the separation of Jewish Israelis and Palestinians in the West Bank.”

“Different laws have been applied to Palestinians and Israelis living in the West Bank,” he said. “In the West Bank there is a regime of domination, a systematic large scale discrimination with the intention of maintaining that domination. I am very deeply distressed to say that, but that amounts to apartheid.”

While there will be time for questions and answers after the lecture, Stuart Pavilack, executive director of the Zionist Organization of America-Pittsburgh Chapter, said that by having only Sfard speak, the law school is presenting a one-sided program.

“I think it’s OK for the law school to bring [Sfard] in,” Pavilack said, “but they should have both sides of the situation presented so people can make up their own minds. The law school is giving continuing legal education credit for one side.”

Pavilack expressed concern that attendees of the lecture who did not know the history of the region could come away from the talk with a skewed view of the situation.

“I cringe at the words ‘occupiers,’ ‘apartheid,’ ‘Palestinian’ even,” Pavilack said. “There has never been a country called ‘Palestine.’ But if you say something often enough, people believe it,” he said.

“A lot of people see the Palestinians as a cause, something to support, something to get behind,” he continued. “Certainly, there are a lot of Palestinians that have an impoverished life, and that really don’t have control of their future, but that is really not Israel’s fault. I have no doubt that many Arabs are suffering terribly, but if their leadership wanted to improve their daily lives, the first thing they should do is quit espousing hatred with incorrect historical lies. Palestinian children are taught in school to deny Israel’s right to exist. They are taught about the ‘theft of Palestine,’ and that ‘the Zionist gang stole Palestine.’ ”

The term “occupation,” does not apply to the relationship between Israel and the West Bank, according to Pavilack.

“A better word than ‘occupation’ would be ‘unallocated’ territory,” he said. “In 1948, when the U.N. established the state of Israel, it tried to establish an Arab state alongside Israel, but the Arabs rejected it. Under international law, it became ‘unallocated territory.’ And I don’t think the term ‘occupation’ has ever been used when a country acquires territory in a defensive war such as the Six-Day War in 1967.”

(Toby Tabachnick can be reached at

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