Rogues Gallery YAEL BERDA

Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, March 2005, pages 46-47


Israeli Human Rights Lawyer Defends

Activists in Tradition of Langer, Tsemel


By Pat McDonnell Twair

Israeli human rights attorney Yael Berda (staff photo S. Twair).

ISRAELI HUMAN RIGHTS attorney Yael Berda spent the months of November and December in the U.S. waiting for tempers to cool down at home after newspaper headlines charged she was waging war on Israel’s secret service.

At age 28, the feisty barrister is dubbed an incarnation of attorneys Felicia Langer and Lea Tsemel, who represented Palestinian prisoners and were assaulted and reviled as traitors by the Israeli right.

Thanks to the Internet, Berda connected with friends in the U.S. During her visit she addressed a convention of the National Lawyer’s Guild, the University of California at San Francisco Law School, Liberty Hill Foundation of Los Angeles and roughly 12 other organizations on the West Coast.

Over the past year, Berda told a group of Jewish liberals, Israel has denied entry to 70 International Solidarity Movement (ISM) volunteers.

“The official line is that these internationals who want to demonstrate against the wall are security threats who possibly aid terrorists,” Berda said. “In truth, the Sharon government sees ISM volunteers as media threats. Their presence and arrests or injuries (brought on by Israeli troops and settlers) wake up the general population to the wall.”

Pausing for emphasis, she continued: “It sounds nuts, but most Israelis have not been aware of the wall. The media didn’t cover it. Then, on Dec. 26, 2003, a young Israeli just released from the army, Gil Naamati, joined a protest at the wall and was shot by Israeli soldiers. Suddenly, the people realized something involving a wall was going on in the West Bank.”

Berda—who received her license to practice law in June 2003—has been handling many of the ISM cases, sometimes with the expert counsel of Tsemel.

As an intern with Israel’s pre-eminent human rights attorney, Avigdol Feldman, Berda worked on the parole hearing for Mordecai Vanunu. The whistle blower on Israel’s arsenal of nuclear bombs, she argued, no longer was a danger after 18 years in prison.

Berda’s activism began at Hebrew University, where she founded Mahapach, Israel’s largest grassroots movement geared to enable disempowered Jewish and Palestinian communities to unite. She wrote a column on politics and culture for Kol Hair (Haaretz’s Jerusalem newspaper) and is a commentator on Israel’s Channel 10 “Politics Plus.”

Her American mother, Berda explained, raised her from the age of 3 to believe that her opinions were as valid as anyone else’s. Her father, a Tunisian who was born in France and grew up in Casablanca, immigrated to Israel as a committed Zionist and socialist. “He had the notion Israel was one big kibbutz,” Berda said with a smile. “He is a political Jew but not a believer.”

Her parents succeeded in instilling individualism in all their children. Berda’s younger sister is a travel writer and was the runner-up in the Miss Israel 2000 contest. Another sister is an artist.

“I’m not a Zionist—which today means you want a theocracy run by Jews,” Berda said. “I’d like to live in a world where Jews are safe everywhere. But why is it Palestinians must speak Hebrew, but we Jews don’t know Arabic? I am seriously studying Arabic these days.”

The blonde barrister is proud of her paternal Sephardic heritage, and repeatedly insists that the Mizrahi/Sephardic legacy must become a part of Israeli identity.

“If we want to survive, we must realize we are in the Middle East,” she maintained. “Israeli politics are dominated by Western attitudes. Only now are we reclaiming our Eastern identity.”

Berda’s profile became too public with her Supreme Court defense of Ewa Jasciewicz, a correspondent for Britain’s Red Pepper magazine who was detained Aug. 31 when she arrived at Israel’s Ben—Gurion Airport.

The secret service insisted the evidence against Jasciewicz was classified. The case was critical in that it could have set a precedent for banning working journalists from entering the West Bank.

The District Court at first found the evidence against Jasciewicz insufficient. A second judge reversed the decision, however, stating that, while the journalist did not pose a security threat, her naiveté and ideological beliefs against racism left her open to manipulation by the Palestinians.

Jasciewicz argued that she was denied entry because in September 2002 she had witnessed a soldier kill 14-year-old Baha al-Bahesh and reported it.

Berda demanded to see the evidence against her client. The secret service agreed, but insisted its agents would testify only from behind a curtain.

“Can you imagine, they would only be interrogated behind a curtain?” she scoffed. “I notified the media of this ridiculous situation. The secret service protested that I was not being professional to notify the media. I let them know it wasn’t too mature to hide behind a curtain.”

At the last minute, Berda and Tsemel took the case to the Supreme Court, but withdrew it after the hearing because a precedent would be set if they lost, and Supreme Court decisions cannot be appealed.

In another case, Berda wrote the petition to overturn the ban against actor Mohammed Bakri’s documentary “Jenin, Jenin.” It screened only three times in Israel before the film board decreed it a piece of propaganda that would upset the Israelis and lead them to think their soldiers intentionally commit war crimes.

The Supreme Court ruled on Nov. 11 that banning the film infringed on freedom of expression.

During her visit to Los Angeles, Berda was barraged with questions when she was hosted at a dinner with members of Women in Black and the Palestine Aid Society.

It was refreshing to hear her views, they told her, but how many Israelis are like-minded?

“I’d guess that 10 percent of the population share my global left views,” Berda replied, “but I can assure you that 70 percent of Israelis want an end to the occupation.”

Asked if she put any credence into rumors of a pending civil war in Israel, she responded: “I’m cautious about entering into civil war conversations. There are so many factions. It might come from the settlers, who account for only 3 percent of the population, but they are vocal and rich. They get so much money from the Christian right, including the Feast of Tabernacles and the Christian Embassy in Jerusalem.

With regard to the right of return, Berda noted, “It’s easier to talk about Jerusalem than the right of return. Actually, it’s a no-go in Israeli society. Reparations receive a broader ear.”

As for divestment, Berda said she is all for boycotting military aid and corporations such as Caterpillar, General Electric, Boeing and Lockheed Martin. “But if there were a total divestment,” she cautioned, “it is the poor and the workers who will be hurt.”

In her assessment, social services in Israel and the U.S. deteriorated after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

“We had a good system of schools, medical care, public transportation,” she recalled. “These social laws were incredible, but they aren’t implemented because they aren’t funded. Now there is only lip service to these needs. Political discourse is diminished to 30-second sound bites. Those in charge are only interested in maintaining their power and money. Knesset members no longer observe the law, they’re not even there most of the time.”

“Many of my friends have gone to the other side for money,” she added. “Lawyers are making a lot of money off the occupation, such as charging $3,000 to obtain identity cards.”

Berda also is co-founder of the Legal Collective for the Protection of Political Activists and was collecting funds in the U.S. to help pay for the defense of Israeli activists, ISM volunteers and Palestinians.

Her first book of poetry, Planet Israel, will be published in the summer of 2005. A piece she wrote on Oct. 30 while in California reflects her concern for the contrast between the Arab and Israeli worlds:

I would always wake at four before
The dew.

The potent sound of the
Muezzin told of the dawn
Rising anew

All was right with the world
With three more hours to sleep
Until after the dew
And again the day awoke in Hebrew.

Pat McDonnell Twair is a free-lance writer based in Los Angeles.