Anti-Semitic If You Do, Anti-Semitic If You Don’t: The Virginia State Bar’s Impossible Choice
Mar. 31, 2015 (Mimesis Law) — What does the Virginia State Bar have to do with touchy Middle East politics? This week, a lot more than the lawyers’ association would like.
VSB had planned to hold its Midyear Legal Seminar in Jerusalem, Israel this November. When some members accused the organization of excluding its Arab American and Muslim members from attending the conference, given Israel’s aggressive border security policies, VSB canceled the event. But now others are accusing VSB of caving to anti-Israel sentiment.
Here’s the background.
Last week, a petition contended that “by holding this year’s Seminar in Israel, the VSB accepts discriminatory practices and policies against Arab, Muslim, and Palestinian members of the VSB on the basis of their race, religion, and national origin, effectively preventing these members from attending” because “Israel employs discriminatory entry and exit policies for U.S. citizens, particularly against visiting Arab- and Muslim-Americans.” The petition cites a number of travel warnings issued by the U.S. State Department and the U.S. Consulate in Jerusalem alerting travelers that “[t]hose whom Israeli authorities suspect of being of Arab, Middle Eastern, or Muslim origin… may face additional, often time-consuming, and probing questioning by immigration and border authorities, or may even be denied entry into Israel or the West Bank.” Travelers have allegedly faced prolonged detention, hostile interrogation searches of email and social media accounts, and confiscation of electronic devices. The State Department also warns that Israel may refuse entry to anyone it deems to be a Palestinian national, even if the person holds U.S. citizenship.
The Virginia State Bar responded by canceling its Israel plans. VSB President Kevin Martingayle sent an email to members, writing, “Upon review of U.S. State Department advisories and other research, and after consultation with our leaders, it has been determined that there is enough legitimate concern to warrant cancellation of the Israel trip and exploration of alternative locations.”
The VSB’s decision outraged a number of prominent lawyers who claim that the moving the meeting out of Jerusalem signals a capitulation to growing anti-Israel bigotry. For example, Lanny Davis told the Washington Times:
“The Virginia State Bar’s false equivalent of defending yourself against terrorists by maintaining strict security procedures at your borders and discrimination offends basic legal principles as well as principles of fairness [ . . . ] You cannot equate what you need to do to secure your families from people who surround you and say they want to destroy you and try doing it with discrimination.”
Alan Dershowitz suggested to the Times that President Obama has been stirring anti-Israel bitterness lately, possibly inspiring the VSB’s boycott. The Washington Post reported that Virginia House Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford) also wrote a letter to VSB criticizing the group’s decision.
Apparently, a popular way to battle bigotry is to accuse the opposing side of its own bigotry. And that means that, whatever the Virginia State Bar does in this situation, it will be accused of discrimination against one Semitic group or another.
Was the Virginia State Bar was right to cancel its meeting in Jerusalem? Yes. Arriving at the answer doesn’t even require a single invocation of inflammatory language. It just requires a little bit of empathy and a whole lot of pragmatism.
I am a blonde, blue-eyed, half-Jewish woman living in Texas. I can, however, imagine how I would react to this situation if I were a dark-complected Arab American member of the Virginia bar. Would I pony up the cash to fly to Israel for a lawyers’ convention I may or may not be permitted to attend, even if I comply with all standard travel procedures? Nope. I would not take time off work or rearrange my schedule. I would not pay the registration fee for an event that I may not be able to attend, depending upon what an Israeli border officer thinks of me. I wouldn’t schlep my laptop and iPhone with me halfway across the world, knowing that there’s a not-insignificant chance that my devices might be taken from me or that an Isreali border official will browse through my Gmail inbox.
If I were an Arab American, I would not attend a bar conference in Jerusalem. This I would not do for the most mundane of reasons. I would not do it because there is no set of PowerPoint slides I could stare at or speaker I could listen to at a state bar meeting worth the very real possibility that I would be, at best, disproportionately hassled and, at worst, turned away at the Israel border. Would you?
I would ask the organization holding the conference to pick a place where its law-abiding members could go without worrying about not getting in. I would expect that the organization would agree, because it’s a wide, wide world with a lot of other hotel ballrooms to hold a convention in.
See? I didn’t question Israel’s right to protect its borders. I didn’t comment on U.S. anti-discrimination law. I didn’t have to do either of these things. All I had to do was reasonably assess the costs and benefits of signing up for a conference and expect the organization of which I am a member to hold the conference in a place where I am not playing Israeli roulette when I book my airline ticket.
Lawyers like legal arguments. Often, lawyers like to make political points. But sometimes the resolution to a conflict does not require invocations of law or politics. Sometimes it’s much simpler. And, every now and then, a conflict involving the state of Israel and people of Arab descent has nothing to do with anti-semitic bigotry toward one side or the other.
Main image via Flickr/george ruiz.