Israeli Human Rights Lawyer Defends Activists in Tradition of Langer, Tsemel

By Twair, Pat McDonnell | Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, March 2005 | Go to article overview

Israeli Human Rights Lawyer Defends Activists in Tradition of Langer, Tsemel


Twair, Pat McDonnell, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs


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 BenGurion 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.

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