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When Diaspora Jews visit a West Bank court
By Anshell Pfeffer
[15 January 2014] - The Ofer military-court and prison complex doesn’t appear on any must-see list of Israeli tourist attractions. A short drive from Jerusalem, just across the Green Line, Ofer is different from other military installations in the West Bank.
Under the law, court proceedings there must remain open, with relatively few restrictions, to lawyers, journalists and activists, as well as to Palestinians and foreign citizens. In recent years, the Ofer courtrooms, in particular the juvenile court, have been drawing increasing diplomatic and media attention, spurred in part by reports from Israeli human rights organizations.
Now in an intriguing twist in the dialogue between Israel and the Diaspora, the court is about to become a destination for concerned Jewish tourists. Last week the first such group of 10 British Jews, mainly lawyers, organized by London-based group Yachad, arrived in Israel for a tour of West Bank settlements, Palestinian villages and East Jerusalem. There were meetings with activists, academics, officials and civilians on all sides of the divide, with the main event a visit to the juvenile court.
“I don’t want Jews to do to others what others did to us,” says Manuela Grayson, a magistrate from London. “I believe that Israel is the home of the Jewish people, so I want it to live up to those standards. Diaspora Jews who visit Tel Aviv or Eilat are seeing a mirage, but not the reality of this country.”
As lawyers, the group was intrigued to see the court where Palestinian minors are charged with crimes such as stone-throwing and illegal entry to Israel. (The visitors were allowed to observe proceedings with the agreement of the defendants and their parents.)
“It struck me as virtually a fig leaf with all the trappings of due process and none of the substance – every defendant we saw knew that by virtue of the system, he had to plead guilty despite protesting innocence,” said David Middleburgh, a commercial lawyer from London.
“Since bail is routinely denied as a matter of course, their lawyers advised them to plead guilty because even if they were to fight and win their case, they would end up serving more time. There wasn’t any crying or wailing in the courtroom, and the families were all smiling and laughing together with their sons. They were simply resigned to the fact that they were going to spend a couple of months being battered by the system.”
None of the visitors interviewed described themselves as disillusioned with Israel based on what they saw, but the visit has raised some concerns.
“The visit to Ofer hasn’t changed my great love for Israel,” said Tony Metzer, a Queen’s Counsel specializing in human rights law and a part-time immigration judge. “It has shaken, however, my confidence in its legal system. I have huge respect for the Supreme Court and its fantastic judges, but it’s really hard to reconcile that respect with this separate system for Palestinians only.”
Yachad, which styles itself as a pro-Israel and pro-peace group, has often been described as the British version of J Street, but unlike the American organization, it doesn’t do political lobbying. Instead, it concentrates on education within the Jewish community.
The British community's mainstream leaders have largely embraced Yachad (unlike J Street’s situation in the United States), but there have been some discordant tones. For example, the British Zionist Federation refused to accept Yachad as a member, and last month a group called UK Lawyers for Israel labeled the scheduled visit to Ofer as “hostile” to Israel.
Yachad has been taking British Jews on day tours of the West Bank for nearly three years. Until now, the more-than 1,200 participants have been taking time out of their vacations for a few less-restful hours, or have been members of British Jewish youth groups on their organized Israel Experience tours.
The participants of the “legal trip” arrived in Israel especially, paying their own airfare and an additional 550 pounds for the three-day program.
“We felt that many members of the Jewish community had a need to expand their knowledge of the conflict and how we as Jews relate to it,” says Yachad chief Hannah Weisfeld, who’s used to the angry response from parts of the community to some of Yachad’s programs.
“They try to portray us as hostile, but most of our people are members of synagogues and Israel is integrated into their Jewish identity. We have to be capable of a more informed debate on it, and we met people from the IDF and the Yesha Council [of settlers], so everyone can draw their own conclusions. The only alternative is to shut your eyes and not to know.”