A portrait of Felicia Langer
Felicia Langer, a Holocaust survivor who dedicated her whole life to fighting for the Palestinian cause, died in June this year. She was one of the first Israeli lawyers to defend Palestinian political prisoners and for this, she was vilified, ostracised and even threatened with death. Despite this, she continued her fight in Israeli courts for her Palestinian clients for some 23 years until 1990 when she finally decided to close her legal practice. Explaining her decision to cease legal practice, she said ‘I realised that all this time, by bringing Palestinians to the courts, I had been legitimising the system, but the system had not brought the Palestinians any justice. And I decided I couldn’t be a fig leaf for this system anymore.’ She emigrated to Germany where she received many international awards as she continued her fight for the Palestinian cause until her death at the age of 87. To mark her passing, we reproduce below a profile article that was first published in 1998.
A BEAUTIFUL, petite woman with intense blue eyes, Felicia Langer radiates extraordinary strength and determination. She needs to. Langer, an Israeli of Polish-Jewish origin who is married to a Holocaust survivor, spent close to 23 years of her life working as a defence lawyer in the Occupied Territories, representing Palestinian political prisoners. Though she now lives in self-imposed exile in Tübingen, Germany, where she lectures at the university, her life is still dedicated to the cause she first took up in 1967.
Back in Jerusalem to address a conference, Langer has lost none of her disillusionment with the policies of the state.
‘The failure of the peace process was already inscribed in the Oslo Accords,’ she said. ‘The “peace of the brave”,’ she added bitterly, ‘brought the Palestinians the Israeli bulldozer.’
Bitterness and anger at continuing Palestinian dispossession by Israel are not new emotions to the 68-year-old lawyer. Her autobiography, aptly entitled Fury and Hope, expresses her alternating states of being as an Israeli who has adopted the Palestinians’ suffering as her own.
Fury at the senseless killings of Palestinian resisters, the razing of entire villages, the bulldozing of houses, the wide-scale confiscation of land, the thousands of administrative detention orders slapped on Palestinian youths – but most of all, rage at the continued occupation of Arab land and the denial of the Palestinians’ aspirations to national self-determination, which has precluded any hope for the establishment of a Palestinian state and peace between the two peoples.
‘How do you define your love of country?’ a journalist from the Israeli daily Hadashot asked Langer some years ago. ‘My love of country fulfils itself in hatred of the occupation,’ she replied, without a moment’s hesitation.
Fury and rage are powerful emotions running as a leitmotif through Langer’s tale, motivating her work as an act of resistance and defiance, and defining her solidarity with the struggle of the Palestinian people.
Born in Poland in 1930, Langer fled her native country for the Soviet Union after the outbreak of World War II. Returning to Poland after the war, she married Mieciu Langer, a Holocaust survivor. Unimpressed with Zionism and happily settled in Poland, the young couple emigrated to Israel in 1950 for personal reasons – Langer wanted to join her mother, who had settled there.
Deeply disturbed by the racism and class-based inequalities inherent in Israeli society, both Langer and her husband joined the Israeli Communist Party, which offered them an alternative vision and a channel for political activism.
‘1967 was a hard winter, as if nature wanted to add to the catastrophe that had befallen the Palestinians,’ recalls Langer in her autobiography. By then, she had decided to ‘become active’; having resigned her job in a Tel Aviv law office, she established a private practice in Jerusalem to assist Palestinian political prisoners.
Her first clients that winter were an imam and his wife whose son had been jailed in Hebron for ‘membership in a Palestinian resistance organisation’. As he explained the case to Langer, telling her how he had fetched his son’s blood-stained shirt from jail, the man’s eyes suddenly filled with tears and his wife broke down, sobbing. ‘There was silence in the room ... And what I feared, happened: tears came to my eyes, and instead of radiating authority, strength and confidence, I cried with them. So there we sat, three adults crying over the fate of a tortured son.’ Looking back on this episode, Langer believes it was necessary to break down the barriers between her and the people she wanted to represent – ‘creating a bond of trust and closeness, crucial for both sides’.
Over two decades of representing Palestinian political prisoners in the Occupied Territories, Langer relentlessly worked at consolidating this bond in solidarity with the Palestinian people. In effect, a major part of her autobiography consists of documenting cases of flagrant Israeli human rights violations in Palestine. Recording the history of the occupation, the writer testifies lest people should ever forget. Since the early days of her work as a defence attorney, Langer has turned to writing – writing everywhere: in taxis, in prison yards while waiting for her clients, she used the written word to express her personal anguish at the effects of the occupation.
Throughout her 23-year-long struggle against the Israeli military court system, Langer was driven by a stubborn sense of hope, seemingly against all odds. Motivated by the powerful need to crack the system open – even if only fleetingly – so as to be able to defend her clients beyond the available token legal manoeuvres, Langer relentlessly fought her way to the Israeli Supreme Court time and again. Basing her claims on the legality of binding international treaties, Langer cited countless violations of the Geneva Conventions – to which Israel is a signatory – fighting an uneven and usually losing battle, with a few notable exceptions.
Overturning Bassam Shaka’s expulsion orders in November 1979 was such an exception and counted among Langer’s most important victories – ‘the most important of all’, she recalls. The celebrated nationalist mayor of Nablus, Shaka had been one of the most vocal and vehement opponents of the Camp David Accords. As a result, the military governor of the West Bank accused Shaka of inciting terrorist attacks and sheltering their perpetrators, arrested him and signed an expulsion order against him. When the Supreme Court overruled the mayor’s deportation, the whole town of Nablus celebrated along with Langer, who at that time was briefly able to believe that ‘reality may sometimes surpass our wildest dreams’.
But the joy was to be shortlived. Shortly following the Nablus celebration, a Jewish terrorist group booby-trapped the mayor’s car. Barely escaping with his life and gravely injured, Shaka’s legs were amputated. As Langer left her friend on his hospital bed in Nablus, he told her: ‘I am here and the struggle is just beginning.’ ‘What stuff are you made of, Bassam?’ she wondered as she left the ward.
Yet Langer herself is made of equally ‘strong stuff’. An extraordinarily courageous and resilient woman, she kept on working despite appalling conditions, social ostracism, death threats and even physical assaults.
In 1968, when Langer first started publishing articles in the Israeli press to denounce the occupation, she was castigated by the average Israeli. She became an outcast and an alien.
It all began with the demolition of Hamdi Tukan’s house in Nablus. Tukan’s father had shown Langer the bulldozed concrete rubble in the midst of which she could still see the vestiges of flowers stubbornly sprouting among the debris.
Standing on the Nablus hills overlooking the ruins, Langer felt an overwhelming urge to tell Tukan that ‘this was not the only face of her people’. She did so in an open letter addressed to ‘my brother Hamdi Tukan’, published in the Arabic-language weekly Al-Ittihad and the Hebrew Zo Haderech. ‘The day would come,’ wrote Langer, ‘when Tukan would be able to build a new house and plant new flowers that will bloom with a myriad of colours.’
The reaction to Langer’s article was swift and to the point. Returning home to Tel Aviv from her Jerusalem office one night, she was startled by a growing commotion coming from one of her neighbours’ balconies. ‘Look at her, look at this piece of shit, this traitor. This dirty Arab is her brother! Let her go to Nablus, we don’t need her here,’ a woman screamed at Langer.
‘I went out to my balcony with Michael [her son] who had turned white. My neighbours’ faces were distorted by a hatred I had never seen before. I tried to say something, but my words were drowned out by a flood of insults and hysterical screams. “Get out of this house,” they shouted, “we won’t stand for you to live here. You want to plant flowers for this Arab? You can have some of these here on your grave.” And they pointed to the well-kept flower beds growing in my part of the yard.’
Throughout the years, recalls Langer, her every step was followed by piercing hateful stares, accompanied by the occasional insult. ‘I walked by with my head held up high, although each and every time something inside me would shrivel,’ she wrote. ‘When I was lucky, I didn’t bump into those groups of youths who would spit in my direction whenever I walked by.’
More ominous than the daily harassment and aggression were the occasional death threats. ‘We are a terror organisation against those responsible for terrorist acts. If you don’t stop working, you will have a bad and bitter end,’ warned a sinister voice over the phone on a warm June night in 1974. Ten years later the message was much the same, though more political in tone. ‘Felicia Langer is a PLO whore. The day of your death is near,’ the Jewish Defense League, a fascist terrorist group established by Rabbi Meir Kahane, spray-painted on the door of Langer’s Jerusalem office.
Beyond the humiliating daily wear and tear of social ostracism and the real fear for her life, Langer was constantly harassed by the authorities. From denying and delaying her right to consult and meet with her clients, to dismissing her petitions, to overruling her defence arguments in court, her work was obstructed at every step of the way.
But slapping down her clients with inordinately severe prison sentences was the most dramatic way of punishing the Israeli lawyer for defending Palestinian political prisoners. Langer recounts the case of one client, Tawfik Aharam, who was sentenced to 10 years in jail for membership of an ‘illegal terrorist organisation’. Since Aharam had never actively opposed the occupation, his sentence should not have exceeded two years. ‘My client’s father was probably right when he told me: “Felicia, you are the one who is being sentenced here”,’ she recalls.
In Aharam’s case, as in similar cases, Langer appealed such sentences with a measure of success. Determined to defend her clients and often driven by the sheer will to survive, Langer bravely continued to fight her battles against the occupation – until 1990, the third year of the Intifada.
During the Intifada the military court system had broken down completely, becoming a total travesty of justice, with hundreds of prisoners herded into daily sentencing sessions lacking even a minimal decorum. Said Langer: ‘They made justice into a farce and I refused to provide them with a stamp of legality ... They still hadn’t understood that nothing matters when a people fight for their freedom, which to them is dearer than life.’
She goes on, ‘I was supposed to represent clients I had never met before, so I could not prepare myself to defend them. It came to the point where I was no longer physically able to walk into a courtroom and address the judge as “your honour”, I felt I just couldn’t say the words anymore. As a gesture of protest I closed my Jerusalem law office and left the country.’
Are things any different now? ‘Absolutely not,’ replies Langer vehemently. Her visit to Jerusalem has merely reinforced what she knew and felt already. ‘The time has come to tell the truth about the myth of the Israeli system of justice. Since 1993, Israeli forces have killed and injured hundreds of Palestinians, destroyed the homes of over 500 families, taken away the rights of over one thousand people to live in Jerusalem, arrested, imprisoned and tortured thousands of people, leaving other thousands homeless.’
If anything, the rate at which Palestinian dispossession is proceeding has increased since the Oslo Accords. ‘The pace of settlement has actually spiralled since then,’ says Langer. ‘The Labour government headed by Nobel Peace Prize recipient, Yitzhak Rabin, provided three times as much financial support for the building of settlements in the Occupied Territories as the Likud coalition government had done in the past.’
This article was first published in Al-Ahram Weekly (weekly.ahram.org.eg) in 1998.
*Third World Resurgence No. 329/330, January/February 2018, pp 57-59