“I don’t see emigration as something that can be happy, only a tragedy. But if I stay here, I have to fight against things being done in my name.”- Michael Sfard
UP two steaming, dingy flights in an aging Bauhaus building here, Michael Sfard imagines that his is one of the few law firms with no parking spaces. The young lawyers and interns who toil inside dressed in T-shirts and shorts always walk or bike to work, and visitors are rare.
“Our clients either aren’t allowed to come or they’re behind bars,” Mr. Sfard explained.
Mr. Sfard’s clients are mostly Palestinians who live in the West Bank and need permits to come into Israel. Suing the state generally does not ease the path to getting such a permit, which is often a big problem.
One recent afternoon, Mr. Sfard was dealing with just that reality: The mother and cousin of a protester killed by Israeli soldiers were denied a permit, although they were the key witnesses in a Supreme Court hearing scheduled the next day demanding an investigation. The government considers relatives of those killed by Israeli forces high security risks for seeking revenge.
“I have many cases where I’m alone there without my clients,” he sighed.
At 40, Mr. Sfard, the son of Polish dissidents who came to Israel in the late 1960s, has emerged as the left’s leading lawyer in Israel. He has brought scores of human rights and land-use cases challenging Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories it acquired in 1967, and represented hundreds of soldiers refusing to serve.
He sees his work as a mission to save the prospect of a two-state solution and preserve Israeli democracy. But he has at times unwittingly undermined his own agenda, when his microvictories in court prompt the right-leaning government to produce political macrovictories for his adversaries — leading to the legalization and expansion of Jewish settlements in the West Bank.
This summer, for example, 30 homes in an outpost known as Ulpana were evacuated after a Sfard petition claimed they were on private Palestinian land; Israel pledged to build 800 settler homes in exchange.
This week, Mr. Sfard’s chief adversary, the settler movement, bestowed on him honorary citizenship in “Judea and Samaria,” the biblical names for the West Bank, with a mock certificate noting that he “may have come to curse and cause damage” but had ended up “raising the morale and gladdening the hearts of those who love the Land.”
Most of his work is financed by Israel’s premier left-wing nonprofit organizations, which in turn are financed in part by European governments.
“He sees the courts as the way to force the changes that he perceives as necessary for Israel,” said Gerald Steinberg, who runs NGO Monitor, a right-leaning group that examines organizations like those that support Mr. Sfard. “But he doesn’t convince the Israeli public. In any democratic process, you can’t use just the legal system to impose an ideology.”
Mr. Sfard makes no apologies for his dual role as legal advocate and political activist. His representation of conscientious objectors came after he served 21 days in a military jail in 1998 for refusing to do reserve duty in the disputed city of Hebron. His office shelves are lined with the works and likenesses of Mohandas K. Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, the Dalai Lama and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. His parents met during the student uprisings at the University of Warsaw in 1968.
Mr. Sfard’s maternal grandfather, the sociologist Zygmunt Bauman, was kicked out of the university and labeled a traitor for supporting the students. His father, Leon, spent three months in a Polish prison, and avoided trial only by leaving the country.
THIS legacy is ever-present for the younger Mr. Sfard: in his firm’s conference room hangs a large photograph he took of four Soviet-era Polish police cars that were on display in Warsaw when he went there on a trip to explore his roots two years ago. The police cars were much like the ones in which his father was taken from his home in the middle of the night.
“It reminds me time and again what am I doing, and what are the dangers of being a dissident,” Mr. Sfard said. “For him, I should be a bit more thankful that this is a democracy and I have freedom of speech and I can do what I do. For me, this is the starting point, not something that I have to appreciate every day.”
Once in Israel, his father became a high-tech consultant, his mother an education professor. They raised Michael and his younger sister in a Jerusalem neighborhood filled with journalists, who debated the issues of the day in their salon. In high school, he rallied for movie theaters to be open on the Sabbath, and for peace with the Palestinians.
He served in the army as a combat medic, mostly in Lebanon, and chose law because “I don’t have what it takes to be a politician.” A side passion is literature — especially Polish poetry — and he co-wrote “The Last Spy,” a 2007 biography of Marcus Klingberg, a Polish-Israeli client of the first lawyer he worked with, who was convicted of espionage for the Soviet Union.
Mr. Sfard and his high school sweetheart have 7-year-old and 15-month-old sons, whom they adopted for social-consciousness reasons. He spent a year studying in London, a self-imposed exile from the land with which he has a love-hate relationship, but could not stay away.
“This is my place: this culture is my culture, this language is my language,” he explained. “I don’t see emigration as something that can be happy, only a tragedy. But if I stay here, I have to fight against things being done in my name.”
Since it opened in 2004, Mr. Sfard’s firm has grown from a solo practice in one and a half rooms to a combined three apartments — his wife, a fashion designer turned social worker, did the interiors — with eight employees and two subletters.
HIS signature is on many of the major cases decided in recent years by the Supreme Court: successes include the rerouting of the separation barrier around the village of Bilin, the 2005 demolition of nine settler homes in Amona, the impending move of the outpost called Migron and the recent evacuations in Ulpana.
These and others have made him an enemy of the right: last year, a settler from Kiryat Arba was indicted in connection with an Internet posting that called for his assassination and included his address. But Mr. Sfard’s court statements and legal wisdom are respected by judges and adversaries. And clients praise him for adopting their causes as his own.
“He didn’t treat me as a customer,” said Bassam Aramin, the father of a 10-year-old girl killed in a 2007 protest, whose petition forced an investigation, though not an indictment. “He treats this like his own daughter.”
David Zonshein, founder of the advocacy group Courage to Refuse, recalled Mr. Sfard’s taking him aside during the push in one case for a full military trial, which risked a long jail sentence, to say: “Don’t do it for other people. Other people will not take the consequences.”
His office walls are at once a chronicle of the movement and his personal history. There is a framed 1958 map of Israel he found at the Jaffa flea market, “the only map you can find today where there are no settlements and the Palestinian villages are all marked,” he said. There is also a framed search warrant for his files in a case concerning interviews with dissident soldiers.
In back, a small room is filled with a rainbow of three-ring binders, files of the roughly 500 cases the firm has fought over its eight years. They are, often, not legal genius, more a matter of spending the money and time to find, say, Palestinians with landownership claims. But even the victories are often bittersweet. In Bilin, the separation barrier took over half the village’s land; a fight lasting years returned about a quarter of the land.
“The process is no less important than the result,” he said. “I am addicted. It’s not a question of whether it’s depressing or not, but whether I can live without it.”
-This story was first published in The New York Times on 28/07/2012