Felicia Langer died on June 21st this year. She was probably the first radical Israeli whose name I knew. I can remember that she was a hate figure for people in the local Jewish community as someone who was 'anti-Israel'. She was known as both an Arab lover and a communist - a deadly combination.
Below are two appreciations of the life of this wonderful woman who dedicated her life to supporting those who were the target of Zionist oppression.
Felicia Langer was a Holocaust survivor, a communist, and one of the first Israeli lawyers to defend Palestinian residents of the occupied territories in the Israeli Supreme Court. She died in Germany.
By Michael Sfard By +972 Magazine
Published June 24, 2018
Attorney Felicia Langer in 2008. UNiesert, Wikimedia CC BY-SA 3.0)
Israeli human rights lawyer Felicia Langer died Thursday in Germany.
Langer was a human rights and peace activist, a communist, and one of the first attorneys to represent Palestinian residents of the occupied territories in Israeli courts. In Israel’s Supreme Court, she pioneered legal practices that today seem natural and obvious but were once considered outrageous. She was the first to challenge the expulsion of Palestinian political leaders from the West Bank, the first to challenge the army’s practice of demolishing the homes of Palestinians suspected of militant activities, the first to accuse the Shin Bet of torturing detainees, and the first to fight the practice of administrative detention.
In those days, there were very few Israeli lawyers willing to represent Palestinians. Langer — a Polish-born Jewish lawyer and Holocaust survivor who moved to Israel, joined the Communist Party, and defended Palestinians — became a hated figure among the general public. She was a Jew and a woman who joined forces with “the Arab enemy.” When I interviewed her during research for my book, The Wall and the Gate, she told me that there were periods when taxi drivers in Jerusalem would refuse to pick her up, that the threats against her were so severe that she was forced to hire a bodyguard, that she had to take the sign off of her office in Jerusalem, and that her neighbors asked her to clean off the words “you will die soon,” spray painted on her office’s door, because “it was not aesthetically pleasing.”
Langer fought, almost alone, against the heads of the judicial system at the time, against people with tremendous political and public power, like Justice Meir Shamgar and state attorney (and later a Supreme Court justice) Mishael Cheshin. The hearings in Langer’s cases were contentious. She never hesitated to accuse the establishment of carrying out crimes against her clients and to represent them — some of whom were members of the Palestinian leadership in the occupied territories, such as Nablus Mayor Bassam Shaka and Hebron mayor candidate Hazmi Natcheh — as victims of an evil regime.
Over the years, others followed the path that Langer blazed. First among them were Leah Tzemel, Elias Khoury, Raja Shehadeh, and Avigdor Feldman. Many others have joined since, as Langer’s path became a road, then a highway. But, in the 1990s, she came to see that highway as a fig leaf — that the judicial system was exploiting legal proceedings for public relations purposes and pro-Israel propaganda. She closed her office and moved to Germany, where she continued to fight the occupation and struggle for peace and coexistence.
Felicia Langer exits the High Court in Jerusalem, after the hearing of the appeal against Bassem Shaka’s expulsion. November 22, 1979. (Herman Hanina)
Veteran residents of Jerusalem will tell you that the winter of 1968 was particularly harsh and snowy. And they know that when it snows in Jerusalem, Hebron is usually also covered in white. In the winter of 1968 both of these biblical cities and the road between them were blanketed in snow. But neither snow nor impassable roads could stop Felicia Langer. With her famous determination, she decided to take to the slippery road and drive from her office in downtown Jerusalem to the Hebron police station. A Palestinian sheikh from East Jerusalem had come to her office in the middle of the storm and told her that his son, who had just returned from studying in Turkey, had been arrested and taken to the Hebron station. When the parents sent their son clean clothes through the authorities in the detention facility, they received, in return, a dirty bundle that contained a bloody shirt. They had no idea what had happened to their son and they were very worried. Having been retained by the father to represent the son and visit him, Langer took a file folder and marked it with the number 1, the first case involving a subject of the occupation. Client number 1, the son of an East Jerusalem sheikh, would be the first of hundreds, maybe thousands, of Palestinians Langer would represent before the Israeli authorities over the next twenty-two years.
The Hebron police and the jail were housed in an old building in the center of the city, the Taggart Building, named after a British police officer who had gained expertise suppressing insurgencies in India and who designed fortified police stations all over Mandatory Palestine for His Majesty’s forces. The Israeli army was the third regime to use the structure, following the British themselves and the Jordanians.
When Langer arrived, she looked not just for the sheikh’s son, but also for two other clients, ‘Abd al-‘ Aziz Sharif and Na’im ‘Odeh, both members of Palestinian Communist movements in the Hebron area. Unlike the sheikh’s son, who, Langer found out during her visit, was suspected of membership in Fatah and infiltration into the country, the two Communists were suspected of nothing. They had been arrested under special powers stipulated in the Defense (Emergency) Regulations that were enacted by the British Mandate and had survived long after it ended. The regulations permit “preventive” (or administrative) detention, which is designed not to respond to an act already committed but to stop the potential danger posed by the detainee. Administrative detainees are neither accused nor suspected of anything and may be held without trial or charges being brought. Langer’s clients, Sharif and ‘Odeh, were to be the first raindrops in a monsoon of administrative detentions that would flood the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
Langer was born in Poland in the early 1930s. Nearly all her relatives were murdered in the Holocaust. She and her parents managed to escape the Nazis to the USSR, but her father fell victim to Stalin’s regime. He died a short while after being released, in very poor health, from a Soviet gulag where he was held in dreadful conditions. Langer nevertheless became a devout communist. After immigrating to Israel, she joined the local Communist Party and became a pivotal activist. She began practicing law in 1965 and for a while worked in a Tel Aviv law office as an associate litigating all sorts of cases, but immediately after the 1967 war, Langer decided to devote her practice to representing Palestinians living under the occupation and opened her own office in Jerusalem.
In the late 1960s, she was one of just a handful of lawyers representing West Bank residents. Most of these lawyers were Palestinian citizens of Israel, almost all of whom had ties to the Communist Party of Israel (known as Maki). At the time, communist factions were deeply entrenched in Palestinian urban centers and the connections between the Israeli and West Bank and Gaza Communist movements paved the way for lawyers from Israel to represent Palestinian residents under occupation. Following Langer’s lead, these lawyers laid the groundwork for the extensive legal activism that continues today, activism marked by partnership, Sisyphean legal battles, and trust, given daily by Palestinians to Israeli lawyers, some of them Jewish, to represent them before Israeli institutions, primarily the High Court of Justice. This trust and partnership was maintained through five decades of occupation: even in the hardest times, when it seemed as though all the bridges between Palestinians and Israelis had been burned or bombed, solidarity in the fight against human rights violations did not wane.
Langer arrived in Israel in 1950, after living through the rough years of the war in the USSR, where, as we know, her family had fled from Poland. Her father had been sent to the gulag for refusing to become a Soviet citizen (he feared being unable to return to Poland after the war). After he died in late 1944, Langer and her mother struggled to provide for themselves in extremely harsh conditions, selling their few possessions to survive. When the war ended, Langer returned to Poland, where she met her future spouse. Her mother, who had remarried, emigrated to Palestine; Langer and her husband answered her pleas and eventually followed her.
In the early 1960s, Langer realized a dream, and, unusual at the time for a woman who had a child, she enrolled in the Hebrew University Law School branch in Tel Aviv. Her past compelled her to represent the disempowered, to fight for people who, like her family and herself, were victims of government malice. She studied law to put her worldview, which had crystallized during the war, into action and challenge discrimination and injustice. By the mid-1960s, Langer had become a qualified lawyer, but her attempts to find work in the public sector were unsuccessful.
Langer claims she was written off because of her Marxist convictions and her membership in Maki, Israel’s Communist Party, at the time. She had no choice but to turn to the private sector. But there she faced a different obstacle—her own conscience. After refusing to represent a man who was a pimp and was trying to evade paying alimony, she realized she had to set up her own practice if she wanted to pick her cases according to her many principles. In her practice Langer represented clients who aligned with her ideological commitments: detained protesters, women whose rights had been violated, and Arab citizens of Israel in conflict with the authorities. This continued until 1967, when, in the space of six days, 1.5 million Palestinians came under Israeli occupation. At a time when Israeli society, with its many Holocaust survivors, was dedicated to the notion that the moral of the rise of the Nazis, their conquest of Europe, and the Final Solution was that the remnants of the Jewish people were obliged to build an invincible country that would protect Jews from victimhood, Langer drew a different lesson: any discrimination or occupation was fraught with danger, not just by the Germans and not just against Jews.
Representing Palestinians who had suddenly come under Israeli military rule, a regime of all-powerful army generals, was the very fulfilment of the goal for which she had studied law. The only lawyers representing the occupied at the time were a handful of Palestinian Israelis. Langer was a far cry from the typical defender of Palestinians: a woman, a Communist, and a European Jew. With her Polish accent and command of Latin, her partnership with West Bank and Gaza Palestinians may have been the strangest sight in the Middle East. To provide access to West Bank residents, Langer rented a small office on Koresh Street in Jerusalem, which would be her home base for the next twenty-three years. She soon became synonymous with the fight for Palestinian rights. To others she was a traitor and an enemy sympathizer.
In 1990, after a long career of public and dramatic battles with the authorities, Felicia Langer closed her Jerusalem office and left Israel to take up a teaching position in Germany. In an interview in the Washington Post Langer said, “I couldn’t be a fig leaf for this system anymore.”
Michael Sfard is an Israeli human rights lawyer and the author of The Wall and the Gate: Israel, Palestine, and the Legal Battle for Human Rights (Metropolitan Books, 2018).
Holocaust survivor who became a human rights lawyer in Israel and defended Palestinians in the country’s courts
Thu 12 Jul 2018 16.56 BSTLast modified on Fri 10 Aug 2018 17.00 BST
Felicia Langer in 1991. Her personal ethical boundary was that she would not represent anybody who was suspected of having blood on their hands. Photograph: Ullstein Bild/Getty Images
In 1959, Felicia Langer qualified in law in Tel Aviv and joined the Israel Bar Association. Her first years as a lawyer were unremarkable, but the six-day war in 1967, with Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, provoked a change.
The following year she started her own practice and began representing Palestinians in the Israeli courts, and in the military courts that were a part of the apparatus of the occupation. Langer, who has died aged 87, defended Palestinians who had demolition orders against their homes and activists facing deportation.
Her own ethical boundary was that she would not represent anybody who was suspected of having blood on their hands. And while her choice to defend Palestinians turned her into a hate figure among many Israelis, who branded her “the terrorist lawyer”, her refusal to represent those accused of violent crimes drew criticism from the ranks of some in the anti-Zionist left.
Langer’s most famous client was Bassam Shakaa, who was elected mayor of Nablus in 1976, whom she defended against a deportation order, filed by Israel in response to his criticism of the Camp David peace agreement between Israel and Egypt. Langer won the case – amid mass demonstrations and the collective resignation of all West Bank mayors – and Shakaa remained in Nablus.
By 1990, Langer had decided she could no longer work within the Israeli legal system, and told the Washington Post: “I want my quitting to be a sort of demonstration and expression of my despair and disgust with the system.”
She added, articulating a dilemma that faces many human rights activists in Israel: “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.”
Langer moved to Tübingen, southern Germany, and accepted teaching positions in the universities of Bremen and Kassel.
She was born Felicia Veitt in the Polish town of Tarnow, close to the German border, a city with a large Jewish population. Seven days after the outbreak of the second world war, the Nazis occupied Tarnow and the Veitt family fled to Russia. There, Felicia’s father, a lawyer, was arrested because he refused to take a Soviet passport, for fear that he would not be allowed back into Poland when the war ended.
The family spent the rest of the war in one of Stalin’s gulags. Felicia’s father died in 1945, and she and her mother returned to Poland, where they found that many family members had perished. Despite these experiences, Felicia was an avid communist for the rest of her life.
In 1949, she married Mieciu Langer, a survivor of Nazi concentration camps who had lost most of his family in the Holocaust. The couple followed Felicia’s mother, who pleaded with them to join her, to Israel in 1950 and settled in Tel Aviv, where Felicia studied law at the local outpost of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
Langer’s books about her experiences in the military courts included With My Own Eyes (1975) and These Are My Brothers (1979). Youth Between the Ghetto and Theresienstadt (1999) recounted her husband’s wartime experiences. Quo Vadis Israel? The New Intifada of the Palestinians (2001) analysed the second Palestinian uprising following the disappointment that followed the Oslo accords.
Her activity for Palestinians won her many awards, among them the Bruno Kreisky prize for human rights in 1991, and membership of the German Federal Order of Merit in 2009 and the Palestinian Order of Merit and Excellence in 2012. But according to her own account, the accolade that brought tears to her eyes was the naming of a square in her honour in the centre of a refugee camp near Nablus.
Mieciu died in 2015. She is survived by her son, Michael, and three grandchildren.
• Felicia Langer, lawyer, born 9 December 1930; died 21 June 2018