“Of Little People and Landmark Decisions”

Haaretz article describes three ACRI cases which changed Israeli history

The following article describes the personal stories behind a few of Israel’s most influential legal cases. ACRI represented the individuals in all of the landmark cases described. The article was published in Haaretz on November 28, 2008 and also be found by following this link.

Jonathan Danilowitz was an El Al flight attendant who wanted his gay partner to receive the free ticket to which a spouse of an airline employee was entitled. The first time Danilowitz applied, the airline complied. His problems began the second time around: El Al refused to grant his partner a free ticket on the grounds that the two were not a recognized couple. Danilowitz then approached the airline and said that as a bachelor, he wanted the ticket to go to his mother. El Al countered that since Danilowitz had a partner, his mother was not entitled to a ticket. Danilowitz then turned to a specialist in labor law. Dr. Oded Kalmaro declared that he was “the right man, at the right time” for this battle. Together with the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, the two took the case to the district labor court.

“I wanted the bonus ticket I thought I was entitled to,” says Danilowitz. “I wasn’t fighting for social justice just yet, but I wanted them to stop discriminating against me. I was born in South Africa, so I know a thing or two about prejudice and the way it works.”

Danilowitz never expected the process to take so long (the case was heard by three different courts and dragged on for six years). When he appeared for the first hearing at the district court in early 1988, he discovered the proceedings were being conducted without him; the judges and lawyers never even spoke to him. Indeed, Danilowitz, who is today 63, was not even present at most of the sessions, nor did he show up for the reading of the High Court of Justice ruling at the end of 1994. He was flying with El Al to Mumbai that day and did not want to change his schedule. His partner, who was not in the courtroom either, informed him of the decision.

Recalling the return flight from Mumbai brings a smile to his face: “I walked down the aisle and handed out newspapers with my face on the front page. The pictures were huge, and the passengers recognized me right away. People congratulated me and were very supportive. It was a really nice flight.”

Only after reading the judges’ wide-ranging lengthy arguments did he begin to understand the verdict’s social implications, he says. A few years ago, an El Al colleague invited him to join a tour of the Supreme Court building in Jerusalem. In its museum of jurisprudence, he discovered his name on the list of Israel’s top 10 landmark cases, which drove home the significance of the revolution he had sparked without even realizing it.

Danilowitz notes that the legal process took a heavy toll on the couple’s relationship. The tremendous pressure from El Al lawyers to reveal details of their intimate lives was particularly tough. The couple fought to safeguard their privacy, and even considered giving up the struggle at a certain point. Actually, Danilowitz recalls, the newspapers were quite respectful of their desire for privacy and avoided publishing intimate information that was not relevant to the case.

Beyond the plane ticket for his partner and a legal precedent bearing his name, Danilowitz gained new insights: “The case sharpened my awareness of the importance of fighting discrimination in general, and discrimination against homosexuals in particular. I learned how infuriating it is to be discriminated against, and how emotionally draining it is. I’ve become a feminist. I think women today are discriminated against, but they just accept it, which is a pity. I won the case and left with the sense that Israel’s judicial system is a very just one. If only I had known then what I know today, I would have studied to be a lawyer, so I could right more wrongs. Altogether, I’m a fighter, a Don Quixote, who wants to fix the world.”

What would you fight for today?

Danilowitz: “I would fight to enforce the law against smoking in public places on the grounds that the other person’s rights end where my nose begins. I would also fight against the incompetence of the police and its inability to protect the little man. I would give the police force a good shake-up.”

He says he believes silence equals acquiescence, and the three main tips he has for anyone thinking of petitioning the High Court are: “Be sure you’ve really been wronged and have a solid case, consult a good lawyer, and marry a lawyer.”

After working for El Al for 30 years, Danilowitz retired at the end of 2001. He stresses that throughout the legal proceedings, his coworkers were supportive of him and his cause, and he was never mistreated. As an El Al pensioner, he is entitled to a pair of plane tickets for himself and his partner once a year on any flight that is not fully booked. Pausing for a moment, he admits that he has hardly taken advantage of this sought-after perk, which became rightfully his in the wake of the High Court ruling.

Today Danilowitz works as a translator and writes articles on tourism and art for various magazines, among them “Atmosphere,” the magazine distributed on El Al planes. “They really liked me at El Al,” he sums up, “and they still do.”

Revolution in Yeruham

“Everyone thought we were crazy anyway, so we gave them another reason to think so,” says Leah Shakdiel, who rocked the country in 1987. She petitioned the High Court of Justice to force then-minister of religious affairs Zevulun Hammer to approve a list of candidates for the Yeruham religious council on which her name appeared. Hammer never dreamed that he would find himself locked in a ferocious battle with an ultra-Orthodox woman, which would cast a shadow over his public career and threaten his standing in the National Religious Party.

All Shakdiel wanted was to serve on the religious council of Yeruham, a far-flung, poor, godforsaken town in the Negev. There was no law against a woman holding this position, and after consulting with the rabbis, she found no halakhic (Jewish religious) ban on a woman being a member of a council that was basically administrative in character. Her party colleagues in Yeruham also supported her nomination. The only thing missing was the signature of the minister of religious affairs. When Hammer chose to attribute religious significance to what was ultimately a bureaucratic affair, the road to the High Court was short.

Shakdiel, 57, still lives in Yeruham with her husband. The High Court case that became a landmark in the sphere of gender equality bears her name, but Shakdiel insists that it is not so much her personal victory as a victory for Yeruham. At the end of a legal battle that dragged on for two years and nine months, she won the right to sit on the Yeruham council. After that, her five years in office were pretty much a piece of cake.

A teacher by training, Shakdiel came to Yeruham by chance at the end of the 1970s with Mashmiya Shalom, a group of religious Jews committed to halakha, peace and ecology. She found a job in the local school system, and was drawn to the strong sense of partnership that existed between the residents of this little desert town.

“In 1979, the young people, the children of the North African families who settled here in the early days, were all riled up. They had gone to school, finished the army, and now they wanted to change things in Yeruham,” she recalls. “There was a feeling of revolution in the air. I joined the local chapter of the Labor Party and became the first woman on the [nonreligious Yeruham] local council.”

She received the education and welfare portfolio on the local council, which consisted of seven Moroccan men, one Indian man – and Shakdiel, an Ashkenazi woman.

How long before petitioning the High Court did you decide to take the case all the way?

Shakdiel: “The make-up of the religious council was one of the issues that needed to be dealt with in the course of my work for the local council. I discovered that there were no women on religious councils, and not because there was a law against it, or because it was forbidden by halakha, but because of some unspoken agreement between the politicians. The council was made up of five coalition members and four members of the opposition. Every vote was critical – including mine. I proposed my candidacy at the council plenary and was elected in January 1986. They said my election was insanity. They said a woman couldn’t sit on the religious council and they couldn’t understand how the mayor had allowed such a thing to happen.”

Shakdiel says the residents of Yeruham knew her well, and knew she was the right person for the job. “That wasn’t the issue,” she explains. “The local battle against me was orchestrated by one man, a relic from the ‘Sallah Shabati’ era. The Tel Aviv journalists came looking for blood and wrote that an educated Ashkenazi woman had come to wage war on primitive Moroccan Yeruham. That was the story they had in their minds even before they set foot here.”

Shakdiel takes comfort in the fact that she gave residents a reason to be proud: “People understood that something important, not connected to crime, poverty and unemployment, was happening in town – something that interested the whole country. Until today, it hurts me that I became famous but nobody remembers the revolutionaries of Yeruham. They transformed the town, but nobody cares about that.”

Shakdiel eventually got married in Yeruham and had seven children; only one daughter remained there after her marriage. Shakdiel says the battle she fought could only have happened in Yeruham – “a place on the periphery, where the residents had nothing to lose. One way or another, people said we didn’t know what we were doing.”

To stress the importance of local political support, Shakdiel points out that during this period, attorney Rina Sha’ashua-Hasson waged a similar battle in Ramat Hasharon. “Sha’ashua-Hasson also won a seat on the religious council, but the local politicians did not feel any special commitment toward her. Time passed and nothing was done until the elections, which changed the make-up of the council altogether. So the whole thing fizzled out.”

Yeruham’s geographical distance from the center of the country is accompanied by its political remoteness, which Shakdiel sees as a blessing. Yeruham residents are sick of people in Jerusalem running their lives, she says: “There was unbelievable pressure. The Interior Ministry and the Religious Affairs Ministry threatened to cut our budgets. A council head has to be very tough to hang in there, no matter what.”

How did the media exposure affect you?

“It was an ego trip, but there were also some disagreeable aspects. It was not very pleasant to read the attacks in the religious papers. I also had a problem with my mother. I asked the rabbis who supported me to write to Hatzofeh, the only paper she read, and explain that what I was doing was not against halakha. Until today, I am grateful to certain people for helping me out on this.”

On the other hand, Shakdiel has not forgotten the interview Rabbi Shapira gave the day after the High Court issued its ruling. He knew Shakdiel’s father, he said, and he would not have acted as she did. “The next day, my sister sent me a letter that means a lot to me to this day. She wrote that she didn’t know what my father would have done, but he didn’t tolerate fools. I met someone years later who told me that Rabbi Shapira thought highly of me, but was afraid of the women who might come in my wake.”

In the 1980s, Menachem Mazuz, today attorney general, was the deputy state prosecutor. He represented the minister of religious affairs in Shakdiel’s petition to the High Court, and she remembers his verbal acrobatics well. “I may not be a jurist, but from reading the relevant laws, it was clear to me that they could not prevent my appointment,” she says. “Mazuz needed to come up with some argument to represent his client. It was so bizarre. The texts he put together made no sense.”

How did you feel during the deliberations?

“The court met two or three times, and I was not asked to testify, but I went anyway. The panel of justices included Aharon Barak, then vice president of the Supreme Court, Menachem Elon, who represented the religious sector, and Miriam Ben-Porat, who was about to retire. At one of the sessions, someone asked: ‘How will they work with a woman on the council?’ Ben-Porat snapped back: ‘They’ll get used to it.'”

At that point, recalls Shakdiel with a smile, she knew for sure that at least one of the judges was on her side.

What advice do you have for someone who is thinking of petitioning the court on a fundamental issue?

“Don’t be tempted to go to private lawyers. Stick with a public organization that has experience in winning High Court cases. The fee for submitting a petition is relatively low, but to win, you need a profound understanding of how the mechanisms work. Without that inside knowledge, you’re wasting your time.”

If you could pick a battle today, what would it be?

“I think I would focus on reaching a permanent status agreement with the Palestinians. I would evacuate the settlements and fire all the rabbis and right-wing religious functionaries who get a salary from the state and then raise a hand against the army. We need to turn off the tap. I don’t understand this business of illegal outposts and violent settlers in Hebron. How do we let these things continue?”

Is there any issue you feel should be brought before the High Court?

“Part of the Al-Azzami Bedouin tribe is now living within the jurisdiction of Yeruham. The state refuses to open a kindergarten for them, and 130 children don’t go to preschool because the state is worried that it will set a precedent and the Bedouin will build a permanent settlement there. This is a group of people that has a very warm relationship with Yeruham. They volunteer for our local civil guard and we want them to become law-abiding citizens. Their children only enter the formal school system at the age of seven, which is too late. They could end up unemployed, or grow up to be thieves and terrorists.”

Yeruham activists will soon be petitioning the High Court on this issue, says Shakdiel.

Seeking justice in Katzir

Adel Kaadan owns an elegant house with three private parking spots and a well-tended garden in Baka al-Garbiyeh. In the 11 years he has been fighting for the right to build a home on land purchased from the Israel Lands Administration (ILA) in the Jewish communal settlement of Katzir, he has spent $100,000 on renovations. Meanwhile, three more children have joined the family, in addition to the two daughters he had when he first embarked on this battle.

In 1995, the Kaadans decided to move from Baka al-Garbiyeh to Katzir. Kaadan, who used to live in Bat Yam, thought he knew all the ins and outs of living in a Jewish neighborhood. As a male nurse, he has been caring for Jews for 33 years. When he applied to the Katzir local council to buy land from the ILA, he was informed that the land was meant for Jews only.

How long before petitioning the High Court did you decide to fight to the end?

Kaadan: “I don’t say ‘fight.’ That’s too big a word. From a young age, I’ve been trying to secure justice and equality for myself in basic things like schooling, eating, living, breathing. When I was 18, I moved to Bat Yam thinking that economic independence would breed independent thinking. I wanted to get away from my father. I wanted to have freedom of choice and live in a society that was relatively open compared to my village.”

Acceptance into the nursing school at Tel Hashomer was Kaadan’s first successful battle for equality vis-a-vis the establishment. When hefirst applied, the hospital turned him down on the grounds that the school was associated with the army. Only after talks with the management was he formally accepted. Returning to the village after graduation, he began to notice the differences between Jewish communities and his own village.

“The schools were neglected and there were no roads, sidewalks, sewage system or traffic lights,” he recalls. “After the girls were born, I began to think about moving to a Jewish community. From my experience living and working with Jews until then, I knew I got along with them fine.”

The Kaadans started looking: “We discovered that a plot of land in Baka al-Garbiyeh cost $50,000, whereas a property of the same size in Katzir cost $10,000, because it was a lease from the ILA. I went to the local council and said I wanted to buy a plot in the neighborhood set aside for private building. They went pale, called an ad hoc meeting, and told me: ‘We came here to build a Jewish community and don’t accept Arabs.’ They should have had me fill in forms like everyone else and then say no – not disqualify me in advance.”

Kaadan told the story to his coworkers at the hospital, and Jewish friends told him to contact the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI). Attorneys Neta Ziv and Dan Yakir, who eventually became close family friends, petitioned the High Court of Justice. The petition filed in 1995 was heard by an expanded panel of five justices, but it took the president of the court, Aharon Barak, until 2000 to declare that even in a state founded on Jewish values, equality must be sacrosanct. Describing the decision as one of the most difficult he had ever made, Barak ruled that in the name of equality, ILA lands must also be accessible to non-Jews. Nevertheless, the court decided that the specific decision on the Kaadans would have to be made by the ILA, which was asked to reconsider the couple’s application to lease land in Katzir.

The admissions committee, which interviewed the Kaadans, turned them down on the grounds of unsuitability. According to Kaadan, his wife’s low income prospects and lack of proficiency in Hebrew worked against them. ACRI petitioned the High Court again, citing grievances against the ILA and the Katzir admissions committee. After several grueling years, the ILA announced, the day before an important court hearing, that it would lease land to the Kaadans. In 2006, the ILA signed a lease agreement with them and in August 2007, the Kaadans began building their home – 250 square meters on a plot of 600 square meters. Kaadan estimates that within half a year, they will be moving to Katzir.

Kaadan is well aware of the high financial costs of the battle fought in his name, although he himself paid nothing. “If I had been forced to take private lawyers, I would have had to sell the house to pay them, and I’m not sure I would have won,” he says.

How did you feel during the proceedings?

“Before I appealed to the High Court, there was nothing further from me than courts. When I saw the title of the petition – Adel Kaadan v. the State of Israel – I was horrified. Me against the State of the Israel? Who am I? I didn’t know what I was getting into. It was an exhausting and frustrating undertaking. But I couldn’t accept the idea that I was doing so much for people and they disqualified me off the bat for being an Arab.”

Until today, Kaadan insists that his desire to live in Katzir was not a provocation. “At the symposia I took part in after winning the case, the Jews asked: ‘So can we live in Baka al-Garbiyeh?’ They thought I wanted to live in Katzir to provoke people, but that wasn’t my intention. About a year ago, I put an ad on the Internet offering my house in Baka al-Garbiyeh for sale to Jews only. If a Jew lived there, the state would take care of everything – a good road, a decent sewage system. I thought that by bringing four Jews to the village, each one living in a different part, the whole village would profit,” he says with a mixture of cynicism and seriousness.

How did the media exposure affect you?

“It strengthened us. Most of the support came from Jews. Out of 30,000 people living in Baka al-Garbiyeh, only 10 congratulated me on my victory.”

Did you break down at any point?

“For a while, there were phone threats, like ‘Knock it off or we’ll kill you.’ It lasted for a little while and stopped. I didn’t want to make a big deal out of it and go to the police, but it wasn’t pleasant.”

How did the experience in the courts affect you?

“I’m a different person. You can’t go on being innocent after all the letters, articles and criticism. Against my will, I became an intellectual. I read everything they wrote about the case, and with knowledge, I gained confidence in what I was doing. I felt I could trust the justices who were hearing the case.”

What conclusions have you reached about the legal system?

“We proved that it was possible to override gender, race, religion and nationality. Even if I was small fry, I could change things. I have respect for ACRI’s lawyers for protecting us from the state. Why can’t the state protect its own citizens?”

What advice would you give those who want to petition the High Court on a fundamental matter?

“When you’re going for the truth, don’t give up. Believe in your ability to change things. I am not Martin Luther King or Socrates or Lenin. I’m just a little guy who was able to make a small change that will one day be part of something much bigger.”

If you could fight another battle, what would it be?

“I think I need a rest. All I wanted was to live in Katzir. After fighting the good fight for so long, I just need to take it easy.”

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Categories: Arab Citizens of Israel, Democracy and Civil Liberties, Housing Rights, Land Distribution and Planning Rights, LGBT Rights, Social and Economic Rights, The Right to Equality, Women's Rights

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