Rebels with a cause
“Leon Klinghoffer’s blood cries out from the depth of the ocean,” the 23-year-old law student told the Israeli Supreme Court in 1995. “We will not withdraw our complaint.”
That student was Nitsana Darshan-Leitner, and she had filed a petition on behalf of the victims of the 1985 hijacking of the Achille Lauro cruise ship, during which a wheelchair-bound Klinghoffer was tossed overboard.
She wanted the court to forbid the terrorist act’s mastermind, Muhammad (Abu) Abbas, from entering Israel under the Oslo Accords.
The court sided with the government and rejected the petition, and Abu Abbas went on to mastermind more terror attacks. Darshan-Leitner never forgot that defeat. Years later, during the height of the Second Intifada, she founded the non-profit Shurat HaDin — Israel Law Center, to fight for the rights of terror victims.
In the years since its founding, Shurat HaDin has filed hundreds of petitions and lawsuits in courts around the world seeking justice for terror victims.
“So much of this legal field is new,” she told me last week in her office in Ramat Gan, near Tel Aviv. “We have to dig out the laws and statutes and apply them as best we can.”
So far, few entities have escaped their reach — they have taken on global banks, insurance companies, foreign countries and any person or entity they believe assists terror groups.
They served papers on former Iranian President Mohammad Khatami in the New York federal court on behalf of 17 Persian Jews unlawfully held in Iranian prisons. Charging North Korea with helping Hezbollah, they sued that country in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., on behalf of 30 U.S. citizens who were hurt during the second Lebanon War.
In a 2003 lawsuit against the Palestinian Authority and PLO, a U.S. District Court in New York awarded $192 million in damages to the family of Aharon Ellis, a victim of the Hadera bat mitzvah attack. When a Spanish court began a criminal investigation in 2008 against Israeli military and political leaders, Shurat HaDin struck back in the same court with a lawsuit against Spanish officials for war crimes, on behalf of the victims of NATO’s Kosovo bombing campaign.
Using a 2007 finding by the U.S. Treasury showing the transfer of funds from Iranian banks to Hezbollah to finance terrorist activity, they filed a $1 billion lawsuit against the Central Bank of Iran on behalf of American, Israeli and Canadian victims of Hezbollah terror. Last summer, they crippled the second Gaza-bound flotilla by threatening legal action against the companies insuring the ships, charging they were violating international maritime laws and anti-terror laws.
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The group’s latest brainchild is to go after the landlord and phone provider (Verizon) of the PLO’s office in Washington, D.C., because they believe the offices are in violation of a specific U.S. anti-terror statute. Using the same statute, they are also going after Twitter and Facebook. They have a big case pending against the Bank of China, among many others.
It’s a testament to the globally wired world we live in that Shurat HaDin can orchestrate its international legal battle against terror out of a tiny office in Israel, with just a handful of attorneys and volunteers.
While so many of us worry about making the case for Israel in the court of public opinion, Darshan-Leitner and her team worry about making Israel’s case in a court of law. They use the facts not to get sympathy from the world, but to get justice from the courts.
During my visit, I met another Jew who is obsessed with the facts, journalist Izzy Lemberg. As a news producer for CNN in Israel, where he just finished a 22-year stint, Lemberg has covered all the major news stories, including more than a hundred terror attacks during the Second Intifada.
“Too many journalists see their work as the pursuit of justice,” he told me when I met him late one night in Tel Aviv. “That should be the work of human rights activists. Journalists should pursue the truth.”
Lemberg’s pursuit of truth is now finding expression in a documentary he is producing called “Blame It on the Jews.”
He thinks one of the biggest stories of the past decade has been the growth of global anti-Semitism, often camouflaged behind criticism of Israel. He says his film will focus a calm, journalistic eye on this phenomenon, with in-depth interviews and rare footage to show the extent of the problem.
To help attract financing for the film, he has uploaded a preview of the film on YouTube.
Lemberg is careful not to disparage his former employer, but it’s clear from talking to him that he feels the media in general has not adequately covered the anti-Semitic phenomenon his film will address.
“You can’t be balanced about anti-Semitism,” he told me. “There’s no other side to that story.”
Nitsana Darshan-Leitner and Izzy Lemberg are two Israeli rebels fighting for a cause; one for justice, the other for truth. The line between the two is not as clear as Lemberg suggests. When the truth is well told, in a documentary or otherwise, it can only lead to justice.
David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.