1930-2018

Remembering Israel's Human Rights Law Trailblazer, a Holocaust Survivor Who Called to Boycott Israeli Products

A communist labeled 'the terrorists' attorney,' Felicia Langer called her clients ‘resistance fighters.’ In 1990 she gave up and left for Germany, where she died over the summer

Felicia Langer at the Supreme Court for the hearing on the expulsion of Nablus Mayor Bassam Shakaa, 1979.
Hermann Hanania / GPO

After the Six-Day War, attorney Felicia Langer opened an office near the Old City in Jerusalem and began representing Arabs. Langer was a strange type in the local topography: a Jewish Holocaust survivor with a Polish accent who adhered to European manners and believed in the ideology of communism.

“Her engagement with Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza Strip was perhaps the strangest thing in the Middle East,” wrote attorney Michael Sfard. Her acquaintances saw in her a pathfinder in legal battles that advanced the human rights of Palestinians. Her enemies saw in her a traitor and accessory of terrorists.

>> Holocaust survivor and Palestinians' rights lawyer Felicia Langer dies in exile at 87

She was born in the city of Tarnov, Poland in 1930 as Felicia Amalia White. In World War II she fled with her family to the Soviet Union, where her father died. After the war, she returned to the land of her birth and married Holocaust survivor Moshe Langer. In 1950 they immigrated to Israel – “not because of Zionist ideology,” according to her, but to live near her mother.

Archival documents attest to the tense relationships between her and the Israeli establishment. In 1968 an intelligence officer in the military government in Hebron testified before the Legal Attaché of the West Bank that she “held extreme left-wing opinions.” In 1975, the Foreign Ministry reported that the Shin Bet security service viewed her legal activities as being guided by political motivations to harm “the state and the image of the state.” She faced threats to her life throughout her career. Occasionally, she felt compelled to hire a bodyguard.

Langer fought the expulsion of Palestinian leaders, housing demolitions of terror suspects, administrative detentions (imprisonment without charges), and torture. “She never hesitated to accuse the establishment of crimes and to represent her clients as victims of an evil regime,” wrote Sfard.

When they called her “the defense attorney of terrorists,” she replied that her clients were not terrorists, but “resistance fighters.” “A people under occupation has the right to wage violent struggle,” she said. Among her famous clients was the mayor of Nablus, Bassam Shakaa, one of the leaders of resistance to the occupation, whose expulsion Langer succeeded in preventing. Other clients included the parents of the attackers of Bus 300, who sought to sue the state for killing their sons, and a young Dutch woman who was detained at Ben-Gurion International Airport after she gathered intelligence for the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. Langer maintained that she was just a “small cog.”

In 1990, she immigrated to Germany, after handling what she estimated to have been 3,000 cases. “I could no longer help the Palestinian victims in the framework of the existing legal system and its flouting of international law, which is supposed to protect the people that I defended,” she said in an interview with Eran Torbiner. “It is forbidden to be silent; silence also can kill,” she said, in explaining her call for the boycott of Israeli goods. As a German citizen, she called on Germany to fight the occupation.

Langer lived in Tübingen, teaching and writing books. Critics were angered by her comparison of Israel to the Nazis, and accused her of hypocrisy for ignoring the crimes of communist regimes. When she was asked once to describe her “love of homeland,” she answered: “Hatred of occupation.” In June, Langer died of cancer at age 87.