That Time Someone Called a Social Justice Lawyer a 'Nazi'

This week at the Tel Aviv airport: A newlywed pair of Russian immigrants, who met on Facebook, works to make the world a better place through courtrooms and apps for children with Down Syndrome

Natasha (Natalia) Salyaeva, 32, and Sasha (Alexander) Gambarian, 43, from Jaffa; arriving from Russia

Hello, friends, where have you been?

Natasha: We visited Sasha’s father in Russia and we went to the wedding of my sister, which was in Cheboksary [in western Russia].

Sasha: And we’ve been married 10 months.

Newlyweds. Where did you meet?

Sasha: On Facebook. I just read that, as of today, about half the couples and two-thirds of the same-sex couples in the world meet online.

Who flirted first?

Sasha: Probably me.

Natasha: No! I wrote you a joke in reply, and then you wrote me in private. I think you suggested straight off that we go for a coffee.

Sasha: I was a Tel Aviv bachelor of 40, so, like, what else could I do?

I thought it was the coolest thing in Tel Aviv to be a bachelor.

Sasha: I think that one of the things that are less talked about in public is the misery of a 30-plus bachelor, alone, without a woman at his side.

That’s true, we usually talk about the difficulties of single women.

Sasha: Right, but nothing can really compensate for the life of a single man, either – not money, not work, not drugs, not alcohol, not sex. If there’s no relationship, it’s hell on earth and unbearable suffering.

So why did you stay single until the age of 40?

Sasha: I would have been thrilled to have been with someone from the age of 20, certainly 25. But I never had a girlfriend, because I always thought that a girlfriend meant a wedding, and if not that, then why should I have a one? And I waited, until suddenly – boom. And that’s it. You know, within a few weeks there’s suddenly flip-flops and a toothbrush at my place, and we’re living together, and that’s it: a wedding.

Was it important for the two of you to have a wedding?

Sasha: Yes, for two reasons. First, I dreamed about a wedding. I’d been to so many, and it’s the most depressing thing in the world to go to a wedding without a partner, alone. I’d find myself wishing diseases for the bride and groom. (Laughs)

Diseases?!

Sasha: As a criminal lawyer, I say that evil comes from suffering. It’s hard to judge someone for having bad thoughts when he is suffering badly.

And the second reason?

Sasha: Status. To acquire the coveted status of being a partner of an Israeli, fast. Because Natasha isn’t Jewish, we didn’t get married in Israel.

Was it hard for you not being able to get married here?

Sasha: It actually worked out, because my parents are divorced and I was worried about how it would all be, and getting married abroad spared us all that. We went to Mauritius and had a wedding just for the two of us, and it was so cool! A dream. No guests, no chaos. Not a wedding where the bride scurries between all the guests, stressed out. None of that. A wedding in the hills, in the jungle, at sunset. Amazing.

Right. But it’s still sad that you can’t get married in Israel and share that special day with people. Why are you fiddling with your phone, Sasha?

Sasha: I’m writing a post to my 25,000 followers.

Natasha: Because he’s articulate.

Sasha: I am fighting the State of Israel and all its branches: the police, the State Prosecutor’s Office, the Interior Ministry, every government ministry that’s necessary.

Hello, Don Quixote!

Sasha: Totally. They screw you with all their might, so you have one of two choices: become a good, professional lawyer who’s not emotionally involved, or be a wacko and masochist [lawyer] like me who suffers together with his clients.

What kind of cases do you handle?

Sasha: For example, a couple who are HIV positive – he’s Israeli, she isn’t. They’re married. The Interior Ministry is giving them problems because they’re carriers and it doesn’t recognize the fact that they’re together. They have a son. The Interior Ministry refuses to issue an ID card to the baby, who needs immediate treatment. The family saga lasts a year. The baby, if he doesn’t get treatment, will become infected by AIDS. The Interior Ministry representative wanted to postpone the hearing for three months. I asked her, “Don’t you see that we’re talking about a baby’s health?” She replied, “He’s not the only baby born in Israel.” I almost had a nervous breakdown when I heard that. The wonderful judge gave the child an ID card that very day. The kid is doing great, thank God.

Were you always like this?

Sasha: I remember my teacher in primary school telling me, when I got up to defend a friend, “We don’t need a lawyer here.” That was in Russia, in Leningrad.

But what are you doing on your Facebook page that’s so popular?

Sasha: Every day I publish a post. I see something interesting or moving, and I publish it, in Russian. Tell a story. It’s also my insight into the profession of lawyering. We tell stories and argue over who has the better story. I also wrote a book, in Russian, about the 52 most important cases in Israel. It’s not doing so well.

Natasha, what about you? What brought you to Israel?

Natasha: I was a volunteer in an NGO, I create apps for children with Down syndrome. The app helps children read and work on fine motor skills. There was a great deal of learning material, but it was all on paper, and kids are more interested in working with a colorful tablet. We decided to do it in the form of a game, so it would be interesting and they would learn along the way.

How did you get to the organization?

Natasha: Through a friend who has a boy with Down syndrome. I worked at it in Russia and came here because I thought it was an opportunity to do a good deed.

Where did you come to Israel from?

Natasha: From all kinds of places, but during the last year, I was in Moscow.

What do you mean, “all kinds of places”?

Natasha: Our family always wandered from place to place. When I was in school I thought I’d never leave Cheboksary and that I would always live next to my parents. There’s a saying in Russia, “Where you’re born is where you’ll also be useful.” I thought that was true. But at university I learned Esperanto and I started to live an active life and travel all over the world.

How do you say in Esperanto, “Oh no, I married a warrior for justice”?

Sasha: Actually, there was a time when I was called a Nazi.

Who exactly called you a Nazi?

Sasha: The truth is that it was funny. Back in the 1990s, I was basically a left-wing activist. At the time, there was an incident of a Border Policeman who got entangled in some criminal case with a Palestinian, and I represented the policeman because I knew him. He was a good kid. There were guys from left-wing organizations in the courtroom. When they realized I was representing the Border Policeman, they shouted at me: “Shame on you, Nazi, servant of the occupation.” (Laughs)

What’s so funny, Sasha?

Sasha: It’s funny, because I’d always heard the opposite about myself.

I’m glad you have a sense of humor. What’s on the agenda now, for example?

Sasha: I dealing with a case that’s been going on for two-three years. It involves the half-sister of an Israeli who’s completed his service in the IDF. Their mother has the right to come here, even though she is not Jewish, because she’s the mother of a soldier. Anyone who’s contributed his time to the army has the right to bring over a goyish parent. His mother arrived with the half-sister, a girl of 12. The Interior Ministry told the mother that she could stay, only without the girl. A girl of 12 who has no one else in the world. You can’t just kick the girl out, because she came from a war zone. That was of no interest to the Interior Ministry. We fought, and the case went to the committee that grants humanitarian visas.

What happened there?

Sasha: A representative of the Social Affairs and Social Services Ministry said there was no humanitarian problem with deporting a girl. And I’m in court explaining that this girl has no one.

How do you feel when you hear things like that?

Sasha: It really upsets me. Who does the Interior Ministry choose to pick on? A girl who’s the sister of a lone soldier in a combat unit? She’s the one they have to screw? There are no criminals left? They say, “It’s not personal, we are obliged to protect the state.” That’s the answer I heard. “Today it’s her and tomorrow half-brothers and half-sisters, and another 10 million goyim will come.”

Where does the case stand now?

Sasha: Today she’s 16 and is in Israel with a work permit. There was a committee meeting three months ago, but no response. Nothing is moving forward.

Natasha (Natalia) Salyaeva and Sasha (Alexander) Gambarian.
Tomer Appelbaum