I never met her, only called her two or three times in her place of exile, but I well remember what she was for me and most of my generation in our brainwashed youth: a symbol of hatred for Israel, a public enemy, a reviled, outcast traitor. That’s how we were taught to regard her and a few other early dissidents, and we neither questioned nor cared why.
Now, at 87, she has died in exile; her image glows brightly in my eyes through the distance of time and space. Felicia Langer, who died in Germany Thursday, was a hero, a pioneer and a woman of conscience. She and a few of her allies never got the recognition here that they deserved; it’s not clear they ever will.
In a place where “alumni” of a murderous Jewish terror organization are welcomed — one a newspaper editor, another an expert on religious law — and where self-declared racists are accepted as legitimate participants in the arena of public debate as they are nowhere else, there is no room for courageous justice warriors who paid a high personal price for trying to lead a camp that never followed.
Langer was a Holocaust survivor from Poland who studied law at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. After the occupation, was the first to open a law office dedicated to defending its Palestinian victims. In this, she followed an illustrious tradition of Jews who fought injustice in South Africa, Latin America, Europe and the United States.
Here, her sense of justice brought her into conflict with her state. Occasionally she even succeeded: In 1979, in the wake of her petition, the High Court of Justice blocked an expulsion order against Nablus Mayor Bassam Shakaa. A year later, the Jewish underground attached a bomb to his car that destroyed his legs, and Israeli justice came to light.
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Langer was a pioneer among Israeli lawyers of conscience who came out for the defense of the rights of the occupied population, but she was also the first to throw in the towel, closing her law office in 1990 and going into exile. In a 2012 interview with documentary filmmaker Eran Torbiner, she explained: “I left Israel because I could no longer help the Palestinian victims with the existing legal system and the disregard for international law that was supposed to protect the people whom I was defending. I couldn’t act. I was facing a hopeless situation.” She told The Washington Post she “couldn’t be a fig leaf for this system anymore.”
She said she didn’t switch battlefronts, only her place on the front, but the front is currently at its lowest point. The occupation is entrenched as never before and nearly all of its crimes have been legitimized.
Langer came to the conclusion that things were hopeless. Apparently she was right. The fight in the military courts was doomed to failure. It has no prospect of success because the military courts are only subject to the laws of the occupation and not to the laws of justice. The proceedings involve nothing more than hollow and false legal ritual.
Even the civil legal system, headed by the vaunted High Court of Justice, has never come down on the side of the victims and against the crimes of the occupation. Here and there restraining orders have been issued, here and there actions have been delayed. But in the annals of the occupation, Israel’s Supreme Court will be remembered as the primary legitimizer of the occupation and as an abject collaborator with the military. In such a state of affairs, perhaps there really was nothing for Langer to do here. That is a singularly depressing conclusion.
What did this brave and courageous woman fight against? Against torture by the Shin Bet security service at a time when we didn’t believe that such torture existed, yet it was at the peak of its cruelty. She fought against the expulsion of political activists, against false arrests, against home demolitions. Above all, she fought for the enforcement of international law from which Israel decided to except itself on unbelievable grounds. That’s what she fought and that is why she was considered a public enemy.
In her old age, her grandson told her that ultimately the Palestinians will win and will get a state of their own. “You won’t see it, but I will,” he promised his grandmother. In the end, the grandson will be disappointed, just as his distinguished grandmother was.