The life of Felicia Langer, who died this year, is a shining example of a Jewish Israeli who championed the cause of the Palestinian people. Her own biography Fury and Hope (1993) is as much about the suffering of Palestinians under Israeli occupation as about her own life. She wrote several books and numerous articles on the Palestinian experience under Israeli oppression. In them, she discusses the routine torture of detainees, violation of international law prohibiting deportation, as well as collective punishment.
Felicia was born in 1930 in Tarnow, Poland, into a well-established Jewish family. Her father was clear-sighted enough to flee with his wife and only child to Russia before the Nazis invaded Poland. However, the family would spend the war in one of the gulags. When her father died in 1945, she and her mother returned to Poland. In 1947 she met her future husband Moshe Langer, a survivor of the Nazi concentration camps, and they married in 1949, before emigrating to Israel to join Felicia’s mother.
Adapting to a new country with its Middle-Eastern heat and harsh social climate, but particularly with its discrimination of the Arab population, wasn’t easy. Nevertheless she was determined to make Israel her new home. She and her husband soon joined the Israeli Communist Party and she herself became a lawyer in order to help the underprivileged. She was admitted to the bar in 1965.
The June war of 1967 was a turning point in her life, she opened an office in Jerusalem for Palestinian clients of the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip, who needed an Israeli lawyer to handle their legal affairs. She defended accused Palestinians, fought against land confiscation, house demolition, deportation, tortures and denial of documents. She made public all sorts of violations against the human and civil rights of the Palestinians. For many years she was vice president of the Israeli League for Human and Civil Rights.
Her main concern was always a just and fair peace agreement between Israelis and Palestinians, and for this goal she wrote books and articles, giving interviews, lecturing and taking part in public discussions.
After the 1967 war she devoted her entire practice to assisting Palestinian political prisoners, taking her cases to the Supreme Court, charging violations of the Geneva Convention. As a result, Langer faced social ostracism, physical assaults, and death threats. During the first Palestinian Intifada of 1987-1991, she was overwhelmed by the impossibility of adequately representing her clients in the Israeli courts. “I felt I could not address the judge as ‘your honour’ and as a gesture of protest I closed my Jerusalem office and left the country,” she said.
“How do you define your love of country,” a journalist from the Israeli daily Hadashot once asked Langer. “My love of country fulfils itself in hatred of the occupation,” she replied, without hesitating.
The reaction to articles Langer wrote and published in Israel was immediate. Returning home to Tel-Aviv from her Jerusalem office one night, she was startled by shouting from her neighbour’s balcony. “Look at her, look at this piece of shit, this traitor. This dirty Arab is her brother! Let her go to Nablus, we don’t need her here,” a woman screamed at her. ‘Get out of this house,’ they shouted, ‘we won’t stand you
living here. You want to plant flowers for this Arab? You can have some of these here on your grave.’ And they pointed to the well-kept flower beds growing in my part of the yard,” Langer said.
She recalls that her every step was followed by hateful stares and sometimes insults. More ominous than the daily harassment and aggression, were the death threats. “We are a terror organisation against those responsible for terrorist acts. If you don’t stop working, you will have a bad and bitter end,” warned a sinister voice over the phone in 1974. Such threats continued. “Felicia Langer is a PLO whore. The day of your death is near,” the Jewish Defense League, a right-wing terrorist group established by Rabbi Meir Kahane, spray-painted on the door of her Jerusalem office.
Beyond the social ostracism and the real fear for her life, Langer was constantly harassed by the authorities. From denying and delaying her the right to consult and meet with her clients, to dismissing her petitions, to overruling her defence arguments in court, her work was obstructed at every step of the way.
Ironically, after fleeing the Nazis as a child and seeking a haven in Israel, she was then forced to make the reverse journey, fleeing her fellow Israelis to seek a safe haven in TÃ¼bingen, Germany, and teaching at the universities of Bremen and Kassel.
Her activity for Palestinians won her many awards, including the Bruno Kreisky prize for human rights in 1991, and membership of the German Federal Order of Merit in 2009 and the Palestinian Order of Merit and Excellence in 2012.
Felicia remained a committed communist for the rest of her life.
Felicia Langer, lawyer, born 9 December 1930; died 21 June 2018
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This post was written by John Green