The Virginia State Bar has cancelled plans to hold its midyear legal seminar in Jerusalem in the face of organized opposition focused on Israeli travel restrictions.
The change in location for the November 8-15 trip stirred controversy as some accused the bar of bowing to anti-Israel advocates.
Public opposition to the Jerusalem trip emerged late last week in the form of a petition drive on the website “change.org.”
“We, the undersigned members of the Virginia State Bar … are writing to express our deep concern with the discriminatory nature of the 2015 Midyear Legal Seminar,” the petition said.
By holding the event in Israel, the VSB “accepts discriminatory practices and policies against Arab, Muslim, and Palestinian members of the VSB on the basis of their race, religion, and national origin, effectively preventing these members from attending,” the petition said.
The petition pointed to U.S. State Department advisories about travel to Israel.
“Those with extensive travel to Muslim countries or U.S. citizens whom Israeli authorities suspect of being of Arab, Middle Eastern, or Muslim origin may face additional questioning by immigration and border authorities,” the State Department said on its website.
Discriminatory travel policies justified a change, the petitioners said.
“For at least these reasons, we demand that the location of this year’s Midyear Legal Seminar be changed to a location accessible to all members, irrespective of race, religion, and national origin,” the petition said.
Bearing 36 electronic signatures, the petition was sent to VSB council members Friday morning, according to University of Virginia law Prof. A. Benjamin Spencer, a member of the Bar Council, who provided a copy of the petition as submitted.
The bar announced a change of plans later that day.
“Upon review of U.S. State Department advisories and other research, and after consultation with our leaders, it has been determined that there is enough legitimate concern to warrant cancellation of the Israel trip and exploration of alternative locations,” wrote VSB president Kevin E. Martingayle in an email to VSB members Friday evening.
Controversy quickly surfaced.
A George Mason University law professor posted a Saturday blog entry headlined “Virginia State Bar boycotts Israel.”
Social media comments included personal attacks on Martingayle, some tagged to tweets about his family.
McLean attorney J. Jonathan Schraub denounced the decision in an open letter to Martingayle on Saturday, citing the small number of dissenters.
“Many of us are left to wonder if this decision is intended as a deliberate endorsement of the ‘Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions’ (BDS) movement targeting the state of Israel,” Schraub wrote.
Virginia House Speaker William J. Howell, R-Stafford, wrote to Martingayle Sunday urging the bar to reconsider the decision.
“The State Bar’s decision to cancel this upcoming trip is inconsistent with the policy of the Commonwealth and sends the wrong signal about our relationship with Israel,” Howell said.
Howell cited a recent General Assembly resolution renewing the state’s commitment to alliance with Israel.
Martingayle expanded on the trip cancellation Sunday, citing Israeli travel restrictions and stating that the trip was in jeopardy regardless of other concerns because the number of confirmed attendees was “well short” of the required number for the trip to proceed.
The deadline for registration had been April 1. A brochure said at least 60 attorneys would have to register by that date for the trip to proceed. Only 17 had sent deposits as of Thursday, according to a VSB spokesperson.
“President-elect Edward L. Weiner, chair of the Midyear Legal Seminar Committee, communicated with the Israeli Embassy. An embassy official expressed a desire to facilitate the trip but acknowledged that security protocols are strict and could lead to exclusion or restriction of some VSB members,” Martingayle said.
“In the face of this information, we felt it necessary and appropriate to forego this trip. This was not a political decision and is not a ‘boycott.’ We are an inclusive organization and do not discriminate against any religion,” Martingayle wrote.
Martingayle said he was taken aback by the fierce response from people and organizations accusing him of antipathy toward Israel.
“I have never encountered such blow-back for simply trying to do my duty,” he said in an interview.
“It is unsatisfactory that people would take a decision made in good faith and make attacks that extend even to my family,” Martingayle said.
“I have never said anything against Israel and I don’t intend to. This is not a boycott. This is not a political statement,” he said.
“If we sponsor an event, everybody has to be invited to the table,” Martingayle said, referring to the State Department travel advisories that appeared, he said, to be unique to Israel.
In an email late Sunday, Alexandria lawyer Victor M. Glasberg condemned accusations that the bar was anti-Semitic.
“As a Jewish member of the Bar who has lived in Israel and has friends and family living in Israel, I am inclined to reject as unworthy of attention any notion that the Bar’s decision to cancel the seminar was based on any factor other than the legitimate ones you have identified below,” Glasberg wrote in an email to Martingayle and Weiner.
The VSB’s Midyear Seminar was publicly criticized 15 years ago by some lawyers who felt the annual overseas trip was an inappropriate venture for a state agency. In a 1999 survey response, one lawyer characterized the program as a “fat-cat boondoggle.”
After other attorneys wrote letters of support, however, the VSB in 2000 decided to continue the program. Supporters praised the quality of the legal education and the opportunity to interact with lawyers and judges.
In recent years, the seminar has offered education on the government and legal systems of the foreign nations visited. The Jerusalem trip was to feature a comparative law symposium with local attorneys.
The VSB accounts for staff time and maintains that the entire cost of the midyear seminar is covered by participants’ fees, without any use of lawyers’ dues.
Updated March 30 to add Martingayle comment, to clarify that Spencer is a member of the Bar Council, to add background and to provide data about the number of registrants.