The Virginia State Bar drew withering fire from supporters of Israel as it cancelled a planned legal seminar in Jerusalem last month.
While the scheduled Midyear Legal Seminar in November appeared doomed for lack of participants, bar leaders cited concerns raised by some lawyers about Israel’s travel restrictions as applied to Arabs, Muslims and Palestinians.
After first announcing that an alternative destination was being considered, the VSB decided to call off this year’s event altogether, according to Edward L. Weiner, chair of the VSB committee that plans the event.
Weiner said no suitable alternative site appeared possible and the bar decided Tuesday to cancel the event altogether for 2015.
The episode likely will mark the end of the VSB’s international meetings, Weiner added.
Stung by a firestorm of criticism in the wake of the cancelled trip, Weiner ruefully described the decision-making process that led to the flap.
A frequent participant in the bar’s Midyear Legal Seminar, with trips to Spain, Argentina, Greece and Italy under his belt, Weiner earlier had pitched the idea of a trip to the Holy Land.
“I thought that it would be an enriching trip,” Weiner said.
To help make his case, he even arranged for some lawyers to pledge their interest in attending, according to VSB president Kevin E. Martingayle.
Besides demonstrating support, Weiner had to answer committee members’ concerns about security for the participants. He said he read over the U.S. State Department website about travel to Israel and checked with other sources.
“We got assurances from people. I did my best. We were told, ‘It would be safe,’” Weiner said.
Despite security assurances, by the week of March 23, it was clear the trip was in jeopardy for lack of interest.
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 March 26, according to a VSB spokesperson.
The petition from dissenters arrived Friday, March 27. Citing Israeli travel restrictions aimed at Arabs, Muslims and Palestinians, the petition demanded a location accessible to all VSB members.
“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.
Bar leaders counted about 30 signatures of Virginia lawyers who objected to the Jerusalem program, more than those who actually wanted to take the trip, Weiner said.
Until the petition arrived, Weiner said he had not anticipated concerns about exclusion or heightened scrutiny of some bar members on the trip.
“No one on the committee ever thought about the plight of the Palestinian Virginia lawyer,” he said. “Someone should have thought about that. We did not,” Weiner said.
Once alerted to concerns about travel restrictions, Weiner said he envisioned a bus load of seminar participants idling at the airport while a handful of Virginia lawyers were questioned by Israeli authorities.
“You could be a member in good standing with the Virginia State Bar but not be in good standing at Ben Gurion Airport,” he reflected.
Martingayle and Weiner – together at The Greenbrier on March 27 for a meeting of the Virginia Trial Lawyers Association – determined to call off the seminar, Weiner said.
“Let’s just pull the plug a few days early. Let’s start looking for another location,” Weiner reasoned.
Martingayle sent the first of two emails explaining the cancellation of the Jerusalem trip.
At the time, neither Weiner nor Martingayle were sensitive to the tension about American-Israeli relations, they both said.
“We had no idea there was a boycott of Israel going on. Call us naïve. I had no idea. None,” Weiner said.
The decision quickly produced vitriolic comments from near and far. Pro-Israel advocates accused the bar, and Martingayle personally, of being anti-Semitic.
Some Virginia politicians joined the fray, calling for reversal of the VSB decision.
“We were totally blindsided by that. We had no idea,” Weiner said. “We have no political agenda. We never thought about Israeli politics,” he said.
A second email sought to explain the reasoning of VSB leaders.
“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 wrote.
“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 said.
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.
As the VSB searched for an alternate destination, every site seemed fraught with political overtones, Weiner said.
At a loss for an acceptable site, the bar deemed the 2015 trip a no-go, Weiner said.
“I don’t know if there will ever be an international trip again,” Weiner said. “It’s a new world. Maybe international travel is not something the Virginia State Bar needs any part of at all,” he said.
“Our consciousness has been raised through all this,” he added.
Weiner emphasized he was speaking just for himself about prospects for future seminars. There has been no official action by any VSB panel to consider future plans for the Midyear Legal Seminar, he said.
Some accusations missed the target. The Virginia Bar Association posted messages on Twitter and Facebook explaining that it is a voluntary organization of attorneys not affiliated with the VSB.
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.
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