By Ben Cohen/JNS.org
For just more than a month now, the Virginia State Bar (VSB)—which, it should be noted, is a state body working with the legal profession in Virginia—has been embroiled in a nasty political row over its apparent boycott of Israel. I say “apparent” because this hasn’t been the kind of run-of-the-mill boycott row one encounters on college campuses. Leading officials of the VSB are insisting that they are not boycotting Israel and that, moreover, they were not even aware of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement until this whole unfortunate business began.
Take it from me, this is a complicated story, so let’s begin with a chronology. On Feb. 27, the VSB announced that it would be holding its 42nd Annual Midyear Legal Seminar, scheduled for November, in the refined surroundings of the David Citadel Hotel in Jerusalem. Anti-Israel activists quickly learned of the planned trip to the Jewish state, and by March 23, a change.org petition was live demanding its cancellation.
Signed by exactly 39 of the VSB’s almost 50,000 members, the petition was careful to sound like a statement of concerned professionals. Unlike the unhinged screeds one encounters on campus, it didn’t contain any references to Israeli “war crimes” or “apartheid,” nor did it even mention the BDS campaign. Without pointing out that Israel is a Jewish state—as is common among anti-Zionists—the petition grounded its demand for cancellation on the claim that Israel discriminates against those of Muslim, Palestinian, and Arab origin at its border entry points. Citing advice from the U.S. State Department and the American Consulate in Jerusalem, the petition concluded, “It is unacceptable that the Virginia State Bar has decided to hold a conference in a location that actively discriminates on the basis of racial, religious, and national origin grounds, and effectively prevents Arab, Muslim, and Palestinian members of the VSB from attending.”
I will deal with the substance of these claims further on, but for now it’s important to record what happened next. On March 27, the petition was sent to the VSB’s council members. By late afternoon on the same day, VSB members were receiving emails from the state agency’s president, Kevin Martingayle, announcing that the Jerusalem trip had been scrapped.
“Certain members of the Virginia State Bar and other individuals have expressed objections to the VSB’s plan to take the Midyear Legal Seminar trip in November to Jerusalem,” Martingayle wrote. “It was stated that there are some unacceptable discriminatory policies and practices pertaining to border security that affect travelers to the nation. 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.”
Inevitably, Martingayle’s email—sent on a Friday night, traditionally regarded as a good time to dump problematic news down a black hole—met with a furious response, much of it coming from VSB members appalled that the organization’s president could so easily fall for these astonishing accusations without doing his due diligence.
“I feel that it is very important that every agency of the Commonwealth take steps to demonstrate our commitment to Israel and its people,” William J. Howell, speaker of the Virginia House of Delegates, told Martingayle in one of many letters of protest. “This decision does the opposite.”
Authoritative legal blogs, like the Volokh Conspiracy and Legal Insurrection, began pushing the story. Various local and national Jewish organizations condemned the decision and the story started to creep into the national press—a reminder, perhaps, that releasing bad news just as the weekend kicks in doesn’t guarantee that no one will notice.
Aware of the escalating scandal, Martingayle on March 29 sent out a second email to VSB members. While he reiterated his earlier point that the seminar had been cancelled based on a “U.S. State Department advisory,” he introduced another reason into mix. “We were well short of the required number of confirmed attendees necessary for the trip to proceed,” Martingayle said. This, however, doesn’t explain why the VSB had sent an email four days earlier encouraging sign-up, and nor does it account for the fact that the trip, costed at a full $7,000 per head, had only been announced one month previously.
Martingayle then added that he and VSB President-elect Edward Weiner had been in touch with the Israeli Embassy over security protocols. According to Legal Insurrection, this contact seems to have consisted to a single phone call asking whether entrance into Israel was guaranteed for VSB members. Of course, without a list of the travelers available, the Israeli representative wasn't in a position to say yes or no!
Much as Martingayle might wish that this issue would disappear, the reverse is happening, and more layers of complexity keep appearing. For example, it now transpires that Donald W. Lemons, Chief Justice of the Virginia Supreme Court, participated in a conference call with the VSB leadership just hours before the cancellation was made public. Yet beneath all this intrigue, a basic question remains: Has VSB signed up to the boycott of Israel or not?
Sadly, the VSB leadership has refused to engage with outsiders, including representatives of the local Jewish community. Robin Mancoll, director of the Jewish Community Relations Council in Virginia’s Tidewater region, told me that VSB still hasn’t responded to a request for an apology that, she added, needed to acknowledge that “the VSB leadership has no reason to believe that any VSB member would be denied admission to Israel for any improper reason, because Israel does not discriminate.”
Mancoll said, “We hope that VSB will take us up on our offer to work closely with us, in partnership with other pro-Israel communities around the state, to offer an educational program within the next twelve months targeted at informing VSB membership on the nefarious nature and dangers of the BDS movement.”
I hope they will too, because then VSB will learn two things. Firstly, Legal Insurrection’s Professor William Jacobson has rightly talked about the “infiltration” of the BDS movement into the VSB case. At least 40 pro-BDS groups, all of them committed to the elimination of Israel as a sovereign Jewish and democratic state, loudly praised the VSB’s decision. Additionally, one of the organizers of the petition, VSB member Ashraf Nubani, has represented Hamas terrorist leaders as well as a charity with links to al-Qaeda. So what Martingayle and his colleagues need to understand is that, at a minimum, VSB has been co-opted by a virulently anti-Zionist political agenda.
Secondly, they will learn that Israel is a normal country with heightened security concerns that impact its entry and exit policies. Whatever half-truths the VSB petitioners may have concocted, there is no law mandating Israeli border officials to scrutinize or bar Muslims and Arabs more than anyone else. Indeed, 250,000 Muslim and Arab visitors from countries with no relations with Israel have visited the Jewish state since 2009. Additionally, both Israelis and Americans know from bitter experience that terrorist outrages are often committed by those entering the country as tourists. Why then, Martingayle should ask himself, are Israel’s security precautions equivalent to discrimination?
This whole unfortunate episode can, I am sure, be resolved through dialogue. Over to you, Mr. Martingayle.
Ben Cohen, senior editor of TheTower.org & The Tower Magazine, writes a weekly column for JNS.org on Jewish affairs and Middle Eastern politics. His writings have been published in Commentary, the New York Post, Haaretz, The Wall Street Journal, and many other publications. He is the author of “Some of My Best Friends: A Journey Through Twenty-First Century Antisemitism” (Edition Critic, 2014).
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