Virginia State Bar quashes Israel trip

Jerusalem, Israel Image via JTA
Jerusalem, Israel
Image via JTA

An email sent last Shabbat to members of the Virginia State Bar notifying them of the cancellation of a trip to Israel has brought a swift and scathing response from Virginia’s Jewish community.

The Midyear Legal Seminar was scheduled to take place in November in Jerusalem. But in the email, Virginia State Bar President Kevin E. Martingayle cited “unacceptable discriminatory policies and practices pertaining to border security” as the reason for nixing the trip.

“It’s a reprehensible decision,” said Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington Executive Director Ron Halber. “It’s based on politics. It’s not based on logic. And it contravenes the spirit and the will of Virginia and the people of Virginia and its leadership. It is a disastrous decision.”

The JCRC released a statement Monday pointing out that five weeks ago Virginia legislators unanimously passed a resolution reaffirming the friendship between the United States and Israel, and that since 2000 the state-funded Virginia Israel Advisory Board has strengthened business and investment ties with Israel.

The statement called on the bar as an administrative agency of the Supreme Court of Virginia to “immediately release all documents related to this decision” and also called for the “immediate reinstatement of the trip to Israel and for the Bar to apologize to its membership and the people of Virginia.”

The American Jewish Committee also released a statement urging the Bar to reconsider its decision to cancel the trip to Israel.

“We urge the Virginia State Bar to reconsider its decision and work with Israeli authorities to ensure appropriate treatment of its members upon entering the country,” said Alan Ronkin, AJC Washington Region director. “Israel must balance its security needs with its commitment to fair and equal treatment of all. There were other options that the Bar could have taken and we strongly urge them to pursue them.”

In a joint statement, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs and the Israel Action Network followed JCRC and AJC by denouncing the decision and calling for a reversal and apology. They said that the decision was based “on a faulty assessment of material facts” and that members of the Virginia Bar “would have been welcomed to Israel the same as they would have any other western country.”

William C. Hubbard, president of the American Bar Association, the national umbrella group for attorneys, based in Washington, was traveling overseas Monday and could not be reached for comment.

Northern Virginia General Assembly members weighed in with a statement on Tuesday condemning the cancellation, calling the email’s language “inappropriately disparaging to the State of Israel.” The lawmakers urged the state bar to reinstate the seminar.

“The VSB’s decision to cancel the midyear legal seminar unfairly singles out Israel, the only democracy in the Middle East,” said the statement from Sen. Adam Ebbin, Sen. Dick Saslaw, Del. Eileen Filler-Corn and Del. Marcus Simon, all Democrats.

Acknowledging the controversy, Martingayle and Edward L. Weiner, president-elect and chair of the Midyear Legal Seminar Committee, posted Sunday on the Virginia State Bar website a follow-up statement seeking to clarify the decision. They wrote that it was based on a State Department advisory and the Israeli Embassy, where an official indicated that security measures could lead to “exclusion or restriction” regarding some participants. The embassy, however, was interested in working with the Virginia State Bar on its planned trip, according to the statement.

Bar officials also said that not enough participants had signed up for the trip to proceed. However, the seminar is not being canceled, and a new location is being sought.

“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,” said the statement.

But some critics are questioning what influence a petition with 39 signatories had on the leadership of the Virginia State Bar, an agency with more than 50,000 members. The petition by the Concerned Members of the Virginia State Bar said that “it is without question that Israel employs discriminatory entry and exit policies for U.S. citizens, particularly against visiting Arab- and Muslim-Americans.”

McLean attorney J. Jonathan Schraub slammed the decision as “outrageous” in a letter to Martingayle, saying the decision aligns the Virginia State Bar with the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement that seeks to delegitimize the state of Israel and is considered anti-Semitic by many in the Jewish community, even if that is not the agency’s intent.

Schraub said that when only Israel is targeted “then you are joining the BDS movement even if you say you’re not. Your actions are what counts. You are joining the BDS movement.”

Added Schraub: “It is an outrageous decision which is mobilizing people from all corners of the Commonwealth — lawyers and non-lawyers. The bar is now trying to walk it back and all they are doing in my opinion is getting deeper into it.”

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UPDATE: A correction was made to this story on April 1 to reflect that the Virginia State Bar’s membership is more than 50,000, not 5,000. 

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