You Should Know… Rafi Prober

Photo by Lacey Johnson
Photo by Lacey Johnson

As WJW reported on its cover earlier this month, the French government has signed an agreement acknowledging the role of its national rail company, SNCF, in deporting 76,000 Jews and others to concentration camps during the Holocaust. The settlement will provide a $60 million fund for survivors and their families.

The agreement, which was signed Dec. 8 and still must be approved by the French parliament, follows in the wake of numerous attempts by state legislatures – including Maryland’s General Assembly – to withhold rail contracts from SNCF.

Rafi Prober, 37, the Georgetown Law grad and Adas Israel congregant who led D.C. law firm Akin Gump’s pro bono representation of 650 Holocaust survivors, sat down with us to talk about his six-year-long involvement in the case, which involved more than 50 lawyers and lobbyists from his firm and 5,000 hours of work, other aspects of his job and his Jewish life.

How did you feel after the reparations agreement was reached in this case?
I have been working on the case for a full six plus years, since I began my tenure at Akin Gump. The firm brought in the case in 2006 and the first lawsuit was filed in 2000, some 14 years ago. This has been an incredibly long fight for justice. It’s a historic agreement that benefits many survivors. It feels terrific, professionally and personally, to have been able to help to bring, with a large team of people involved, some measure of justice to some survivors who are still here and their family members. There can never be true justice for what happened, but this represented, for me, most critically, an admission of complicity, and taking real responsibility for what occurred. At the end of the day, for many of our clients, that is what is most valuable.

Was this case personal for you?
It’s always been something I’ve been very interested in, personally and professionally. It’s very relevant to my life and my family’s. Nearly all my mother’s entire side of the family was murdered in Lithuania. That’s always been a big part of my background and history. It was really special, it was an honor, to work on a case like this. My wife and I have remained involved in this generally, in Holocaust remembrance, honoring the admonition never to forget. We are both on the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s lawyers committee and on the next generation board.

What was the most difficult legal challenge in this case?
The biggest challenge legally was the issue of foreign sovereign immunity. We and many others think it’s an inappropriate application of foreign sovereign immunity, based on the definition of instrumentality, but, nonetheless, SNCF was considered an instrument of the French government, and thus immune to suit in the U.S., because they are wholly owned by the French government.

Tell us about the rest of your practice?
I focus on government investigations, primarily congressional investigations.

Do you have any advice for people who receive a target letter from the government? Should they respond, even initially, on their own?
My first word of advice is to take it incredibly seriously and to reach out to counsel who specializes in this unique area of the law. Every case is different, but, as a general matter, it’s always wise to have a conversation with your lawyers before doing anything.

Were you affiliated Jewishly as a Georgetown student?
It’s a smaller Jewish community at Georgetown than at some other schools, but still very vibrant. I was very involved there, both in undergrad and in law school, where I ended up meeting and marrying my wife, Bonnie, who is Jewish as well.

She’s not another lawyer, is she?
For better or worse, she is.

Who wins in an argument?
There’s a difference between winning and being right sometimes. But I’d say it shakes out 50/50.

Did you two attend law school together? Was it helpful?
Yes. She would tell the story that she studied harder than I did, and I would study two days before an exam, from her outline, and perhaps do better on an exam or two. She still gives me a hard time about that.

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