Israeli human rights lawyer who defended Palestinians in Israeli courts
FELICIA LANGER was both praised and vilified during her 22 year career as a prominent human rights lawyer in Israel. To Palestinians the Jewish Holocaust survivor was a hero; to many Israelis, a hate figure. Langer, who has died aged 87, was among the first to defend Palestinians in Israeli courts. Clients included the elected mayor of Nablus, Bassam Shakra, whom she defended against a deportation order in 1976 filed by Israel because he had criticised the Camp David Israel-Egypt peace agreement. There were mass demonstrations when Langer won the case and Shakra remained in post. Another client was Hebron mayoral candidate Hazmi Natcheh.
Langer was branded “the terrorists’ lawyer” by Israelis, who regarded her as a deeply controversial figure. Her ethical position was that everyone deserved a fair trial but she drew the line at those suspected of having blood on their hands. Her refusal to represent anyone accused of violent crime, however, drew criticism from the anti-Zionist left.
Born Felicia Veitt in Tarnow, near the Polish border with Germany, her family fled to Russia as the Nazis moved in during the Second World War. Her lawyer father was arrested because he refused to accept a Soviet passport, fearing he would not be allowed back into Poland after the war. The family spent the rest of the war in a Stalinist gulag, and after her father’s death in 1945 she and her mother returned to Poland,where they discovered most of their family had died. Despite her experiences, Felicia became a communist.
In 1949 she married Mieciu Langer, the sole survivor of his entire family. The following year her mother persuaded them to join her in Israel. Already with a young child, she qualified as a lawyer at the Tel Aviv branch of the Hebrew University and joined the Israel Bar Association. The Six Day War of 1967 challenged what had been an unexceptional legal career. The following year she launched her own practice and began her 22 year long battle in the Israeli military courts for Palestinian rights. Few Israeli lawyers at the time were willing to take on such a controversial role, but the dedicated human rights and peace activist, who had joined Israel’s communist party, took up the gauntlet. In so doing she pioneered legal practices in the Supreme Court that were highly unusual at the time, taking on, almost single-handed, the powerful heads of the legal system.
She was claimed to have been the first to challenge both the expulsion of Palestinian political leaders from the West Bank, and the army’s practice of demolishing the homes of suspected militants. For this she paid a heavy price: serious death threats obliged her to take a bodyguard, taxi drivers in Jerusalem refused to pick her up, and the Israeli public distrusted her.
She wrote several books based on her experiences including With My Own Eyes, (1975) These Are My Brothers, (1979)
and Youth between the Ghetto and Theresienstadt (1999).
The New Intifada of the Palestinians (2001) analysed the uprising in the wake of the failure of the Oslo accords. Her defence work won her the Bruno Kreisky Prize for Human Rights in 1991 and both the German and Palestinian Federal Orders of Merit in 2009 and 2012. What most moved her was the naming of a square in her honour in the centre of a refugee camp in Nablus.
Eventually Langer became disillusioned with the Israeli judicial system which she felt had not brought justice to the Palestinians and moved to Tubingen in Germany, from where she continued her work.
Langer is survived by her son Michael and three grandchildren. Her husband predeceased her in 2015. GLORIA TESSLER