For Defending Rebellious Arabs, Lawyer Felicia Langer Is Called 'Traitor' in Israel

updated 01/25/1988 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 01/25/1988 AT 01:00 AM EST

A steady rain has begun to cut through the pall of tear gas and smoke from burning tires as Felicia Langer's taxi pulls up in front of a military barracks in Israel's riot-plagued West Bank. With her high heels, her carefully coiffed hair and her billowing black lawyer's robes, the tiny 57-year-old cuts an improbable figure among the mud-spattered Israeli soldiers and their Palestinian captives—some of the 1,600 Arabs detained during violence in the Israeli-occupied territories. But Langer loses no time making her presence felt. Discovering that her client had been ordered to wait, along with the other prisoners, in an awkward crouch with his forehead touching a wall, the normally well-mannered Langer explodes. "This is outrageous!" she tells the military judge. "It is humiliating!" The judge immediately orders the guards to let the Palestinians sit on benches. But he denies Langer's request to set bail for her client, Raed Abu Yussuf, 18, who has been accused of throwing rocks during one of the recent skirmishes between Israeli soldiers and West Bank Arabs.

Two days later she is off to Gaza, where nine alleged "instigators" of the recent protests are facing Israel's severest sentence: deportation to an unspecified destination. Langer, the first lawyer ever to appeal such an order successfully, represents four of the nine men. As the taxi careens around makeshift roadblocks, she scribbles out her applications to the military court. "I have no typist now and have to write these out by hand," she explains. "It's not standard procedure, but they accept it from me."

Indeed, after 20 years of passionately defending her Arab clients against everything from having their land expropriated to charges of terrorism, Langer, a Polish-born Jew, has become a familiar and highly controversial figure in her adopted homeland. "My life has been threatened often," admits Israel's best known Jewish advocate of Arab rights. "Some neighbors in my office building spit when I pass by. Once someone sprayed my door with the words, 'Whore! Traitor! You will die like a dog.' "

Ironically, Langer says her concern for Arab minorities grew out of the same bitter soil as her critics' fierce Israeli nationalism—a horror and hatred of Nazism. The daughter of a wealthy lawyer in Tarnov, Poland, Felicia Weid grew up in an atmosphere of culture and ease until 1939, when her family fled to Russia to escape Hitler's advance. Food was so scarce on the Eastern front that her father died of malnutrition, and when Langer and her mother made it back to Tarnov after the war they found that all their relatives had died in Nazi death camps. In 1948, Felicia, then 17, met Moshe Langer, a carpenter, whom she would marry two years later. Moshe had survived five camps, including Buchenwald. Liberated at the 11th hour by the Red Army, he soon joined the Communist Party. The two were happy to stay on in Poland after the war, "caught up in the excitement of building a new society," says Langer. But in 1950 her mother finally persuaded the young couple to join her in Palestine. "I was never a Zionist," says Langer, who joined the Communist Party herself shortly after emigrating and is still a member. Yet Langer, who took a law degree from the Hebrew University in Tel Aviv, considers herself an Israeli, and a patriotic one at that. "Only because of my strong feelings for my homeland am I doing whatever I can do to save its soul," insists Langer, who often works for modest fees that barely cover her costs. "We, who have been persecuted and have suffered, should be nobler than others. Because we know what it means to suffer, we must not oppress others."

Working up to 14 hours a day in defense of the Arabs, she must put up with charges, constantly made, that she is a self-promoter or, worse, a traitor and an agent of terrorism. Langer insists that she will not defend anyone who deliberately kills a civilian, but that other Palestinians, like Yussuf, are simply expressing the frustrations of a people without power or a homeland. "Look, I admit that stone throwing is not very pleasant for the one on the receiving side. But to my sorrow that is what the Palestinians have got to express themselves," she says. "That too is how the Israelis revolted against the British in Palestine. It is also what David did against Goliath. And suddenly we, who were always proud to be David, find ourselves in the role of Goliath."

Moshe, 60, who is involved in trade with Bulgaria and Hungary, is ready with hot soup and sympathy when Felicia finally returns to their comfortable 3½-room South Tel Aviv flat. But there are few quiet evenings at home. Tonight Felicia has barely settled into an overstuffed chair when the phone rings. It is another supplicant, pleading for help. Dead tired, she glances at her watch and smiles wearily. "Yes," she says courteously, "come now."

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