Israeli Chief Justice to receive honorary doctorate from UMich, Ann Arbor

ADC has learned that the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, has decided to award an honorary doctorate to Aharon Barak, the Chief Justice of the Israeli High Court of Justice. During his tenure as Chief Justice, Barak has approved of the use of torture, hostage-taking, collective punishments such as closures and home demolitions, and has declined to address the apartheid-style housing and land-use polices of the Israeli state.
Below are the texts of a letter sent by ADC President Hala Maksoud today to University of Michigan President Lee Bollinger. It is followed by an article written by ADC Media Director Hussein Ibish regarding the activities of the Israeli High Court of Justice under Barak’s leadership from October 1997 to April 1998.
Please contact President Lee Bollinger, and explain that given Aharon Barak’s record and the behavior of the Israeli High Court of Justice under his leadership, his being honored by the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor is totally inappropriate. It must be the role of jurists and high court judges to defend human rights and international norms of state conduct. Authorizing and endorsing torture, hostage taking, collective punishment and blatant discrimination are not the actions of an honorable jurist with a commitment to morality. While it is true that the laws in Israel are made by the Knesset, the Israeli High Court of Justice is fully empowered to prevent these brutal human rights abuses, but under Barak, instead has chosen to endorse them. How, in good conscience, can the University of Michigan honor such an individual in this way?
You can email President Bollinger at
or fax him at (734) 936-3529
Text of ADC Letter to University of Michigan President Lee Bollinger:
April 28, 1999
Lee Bollinger
University of Michigan
Ann Arbor, MI
Dear Mr. Bollinger:
On behalf of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, the largest grassroots Arab-American organization, and the Arab-American community, I want to express our shock and dismay upon learning that the University has decided to award an honorary doctorate to Aharon Barak, the Chief Justice of the Israeli High Court of Justice. We strongly believe that the role of the Israeli High Court in authorizing torture, hostage-taking, and collective punishment as legitimate practices should disqualify Mr. Barak from such an honor.
I am really quite surprised to see the University honor a man who has a major share of the responsibility for such policies. We can only suppose that you have been unaware of the Israeli Court’s role in the injustices meted out to Palestinians.
Attached is an article by ADC Media Director Hussein Ibish detailing the Court rulings which authorize systematic, legalized violation of the human rights of Palestinian citizens of Israel, as well as Palestinians living under occupation in the West Bank and Gaza. Under Mr. Barak’s leadership, the Court has ruled in support of:
1) Torture of Palestinian political prisoners. This includes long-term sleep deprivation, violent shaking to cause brain damage, and the infliction of severe physical pain. Israel is the only country which has officially legalized torture.
2) Hostage-taking. This includes the kidnapping of innocent Lebanese citizens in order to exert pressure against resistance groups in southern Lebanon, such as Hizbollah. Mr. Barak wrote in defense of such practices: “In situations like this, damage to basic human rights is obligatory – sometimes even grave damage.”
3) Collective punishment. This involves the punishment of whole families or villages for the actions or alleged actions of individuals. These punishments include the demolition of family homes of Palestinian suspects.
In addition, the Court has evaded the issue of Israel’s apartheid-like system of discrimination in housing and land ownership.
We are confident that neither the University as an institution nor you personally would want to be associated with torture, hostage-taking or the collective punishment of innocent people. I understand that you are in fact a lawyer with an admirable record on First Amendment civil liberties issues. The honoring of Mr. Barak is unwarranted and certainly sends the wrong message to students and to the larger community. Can you suggest a way to rectify this situation?
I look forward to hearing from you.
Hala Maksoud, Ph.D.
President, ADC
The following article about the activities of Aharon Barak and the Israeli High Court of Justice, by ADC Media Director Hussein Ibish, was originally published in the May 1998 edition of the Salam Review
and may be viewed online at
Habitual Offender: Six Months in the Life of the Israeli Supreme Court
(October 1997-April 1998)
by Hussein Ibish
Even by its own standards, the past six months have been an extraordinary period for the Israeli Supreme Court. Since last fall it has reiterated its approval and authorization of torture, hostage-taking and collective punishment as legitimate and lawful elements of Israeli government behavior. And it is currently doing all it can to avoid having to issue a ruling on the racist housing discrimination that forms the basis of much of Israeli apartheid.
In October 1997, the Israeli Supreme Court ruled that the Israeli security forces were authorized to continue to torture a Palestinian prisoner, Jamal Abuljadayel, who they had been torturing for more than ten weeks. In allowing the continued torture of Abuljadayel, the court was merely reiterating the official approval of torture against Arabs by all elements of the Israeli government, including the courts.
Official Israeli torture policy was delineated in the 1987 “Landau Commission Report,” which was approved by the Israeli Parliament. The Landau Commission recommended that the Israeli security forces subject Palestinian detainees to “moderate physical pressure,” which was defined in a secret annex to the report. It is understood that these “moderate” forms of torture include long term sleep deprivation and tying prisoners into excruciatingly painful positions for days. The Israeli Supreme Court has not only endorsed this use of systematic, legalized torture, but has also allowed, since September 1994, the security forces to apply for “special permissions” to engage in “severe pressure” torture methods.
These “special permissions” have been routinely granted, authorizing the use of torture methods such as violent shaking of prisoners, designed to cause severe brain damage by smashing the brain repeatedly against the inside of the skull. The late Yitzhak Rabin claimed that at last 8,000 Palestinians had been subjected to the shaking torture. The Israeli human rights group B’Tselem explains that “it is very rare indeed that the GSS [Israeli security forces] interrogates Palestinians without using at least some of these methods.” Amnesty International claims that “Israel tortures and ill-treats hundreds of people every year.” Of course, these people are invariably Arabs, mainly Palestinians, and never Jewish Israelis.
The Israeli Supreme Court remains unmoved not only by the brutality of the methods it endorses but also by the fact that official, legally sanctioned torture puts Israel in violation of numerous international treaties and norms, most notably the United Nations Convention Against Torture. As it stands, Israel is the only nation which has officially legalized and systematized torture, and the Israeli Supreme Court stands alone among high courts in endorsing torture as a legitimate and routine practice by the security services under its authority.
In November 1997, the Israeli Supreme Court added hostage taking to the list of abhorrent practices it endorses. In July, 1997, Amnesty International brought to international public attention the long-established Israeli practice of kidnapping innocent Lebanese to hold as hostages against the resistance activities of groups like Hizbullah which fight against the Israeli occupation of Southern Lebanon. In its report, “Israel’s Forgotten Hostages,” Amnesty detailed the cases of 21 Lebanese men who were abducted by Israeli troops and held in Israel for the past ten years without charge or even a pretense of legality. Amnesty noted that Israel also holds over 130 Lebanese hostages in its Al-Khiam prison in Israeli-occupied southern Lebanon.
Lawyers operating on behalf of the hostages secured a ruling in the case from the Israeli Supreme Court in November, 1997. This ruling remained secret until March 4, 1998, when after repeated appeals the court released its ruling. In an opinion written by the Israeli Chief Justice, Aharon Barak, the court held that the men were indeed hostages, “bargaining cards as he put it, “captured to achieve a goal, and not themselves the target.” Citing Israel’s supposed vulnerability to “threats hovering over its existence and citizens,” the court ruled that “In situations like this, damage to basic human rights is obligatory – sometimes even grave and painful damage.”
Although Israel had conducted well-publicized kidnappings of prominent Lebanese, most notably the cleric Sheikh Abdel Karim Obied in 1989 and activist Mustapha Dirani, the 21 hostages were held since 1986 in secret. Israeli human rights activists became aware of the location of the hostages by chance in 1992 when they were barred from a wing of a prison on the grounds that a group of Lebanese was being detained there. The secrecy of the Israeli hostage policy was shattered by the activists’ lawsuit, the July 1997 Amnesty report, and the recent release of the November 1997 Israeli Supreme Court ruling. By openly embracing hostage taking, the Israeli Supreme Court has again confirmed its willingness to flout treaty obligations and basic international human rights norms when it comes to Israel’s treatment of Arabs living under its occupation.
Moving from hostage taking in November to collective punishment in December, the Court ordered the demolition of the homes of the families of Palestinians who were suspected of having conducted suicide bombings in Jerusalem. The Israeli Supreme Court has a long history of endorsing collective punishments against Palestinians, whereby whole families and entire communities have been held to account for the resistance activities of individuals. In this case, five months passed between the bombings in July 1997, and the demolition orders issued in December. The Palestinian resistance movement Hamas insisted that the reason for the delay was that the Israeli authorities were unable to discover the real identities of the suicide bombers and decided instead to blame four young men who had been shot in unrelated incidents. Others suggested that the delay, which is in contrast to other home demolitions which the Israelis have tended to conduct as swiftly as possible, was due to the botched Israeli assassination attempt against Hamas leader Khalid Misha’al in Jordan. In any event, the demolition of the suspects’ families’ homes is typical of the kind of collective punishment, also including area closures and village sieges, which the Israeli authorities with full backing of the Supreme Court, have continuously used against Palestinians living under Israeli occupation.
At present the Israeli Supreme Court is dreading the need to go on record with its views about the systematic discrimination in housing against Palestinian citizens of Israel which forms much of the edifice of Israeli apartheid. Since seizing control of Palestine in 1948, the Israeli State has claimed ownership of more than 93 percent of all land in Israel. This land, which is administered by the Israel Land Authority, is, in effect, reserved for Jews only. By running leases through quasi-governmental groups such as the Jewish Agency, the state in practice denies the right of Palestinians to buy or long-term-lease any state land. In this manner Israel has been able to “Judaize” much of what had been Palestine, while keeping Palestinians out of Israeli towns, neighborhoods and settlements.
But now, in what Chief Justice Barak has called “one of the most difficult and complex judicial decisions that I have ever come across,” a Palestinian family is challenging this bedrock of Israeli apartheid. Adel Qaadan and his wife Iman live in Baqa Al Gharbiyeh, an impoverished Palestinian village which lies next to the Israeli settlement town of Katzir in northern Palestine. The Qaadans sparked Israel’s most “difficult and complex” legal crisis by attempting to buy a home in Katzir. They explain simply that, as a Jewish town in Israel, Katzir receives first world facilities and modern educational opportunities from the Israeli government, which spends virtually no money on Palestinian towns such as Baqa Al Gharbiyeh, where sewage runs through the streets and educational facilities are fourth-rate.
The Qaadans were refused permission to purchase a house in Katzir, on the grounds that no Arabs are allowed in Katzir. In fact, this arrangement is typical of most Jewish settlements, kibbutzs and many city neighborhoods in Israel, where apartheid – exclusion of Palestinian citizens on the basis of race – is the norm. Recall that at least one million of the 5 million Israeli citizens are Palestinian Christians and Muslims. This fundamental separation of communities is the basis for a far broader pattern of discrimination in basic social services in education, health, infrastructure, etc. It is estimated that the Israeli government spends less than one quarter on Palestinian areas per capita than it spends on Jewish areas. It is this aspect of Israeli apartheid that the Qaadans are challenging. Their law suit against the Israel Land Authority, the Jewish Agency and the Katzir Community Association demands that the Israeli courts either codify housing apartheid in Israel as law, or declare the whole basis of Israeli housing discrimination illegal.
This is what Chief Justice Barak is finding so wrenching, wishing neither to tamper with the practices of apartheid nor publicly endorse them as a part of Israeli law. He made his anguish clear at the last hearing on the matter on Feb. 10, when he beseeched the Katzir Jewish community to find a way to appease the Qaddans and free him from having to rule on the issue. “You should take a chance,” he begged them, “What would you consider worse – accepting the petition or accepting the petitioners?” Barak’s fear is obvious – that the Israel practice of apartheid will be badly damaged by both possible rulings. He has to either strike down the practice as illegal, throwing the whole system into chaos, or openly endorse it . Incorporating these discriminatory practices into law would clarify the immorality of Israeli practices, forcing the issue to return again and again, and bringing the Israeli state into serious international disrepute. His pleas for an out-of-court settlement are based on a realization that the best way to protect Israeli apartheid is to keep it as far away from the courts as possible.
Ma’ariv, a leading Israeli newspaper, identified the questions raised by this case: “Must Zionism retreat in the face of the right of Israeli Arabs to equal treatment? In other words: Is Israel the state of the Jewish people or the state of all its citizens?” This moral crisis is even more intense given the specific nature of Katzir as a conscious Zionist attempt to insert a fixed Jewish presence in an area of Palestine that has remained largely Palestinian in spite of the last hundred years of colonialism. In its court pleadings, the Katzir Community Association declared that Katzir had been established “to create a Jewish core in the heart of an area that has been populated since the beginning of this country by Arabs.” Moreover, on March 13, the leading Israeli daily, Ha’aretz reported that the Israel Land Authority and the Jewish Agency are planning to give away 1,200 plots of land for Jewish immigrants from “affluent countries” in strategic areas they “feared would be taken over by a ‘non-Jewish’ population.” Ha’aretz reported that Israel would be giving away 100 lots in Katzir to Jews from the United States, Australia, South Africa, and England as part of the first stage of the “build your own home project.” It confirmed that the effort stemmed from a desire to alter the continuing Palestinian character of the areas in question.
So, while the Israeli government stands firm in refusing to allow Adel Qaadan to buy a home in Katzir simply because he is a Palestinian, it is holding Jewish Agency fairs in South Africa and the United States to give away plots of land in Katzir to people simply because they are Jewish, even though they have never set foot in Palestine. In its March 27 issue, Ha’aretz’ columnist Orit Shohat pointed out the obvious: “‘redeeming’ state lands from the state itself to transfer them from the citizens of the state to world Jewry, only so as to prevent Israeli citizens from living on them, not only looks absurd, but also has little redemption about it and a lot of racism.”
No wonder Chief Justice Barak dreads ruling on the Qaadan case, believing that “We are not ready yet for this kind of judicial decision.” Given the commitment to this form of apartheid by the rest of the Israeli state apparatus, and the Supreme Court’s own rulings of the past six months endorsing torture, hostage taking and collective punishment, there is every reason to expect that Barak and his colleagues will find that, in the interests of Zionism, this will be another instance where grave and painful damage to the basic human rights of Arabs is simply “obligatory.”

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