Open Letter from the JCRC on VSB's Abrupt Cancellation of Israel Trip

As many of you know, the Virginia State Bar (the Bar/VSB), the Virginia agency that regulates lawyers in the Commonwealth, recently cancelled a planned trip to Israel. The Bar's emailed announcement of the cancellation, sent about four weeks ago, stated that the trip had been cancelled because Israel has "unacceptable discriminatory policies and practices pertaining to border security that affect travelers to [Israel]."  

 

The Bar's inflammatory and inaccurate accusation immediately triggered protests from the Jewish Community Federation of Richmond (JCFR) and our sister communities all around Virginia. Indeed, the Bar found itself roundly criticized, from several national and international sources, for its hostile allegation and its apparent endorsement of a boycott of Israel.

 

In response to this strong and pointed criticism, the Bar's leadership publicly retreated from its initial position, disavowing any support for the pernicious Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement. In public statements, the Bar's leadership explained that they did not then and do not now intend to ally the Bar with the BDS movement. VSB President Kevin Martingalye said, "This was not a political decision and is not a 'boycott.' We are an inclusive organization and do not discriminate against any religion."

 

While it was alarming and disappointing for the Bar to have initially explained its actions as it did, JCFR is pleased that the prompt and vigorous outcry from our community, local, national, and international, prompted the Bar to speedily disavow any intention to endorse the BDS movement. VSB President-elect Ed Weiner said, "Our consciousness has been raised through all this." Through our swift action, we raised awareness within the Bar and elsewhere that our communities will not stand silently in the face of efforts to tar Israel and her commitment to security and social justice.

 

The Commonwealth of Virginia has a long a proud tradition of support for and interaction with the State of Israel, whether through the acts of the Governor of the Commonwealth, the Virginia Legislature, the Jewish members of the Bar, or the people of the Commonwealth.

 

Accordingly, the JCFR has reached out to the leadership of the Bar, offering to provide further education about issues important to the Jewish community and to Israel. They have not yet accepted our overture, but the door remains open to them and to any groups interested in these issues. Your Federation remains committed to being a zealous advocate for our community, for Israel, and for the Jewish people everywhere.

 

Timeline of Significant Events:

 

FRI., MARCH 13, 2015 - 2:35 PM: Ed Weiner, VSB President-Elect, sends recruitment email to VA lawyers reminding them to register for the mid-year seminar in Jerusalem. The email states that if not enough deposits are received the trip will be cancelled.

 

FRI., MARCH 13 - 4:03 PM: In response to Weiner's email, Foudi Kiblawi complains that the VSB is organizing an event that is inherently discriminatory, and it is in direct contradiction with legal positions of the U.S. and international communities. VSB Meetings and Projects Coordinator Terry Patrick emails Ed Weiner informing him of the email from Foudi Kiblawi.

 

MON., MARCH 16 - 12:19 PM: Karen Gould, Executive Director of the VSB emails Past VSB Chair Irv Blank. Irv Blank emails JCFR VP Mark Sisisky for contacts at the Israeli Embassy, so that he may ask for their guidance. Mark Sisisky contacts JCFR CEO Sam Asher. Sam Asher contacts the Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA) for assistance in creating a response.

 

WED., MARCH 18 - 2:35 PM: Hanna Dershowitz of the JCPA drafts a response letter. The letter is sent to Irv Blank. He uses the letter to respond to Foudi Kiblawi and attempts to close the issue with VSB.

 

FRI., MARCH 27: A petition against the Bar trip to Israel was received at the VSB. The VSB canceled the trip and issued an email that suggests improper Israeli immigration procedures as a reason for cancellation.

 

SAT., MARCH 28: The Washington Post picks up the story. This is the first time the Jewish community is alerted to a petition and VSB response. JCFR contacts leadership to set up an emergency meeting. 

 

SUN., MARCH 29: An emergency meeting of key leadership is held at the JCFR office to create a response plan to the VSB's unwarranted trip cancellation. At approximately 7:00 PM, JCFR learns that the VSB issued a new statement disavowing BDS-type intent. Approximately 12 JCFR Board members (JCFR Team) form a committee to craft a strong statement to the VSB which asks the VSB to reply regarding their reason for canceling the trip. 

 

MON., MARCH 30: The JCFR Team issues a statement condemning the VSB’s decision and the premise on which it was based. In the statement, the JCFR Team demands the following response from the VSB:

 

The VSB should write its members and explicitly explain that Israel has the same rights to security as any other sovereign nation and does not discriminate against visitors.  

 

The VSB should emphasize that it has no reason to believe that any VSB member would be denied admission to Israel for any improper reason.

 

The VSB should purge its official rulings and policy positions of any implication of impermissible Israeli entry policies.  

 

MON., MARCH 30: The JCFR Team’s statement (sent by direct and mass email, and posted on social media), was picked up by various news agencies. Jewish legislators in the Virginia General Assembly sent a press release condemning VSB statements. The Richmond Times Dispatch published editorials supportive of JCFR's position (Ed Weiner and Kevin Martingayle were interviewed by the press stating that the email was sent without malice and without any knowledge of BDS or boycott movement).

 

WED., APRIL 1 - 6:15 PM: The JCFR Team conducts a follow-up conference call with the VSB. The VSB assured the JCFR that a response to the Federation's letter was being drafted and would soon be mailed to the JCFR. The VSB said to expect a response at the earliest on Monday, April 6, due to the Passover holiday and Shabbat. It was decided that JCFR should wait until the letter is received and reviewed before taking further action. It would be premature to do otherwise. If the letter does not come, then the team will reconvene to re-examine the issue.

 

APRIL 1- 6: The JCFR received suggestions as to the next steps, such as contacting U.S. Congressional figures (Sen. Kaine is aware of the issue) or boycotting VSB events. The JCRC of the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington sent petitions of protest to their distribution lists. Individuals responded by posting comments on various social media sites, websites, and wrote letters to U.S. Congressional leaders, and so on.

 

TUES., APRIL 7 - A conference call was conducted between JCFR Team members. Richard Samet updated leadership on the VSB situation. He reached out to Ed Weiner to inquire about the overdue response letter. It was reported that the posture of the Bar remains taciturn. JCFR waits for the review of the Freedom of Information Act documents. The Bar's position is that until the subject materials of the FOIA request are reviewed, and the impact from that review assessed, the Bar is in a holding pattern. We expect that the record will show that the Bar's actions were not intentional, but made out of ignorance. This delay does not mitigate the damage. The JCFR will later decide what action to take next. It is likely that there will be no apology letter. Senator Filler-Corn was contacted for follow up. Another suggestion was made to reach out to national agencies for advice on how to manage the situation.

 

THUR., APRIL 9 - Ambassador Dennis Ross was contacted. He will attempt to work with State Department officials on a response and an educational opportunity.

 

WED., APRIL 15 - JCPA hosted a conference call with Virginia Federation JCRC representatives (D.C., Newport News, Tidewater and Richmond). The items discussed included a letter from all four communities to be ready to go in advance of the FOIA disclosure. The agenda also included an update on mass action options, but no decisions were made on the JCFR-prepared letter. It was agreed that if any community planned to sign on to the letter, they would contact the JCFR. 

 

WED., APRIL 29 - Frances Goldman, the Richmond Federation's JCRC chair, reported to the JCFR Board on the VSB incident. She presented a Richmond JCFR Team letter that was approved by the Board with one edit. The Board also asked that a timeline (this document) be circulated with the letter.

Letter to VSB

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