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Jason Dzubow on Political Asylum


  1. Palestinian Activist Convicted of Immigration Fraud; Supporters Cry Foul

    Earlier this week, Rasmea Odeh, the associate director of the Arab American Action Network in Chicago, was convicted of one count of Unlawful Procurement of Naturalization. She faces up to 10 years in prison, a fine, and possible deportation from the United States.

    Convincing Ms. Odeh's supporters proved easier than convincing a jury.

    Ms. Odeh is a Palestinian who was convicted in Israel in 1970 for involvement in two bombings, one of which killed two university students in a supermarket. She was sentenced to life in prison, but she was freed in 1979 as part of a prisoner exchange between Israel and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. Ms. Odeh maintains that she is innocent of the crime, and that she was coerced into confessing under torture by the Israeli authorities.

    In the mid-1990s, she immigrated from Jordan to the United States, and in 2004, she became a U.S. citizen. By all accounts, she did well in her adopted country:

    Rasmea Odeh has been with the Arab American Action Network (AAAN) since 2004 and is the Associate Director and Community Adult Women Organizer.... She has worked as a teacher and then a lawyer after she completed her law degree. She gained valuable community experience through her work and service in various associations including women’s and workers’ unions, family and domestic violence groups, human right centers and the Red Cross. She created a successful community writing group at the AAAN to encourage women to tell their colorful stories and experiences while living in the United States in a creative and exciting way.

    Ms. Odeh's current troubles stem from her failure to report her conviction and sentence on her immigration and naturalization forms. Those forms ask such questions as "Have you ever been arrested, cited, or detained by any law enforcement officer... for any reason?" and "Have you ever been charged with committing, attempting to commit, or assisting in committing a crime or offense?" (emphasis in original). In response to these questions, Ms. Odeh answered "no."

    In a sense, this is an open-and-shut case. Whether or not Ms. Odeh is guilty of the underlying crime (the bombing), she certainly provided false information on the immigration forms. But of course, nothing connected to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict can ever be simple, and Ms. Odeh's case is no exception.

    The first complicating factor is Ms. Odeh's alleged torture by Israel. This became relevant because the defense hoped to prove that Ms. Odeh did not "knowingly" lie on the immigration forms; rather, her "post-traumatic stress disorder" somehow caused her to answer the questions incorrectly. The judge disallowed this defense in a pre-trial order, and it will no doubt be one of the claims raised on appeal. To me, the PTSD defense is simply not believable. Many of my clients are torture victims and possibly suffer from PTSD, but I've never seen a case where the client isn't able to answer a yes-or-no question about whether she was arrested. Maybe she does not want to talk about the arrest, but she knows it happened and can complete the form properly. Even if the judge had allowed this defense, I doubt that the jury would have accepted it.

    Deprived of her PTSD defense, Ms. Odeh argued that she misunderstood the questions related to her criminal convictions. She said that she thought the questions were about her time in the U.S., and that she had nothing to hide and did not need to lie. She apparently testified about her alleged torture at the United Nations in 1979, and as her lead attorney said, “It was well known that she was convicted, and traded [in a prisoner exchange]. The U.S. Embassy knew it, the State Department knew it, and Immigration should have known it.” Neither of these points is very convincing. First, Ms. Odeh clearly had a very good reason to lie--if the U.S. government knew about her conviction on terrorism charges, she would likely have been denied a visa and citizenship. Second, her attorney's claim that she did not have to answer the questions truthfully since the U.S. government was already aware of her conviction is simply bizarre (as if some USCIS bureaucrat in 2004 would magically be aware of Ms. Odeh's testimony before the UN in 1979).

    The most (and to me, only) convincing argument made by Ms. Odeh is that her prosecution stems from an improper government investigation that targeted Palestinian activists and others who were exercising their First Amendment rights. Ms. Odeh filed an unsuccessful motion to dismiss relying on this theory. The investigation in question was brought against 23 anti-war and Palestinian activists, and after 3+ years, has not resulted in any indictments. During the course of the investigation, the government of Israel turned over documents to the United States. It is these documents that purportedly led to the discovery of Ms. Odeh's imprisonment (and hence the discovery that she lied on her immigration forms). The failure of the underlying investigation to reach any conclusion suggests that it might have been improper and, if so, perhaps the discovery related to Ms. Odeh was unlawful (fruit of the poison tree and all that). I suppose we will see what comes of this argument on appeal. But of course, even if Ms. Odeh is correct about the improper investigation, and even if she ultimately wins with this issue on appeal, that does not change the fact that she lied on her forms.

    Finally, it is interesting to see how people’s views of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict affect their views of Ms. Odeh’s case. To her supporters, this case is about Israeli torture of Palestinians. They seem to accept Ms. Odeh’s explanation that she is innocent, that she was tortured into confessing, that any mistakes on the form were either a misunderstanding or a result of her PTSD, and that the whole case is an effort by the U.S. government to undermine the Palestinian cause.

    While I largely sympathize with the Palestinian side, I find Ms. Odeh's explanations hard to accept. To me—and apparently to the jury—the case is much simpler than all that. The question is, Did Ms. Odeh knowingly lie on her immigration and naturalization forms? The jury found that she did. Despite all the craziness surrounding her case, and whether she is a victim or a villain, the simplest and most likely explanation here is that Ms. Odeh lied about her imprisonment in order to obtain an immigration benefit from the United States. If so, she received the conviction she deserved.

    Originally posted on the Asylumist:
  2. Can a Human Rights Lawyer Be Pro-Israel?

    If you talk to people working in the human rights field, many will tell you that they view their work as an expression of their political and moral beliefs. More often than not, those beliefs are grounded in religious faith.

    Dare to dream...

    That is true for me. I am Jewish and I am an asylum lawyer. I view my work as an expression of my Jewish values. These values are derived not just from our sacred texts--which encourage discussion, debate, and self reflection--but also from our experience as a people who lived in exile and faced centuries of persecution. For me, Jewish values include respecting the life and dignity of all people, trying to understand "the other," trying to understand myself, and sympathizing with the powerless. All this is a good fit with asylum law where I represent foreign people who face harm or death from governments or terrorist groups. But how do these values align with support for Israel?

    There was a time when I felt that my values were largely consistent with supporting Israel. After all, it is a small country, created by refugees and surrounded by enemies. But more recently, it has become harder for me to be "pro-Israel," as that term is generally understood. It's not that I don't support Israel and believe it should exist as a Jewish state. I do. But I have found that in recent years, it has become increasingly difficult to reconcile the values that guide my life and career with being "pro-Israel." There are several reasons for this.

    For one, it is difficult to accept the dishonesty of the pro-Israel side. Of course, this is not a problem confined to supporters of Israel. If anything, I see more dishonesty from opponents of Israel. But since I am Jewish and concerned about the behavior of my side, it is difficult to square my Jewish values with the pro-Israel propaganda that I daily see in the news. An example of this is how Israel's supporters consistently put forth a narrative that exonerates Israel for any blame in the current conflict. It is true that Hamas initiated the recent fighting, but that is hardly the beginning of the story. Israel seems always to have an excuse for failing to make concessions or reign in settlers. As a result, moderate Palestinians are undermined (since they cannot show progress to their constituents) and extremists are empowered. A more honest evaluation would include self criticism--what have Israel and its supporters done wrong? How have their actions contributed to the cycle of violence? How have Israeli policies encouraged Jewish extremism? This type of analysis, I have never heard from the pro-Israel camp.

    Also, I have great difficulty accepting the alliance of pro-Israel Jews with Neo-Conservatives and Christian Zionists. I find the Neo-Conservative's view on the use of force to be immoral and anti-Jewish, not to mention cynical, short-sighted, and ineffective. Exhibit No. 1 in that regard is our war in Iraq. As for the Christian Zionists--people like John Hagee of Christians United for Israel--their purported love of Israel seems a thinly veiled proxy for hating Muslims. If there ever came a time when Israel was actually able to make peace with the Arabs, the Christian Zionists would be opposed: Peace with Muslims is not compatible with their world view. The values of Neo-Conservatives and Christian Zionists are profoundly contrary to my own. And while I understand that the enemy of my enemy is sometimes my friend, for me, certain alliances are beyond the pale.

    I also have trouble with the knee-jerk defensiveness of the pro-Israel camp, which is eager to label any expression of anti-Zionism as Antisemitism. Sometimes anti-Zionism is Antisemitism, and sometimes it is not. But there is a flip side to that coin: For many years, Jews have made the State of Israel an integral part of our religion. Synagogues have Israeli flags and signs supporting Israel, we celebrate Israeli Independence Day, we send our young people to Israel to study, we raise money for Israel. In other words, we have made Judaism and Zionism synonymous. In that case, it is hard to fault our enemies for confusing the two concepts. Frankly, I think our attachment to Israel is a good thing. What I oppose is the assumption that all criticism of Israel is made in bad faith, which allows us to avoid the difficult task of self examination.

    Linked to the issue of defensiveness is the on-going effort by Israel supporters to stifle speech that they view as anti-Israel. They threaten funding sources, ban (or attempt to ban) disfavored speakers from Jewish events, label leftist Jewish groups "traitors," and they rejected the dovish J Street's attempt to join the Presidents Conference, an umbrella organization of Jewish-American agencies. If the pro-Israel camp sought to counter the ideas they find offensive, that would be one thing. But instead, they seek to eliminate those ideas. I am a believer in free speech and in the (very Jewish) idea of debating issues. To me, these efforts to squelch speech and avoid engagement on difficult issues is offensive.

    Finally, I do not appreciate the effort of Israel supporters to deflect attention from Gaza by comparing it to the much more deadly situations in Syria or Iraq. While I think it is legitimate to ask non-Jews and non-Palestinians why they are more concerned about Gaza than Syria, I do not think that question is appropriate for Jews (or--obviously--Palestinians). As Jews, we should be concerned about the behavior of other Jews. We should question Israel's policies that we disagree with. The fact that others are behaving worse than us does not seem a valid justification for our own actions.

    I remember an incident from when I lived in Israel--way back in 1990. I was visiting the Jewish settlers in Hebron, a large Arab town in the West Bank. We went to the Tomb of the Patriarchs, which is considered the burial place of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. It is a holy place for Jews and Muslims. We were in the Jewish section when the settlers started singing "Jerusalem! Jerusalem!" and dancing. They danced into the Muslim part and interrupted a dozen old Muslim men who were praying. At the moment, I felt I had to choose sides--with the settlers or with the Muslims. I am sorry to say that I chose to dance and sing with my fellow Jews. The old Muslim men stopped their prayers and watched us quietly, humiliated.

    I still believe that there is a choice to make, but it is not a choice between Jews and Muslims or Israelis and Palestinians. It is a choice between right and wrong. I am pro-Israel in that I believe Israel should exist as a Jewish democratic state and that it has the right to defend itself from terrorists' missiles and tunnels. But if "pro-Israel" means persecuting, humiliating, and de-humanizing Palestinians, refusing to make concessions for peace, demonizing opponents, stifling speech, and making alliances with morally bankrupt groups, you can count me out.

    Originally posted on the Asylumist:
    Tags: israel, palestine Add / Edit Tags
  3. The Way We Mourn Is Part of the Problem

    The Jewish community around the world has recently been in mourning for the loss of three young Jewish men, kidnapped and murdered in the West Bank. Their bodies were found on June 30, more than two weeks after they were taken.

    They are all our boys.

    Israel blamed Hamas for the kidnapping and, since the three teens disappeared, has been engaged in a crackdown against the terrorist organization. For its part, Hamas did not claim credit for the crime, but praised the kidnapping. The event has sparked Hamas rocket fire from Gaza into Israel, retaliatory airstrikes, and the revenge killing of an Arab teen by Jewish extremists.

    The discovery of the young men's bodies also led to mass mourning within the Jewish community in Israel, around the world, and here in Washington, DC. Last week, 1,200 mourners attended a memorial service in suburban DC for the slain teens. Most of the attendees were Jews, but representatives of several local Christian communities were also present. All expressed solidarity with the family members and deep sadness at the loss of "our boys."

    Of course in times of tragedy, it is the nature of communities--even fractured ones like the American Jewish community--to come together to mourn and comfort one another. But this recent tragedy in my own community, and our response to it, has gotten me thinking about whether the way we mourn--and what events we choose to mourn--contributes to the problem of violence between communities.

    One area of concern for me is the us/them mentality of the Jewish community's response (and obviously this is not unique to the Jewish community). The idea that there is an us and a them. Our expression of grief over the loss of "our boys" seems to me symptomatic of the problem. We grieve for "our boys," but not for "their boys." Maybe this is a trite point, but I can't help but think about some of the people I have represented; people who have faced senseless losses as horrible as those suffered by the Israeli teens' families.

    For example, I am representing a Syrian couple whose newborn baby was asphyxiated by dust and poison gas during a battle. I also represented (successfully) an Iraqi mother who watched her son gunned down in front of her and in front of his own wife and young child. We recently attended an asylum interview for an Afghan man who saw dozens of his relatives and friends killed and maimed by a missile strike on a family wedding. There are no public memorials for these victims. No one even knows about their stories. Indeed, maybe because stories like these are so common in places like Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan, no one pays much attention. But I have met all these people and heard their stories, so when I see the outpouring of grief for the three Israeli boys, it is difficult not to feel that the solitary suffering of my clients (and millions like them) is unfair and that failing to fully validate the humanity of such victims is unjust. Perhaps if we thought of people like my clients as "us" rather than "them," we would be more willing to take action to help them (and that goes for all the unaccompanied minors arriving at our Southern border--what if we thought of these children as "our boys and girls"? How would our approach to them differ?).

    Maybe I am hoping for too much here. How can we acknowledge so many losses? Why shouldn't we honor and support "our own" before we deal with everyone else? I don't know, but it seems to me if we could do better about recognizing the humanity and the value of "the other," we would take a big step towards preventing future harm for everyone.

    A second concern I have about my community's response to the deaths is more about what we didn't do. We mourned "our boys," but not the Palestinian boy who was killed in a barbaric revenge attack by Jewish extremists. Israel quickly arrested the culprits and Prime Minister Netanyahu and many others have condemned the killing. These are obviously important steps, but it is a bit different than mourning the loss of the young Palestinian. Mourning the young man's death is important not only because "our side" is responsible for his death and thus it reflects on us, as Jews, but also because we need to recognize the boy's value as a human being.

    Again, maybe it is asking too much--especially in the heat of conflict--for Israelis and Palestinians to mourn each others' losses, but I believe that this is what we must do if we hope ever to end the violence. Indeed, family members of one of the Israeli boys and of the Palestinian boy have been in contact with each other, and some Palestinians and Israelis have been crossing the lines to offer condolences to each other. If people so close to these tragedies can see the humanity in each other, perhaps one day the rest of us will too.

    Originally posted on the Asylumist:
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