Text by Anka Fassbind
It’s a warm spring evening and our taxi is heading to the north of Tel Aviv where we are to meet human rights lawyer Tamar Pelleg-Sryck. Looking through the car window, the long wide boulevards give way to a calm neighborhood full of vegetation and flowers.
We enter the building’s courtyard and remain puzzled in front of the mailboxes, not able to identify our host’s name, as all names are written in hebraic alphabet. Nevertheless, we walk up the stairs and are relieved to find her name, in latin letters, written near the door.
Tamar greets us with a heartwarming smile and invites us into her apartment. Her white hair and slow walking could give her age away. But as she talks, her sharp thinking and lively eyes let us forget she will soon turn 86.
Tamar was born in 1926 in the city of Pinsk – at the time located in Poland and now part of Belarus. Her father was a non-practicing Jew, liberal and openminded. Her mother was Russian from a noble family and had converted to judaism. Tamar grew up in this mixed environment aware of her Jewishness but also strongly impregnated with her Russian origins.
During the second World War, aged 13, she was deported with her family to Khazakstan to a soviet sovkhoze. After a long and perilous journey, the family finally settled down in Palestine in 1943. There, she volunteered in the secret Jewish army and participated in the 1947-49 War. She then studied psychology and pursued a career as an educator in schools.
But at nearly 60, Tamar decided to add a new chapter to her professional life by resuming her studies. She became a lawyer specializing in human rights and more specifically defending the rights of Palestinians.
Among the first Jewish-Israeli lawyers to represent Palestinians in military courts, Tamar has been battling relentlessly for more than 20 year for the rights of Palestinian detainees. In 2011, she was awarded the Emil Grunzweig Human rights award for a Lifetime achievement.
Was she proud to receive an award for her engagement? “What makes me happy is when my detainee is released. Then I am really overjoyed” Tamar answers humbly. Since 1995, when she joined HaMoked as a lawyer, Tamar has represented thousands of Palestinians in legal and administrative proceedings. “Procedures are such that you really can’t fight them but you do find a way to fight them” she says with determination.
Tamar has borne witness to the changes that occurred since the late 80s. “At the time it was much easier [practicing as a lawyer] but the situation keeps aggravating. Now the authorities are tough and indifferent to public opinion. At the time, I had great coverage in newspapers and that could have impact on the cases” Tamar regrets. “Today authorities have become totally indifferent”. In fact, she adds “people here are not concerned about Palestinians, period”. Nevertheless, she continues to work, despite some health problems, and still represents a dozen clients.
Sitting in the small living room, we are surrounded by books, family pictures and client files. Becoming a lawyer and more specifically a human rights lawyer was not a vocation, Tamar says, “I was working as a psychology teacher and was approaching retirement age”. Thinking of the future, Tamar decided to “retire as a lawyer”.
She resumed her studies and got her license at nearly 60. She then opened her own practice but admits: “I was not interested in helping people draft contracts, buy houses and all the typical lawyer activities”. So when she saw the Association for Cilvil Rights in Israel was looking for a lawyer, she seized the opportunity. “My work had nothing to do with occupied territories at the beginning. But when the Intifada broke out [ACRI] was liberal” she explains and they let her defend Palestinians. Thus, she became one of the first, now numerous, Jewish lawyers to pursue such activities.
How does a Jewish-Israeli lawyer come to defend Palestinians? Tamar reflects “I think it has something to do with my mother – her being [at the origin] a non Jew – me being a mixture”.
As a young woman and until 1965, Tamar was a member of the communist party, “it was the peace movement of those days” she recalls vividly, “the only bi-national movement where Arabs and Jews could meet together and discuss”.
This ease to communicate will help her when working as a lawyer, “I probably behaved with people, differently from other Jews with Palestinians”. She adds “I had a normal behavior, I treated Palestinian detainees and their lawyers normally. It was unconscious”.
In retrospect, it seems clear that Tamar’s mixed origins and liberal upbringing played an important role in shaping her main concern for the individual as opposed to nationalistic considerations. “I cannot think in terms of national rights, that someone has less rights than I have, that one nation has more rights” she says.
At the question of critics she might have faced for her engagement with Palestinians, Tamar answers without batting an eyelid “I’ve heard a lot of people say that being Jewish, I shouldn’t do it. However, I have never had the experience of people attacking me verbally nonetheless physically”. Her detractors often ask her why she has to defend Palestinian people when so many Jewish people also have problems. Her answer is straight to the point “because their rights are violated more and harsher”.
Talking about the future, Tamar is alarmed because “there is not much interaction” between Jewish people and Palestinians. But she does concede that “there is a very marginal change”. Among the new generation, in their twenties and thirties quite a few are different. For them “there are no borders between people”. Do they represent hope for her? “ Hope is about the future” she says. As for today, Tamar simply feels “happiness that they exist”.
Her thoughts about the future of Israel? “I don’t want to convince others” she concludes after sharing some personal thoughts. But her position could be summarized by her last few words “I don’t mind who my neighbor is… I mean nationally speaking”.
Through an hour of conversation, Tamar has chosen her words carefully, attaching a lot of importance to the precision of her answers. Not once has she raised her voice. Her focus and calmness leave no room for emotional talk. The night has fallen and we are about to leave. What are Tamar’s plans for the following days? She will go to Jerusalem to attend an emergency conference regarding Palestinian hunger strikers. No sedate life for Tamar.