The Virginia State Bar has canceled its midyear legal seminar in Jerusalem, citing “unacceptable discriminatory policies and practices pertaining to border security that affect travelers,” in a decision that provoked a swift reaction Sunday among some political leaders
The decision to cancel the trip followed an online petition launched by bar members who said exit and entrance policies in Israel would discriminate against Arab, Muslim and Palestinian members of Virginia’s legal community.
“It is unacceptable that the Virginia State Bar has decided to hold a conference in a location that actively discriminates on the basis of racial, religious, and national origin grounds, and effectively prevents Arab, Muslim and Palestinian members of the [Virginia State Bar] from attending,” the petition said.
As word of the state bar’s decision buzzed on social media, with some critics describing it as a “boycott,” House Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford) wrote a letter Sunday urging the group to reconsider. Virginia has a long-standing relationship with Israel, Howell noted, and shares deep cultural and economic ties, including $75 million in exports last year.
The decision to cancel “is inconsistent with the policy of the Commonwealth and sends the wrong signal about our relationship with Israel,” he wrote.
Virginia State Bar leaders said the decision was being misinterpreted and did not in any way represent a boycott or other political action.
“We are not a political group,” said Edward L. Weiner, the group’s president-elect. “We are making no political stand whatsoever. We are not making any statement about Israel, Israel’s security policy, zero.”
A spokesman said Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) had no comment on the state bar’s action, noting that the governor does not belong to the bar or work with it regularly.
Weiner said that it was his idea to hold the November event in Jerusalem but that such plans are contingent on sufficient participation. With an April 1 deadline for having 60 members signed up, the group had only about 25, he said. “We were looking way short,” he said.
In previous years, the organization has scheduled midyear legal seminars in Spain, Italy, England, Argentina, Greece and Puerto Rico. “The trip is never a go until we know we’ve reached our numbers,” he said.
Weiner said that as interest was falling short, the association received the petition, which was signed by 39 members of the bar. The organization has more than 40,000 members.
He said the bar checked the U.S. State Department Web site, which advises that “some U.S. citizens holding Israeli nationality, possessing a Palestinian identity card, or who are of Arab or Muslim origin have experienced significant difficulties in entering or exiting Israel or the West Bank.”
Weiner said the group also called the Israeli Embassy and was told officials could not guarantee that someone in the group would not be questioned or stopped.
Weiner and bar President Kevin E. Martingayle decided Friday to look for a different location for the trip, hoping that another destination might draw more participants and make everyone “feel welcome.”
In the e-mail, Martingayle wrote that as a state agency, the Virginia State Bar “strives for maximum inclusion and equality, and that explains this action.” The message said the group still has enough time “to find a suitable location” for the November trip.
Irving Blank, a past president of the Virginia State Bar and member of the bar committee planning the trip, said the episode had been blown out of proportion, placing much of the blame on an online opinion piece posted on the Volokh Conspiracy blog on The Washington Post Web site that used the word “boycott” in the headline.
Blank, who sits on the Virginia Israel Advisory Board and says he is a strong supporter of Israel, said he has received e-mails and texts from around the world from people who wrongly believed that the state bar was taking a political position. “The use of the word boycott was disingenuous and wrong and incendiary and just not true,” he said.
Former U.S. Senate candidate and Republican Party head Ed Gillespie tweeted Saturday a one-word response to the move: “Outrageous!” He said if the state bar wasn’t trying to make a policy point, then the cancellation e-mail left the opposite impression.
“It’s not in the interest of the commonwealth to have a perception that an official agency has initiated a travel boycott of Israel,” Gillespie said.
The online petition, posted on the Web site Change.org, complained that American visitors of Arab or Muslim background are routinely singled out for extra scrutiny when they enter Israel. It said the bar shouldn’t subject its members to such “discriminatory practices.”
The petition pointed out that the event’s own reservation form cited State Department warnings on travel to Israel, among them advisories that “U.S. citizens whom Israeli authorities suspect of being of Arab, Middle Eastern, or Muslim origin may face additional questioning by immigration and border authorities.”
It also cited similar guidance from the U.S. Consulate in Jerusalem and reports compiled by an advocacy group about Arab American travelers being subjected to invasive body searches, prolonged detention and confiscated phones and laptops.
Laurie Forbes, 62, a lawyer in Fairfax, said she hadn’t heard of the controversy until she received the e-mail announcing the cancellation. She looked up the petition, went to the State Department Web site to read the travel warnings and then added her name. Forbes said she has sympathy for both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but views the border procedures as profiling.
“The Israeli government has a right to put in place whatever policies they think they need to protect themselves,” Forbes said. “But if those measures result in discrimination against members of my organization based solely on their surname or their religious background, then my organization has no business going there.”
In response to an interview request sent to an e-mail for the group “Concerned Members of the Virginia State Bar,” a person who declined to be identified said there would be no further comment.