We don't always apply the rules
Barbara Amiel     Sunday Sun     Oct 11/87

Stern but fair

Barbara Amiel

Last week I received a phone call telling me that Yoram Sheftel, the Israeli lawyer defending accused war criminal John Demjanjuk, was in London.  Would I be interested in meeting him?

We arranged to have dinner that evening.  In the taxi I wondered what sort of Jew would defend a Ukrainian-American accused of such atrocious crimes.  Perhaps a publicity seeker, I thought, readying myself for a tiresome evening.

Sheftel turned out to be a small, engaging man dressed most conservatively for an Israeli.

"I wouldn't normally wear a tie," he explained.  "But I didn't know you and I am in England."

On top of the tie was a large green Star of David suspended from a chain around his neck.  The Star was about 1 1/2 inches in diameter, made of a substance that looked like clear jade.  I remembered the admonition of Maimonides that those who wear amulets are fools who defeat the fulfilment of a great commandment.  I think Maimonides was referring to mezuzahs that ought to be on the doorposts of Jewish homes but which have become fashionable neckpieces as well.

Still, Maimonides lived before the age of Hitler and wearing a Jewish amulet as a sign of pride in one's heritage seems all right to many rabbis now.  I asked Sheftel why he wore his.

"I would never wear it in Israel," he replied.  "I am an atheist.  But I always wear it outside the country."

I asked him how he ended up defending Demjanjuk.  It seems Sheftel, 38, has been practising criminal law in Israel for 10 years and was well known at the prison where Demjanjuk was being held.  Demjanjuk's first lawyer (recently fired by the family), the American Mark O'Connor, was envious of the Israeli know-how that Sheftel had in procedures at the prison and chatted him up.  He asked Sheftel to come on board.

"I said," Sheftel told me, "show me the photographic evidence against Demjanjuk.  If I think he is really the man the prosecution claims, I am not interested.  When I saw the photographs I was astonished.  The points of resemblance simply weren't there.  It made no sense.

"You see, I am very nationalistic.  It is important for our country that this man should be properly defended and that we should punish the right man."

But wasn't it depressing to be trying a man in a lynch mob atmosphere?  In the Anglo-Saxon tradition of jurisprudence, a mistrial would have been declared long ago.  Since it had not been, the Israeli system of justice must differ from ours.  Was it perhaps a mixture of the continental system and the Anglo-American traditions?

Sheftel wanted me to be more specific.  Well, I said, on the first day of the trial the Israeli justice minister went on the air and declared that "today begins the trial of the Nazi murderer and war criminal John Demjanjuk."  The Israeli government and the press didn't even bother referring to him as the "alleged" war criminal or the "accused."  I began to get outraged myself.

"Listen," Sheftel said.  "You have to understand that Israel is a free society.  In a free society there is always the chance of an acquittal if the evidence points that way and I have not given up hope.  We do follow the Anglo-American system of law, not the continental, although we don't always apply the rules.  Still, at least we have them.  We don't have a jury and that's our only fundamental difference with you.  We don't because a jury of 12 in Israel would be a jury of 12 judges.

"As for the atmosphere of the trial, yes, it's difficult.  I've had close to 100 lawyers and three district court judges tell me they are horrified by the atmosphere.  But, you know, they must talk off the record.  I get some harassment, but so what?  I've never thought of the law as a popularity contest.

"I want to do one thing," he said.  "I want the facts and the evidence put on the record completely, openly and as competently as possible.  If the three judges hearing the case choose to ignore Israeli law and convict in the face of those facts, so be it.  The record will always be there."

Sheftel, the son of Ukrainian Jews, was a hippie in his youth, dropping out of school at 14, going to Elat where he loitered about with foreigners.  Self-taught, he took his exams at 17 and went to the Hebrew University.

He sees little hope for the survival of Jews outside the state of Israel.  "In Israel," he says, "it doesn't matter that I am atheist and that I don't follow religious tradition or that I watch movies on shabbas.  In Israel, I am a Jew, day and night.  In the United States, you may go to synagogue on the high holidays but you marry non-Jews and you become North Americans.  Soon there will be no real Jews outside Israel."

I don't agree with this nationalism of his, but I understand it.  And I am proud of Yoram Sheftel.  I am not familiar enough with the evidence to know whether or not it proves that John Demjanjuk is Ivan the Terrible, the notorious sadist of Treblinka concentration camp.  But I know one thing: I may be outside Israel and an Anglo-Jew to boot, but the laws of Moses and Deuteronomy are still in my bones.  I cannot stand silently by and see Jewish law reduced to the kangaroo courts used by our persecutors through the ages.

It is a Christian philosophy to turn the other cheek, but it is the philosophy of the Jews to be stern but fair.  The Demjanjuk trial has not been a fair trial and only a Jew like Sheftel, proud and patriotic but intent on seeing the law obeyed, can rescue us from that.