|Written by Tamara Symonds|
Interview: NIF Law Fellow Raya Meiler
NIF Law Fellow Raya Meiler made headlines earlier this month when she argued – and won - two important legal victories before Israeli courts. Raya is an attorney for NIF grantee Hotline for Migrant Workers.
First, the Supreme Court accepted her petition arguing that torture represented "exceptional humanitarian grounds" for releasing detainees held under the Anti-Infiltration Law from prison.
Second, in a precedent-setting ruling, the Be'er Sheva district court ruled that minors detained under the Anti-Infiltration Law should be released from jail, even if they are accompanied by their parents. Following this ruling, the Interior Ministry agreed to free all Eritrean mothers and children jailed under the law.
These would be remarkable achievements for any lawyer, let alone one still in her twenties. Almost as impressive, though, is Raya's personal journey to becoming a human rights defender.
Raya was born in Moldova ("like [former Foreign Minister Avigdor] Lieberman," she says with a wink). In 1991, when she was seven, her family made aliyah, settling in Be'er Sheva. While working as a medic in the army, she received a letter from Tel Aviv University's Law Faculty about a special program for outstanding students from the periphery. Raya became one of only ten students to be accepted for the program.
Her first two years at law school were tough. "The people were so different from Be'er Sheva," she says. "Most of them came from rich families in the center of the country. It was difficult socially. I felt like an outsider." Then she heard about the university's Human Rights Clinic, supervised by Professor Neta Ziv, who had been an NIF Law Fellow back in 1986. "It [the clinic] opened my eyes. It made me realize that everyone – no matter their religion, gender, or the color of their skin – deserves the same rights." Early in her career, Raya played a role in a precedent-setting same-same adoption case. She also became more politically aware. "I came from a left-wing family and I knew about the occupation, but I didn't fully understand what made it so illegitimate," Raya explains. She took part in Breaking the Silence and Ir Amim tours of the occupied territories. "Then I really understand what the occupation was all about."
She also took part in SHATIL's Everett Fellows for Social Justice program, which opened her eyes to a wide variety of social justice issues across Israeli society. Upon graduation from law school, she worked for a year at the Attorney General's Office. "It was very hard to make the switch and to represent the State, for example, on the issue of destroying Bedouin houses. But I emerged with a far greater understanding of how the State thinks and how government institutions make decisions, which is why I decided to do it in the first place."
After successfully passing her bar exam, Raya wanted to travel to South America. She also dreamed of doing an MA in the US, but her English wasn't yet good enough. There was enough money for travelling, or for studying English in America. She chose the latter, spending half-a-year at the ELS Language Center in Philadelphia. Upon her return she began work as a lawyer; soon after that she applied for NIF's Israel-U.S. Civil Liberties Law Program, which offers two years of academic and professional experience to Israeli lawyers specializing in civil rights advocacy.
The Law Fellow program allowed Raya to study at American University Washington College of Law (WCL). "I studied with very inspiring people, and this time I had a full stipend. It was great to study with people from all over the world, all of whom wanted to learn about human rights. It was the best year of my life."
For the second year of the program, Fellows return to Israel and work at a social change organization. While she had been in America, the Knesset had passed the Anti-Infiltration Law, under which asylum seekers could be detained for three years, or more, without charge. This inspired Raya to choose to work at the Hotline for Migrant Workers, where she specialized in defending asylum seeker rights and human trafficking in Israel.
Raya with the mother and two daughters who were
released from jail
"I was excited, but ready," she says of the hearing on the torture case. "I was confident that the Supreme Court would overrule the district court's ruling. You don't need to be a genius to understand that torture constitutes exceptional circumstances to release someone from jail." As for the case at the Be'er Sheva court, she said she arrived calm. "I thought that justice was on our side. At the beginning of the hearing, when the judge ordered that the detained children not be made to sit in the place where the alleged criminals sit, I didn't think he would leave them in jail."
The mother and her two daughters were released soon after the hearing. "We're very happy, because it's so hard to release people under the Anti-Infiltration Law. When you see them out of jail you know you're doing the right thing."
Raya's internship with Hotline for Migrant Workers is due to end soon, although she hopes she'll be able keep working there for at least another year. "At Hotline it's about changing reality, not making money."
NIF's Law Fellow alumni form the core of the civil rights bar in Israel – as academics, founders and leaders of non-profit organizations, litigators, public defenders, Knesset members, and judges. Fellowship alumni have successfully argued dozens of landmark cases, affected legislation, and shaped public policies that have changed the course of Israeli human rights, environmental and disabilities law, and made lasting contributions to religious freedom and pluralism in Israel.