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Virginia State Bar clarifies decision to cancel Israel trip

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RICHMOND, Va. — The Virginia State Bar cancelled its Midyear Legal Seminar trip to Israel after some members objected to the November seminar’s location citing “unacceptable discriminatory policies and practices pertaining to border security.” Virginia State Bar President Kevin Martingayle informed Virginia State Bar members of the decision in a Friday night email.

“Upon review of U.S. State Department advisories and other research, and after consultation with our leaders, it has been determined that there is enough legitimate concern to warrant cancellation of the Israel trip and exploration of alternative locations,” Martingayle wrote. “Undoubtedly, this news will disappoint some VSB members. But we are a state agency that strives for maximum inclusion and equality, and that explains this action. Fortunately, we still anticipate being able to find a suitable location for the November seminar trip, and we will send out further news very soon.”

Virginia State Bar letter

The Virginia State Bar’s cancellation of the Israel trip surprised and disappointed Virginia House Speaker William Howell (R – Spotsylvania).

“I write to you both as a member of the Virginia House of Delegates and the Virginia State Bar to express my deep disappointment in this decision and strongly urge you to reconsider,” Howell wrote Martingayle in a letter released to the media. “The Commonwealth of Virginia has a strong and longstanding relationship with the State of Israel and its people that has been formalized as the policy of the Commonwealth on several different occasions.”

Howell went on the cite the 1986 creation of the Virginia Israel Commission, the 1996 creation of the Virginia Israel Advisory Board and a 2008 memoranda of understanding with Israel signed by then Governor Tim Kaine.

“The State Bar’s decision to cancel this upcoming trip is inconsistent with the policy of the Commonwealth and sends the wrong signal about our relationship with Israel,” Howell said. “I feel that it is very important that every agency of the Commonwealth take steps to demonstrate our commitment to Israel and its people. This decision does the opposite. I strongly urge the Bar to reconsider this decision.”

The Virginia State Bar’s email came out after member of the bar posted an online petition to change the location of November’s seminar.

“As members of the VSB, we have taken an oath to uphold our profession’s highest ideals. At the core of these ideals is the belief that no person or group should be subjected to differential treatment on the basis of their immutable characteristics,” the petition stated. “The location of this year’s Seminar, however, strikes at the heart of our profession’s ideals. In particular, by holding this year’s Seminar in Israel, the VSB accepts discriminatory practices and policies against Arab, Muslim, and Palestinian members of the VSB on the basis of their race, religion, and national origin, effectively preventing these members from attending.”

The U.S. State Department’s travel alert page for Israel includes the following warning for travelers to Jerusalem, the original site of November’s Virginia State Bar seminar.

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. U.S. citizens planning to travel to Israel, the West Bank, or Gaza should consult the detailed information concerning entry and exit difficulties in the Country Specific Information. 

Previous Virginia State Bar legal seminars have been held in Spain, Italy, England, Argentina, Greece and Puerto Rico, according to the Washington Post.

In addition to the potential travel issues, the Virginia State Bar cited a lack of interest in the Israel trip as a reason for the cancellation. In a letter posted on the Virginia State Bar’s website on March 29, Martingayle and president-elect Edward Weiner explained further.

On Friday March 27th, we canceled the Virginia State Bar’s planned Midyear Legal Seminar trip to Israel.  The decision was based primarily on a U.S. State Department advisory: http://travel.state.gov/content/passports/english/country/israel.html, “Entry, Exit & Visa Requirements.”  We were forced to conclude there were potential difficulties some of our VSB members might face in obtaining entry to Israel.  Additionally, we were well short of the required number of confirmed attendees necessary for the trip to proceed.

President-elect Edward L. Weiner, chair of the Midyear Legal Seminar Committee, communicated with the Israeli Embassy.  An embassy official expressed a desire to facilitate the trip but acknowledged that security protocols are strict and could lead to exclusion or restriction of some VSB members.

In the face of this information, we felt it necessary and appropriate to forego this trip.  This was not a political decision and is not a “boycott.”  We are an inclusive organization and do not discriminate against any religion.

Unfortunately, some mischaracterized this decision as anti-Israel and anti-Semitic, even going so far as to mislabel it as a “boycott.”  Although the message was sent over the president’s signature, we jointly drafted and approved what was sent Friday night.  Apparently we could have done a better job of explaining the situation and decision. We are writing now to provide further clarity.

Our decision was not based on any political factors or influences.  We understand that Israel is in a difficult position when it comes to security.  We are not expressing opinions regarding Israel’s border security measures.  We are merely recognizing the reality that our very large and diverse membership, consisting of well over 40,000 members, includes individuals who may encounter lengthy examination and possible rejection in attempting to navigate the immigration security procedures in Israel.

You may recall that on March 25, 2015, we sent a message urging VSB members to sign up for both the Israel trip and the Annual Meeting in Virginia Beach.  We very much wanted the Israel trip to be a success and were trying to reach the required number of participants for it to be a go.  We deeply regret that a combination of circumstances led to the trip’s cancellation, and we also regret that our good faith efforts and decisions may have been misinterpreted and misunderstood.

We remain committed to the core objectives of the VSB:  public protection, access to justice and improvement of the legal profession.  Thank you for reading and thank you for allowing us the privilege of serving.

Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe has not yet publicly commented on the situation.