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Brandeis grad takes terrorist groups to court

By Victoria Aronson

Section: Features

January 20, 2013

Manny Halberstam ’10 recently took part in an internship at Shurat HaDin-Israel Law Center, an institution dedicated to combating terrorist threats through legal action. Collaborating alongside legal professionals in Tel Aviv, Israel, Halberstam directly worked on cases for private citizens harmed by the actions of terrorist groups.

Attorney Nitsana Darshan-Leitner is the director of the counter-terror group law clinic.

“We seek to give rights to victims of terrorism and, at the same time, to bankrupt the terror groups by making them pay for their criminal activities,” Darshan-Leitner said. Modeled after the Alabama-based Southern Poverty Law Center, a group responsible for targeting racial groups in America, the Shurat HaDin-Israel Law Center is dedicated to hindering the activity of terrorist groups through halting their access to reliable finances. Darshan-Leitner cites the mission of the center to be “bankrupting terror groups—one lawsuit at a time.”

Students who participate in the internship program at the center become deeply involved in the process, engaged in cases assisting victims of terrorist groups and traveling to locations inaccessible to the general public. Dr. Leonard Hammer, director of the internship program at Shurat HaDin-Israel Law Center said, “The idea is to engage young professionals in socially-aware behavior and make them aware of what you can do with the law without resorting to violence.”

Beyond conducting legal research for ongoing cases, Halberstam recalled speaking with local villagers at a kibbutz, a settlement located along the border of Israel and Lebanon, as well as visiting Israeli military prisons. Despite also meeting a former Palestinian agent, essentially a retired spy for Israel, Halberstam credits his most memorable and profound experience as a trip to the border between Israel and Syria.

Halberstam was able to ascertain the sound of gunfire, all too aware of the civil war raging in Syria. “Only less than one mile away there was very high likelihood I could hear the sound of people dying,” he said. Despite the deeply unsettling nature of the experience, Halberstam recalls thinking, “I am standing within one mile of a war torn area, yet I feel completely safe.“

Overwhelmed with a sense of gratitude for the security capacities of Israel, Halberstam recalls the profound realization that he was himself involved in working against “the forces which wish to annihilate the Jewish state,” enabling him to maintain a sense of security despite the proximity of raging warfare, destruction and death. Remarking upon the profound nature of the moment, Halberstam states, “It reinforced my faith in laws as tools for advancing global peace and security.”

The origin of the center’s work to ensure the security of Israel can be traced back to the outbreak of the terrorist “intifada” in 2000. Darshan-Leitner said that the lawyers felt the need to respond rather than watch the attacks happen, when they knew who was responsible.

By enabling private citizens to take civil action against organizations such as banks or regimes that support terrorist groups, Shurat HaDin accomplishes initiatives that cannot be pursued by governments and militaries due to political and diplomatic constraints. “Insurance companies and banks do the cold, economic calculations and do not want to risk losing business, or being shunned by countries, after it is uncovered that they have links to terrorists,” Darshan-Leitner said.

The center has succeeded in winning rulings of more than $1 billion from organizations linked to terrorist organizations, and believes it has itself advanced the security of Israel.

“We’ve been able to freeze assets, belonging to terrorist organizations or the bodies that fund them, in the amount of over $600 million. The more decisive victory has been for us to receive and collect over $120 million and hand them over to victims of terrorism,” Darshan-Leitner said.

As evidenced by the center’s successes in seizing financial action against terrorist groups or associated organizations, Darshan-Leitner said that, “We are now able to finally bring justice to victims of terror and bring terrorists to justice. Terrorists are the ones that need to pay.”

When questioned as to the most rewarding aspect of the center’s work, Darshan-Leitner cited the ability of helping victims of terrorism and preventing future terrorism victims. “We get to see the results. We send a message to Israel’s enemies that there is a price to pay and that we won’t remain silent while our kids are killed,” Darshan-Leitner said.

Hammer reflected that the internship program forges an ongoing relationship between participants and the center. Students often return to continue working against terrorism and for the promotion of human rights after the conclusion of their internship. Hammer hopes to eventually establish a center in Jerusalem for research and law.

Halberstam described the tremendous personal impact of engaging in such an internship. Originally leaning toward the field of corporate or real estate law, he now is inspired to move to Israel to continue pursuing international human rights, describing counter-terrorist work as morally rewarding.

“My dream job is to fight for human rights every day,” and to continue “applying endless hours of gaining legal knowledge to something so noble,” Halberstam said.

Halberstam, who graduated with a double major in philosophy and American studies, is currently pursuing a law degree at The George Washington University. Halberstam described Brandeis as a very liberal and pro-Israel campus that champions social justice. “Brandeis infused me with my love for Israel and developed my strong commitment to human rights,” he said.

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