January 28, 2011

You Can’t Tell a Book by Its Cover

In my career as a lawyer in Davis, I had a surprising and painful but beneficial discovery of the truth of the common saying that you can't tell a book by its cover. It all started when a local bank in the community asked me to handle a case for two of its customers.

At the appointed time, my new clients, a husband and wife team, showed up. When I saw the couple, I felt that my jaw had dropped and that I would fall through the floor. They were Arabs!  My belief was that they and their compatriots had many times sworn to kill all the Jews in the Middle East and wipe the State of Israel off the map. They were the enemy to me and to my support of the State of Israel.  I was also awakened to the reality that this husband and wife team knew that I was Jewish. In their eyes, I was the enemy. The couple had dark complexions, black hair, and spoke with a Middle Eastern accent.

I quickly got over the shock of this introduction so that everything proceeded calmly and cordially. I was able to gather from my clients all of the information relevant to their case as well as answer questions that they asked.

Then we set up an appointment to meet a few days prior to going to court so that we could take care of any last minute items. Right after they left, I started struggling with some profound soul searching. I had been raised in a family that believed in and practiced tolerance. But I had failed to live up to all that I was taught when put to the test of dealing with my new clients.

I knew that I could not be effective in representing the interests of my clients if I did not overcome my bias. Every lawyer has a duty to represent a client zealously and within the bounds of the law. I could not do this if my personal views conflicted with those of my clients.

Thinking further, I remembered the experience of patriot John Adams way back in 1770 in defending the British soldiers who had shot protesting citizens in the Boston Massacre. Despite sharing the views of the protestors, Adams successfully defended the British soldiers because he believed that they were entitled to a fair trial. Adams then experienced insults and ridicule from the city's "patriots." As well, his law practice diminished because few patriots would deal with a "traitor."

I remembered too the famous Skokie, Illinois case that took place in the 1970's. A group of Nazi sympathizers planned to march in Nazi uniforms in the town of Skokie where they knew that a large part of the Jewish population was made up of Holocaust survivors.

The marchers were denied a city permit to have their parade. One of the marchers then sued the city of Skokie, claiming that his right of free speech was being denied. The marcher was represented in court by a Jewish lawyer who believed that the principle of free speech was more important than the subjectivities of the client or his lawyer. The lawyer won the case for his marcher client.

I was impressed by these two historical incidents although I did not believe that the case of my clients was as profound as those two. However, influenced by those two incidents, I satisfactorily resolved my own inner conflicts and proceeded with the case. We went ahead and happily gained an easy victory.

The story does not end here. Several weeks later, when I was walking downtown early one Saturday afternoon, I bumped into two friends, Barbara and Elmer. They were dressed very formally. I asked them whose wedding they had attended. They replied that they had not been to a wedding but rather a Bar Mitzvah, the first one that they had ever experienced and that they still did not understand everything about the ceremony.

I explained to them that a Bar Mitzvah is a coming of age religious ceremony that takes place when a boy reaches 13 years of age. At that time, he goes to a synagogue and affirms that he will honor a commitment to observe the Commandments spelled out in the Old Testament and related writings.  Girls go through the same sort of celebration and it is called a Bat Mitzvah. The terms are loosely translated as son or daughter of the commandment. The ceremony is followed by a festive reception with good food being served accompanied by good music being played.

Who do you think were the joyful and proud parents of the happy Bar Mitzvah boy? Yes, it was my client and his wife, the "Arabs." Following the war that Egypt and other nearby Arab countries waged unsuccessfully against the State of Israel when it was founded, Jewish citizens of those Arab countries were forced to leave their birth places where they and their ancestors had lived for hundreds of years. It is estimated that more than 800,000 people had to leave and were not permitted to take much with them. My client and his wife, both Egyptians, were part of this exodus.

I have never seen the husband or his wife since our day in court. But the entire experience of dealing with them has led to changing my outlook and behavior for the better. My jaw does not drop nor do I feel that I will sink into the floor when I now encounter this kind of experience. I have learned to be an observer, calmly look at each such incident, and, with my personal views under control, proceed to the next step.

Not too long after this episode with my clients, I had a great opportunity to test whether I had really learned from the experience. I was at the Rome airport waiting at the international terminal to catch my flight back to the United States. I noticed a grandmotherly looking Arab woman, dressed in native clothing and wearing a head scarf. She was walking around, flight ticket in hand, and showing signs of confusion. I guessed that she did not read or speak Italian or English and, of course, I did not speak Arabic.

I walked over to the lady and gestured that I wanted to see her flight ticket. She handed it to me and I quickly saw that both of us were on the same flight. I gestured to her to sit down and wait and that I would take her to the boarding area when the flight was ready for us. In due time, I escorted her to the boarding area where we boarded the airplane together. Then I personally led her to her assigned seat. She smiled and gave a silent nod of thanks.

I cheerfully walked down the aisle to my seat and sat down feeling that doing my homework had paid off. I was also optimistic that I could cope successfully with any other of my demons that dared to show themselves.