For thousands of years the Jewish people have been facing enemies who use unconventional methods to harm and threaten them. Just a few weeks ago the Torah portion of Balak was read in synagogues throughout the world, telling the story of the Moabite King Balak, a sworn enemy of Israel. Realizing that conventional war against the strong Israelites would not succeed, he resorted to alternative methods and enlisted the help of Balaam, a shaman and prophet, to use his supernatural powers to curse the people. When this doesn’t work, he orders the daughters of Moab to weaken the Israelites by seducing their men in an attempt to lure them to idolatry and self-destruction.
Unsurprisingly, Israel’s enemies are still deploying these tactics and enlisting the help of other nations to aid and abet them. The flotilla campaign to Gaza, the countless terror attacks against Israelis, Jews and non-Jews in Israel and around the world, the use of human shields in the war of Operation Protective Edge, the burning of thousands of acres of Israeli farmland by sending gas balloons and incendiary kites over the border in the south are all part of the same malevolent strategy of asymmetric war against the Jewish State.
One woman who decided to fight back is Israel’s modern-day Deborah, Nitsana Darshan-Leitner, president and founder of Shurat HaDin Israel Law Center.
Nitsana has been fronting the legal battle against terror financing. She has also taken on the anti-Israel boycott movement BDS, and has contested a plethora of lawfare maneuvers used against Israel by its enemies. She has represented hundreds of terror victims in legal actions against terror organizations and their supporters, recovering hundreds of millions of dollars in compensation on their behalf.
Last month she and her team won a massive court case against the Palestinian Authority on behalf of 17 complainants who, if they can prove their case for damages, stand to be awarded up to $1 billion in compensation. These claims go back to terror attacks that occurred during the second intifada, and include the notorious lynching of two Israeli reservists in October 2000. The two soldiers got lost on their way to Beit El and ended up in a Ramallah police station, where they were brutally murdered and their bodies thrown to the baying mob to be mutilated.
Nitsana has also launched initiatives to combat antisemitism and anti-Israeli activities, including blocking the Gaza Flotilla, and ending efforts to indict IDF soldiers for war crimes. She has filed legal actions against those who boycott Israeli academics and companies in violation of the law. This includes one of her most recent actions, where Airbnb was forced to reverse its discriminatory policy that banned Jewish homeowners in Judea and Samaria from being listed on their website.
The Jerusalem Post named her as one of the 50 most influential Jews in the world, and the Israeli Forbes magazine declared her one of the 50 most influential women in Israel.
A couple of months ago my wife and I attended the organization’s two-day Law & War Conference in Jerusalem. It was my third conference, and superseded all our expectations. I wanted to learn more about this 46-year-old 21st-century human rights activist, lawyer, leader, mother, wife and protector of Israel.
Nitsana is no shrinking violet but neither is she a vindictive Brunhild. As one who has spent the best part of my career training leaders and managers, I was more than curious to find out about the woman whom my wife calls “Our Fearless Leader.”
I was delighted when she agreed to find time in her busy schedule to meet me. From the moment I stepped through the glass doors of the well-appointed but not overly sumptuous Ramat Gan premises, I became aware of a buzz of activity coming from the adjacent meeting rooms filled with eager young millennials, women and men, staff and interns doing their work. I was warmly welcomed and escorted to a waiting area. I was a few minutes early. Nitsana soon came over to greet me and asked me to wait. At 11 o’clock on the dot, my turn came. She ushered me into her office and I sat opposite her. I noticed how tidy and organized everything looked. She placed her cellphone neatly in front of her. I asked if I could record the conversation and she graciously agreed.
There is something about Nitsana’s persona that captures your attention from the moment she begins to speak. Her English is impeccable, and she expresses herself with the considered diction of a barrister. She is also an exceptionally good-looking woman, not in a movie star way but rather in a way that projects a quiet understated elegance. She also has a knack of putting others at ease. Having seen her interacting with the likes of former prime ministers Stephen Harper of Canada and Tony Abbot of Australia, and former US vice president Joe Lieberman, I was interested to see how she would treat me, a self-effacing writer. She could not have been more charming and patient.
I begin the interview by asking her about her origins.
“My family emigrated from Iran,” she tells me. “They came from a small village outside of Shiraz. Amazingly, the entire Jewish community from that village came to Israel at around the time of the founding of the State.”
Her father was one of eight children. “They were orphaned when they were very young, and my father, the eldest, stepped into the breach and took over the role of parent. The role of leader was forced on him at a very young age.”
I am interested to know more about the parents who raised such an extraordinary daughter. She tells me how her father struggled against the odds to get himself educated.
“He got himself into Bar-Ilan University and studied to become a teacher. He came from an observant Orthodox background. He was a hazan (cantor), and lived up to his name as a darshan (religious teacher). He also won first prize in the adult Bible competition in Israel. Both he and my mother instilled in us children a strong sense of ambition and a striving for excellence.”
I ask about her education.
“I too studied at Bar-Ilan. My parents wanted me to study medicine, but having done my National Service with Magen David Adom (Israel’s Red Cross), I saw how stressful life was for doctors and so I opted for law instead.” She laughs her infectious laugh. “Had I known then what I know now, I may have changed my mind.”
I then ask when she first became interested in the type of legal cases that Shurat HaDin now specializes in.
“From quite early on, I always had a passion for helping people who were victims. Even before I graduated, I and my fellow students represented victims of terror and came up before the judges. This became my life’s vocation.”
Observing Darshan-Leitner and her team at the conference, I was struck by how professional they were. Darshan-Leitner’s US-born husband, Avi Leitner, also a lawyer in the firm, was heavily involved in the smooth running of the conference, as was her assistant Rachel Weiser. I inquire whether she has had any leadership training.
“I guess I take after my father, who sadly passed away only recently. He was my role model and I wanted to follow in his footsteps. I was encouraged by him. As a young person I was a team leader, class leader, Purim rabbanit, etc. I guess it came very naturally.” We discuss the different aptitudes of being both a leader and a manager. Nitsana clearly possesses both. On the one hand she displays the visionary and strategic competencies of a leader, including the ability to dream big, think creatively and inspire others to do the same. She also runs a tight ship where everything works like clockwork. She admits to setting high standards.
“I push my people hard and set high standards. The stakes are high and we cannot afford to fail. We are five women and two men. This includes our team of lawyers. There are two or three of us who ‘lead’ the firm and come up with new ideas and creative strategies in dealing with new and complicated cases, but by and large we work as a team. Everyone contributes and shares the burden.”
Darshan-Leitner confesses that she has never had any leadership or management training.
“It was only when we started fund-raising that I attended a two-day Dale Carnegie course on communication impact.”
I find this fascinating based on my many years of working with partners in law firms where egos rage and personal ambition wreaks havoc on the team culture.
We discuss the issue of gender and discrimination. She answers emphatically and even goes beyond the scope of my question.
“I must say in all the years of practicing as a lawyer, I have never come up against any kind of prejudice against me because of being a woman, a religious Jew, or coming from a Sephardi background.”
In trying to figures this out, I deduce that part of it comes from her innate professionalism and what the French call “la force tranquille,” a quiet forcefulness reminiscent of the late great French stateswoman and Holocaust survivor Simone Veil.
I return to the theme of fearlessness and ask whether she is ever affected by threats or attempts to intimidate her. “After all,” I say, “you are dealing with some pretty nasty people out there.” Once again Darshan-Leitner answers firmly and without hesitation.
“It’s true, we are up against some very ill-intentioned people, not least of which are the teams of high-powered lawyers that they put up against us. However, I’m never afraid. I believe in justice and truth and the principles for which we stand. We can never back down against that sort of intimidation. As I mentioned, we are a strong team and support each other.”
I believe her implicitly. It’s not just what Darshan-Leitner says, it is also how she speaks and uses non-verbal communication without the flicker of a doubt, and without any nervous gestures or hesitation. During our conversation her phone rings. While still talking, she glances at her phone. On only one occasion she excuses herself and takes the call.
“That was one of my children, they always take priority.”
This leads me to ask her about work-life balance. She and Avi are the proud parents of six children: their eldest boy is 20 and studying in yeshiva; then she has an 18-year-old daughter, followed by 14-year-old triplets – two girls and a boy – and an 11-year-old daughter.
“They’ve had to put up with a lot. Our professional success comes at a price, and my children pay for this. However, we do all that we can to compensate. We are always in touch by phone, text or WhatsApp. We make sure that we create family time to spend Shabbatot together, and to go on trips. I try to take those who are available with me when I travel for business.”
It’s at this point that I ask her about her mother.
“She is amazing.” Her eyes light up and she smiles her charismatic dimpled cheek smile. “She and my Dad have always been there for us. They always took care of the kids, and my Mom still does. Whenever we’ve had to travel they moved in and we still call on my Mom now.”
My last question to Darshan-Leitner is about the future, and how she sees the challenges that lie ahead for her and Shurat HaDin.
“This is a tough question. We live in troubled times where we anticipate even more problems with our neighbors. In Lebanon, Hezbollah are preparing for more large-scale attacks against Israel using unconventional methods. In the south we have Hamas, who constantly threaten Israel by using asymmetric tactics, hiding behind the civilian population, using bizarre and dangerous weapons against us. And then, of course, there are Iran and Syria who do the same. We have to prepare for this and be ready to take them on by continuing to arm ourselves with innovative legal tactics that will help us win and provide deterrents.”
The interview ends and Darshan-Leitner escorts me to the elevator. We pass the open door to the conference room where the young men and women are still eagerly debating some legal issues in English. In front of the elevator, Darshan-Leitner introduces me to J, a young fair-haired stocky fellow, his arms covered in colorful tattoos. She bids me farewell.
As I step into the elevator, curiosity gets the better of me and I ask J what he is doing in Israel. He addresses me as “Sir,” and tells me proudly that he is from Virginia, and that he is beginning a six-month internship at Shurat HaDin. He also tells me that he has served in the United States military for the past five years. I leave Shurat HaDin even more impressed than before, convinced that Nitsana Darshan-Leitner will go down in Jewish history as one of Israel’s iconic leaders, a torchbearer of truth and justice.