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Sharon Sionov
By Rhonda Spivak


Centre opens clinic in Sderot, in addition to Jerusalem, and tries to deal with problems of poverty, illiteracy and other barriers.

By Rhonda J Spivak, B.A., L.L.B.

Lawyer Sharon Sionov, who is the director of Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s Clinical Legal Education Centre, says that Sderot and other areas in the periphery of Israel are underserviced by the legal profession.

 “There are only five lawyers in the town of Sderot.  This means many people have to go to Be’er Sheva to get legal advice, which means they may have to miss a days work. Many will have to go by bus to Be’er Sheva since they won’t have cars and if they want to access government legal services they’ll  have to  stand in line for hours  to wait for this… so most people just won’t try.”

 This fact prompted the Hebrew University  to open up a legal clinic in Sderot, said Sionov, who spoke to about 20 members of the Winnipeg Chapter of  the Hebrew University when she was here at the end of April 2009.

The Clinical Legal Education Centre, which is run by the Hebrew U’s law students under Sionov’s supervision,   has been set up to help disempowered communities in  Israel access legal services. It is located in Jerusalem, but now also has a branch in Sderot.

According to Sionov, in Jerusalem especially, there are many groups of people who do not speak Hebrew at all or fluently, which is a barrier to being able to maneuver in Israel’s legal system.

“Jerusalem has a lot of Ethiopian Jewish newcomers who do not speak Hebrew and are  illiterate… They are not aware of their legal rights…Many of them are being  paid cash under street lamps for work, and are taken advantage by employers  and are not getting proper social benefits…,”said Sionov.

She said that she fears Ethiopians in Israel “are being treated as slave labour.” She added Ethiopian cultural values are different than those of Israel’s Western legal system.

“In Ethiopia, a person who wanted to solve a dispute would go to the centre of the village and sit with elders in the community and figure out what to do to solve the dispute …It was like mediation.”

But, this is far different than having to launch legal action, which many Ethiopian Jews  are reluctant to do.  Sionov also noted that Jerusalem has a lot of new immigrants from Russia, Uzbekistan, and Georgia, “who speak Russia but Hebrew isn’t their second language yet.”

Regarding East Jerusaelm, Sionov said,

“There are “250,000 Palestinian Arabs that live in East Jerusalem…Hebrew doesn’t exist in East Jerusalem…they have not learned Hebrew for political reasons…But a lot of  the Arab population in East Jerusalem is illiterate [in any language]…particularly women.”

Poverty is another reason that inhibits many in Israel from accessing legal services. Sionov presented statistics showing that in West Jerusalem, 19.7 %  of the population and 26.7% of children are under the poverty line. For all of Jerusalem (both West and East), 33% is under the poverty line and 42% of children.

In `addition to helping poor people  enforce their legal rights, Hebrew University’s Legal Education centre also provides services to many women and children, who are unaware of their rights. 

“We’ve gone a long way when it comes to women’s rights, but there is still a long way to go,” said Sionov.

She gave the example of a mother in Neve Ya’acov, [outside of Jerusalem] who had two children with disabilities.
“ She was told [by the clinic] …that she deserves  social security benefits automatically… But she wouldn’t have known this if she hadn’t come to us,” said Sionov.

Unfortunately, according to Sionov, the woman had been paying a lawyer to clarify her entitlement, “but wasn’t getting service from the lawyer, who was just taking her money.”

Sionov, who lives in Ramat-Gan near Tel-Aviv, said that many of the people her clinic tries to help have difficulty identifying their legal problem, “giving the problem a name.”   Many come “with suitcases of material and it take a lot of time to figure out what the problem is… Also, they have a tendency to name the problem as being bad luck or “Eyein Harah” (the evil eye).”

Sionov also noted that another problem with the legal system is that background of the  judges does not  reflect the overall makeup of Israeli society. 

“There aren’t enough Arab judges and judges from minorities.  Many of Israel’s judges come from one background.  They are Ashkenazi men, although there have been a lot of women appointed in the last ten years,” she said.

“Although I don’t like the way the Supreme Court  of Israel has being criticized [in the last couple of years],… it’s true… that  it [the Court] is white and middle class, but most of Israeli society isn‘t,” she added.

Sionov stressed that when she teaches law students she tries “to plant a social conscience” in her students, so” they will try to change the face of Israeli civil society.”

She doesn’t want her students “just to sit in white ivory towers” but to prove that they are “socially responsible.”


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Rhonda Spivak, Editor

Publisher: Spivak's Jewish Review Ltd.

Opinions expressed in letters to the editor or articles by contributing writers are not necessarily endorsed by Winnipeg Jewish Review.