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Will Social Justice Break Bronx Defenders?

Over the past decade, public defenders’ offices, at least in New York, have become increasingly dedicated to social justice. While the lawyers who took on the representation of the indigent always trended to the left, the offices became increasingly progressive rather than liberal,  and increasingly intolerant of anyone who wasn’t dedicated to the farthest left fashions.

More than a few of the long-time public defenders have told me that if they applied for a job today, they wouldn’t get it because they were insufficiently woke. They say it as if it’s a joke, but it’s no joke. They live in fear of the younger lawyers, who will attack them at the slightest hint of heresy.

So it should come as no surprise the 400 lawyers and staff at the Bronx Defenders, founded by Robin Steinberg in 1997, found themselves in a quandary following the barbaric terrorist attack by Hamas on October 7th, an attack which many at Bronx Defenders cheered because that’s what progressive purity demanded. But it didn’t start there.

Four weeks before Hamas attacked Israel, a group of public defenders packed a bright, airy room in the Bronx for mandatory antisemitism training.

The hourslong gathering was the consequence of a legal settlement stemming from an ugly dispute that had festered at the Bronx Defenders, one of the country’s most influential organizations providing legal services to those who cannot pay. But many of the lawyers objected to the very notion of the required session.

One interrupted to reject the idea of Jews and Palestinians living side by side in two nations, declaring “No Israel.” After that, a chant broke out, one that pro-Palestinian activists consider a cry for liberation but that many Jews see as calling for Israel’s destruction: “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free.”

This was before the attack. This reflected how deep into progressive intolerance it was before the attack. And, unsurprisingly, it got worse.

After the Oct. 7 attack, the union representing the Bronx Defenders staff issued a statement. It referred to Israel’s assault on Gaza, which has now killed more than 18,000 people, as genocidal, voiced support for “Palestinian liberation and resistance under occupation” and did not mention the 1,200 Israelis killed in the Hamas attack.

It was easy to be woke AF when everyone agreed upon the enemy, such as the NYPD, but it became a little more difficult when the enemy was your colleagues and your clients.

The statement of the Bronx Defenders union was the product of a furious debate within the organization itself. One side saw it as an extension of the mission, a global struggle for social justice and human rights. The other saw it as inflammatory and detrimental to the group’s more immediate task: defending New York City’s most vulnerable.

Are public defenders “cause” lawyers, dedicated to a “global struggle for social justice,” or are they defenders of the indigent, one at a time, whoever they may be? Do they sell out a person accused of rape because of MeToo? Do they sabotage a defendant who has a swastika tattoo? What about defending a Jew?

And what about the lawyers and judges who work in the trenches alongside Bronx Defenders?

In family and housing court, where public defenders often represent clients at risk of losing their children or their homes, opposing lawyers have told Bronx Defenders that they won’t negotiate, according to emails of exchanges viewed by The New York Times.

“No courtesies for antisemitic Jew hating Nazis,” said one landlord’s lawyer in an email to a Bronx Defender in housing court, denying a client information that could have helped remedy a dispute.

Rina Mais, a Jewish lawyer who often faces members of the organization in Bronx Family Court, said in an interview that she could hardly stomach working with them now.

“It has become unbearable,” she said, adding that she was eager to see the organization defunded.

When their commitment to the “global struggle” comes at the expense of their indigent clients, are they still public defenders?

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