Until he graduated from Cornell University, Stephen Adler had never even visited Israel, let alone dreamed that he would someday become Israel’s iconic National Labor Court president for 13 years, from 1997 to 2010.
Adler moved to Israel only in his late 20s and got his first break in the Israeli job market through a fairly chance encounter at a Shabbat prayer service.
How did Adler’s modest beginnings lead him to reach one of the highest ranks that an American oleh has reached in Israel in recent decades? The question is only magnified by the latest feather in his cap, a job as the co-head of all appeals for the Holocaust Claims Conference, and by a recently published book of essays in his honor that looks set to become one of the definitive books on labor law trends in Israel and internationally.
In an interview with The Jerusalem Post
, Adler relates how his first visit to Israel was for two weeks on a trip that was mainly to Europe, which was his first time ever outside the US, between graduating from Cornell and starting Columbia University Law School.
During his short visit, “one Israeli said to me: Why don’t you come live here? I looked at him like he was out of his mind. I had been connected to Israel and followed Abba Eban at the UN. I loved Israel. But to live there? I thought I would never do that,” Adler recounted.
Adler returned to the US, attended law school and upon graduation worked in several positions for the US National Labor Relations Board in Washington as well as in California.
He said he remembers that he was trying a case for the NLRB when the Six Day War broke out in 1967. “I said to my wife, I’m going to leave the NLRB and will go into private practice soon. Maybe we should go to Israel to learn Hebrew and be there. It is an opportunity that we might never have again.”
In 1968, Adler, his wife and young baby came to Israel, presumably on a six-month basis to learn Hebrew and broaden their horizons before returning home to the US.
Only they never left.
That did not mean that the beginning was easy. When he arrived in Israel, he was told there was no work for lawyers and certainly nothing for labor lawyers, with the labor courts not having even come into existence yet at the time.
Some told him he would need to use his employment knowledge in the field of sociology, and the Jewish Agency wanted to send him to Paris to learn how to manage department stores.
Adler got a break when a friend brought him to a Shabbat prayer service where he met then-state comptroller Yitzhak Nebenzahl.
Nebenzahl told Adler to come to his office on Sunday.
Adler came the next day, and after five minutes Nebenzahl offered him a job in his office, which started only two weeks later.
Since Adler did not speak Hebrew yet, he was given a project relating to the Hebrew University in English. After passing the Israeli bar exam, colleagues helped him get a meeting with Justice Ministry director-general Zvi Terlow, even though Adler described himself as a mere “young lawyer and a pisher [a callow youth].”
He had a similarly shockingly short interview with Terlow, who got him a job in the Labor Ministry as well as assisting the Labor Court’s first president.
From there, he spent some time in private practice until, in 1976, at age 35, he became the youngest appointed judge in the country.
He served as a regional labor court judge from 1976 to 1985, a national labor court judge from 1985 to 1990, deputy president of the national labor court from 1990 to 1997 and president of the labor court from 1997 to 2010.
Still, he likes to say: “After 40 years I am still an oleh.”
Adler’s latest major role, as one of two appeals judges for claims initially rejected by the Holocaust Claims Conference, was due to kick into high gear in October, following an extensive four days of meetings he had with the organization at its New York offices around three months ago.
The Claims Conference has funneled multiple rounds of payments from Germany to Jews around the world, relating to their treatment during World War II, since 1950.
Justifications for receiving payments include loss of childhood and harm from being shut up in a ghetto. One hundred seventy thousand survivors applied for the onetime payment of €350-€1,800. Yet, those who appear not to meet the criteria can file an appeal to Adler and one other appeals judge.
Between 1,500 and 2,000 appeals are waiting for Adler and the other judge to address.
A large office has been set up in Frankfurt to prepare the appeals documentation for them. This includes translating all documents into both English and German and researching the information provided as the foundation of the claims for payment.
For claims to be accepted, they must indicate which ghetto the claimants were in as well as the time period. The conference then references its vast files of Holocaust survivors and forwards all relevant information to Adler and the other judge, who make a decision. (The judges split up the cases; they do not decide jointly.)
Adler said he is assisted by experts who check the authenticity of the documents sent by the claimants. He said “the hardest judgment is to have to refuse the claim. The tendency will be to try to accept claims, though it has to be according to the conditions of the agreements” signed with Germany.
He added that he has the authority to “look for or infer evidence from the record,” if there are missing pieces. “You have to see what you can do about it – they [the conference] try very hard to give survivors benefits; many of the stories are very heartbreaking.”
But this is only the latest chapter in his storied career.
What Adler will most be remembered for are his decisions and views, some expounded on in the newly published Sefer Steve Adler on hot workplace issues in Israel and globally, issues such as striking the proper balance for workman’s compensation and where to draw the line in the mandatory retirement debate.
The book, with articles by former Supreme Court presidents Aharon Barak and Dorit Beinisch, his successor as labor court president Nili Arad and some of the most influential labor law academics in Israel and across the globe, is in and of itself a testament to the esteem in which Adler is held.
The big debate on workers’ compensation in this book and at conferences where Adler has attended is about whether to have a test for workers to pass to prove back, heart and other injuries are work-related.
He explained that Prof. John F. Burton Jr. argues that it is hard to tell whether a heart attack was specifically caused by work. Burton has pressed to drop the test for being too strict and ineffective and for denying claims to workers who deserve compensation.
Adler defends keeping the test on several grounds. He responds to Burton that “labor courts have developed tests over the years for telling when a heart attack could be related to a person’s work. Like any other test, it is not 100% perfect, but it is a good test and many jurisdictions” in different countries follow it.
Adler said he presented his views on the issue at several international conferences and published it in an Australian journal, and that his views were well received.
Further, he maintained that “if you drop the test, it means that anyone who has a heart condition, a back injury or a hearing injury will get compensated. This will be too expensive for national insurance to cover.”
This is “not suitable to the Israeli situation,” he added, “because in Israel, even if someone doesn’t get workers’ compensation, they still get general compensation, medical care and a minimum income.”
The idea of workers’ compensation in Israel is not to take care of the disabled workers’ most minimal needs; rather, it is to give workers extra benefits beyond what other citizens might get whose injuries did not relate specifically to their work.
“In the US, the situation is different. The US gives people much fewer rights, and gives workers fewer rights than in Israel. In America, if you do not get workers’ compensation, you do not get medical care and you do not get any other kind of benefits,” he explained.
In that light, “for America, what Burton says makes sense. If a poor guy got a heart attack, he should get help. But Americans do not do this, as they do not accept Burton’s ideas, because they say everyone should take care of themselves.”
Regarding the debate on whether to dispose with mandatory retirement, Adler said he is in favor of keeping it.
He gave two primary reasons to keep mandatory retirement. First, he believes there is a need to “make way for young people to get into the work.”
Second, he said that the foundation of dropping mandatory retirement, that “a person stops working when they are no longer able to work, is not relevant for Israel, because it is very difficult to fire someone in Israel... when they are not up to par, in the public service especially and sometimes in the private sector.”
Adler said that “the idea that you can dismiss someone only once they cannot do work does not hold water in Israel,” though he admits it might in the US, where he said it is easier to fire people.
He added that the “balance of the interests favors a collective-focused policy instead of an individual-focused policy.
He also admitted that his view – which the Supreme Court, over the objections of his labor court peers, has essentially endorsed – “goes against modern constitutional labor law, but it is more practical and more suitable to the situation in Israel.”
What is clear about Adler, as he starts his new stage sorting through Claims Conference appeals, is that while he may see the big picture in a very cerebral manner, he also has a wealth of compassion – probably at least partially stemming from the compassion of others who helped a green