On a recent roots trip to Poland, from where his parents immigrated in 1968, Michael Sfard found a lithograph which summed up in one picture what his professional life as a human rights lawyer is all about.
"The picture showed a haredi man holding his son's hand and gesturing to a soldier as if to say, 'But why can't I?' The soldier, with his back to the viewer, indicates with his arms, "You just can't. That's all there is to it.'" The lithograph was too expensive to purchase, Sfard said, but if he could have, he would have hung it at the entrance to his office in an old building on Rehov Ahad Ha'am in downtown Tel Aviv so that anyone who entered would know what he could find there.
Sfard is only 37 and has only had his own law office since 2004. Nevertheless, it would be inaccurate to describe him as an up-and-coming lawyer because he has essentially up-and-came. He is one of the most, if not the most, sought-after human rights lawyers in the country and his name can be found on any number of High Court petitions connected to the defense of Palestinian rights in the West Bank.
Sfard was born in 1972 in the Rehov Brazil public housing complex in Jerusalem's Kiryat Hayovel neighborhood. His parents were Polish intellectuals who moved here after unrest in Poland which the government blamed on the Jews. When he was six, the family moved to an apartment building in Ma'alot Dafna which was largely inhabited by Israel Radio journalists.
"Our house was like the UN where the journalists came to make up with each other after quarrels," he said. "There were social occasions all the time where everyone talked and argued. It was very formative."
Sfard never thought about becoming a lawyer. He had always liked computers and figured he would study them at university. However, when he applied, he had to make three choices. For his second choice, he decided on law because it was more practical than political science, his natural preference. Then he thought to himself that since law was hard to get into, he had better make it his first choice. And so a lawyer was born.
One reason why law had never been a consideration was because his grandfather had told his father that one could not be a lawyer and be ethical. "The question of morals was very important in my family," he said. "It was the core of my education."
Sfard said that he would have liked the main goal of his work today to be putting an end to institutional and systematic violations of human rights. However, he added, this could not be done without an end to the occupation, as he describes the military and civilian presence in the territories. In the meantime, however, what he finds himself doing instead is fighting a rearguard battle to prevent this from becoming an apartheid state vis-Ã -vis the Palestinians.
"We are already at the gates of such a state," he warned.