Labor of love

As Steve Adler studied judicial systems elsewhere, he put that knowledge into practice by raising the quality and significance of labor law in Israel.

Judge Steve Adler on the balcony of his home in Jerusalem’s Old City on September 13, 2017. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Judge Steve Adler on the balcony of his home in Jerusalem’s Old City on September 13, 2017.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
JUDGE STEVE Adler, the former president of the National Labor Court who gained a reputation as a humble peacemaker, is one of the most outstanding American immigrants to Israel. Even in his retirement, this legal dynamo now adjudicates claims of Holocaust survivors. Never pausing for a moment, the 76-year-old Adler is a symbol of success for all immigrants, and serves as a shining example of modesty, goodness and justice.
In an exclusive interview with The Jerusalem Report, the soft-spoken Adler says, “My observant Judaism emphasizes moderation, the centrality of family, human dignity and democracy, and a life which balances Torah and work.”
In June 1966, Adler – then a young lawyer from Flatbush, New York, with law degrees from Cornell and Columbia – married a knowledgeable and committed Zionist from Minneapolis named Ruth Ziff. After two years in Washington, DC and Los Angeles, where Adler worked for the National Labor Relations Board, the couple and their baby son, Jay, made aliya in 1968 in the wake of the Six Day War. They had four more sons – Eitan, Noam, Chanan and Shmuel – all of whom are now married and live in Israel with their families.
During his almost 50 years in Israel, Adler worked his way up the legal ladder to be president of the National Labor Court for 13 years. After stints in the State Comptroller’s Office, the Labor Ministry and assisting the National Labor Court’s first president, he spent some time in private practice until being appointed a judge at the age of 35. He served as a Tel Aviv regional labor court judge from 1976 to 1985, as National Labor Court judge until 1990, deputy president until 1997 and president until 2010.
“The highlight of my career was developing a system of judicial mediation, which settled major labor disputes and emphasized the importance of cooperation between management and unions,” he says.
Adler mediated a last-minute deal on April 24, 2005 between then-finance minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Amir Peretz, the chairman of the Histadrut labor federation, to avert a potentially devastating national strike.
“My mediation was the last possibility to prevent that strike,” he says. “I succeeded in convincing them to reach an agreement, and the strike was avoided. It’s important to treat the parties involved with the respect due them, and to try to keep people calm and focused on the issues, and not get sidetracked by personal matters, which are not really in dispute. It’s a very difficult thing to do.”
It was one of several mediations to prevent strikes that won him national recognition as a problem-solver. Before retiring on November 15, 2010, he had arbitrated most of Israel’s major labor disputes over two decades.
In his retirement letter, Adler expressed gratitude “for the opportunity afforded me over some 35 years to serve in Israel’s legal system.”
In 2011, the Israel Bar Association honored him by naming him jurist of the year. He has served on the Prime Minister’s Advisory Committee to the National Economic Council; has organized eight international conferences on labor law in Israel and abroad; and has published dozens of articles in his field, both in English and Hebrew.
Adler was appointed as a judge for the Independent Appeals Authority of the Conference of Material Claims against Germany (the Claims Conference) in 2016.
This is a key area of adjudication because the dwindling number of Holocaust survivors around the world must feel that their claims are being legitimately heard, he explains.
“My work for the Claims Conference has opened up a new world of the suffering of the Jews during the Holocaust,” he says. “Each case is a story of an individual’s suffering and struggle for survival under terrible conditions.”
Asked what he has learned from his experience so far, Adler says, “Being a Claims Conference judge has taught me the incomprehensible suffering of the Jews when the Nazis tried to destroy us, the Jews’ inspiring will to survive and that each survivor has a unique story.”
On a recent visit to Frankfurt, Adler was particularly moved when he was shown a document from 1945 with the names of Jews murdered on a particular day and a companion list of the SS criminals who executed them. “I was shown amazing archival material collected by the Conference and housed in Frankfurt. Judge [Leonard] Orland, an expert in the field of mediation in the US and my colleague in this work, and I were shown material from some of the 600,000 files of claims, each with its own personal story.”
Adler’s personal story is one from which we can all learn. In fact, a 600-page volume of essays written by legal experts and colleagues all over the world, “Sefer Steve Adler,” was published in his honor. In the introduction, Prof. Ruth Ben-Israel writes that as president of the National Labor Court, “Dr. Adler was responsible for many groundbreaking changes, which propelled labor law in Israel to the forefront in a dramatic fashion.”
Adler, she says, served as “the bridge in any decision-making process, so that both sides will accept the decision which has been made.
“As an outstanding jurist, he has the insight to be able to perceive both sides of the argument in a particular case, be it with the Israeli government, the trade unions, large companies and institutions, and the individual as well,” she adds.
The book contains learned articles by former Supreme Court presidents Aharon Barak and Dorit Beinisch, his successor as National Labor Court president, Nili Arad, and a host of distinguished legal scholars.
Adler has led the way in showing other immigrants to Israel how to employ one’s talents to benefit the whole country. When he appraised the field of labor relations in Israel half a century ago, he realized that the knowledge he had acquired in the US could be used in the fledgling Jewish state.
Moreover, as he studied judicial systems elsewhere, he put that knowledge into practice by raising the quality and significance of labor law in Israel.
Adler has shaped his career in a very distinguished fashion. He served as a visiting fellow at Cornell University for a decade, teaching courses on Israeli and American labor relations and labor law. He has been an adjunct lecturer in the field of labor relations at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s Law School, and at the Central European University, teaching the subject of dispute resolution to doctoral students and research professionals. And he has taught at six other universities around the world in his field of specialization.
How does he see Israel today? “Israeli democracy is resilient but challenged by extremists in politics, religion and those who want to destroy us,” he says. “Our generation [which witnessed the Holocaust] should never express hatred against fellow Jews, and never be exposed to non-Jews who want to destroy us.”