How the Israel-Hamas War Tore Apart Public Defenders in the Bronx

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.”

That September confrontation was just a prelude. 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.

The fallout has threatened the future of the publicly funded organization. The fight in the Bronx about a faraway war could have concrete consequences for the nearly 20,000 clients whom the Defenders represent annually in eviction proceedings, child custody matters and criminal cases, among other matters.

The union’s statement has provoked condemnation from the mayor, fury from the lawyers who face Bronx Defenders in court and an outcry in the broader legal community of New York City, where other public defense organizations have experienced similar upheaval.

The rancorous politics of the Israel-Hamas war have put immense pressure on leaders to issue statements on the conflict, even if such statements have little effect. The conflict has roiled Ivy League universities, forcing the University of Pennsylvania’s president to resign. It has divided Democrats, split Hollywood and caused an uproar at nonprofits whose focus ranges from free speech to women’s health.

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.

Many Bronx Defenders employees said that the uproar has become a daily distraction. This article is based on interviews with 16 current and former members of the organization who requested anonymity to discuss its inner workings, as well as internal documents and recordings obtained by The New York Times.

Two weeks after the union’s statement on Oct. 20, Justine Olderman, the Bronx Defenders executive director, told her staff of more than 400 lawyers, social workers and others that it had “caused grave risk to the organization and our ability to serve the people who need our representation.” (Ms. Olderman declined an interview request, and the organization declined to respond to questions.)

But for some who voted to release the statement — including a number of the organization’s Jewish lawyers — the decision was obvious: Side with Palestinians, who, they said, were like their clients in facing incarceration, eviction and violence.

“As public defenders defending the most demonized and oppressed communities in the United States, we are familiar with how the U.S. political establishment legitimizes state violence,” said Yosmin Badie, a Bronx Defender working on immigration cases.

The Bronx Defenders introduced an expansive vision of public defense. It was founded in 1997 by Robin Steinberg, who saw that her clients’ legal problems extended well beyond court.

“The problem was rarely the criminal case itself, but rather the very real threat of losing public housing, getting deported, having their public benefits cut off or having their children placed in foster care,” she wrote, adding that the host of problems “demanded an entirely new model.”

Ms. Steinberg called it “holistic defense,” and it has been credited with revolutionizing the field. Holistic defense in the Bronx reduced the numbers of days that detainees were held in jail by more than one million over 10 years, saving the city more than $160 million, according to a 2019 study from the RAND Corporation and the University of Pennsylvania law school. Over the years, government funding for public defense, including for the Bronx Defenders, has increased substantially. The organization reported having received more than $48 million in government grants in the fiscal year that ended in June 2022.

Many of the Bronx Defenders consider the work a calling; they chose public service over lavish salaries at private firms. But as the group’s influence has grown, it has attracted criticism. In 2014, two of its lawyers appeared in a video for a song with lyrics that called for killing police officers. They were forced to resign.

And over the past two years, calls to defund the organization have grown as it has faced accusations of antisemitism, starting with an ugly internal fight two years ago.

‘Our Struggle for Freedom Is International’

Debbie Jonas, some of whose children served in Israel’s armed forces, said she found herself besieged by colleagues in the Bronx. Credit…Tamir Kalifa for The New York Times

Debbie Jonas joined Bronx Defenders in 2013 to represent parents in danger of losing custody of their children. “I was interested in the social justice aspect of law,” she said in an interview. “Which was kind of ironic, considering what happened.”

Ms. Jonas, now 65, was an outlier. Significantly older than many peers, she is an observant modern Orthodox Jew, married to a Newark businessman who donates millions of dollars a year, mainly to Jewish causes. Two of her nine children served in the Israel Defense Forces.

For most of Ms. Jonas’s eight-year tenure, that had nothing to do with her job. She liked her colleagues and loved the work.

We represent people who are accused of doing terrible things,” she said. “And our job is to show judges that you shouldn’t judge somebody by their worst moment. You should look at the whole person.”

When the pandemic arrived, family court went virtual, and Ms. Jonas began working remotely from Israel. She was there in 2021, when Israeli police raided a holy site in Jerusalem, the Aqsa Mosque, injuring hundreds of Palestinians. In reprisal, Hamas fired rockets at the city for the first time in seven years.

Ms. Jonas was in a bomb shelter when she received an email from work.

It came from Shannon Cumberbatch, the director of equity and institutional transformation, who was responsible for educating employees and mediating conflicts related to “race, class, power and privilege.” Ms. Cumberbatch drew a parallel between Black protesters against police abuse in America and Palestinians.

“Our struggle for freedom is international and our liberties are intertwined,” she wrote.

Ms. Jonas asked Ms. Olderman, the executive director, to issue an addendum, saying the email had told just one side of a complex story. Ms. Olderman declined. So Ms. Jonas reached out to Dov Hikind, a longtime New York assemblyman who is vocally pro-Israel. He sent Ms. Cumberbatch’s email to The New York Post.

The Post’s coverage set off a furious email battle within Bronx Defenders. Employees demanded that the “snitch” come forward. Eventually, Ms. Jonas acknowledged that she had corresponded with Mr. Hikind.

Dozens of colleagues attacked her, calling her “Karen,” a “snake in the grass,” “disgusting.” “YOU ARE WORSE THAN THE DIRT FROM THE BOTTOM OF MY SHOES,” one woman wrote.

Ms. Jonas resigned immediately. “I experienced it as being profoundly antisemitic,” she said. “To the Bronx Defenders, I’m just an evil person because I support Israel.”

After about six months, she hired a law firm that threatened a suit and demanded, among other things, an apology from the Bronx Defenders and mandatory antisemitism training. After negotiations, she received everything that she had asked for.

News of the agreement arrived in March, infuriating many employees. Their anger intensified after they learned the training would be administered by the Brandeis Center, an organization they said equates anti-Zionism with antisemitism.

At the Sept. 7 training, those lawyers — many of them Jewish — did not hide their anger.

‘It Has Become Unbearable’

Some lawyers in housing and family courts have said they want nothing to do with members of the Bronx Defenders.Credit…Angela Weiss/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Four weeks later, the Gaza conflict erupted.

The management of Bronx Defenders had little interest in revisiting the politics of the Middle East. But a few union members drafted a fiery statement blaming Israel; one sent it to the full 283-member group on Oct. 18.

Some recipients — including many who are critical of the Israeli government — expressed misgivings. One lawyer, who called the Israeli government “fascist,” said it was nonetheless disturbing that the Oct. 7 attack, which she said had been carried out by “religious fanatics,” went unmentioned.

Those who objected were outnumbered. One staff attorney called Hamas “freedom fighters” and said calling them fanatics was “racist and Islamophobic.” Another called the Oct. 7 attack an “act of resistance.” Ultimately, 52 percent of the union voted to issue the statement; while only 30 members voted against it, more than 100 abstained. All camps included Jewish employees.

The statement about Gaza immediately began causing chaos in the Bronx.

In civil court, it is important for lawyers to maintain cordial relationships with their adversaries to win their clients the best possible deals. But some lawyers began shunning the 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.

In November, after weeks of turmoil, the Bronx Defenders’ leaders issued a statement repudiating the one that their union released, which they said had failed to “recognize the humanity of both Palestinians and Israelis.”

The Bronx Defenders is paid through city and state contracts, and three are up for renewal at year-end: contracts that fund immigration, housing and family defense. The managing director of the family defense practice, Emma Ketteringham, warned in a recent meeting that some of her division’s funding — and the organization’s future as a whole — could be at stake.

“There are people in the City Council and the State Legislature and the mayor’s office who very much want us gone,” she said, according to a recording of the session.

A petition for Mayor Eric Adams and Gov. Kathy Hochul to defund the Bronx Defenders has received nearly 2,000 signatures. A spokesman for Mr. Adams, Fabien Levy, declined to comment on the organization’s funding, but the mayor condemned the union’s Oct. 20 statement.

“The rhetoric in the statement by the Bronx Defenders union in October was hateful and included serious factual misstatements,” Mr. Adams said in response to a request for comment. “That kind of language is completely unacceptable.”

But some Bronx Defenders lawyers view the defunding threat as another example of the powerful seeking to silence the powerless. Sophia Gurulé, an immigration lawyer and union member, said she and her peers were being pushed into a false choice.

“How is it that the only way to fund legal services for poor, Black and brown communities in New York City is by silencing solidarity with Palestinians?” she said.

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