Friday, November 10, 2017

The Happy Yidisher Curmudgeon: My Muslim Lawyer

Muslims & Jews
“Gezen di velt vi es zol zeyn”
“Der emes kumt aroys vi boyml afn vaser.”
Ignaz Bernstein,
Jüdische Sprichwörter und Redensarten (1908)

“Therefore he who loves peace, runs after peace, offers peace, and answers peace, the Holy One, blessed be He, will make him inherit the life of this world and the life of the world to come, as it is written [Ps. xxxvii. 11]: “But the meek shall inherit the land, and shall delight themselves because of the abundance of peace.” 
End of Tractate Derekh Eretz Rabba and Zuta
Babylonian Talmud, Book V

After my cancer diagnosis, I was unable to work, so I applied for a disability pension, having paid into the government program for decades—since age 18 in fact with my first summer job. Perhaps even before that, davka, with my many part-time jobs. When I made my initial application for disability, in the midst of chemo treatment, I was quickly denied. The intake social worker said this would happen; in fact, he said this happens in more than 90% of cases. He also advised getting a lawyer to handle all appeals, which I did.

I couldn’t afford the services of a private lawyer, so I got a community lawyer, who works for a small fee, essentially pro bono. The lawyer assigned to me was a British-educated Muslim woman who wore a hijab. I think that she was originally from Pakistan. She was professional, knowledgeable, and as I later found out, kind. My case required two appeals, the last to an administrative tribunal.

I remember this day very well, as one remembers days when truth is revealed, or at least when one gets some insight into it.It was a cold blustery March day where my wife and I had to go downtown by subway to a typical grey nondescript government building. When I entered the building I had a strong foreboding feeling. I would soon find out why. After sitting in the waiting room for about an hour, we were called in.

The adjudicator was unremarkable except for the fact that she wore a large cross around her neck and a correspondingly large scowl on her face. This government official was immediately hostile to my lawyer and completely ignored me, saying that I would have a chance to speak later. I never was allowed to speak. For the 10 minutes that we sat in this airless windowless room, she spoke to my lawyer in an overtly hostile and belittling way. I was stunned.

In the hallway afterwards, I remember saying to my lawyer: “How could she speak to you in this way? She was unbelievably rude.” My lawyer was calm and composed, reassuring me that my case would work out. A few days later, in a follow-up telephone conversation, she said that she had made a formal complaint against this adjudicator; no doubt, she had a justified reason to do so and I was heartened that she did. Such persons, who make important life-altering decisions, too easily abuse their power and do so thoughtlessly.

After filing more appeal forms, a few months later, in July, I received a formal letter from the provincial government informing me that I had won my case, or, rather, they were not refusing my request for a government disability pension. Although I was exhausted, I had felt vindicated. Moreover, I felt that justice was served and my dignity restored in accordance with derekh eretz. As one rabbi writesIn general, to have derech eretz usually means to live ethically, responsibly and with dignity, and to be considerate of others.”

Such is always important. I immediately called my lawyer. She had already known, having been advised a day earlier. As per agreement, I was supposed to give her a set percentage of what the government gave me in terms of back payment. She refused and said she was happy to help. No doubt, her faith and beliefs influence her thinking. Now, this particular lawyer works for a private law firm where she handles cases of family law; she works as a community lawyer essentially for nothing. Without her expertise, I most certainly would have lost.

Now, one case does not reveal everything, but my personal experience tells me something. For one, I was fortunate to have this lawyer, and that Muslims and Jews have much in common. Some people care about peace and actively pursue it; it is true that some efforts are small while some are large, but the effort is nevertheless made in accordance with a person’s abilities and knowledge. Peace is always a worthy and laudable goal. For more on what Muslims and Jews have in common, see here, here and here.

Gut Shabbes
Peretz ben Ephraim,
November 10, 2017