Jerusalem-born Nachi Eyal is an unassuming man with a big agenda. His pleasant and soft-spoken demeanor is accented by a focused determination he reveals when discussing his work and his vision as director general of the Legal Forum for the Land of Israel, a registered non-profit organization that acts to protect human rights in Israel, ensure sound government and preserve the national interests of the State of Israel and the Jewish people. Dozens of attorneys volunteer with the forum to reach these goals.
What began two years ago as a grassroots organization that sought to alleviate the woes of Gush Katif evacuees through the courts has become a full-fledged institution. Over the last two years, the Legal Forum has established itself as one of the most active and influential organizations in Israel’s political milieu. The forum’s activities are carried out by volunteer attorneys and legal and financial experts, who view it as a vehicle for social and political change.
The Jewish Press interviewed Eyal in Jerusalem last month.
The Jewish Press: How has your background influenced the direction of your life?
My inspiration comes from Hashem, but there have been many factors in leading me to the position I have now. I grew up in the Old City of Jerusalem, where my mother lived before the War of Independence in 1948. My mother used to tell us about the times she sat on the stone walls observing the interaction between Jews and Arabs. After the 1948 war she was forced to flee, but she returned after the 1967 war and the reunification of Jerusalem.
After graduating from a yeshiva high school and fighting in the first Lebanon War, I settled in Moshav Sdemot Mehola in the Jordan Valley. There I farmed the land, growing citrus trees, dates, and grapes. Today, I live in Psagot together with my wife, Rachel, and our seven children. The oldest, Amotz, is currently serving in the IDF. After moving to Psagot, I left farming and joined then-Knesset member and National Religious Party head Chanan Porat as his parliamentary aide. At the same time, I worked on various projects backed by Porat such as setting up a yeshiva in Rachel’s Tomb, revitalizing a bankrupt newspaper for religious children, and establishing a yeshiva in Yericho’s Shalom Al Yisrael synagogue.
How was the Legal Forum originally established?
In November 2004, when the Israeli government announced its intention to evict the Jews from Gush Katif, newspaper ads appeared inviting people to comment on the decree. I approached Yesha Council leaders and asked whether they would object to the Disengagement through this means. They declined, saying it was pointless. I wasn’t satisfied with this answer, because to me, the idea of the Disengagement spelled disaster, nor only for the Gush Katif inhabitants but for all of Israel. At the time I was involved with a very popular weekly newsletter, Me’at Min HaOr. I decided to place an ad in the newsletter looking for lawyers who would volunteer to oppose the Disengagement. Within a few weeks, forty lawyers responded and the Legal Forum was born.
How did the Legal Forum help the Gush Katif evacuees?
The Forum’s lawyers took part in the proceedings of Knesset committees, which were drafting the law. Though they failed to implement any change to the law, they did succeed in minimizing the financial damages that the government intended to inflict on the evacuees, in addition to the suffering of the Disengagement itself.
We filed several suits with the Supreme Court which somewhat alleviated the damage caused to Gush Katif residents. For example, the government originally wanted to pay the Gush Katif residents strictly according to their years of residency and property ownership. We objected to this narrow criteria and the case went to the Supreme Court. The judge ruled that everyone can sue for his or her rights. Because of this victory, Gush Katif evacuees are now able to sue to gain more compensation, many due to psychological damage and long-term loss. The cost of this victory to the government has been estimated at NIS 2 billion.
What kind of evidence and data did you present to the Supreme Court to advance your case?
Our lawyers did research on the results of the eviction of Jews from the Jewish settlements in the Sinai in 1982. They predicted that the damage that would result from the Disengagement in Gush Katif would be far worse because the Gaza residents had lived there much longer and had more invested there. In an effort to preserve the community structure of Gush Katif villages, both from a psychological and economic perspective, the Legal Forum suggested to the government and SELA (the Disengagement Authority) that these communities be resettled together.
What has the Legal Forum been focusing on lately?
We considered disbanding after the Disengagement but then realized that the work we started had really only begun. In addition to ongoing help for the Gush Katif deportees, the Legal Forum is now concentrating on protecting civil rights, fighting against government corruption and pursuing national projects. One of the lessons we learned from the Disengagement was how essential it was not only to safeguard the Jewish presence in Judah and Samaria but to build a religious presence in Israel proper.
The Legal Forum has been working to promote religious Zionism in areas of Israel that have been taken over by Israeli Arabs, such as in Jaffa, Acco, and Hadar in Haifa. We recently sponsored a Shabbat program in Jaffa with over 400 religious youth participating. We have also encouraged Jews not to put up “for sale” signs in these areas in order to dissuade Arabs from buying up these properties, many of which have been sold for above the value price.
Together with the Movement for the Preservation of National Land, we are mapping Israel’s land resources, investigating illegal Arab building sites and filing suits against such building with the Supreme Court and other relevant government agencies. Following the attorney general’s directive to the JNF to allow Arabs to purchase land belonging to the Jewish people, we are currently developing legislation that will ensure Jewish ownership of these landed resources.
We’ve also been pressing for public awareness of police violence and corruption, which has risen significantly. We’ve prepared a special report on police brutality in Israel, which marked the first anniversary of the violent clashes in Amona. I take special interest in the brute force the police exhibited at Amona because my own son was injured there. He was knocked unconscious and resuscitated in the ambulance. He miraculously survived, thanks to the prayers of Jews all over the world.
The report prepared by the Legal Forum has been distributed to ministers, Knesset members and public figures in an effort to push for legislation against police brutality.
We’ve also been active on behalf of Jewish farmers in the Galilee and the Negev, who have been battling to protect their land and livelihood from neighboring Arabs and Bedouin. We’ve provided them with the necessary resources and have drafted legislation that would define their status and their right to protect themselves and their property.
How has the Legal Forum been portrayed by the Israeli media?
In Israel we have a media dominated by the Left. And so we’ve created a department called in Hebrew Tadmit – Enhancing Democracy in Israel’s Media – to monitor media coverage in order to create more balanced reporting. In certain cases, the Forum has approached the Israel Press Council requesting an inquiry into unbalanced reporting. We have been trying to change the workings of the regulation bodies by lobbying for the reestablishment and amendment of the Broadcasting Authority Act and petitioning the Second Broadcasting Authority to publish complete protocols of its meeting. We are also trying to establish an independent watchdog to combat the injustices of the Israeli media without bias or fear.
The Winograd Commission recently published its report on the Lebanon War fiasco. Did the Legal Forum have any involvement with this issue?
At the start of the proceedings, we approached Justice Eliyahu Winograd, who headed the inquiry into the events of the Israel-Lebanon conflict, requesting that he publicize the commission’s findings and open up the proceedings for media coverage. We were also the first group to press State Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss to investigate government failings in the war and its poor handling of the residents in the North. During the war, we founded Orot Chessed, a department that gave food to needy Northern residents and arranged for them to be hosted in the South. Today, Orot Chessed is trying to ease the predicament of the residents of Sderot and the outlying communities.
How would you describe the current climate in Israel, and what direction would you like to see the country moving in?
Unfortunately, I see the State of Israel in a state of decline. Look at the examples of the last two years – far-reaching political corruption, the destruction of Gush Katif, the defeat in Lebanon and the loss of the IDF’s deterrence capabilities. I blame this squarely on the Israeli Left’s extensive social, legal and media activities. The youth of today are not the youth of yesterday. The vast majority lack any sense of religion or Zionist ideals. They are straying morally and socially, and the country is collapsing because of it.
We must establish organizations to counter the Left mainly in politics, media, and the legislature. For many years we overlooked these issues, choosing instead to focus on settling Yesha. To a large degree this has enabled the Left to gain control. The faster we act, the greater our chances to minimize the damage caused to Israel by the Left. We have to culturally infiltrate the social make-up of the population with religious Zionist ideals and conduct our activities with the aim of attracting those non-religious and unaffiliated people to our side.
With Hashem’s help and the assistance of people who support the Legal Forum, we hope to achieve this goal.