Farewell Interview with Sharon Abraham-Weiss
In this webinar for INCLO focal points and directors, Adv. Stefania Kapronczay, Executive Director of the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union (HCLU), interviewed Adv. Sharon Abraham Weiss on her background and the major lessons and challenges faced as a human rights lawyer since joining the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI). Here are a few takeaways.
Sharon’s awareness of inequality appeared in her early years. Her maternal grandparents survived the Holocaust, while her skin tone reflected her father’s Indian heritage and was darker than the average Israeli. When she moved to a boarding school at age 14, she saw the face of social inequality. That same year, her parents separated and her mother, who had been a housewife, had to earn a living. Socioeconomic gaps based on gender and race would later become some of the human rights struggles led by the Harvard Kennedy School and Tel Aviv University graduate.
The work opportunities that appeared with her first university degree in Clinical Nutrition were poorly remunerated. “It was a pink ghetto job, this professional sector was composed mainly of women and therefore offered meager salaries”. But Sharon didn’t truly want to be a therapist and the obvious pay gap between typically male and female sectors was just another reason that pushed her towards law school. She entered ACRI as a legal intern and later as a staff attorney in 2001, becoming the first lawyer to tackle Social and Economic Rights in the form of diversity, immigration and socio-economic rights cases. Her background had taken her that way and taught her that “being poor is a big obstacle in fighting for your rights”. She wished to be part of the empowerment and leverage that communities deserve to obtain equal opportunities.
Segwaying through Different Arenas
During her first eight years as a staffer, she became a mother of two and headed hefty legal battles, notably when ACRI challenged the State of Israel in 2003 over cutbacks in welfare on the grounds of the right to dignity. “We lost that case but it created a change nonetheless and it remains a legal reference. It’s still a question for me as to what is the best way to create change.”
Eventually, Sharon ventured out of ACRI and founded the Corporate Social Responsibility Clinic at the Academic Center of Law and Business. She then served as the Tel Aviv and Central Israel Region Equal Employment Opportunity Commissioner before returning to ACRI and becoming its ED. Questioned at the time by some about crossing the line into State administration, she replied that “the question I ask myself is how to have greater impact” and this position was one where it was possible to make a difference.
As the Executive Director, she found the threats to human rights in Israel, aside from the military occupation of the Occupied Palestinian Territories, are similar to those in other developed countries: shrinking democratic space, fake news, and shifting power relations.
Inside the organization her efforts were directed at creating a structure that could support the staff both professionally and materially. The challenge was building a structure that is both stable and dynamic: that can work toward and achieve long term goals, while still being able to respond quickly and effectively to events as they happen.
Sound Pieces of Advice
For newbies: Breathe. Think rationally. Often newly graduated lawyers are passionate and eager and this can be blinding. “Sometimes it is better to take a step back to the balcony and get a general view. It's important to achieve human rights but also not to step on anyone in the process. What will you take away from what you are doing five years from now? What is good for people? Do I know what is better for people? I guess my only advice is to be humble. The INCLO group is a lot of help for us because it is a peer group and we can consult with each other.”
For mothers: Show some self-mercy. Juggling with motherhood and a career takes a lot of skill, energy and patience, but also acceptance of the fact that you won’t be able to handle it all. “I didn't manage to balance motherhood and career. It’s impossible to think that you did everything perfectly”. Prioritizing what’s important and letting go of the rest is the way to go.
For directors: Seek help. It is important to hire specialists in fields that aren’t specific to human rights litigation such as communications or crowdfunding, “A good will is not enough, human rights need to professionalize”. One of the important goals of the ED is to identify staff member’s strong suits and to allow them the freedom to exercise them.” Also, turn to colleagues and peers for advice. “There are very few people around the world facing the same challenges as us and some of them are here, within this network. Don’t hesitate.”