Attorney Benjamin Ryberg of Farmington Hills works for New York-based nonprofit, the Lawfare Project, which protects Jewish communities worldwide.
Photos courtesy of Benjamin Ryberg
Some people, you can tell, were put on this Earth for a specific reason. Farmington Hills native Benjamin Ryberg is one of these people.
After graduating from the University of Michigan, Ryberg attended Cardozo Law School at Yeshiva University and was then invited to join the Lawfare Project. As an attorney and the chief operating officer at this New York-based nonprofit think tank and litigation fund, Ryberg and his team aim to protect and uphold the rights of Jewish and pro-Israel communities worldwide. The Lawfare Project has more than 400 attorneys worldwide who are ready to take on cases at any given moment.
“Unfortunately, our community is facing a lot of problems. But there’s a lot that can be done about it using existing laws and legal systems, and that’s what we’re here to do,” Ryberg said. “Because of the network we’ve built, we’re able to operate on a global scale. We are vigorously confronting the most pressing problems facing the Jewish people wherever they arise.”
Discrimination at Kuwait Airways
Recently, the Lawfare Project took on two major cases. The first was against Kuwait Airways, which refuses to allow Israeli passport holders to fly with them despite being sued by the Lawfare Project several times.
“We were shocked to learn of this because Kuwait Airways has been operating at JFK for decades,” Ryberg said. “Somehow, this flagrant discrimination has been left to continue for years. Our goal is to force Kuwait Airways to discontinue its discriminatory practice or to fly anybody with a valid travel document and not subject Israelis to disparate treatment.
Alternatively, if the airline continues to deny transport to Israelis, the Lawfare Project will keep suing them, and they will have to pay.”
After conducting extensive legal analysis and communicating with the U.S. Department of Transportation, which initially sided with the airline, the Lawfare Project prompted the department to reverse course and release a new determination saying that Kuwait Airways was violating federal aviation law. While a positive step, the Lawfare Project wanted to ensure that the airline adhered to the determination and operated in compliance with the law.
Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case. Ryberg and a colleague accompanied an Israeli woman to JFK airport to purchase a ticket on Kuwait Airways’ popular flight route from JFK to London Heathrow. At the ticket counter, they were informed that this route had been indefinitely suspended. Essentially, the airline chose to continue discriminating and lose significant revenue rather than allow Israeli passengers to fly with their airline.
The Lawfare Project subsequently filed suit against the airline in Switzerland, resulting in the stoppage of all Kuwait Airways’ inter-European flights (which continues to this day). Several other lawsuits are pending in Germany and elsewhere.
“There is no place for discrimination against anybody based on who they are, in air travel or anywhere else,” Ryberg said.
Anti-Israel Protesters at San Francisco State University
The other lawsuit was against San Francisco State University (SFSU), an institution which has had problems with anti-Semitism for the past 30 years that hit an all-time high when anti-Israel student protestors disrupted a public event featuring former Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat. They were yelling so loudly the event eventually had to be shut down, and the school administration did nothing to stop it.
“We learned there were campus police and administrators on the scene, and the standard practice was for the campus police to remove the disruptors and inform them they could protest in a specified area that would allow them to express themselves without inhibiting Barkat from conveying his message to the audience,” Ryberg explained. “However, it was revealed that administration broke from that protocol and told the police to just let it happen.”
Another anti-Semitic instance at this university was when Hillel — the only recognized student organization at SFSU that represents all Jewish students as Jews, regardless of political viewpoints or other considerations — was excluded from participating in a “Know Your Rights” fair on campus on the basis of Hillel’s Zionist viewpoint, a decision that was sanctioned by high-ranking university officials.
“I find a lot of people, including a lot of Jews who support Israel, really don’t know that Zionism is the belief in Jewish self-determination,” Ryberg said. “It’s a Jewish civil rights movement, the belief that Jews deserve a homeland, and is a core component of the Jewish religion. That’s widely misunderstood.”
With the pro bono help of the law firm Winston and Strawn LLP, the case finally reached a settlement in March 2019 after three years of tireless work.
“The settlement is important because it requires the entire California State University (CSU) system to publicly acknowledge that Zionism is an integral part of Jewish identity. It is not merely a political viewpoint for which students can be excluded from participating in campus activities,” Ryberg said. “On top of that, the settlement also requires SFSU to hire a coordinator of Jewish student life and to retain an independent external consultant to continuously review the school’s procedures for reinforcement of the CSU system’s anti-discrimination policies.”
In addition, the school is now obligated to allocate $200,000 to support educational outreach efforts to promote viewpoint diversity.
Ryberg was accepted to participate in the annual ROI Summit that took place in Jerusalem in June. The ROI Summit gathers 150 Jewish changemakers from around the world so they can network, learn from one another and share their stories. These changemakers work in different fields, including climate change, world health issues, issues of discrimination both in the Jewish community and outside of it, and technology.
“The common thread was this tangible level of passion and motivation to changing the world in critical, strategically identified ways,” Ryberg said. “It was fascinating to learn what all these people were doing, to discuss how we could help one another and collaborate in various ways. I was also honored to be chosen to lead a peer-led session to educate fellow ROI attendees on their legal rights to hold demonstrations.”
Ryberg left the conference with a pool of new friends and a strengthened sense of connection with the young professional Jewish community.
“A core goal of ROI, as I see it, is not just to have you show up for a few days and then go on your way, but rather to be part of this global community forever. I am beyond grateful for the experience.”
There are a few ways to get involved with the Lawfare Project.
If you’re an attorney (no matter where you live), you can sign up to be a part of the network of attorneys. Non-attorneys can learn more by going to the Lawfare Project’s website, hosting attorneys for educational presentations or donating funds.
“It is incumbent upon the Jewish people to demand and ensure that our civil and human rights be upheld, and that we be treated equally under the law. No one else is going to do it for us,” Ryberg said.
Learn more at thelawfareproject.org.