After nearly three months in Dubai, Bernstein is now continuing the advocacy work in Israel.
Michigan Supreme Court Justice Richard Bernstein is now in Israel after a nearly three-month stay in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, doing disability advocacy work in relation to the Abraham Accords.
Bernstein has also been at the center of slight controversy after backlash to him spending the last three months out of the country, with some Lansing Republicans questioning whether he has abandoned his Michigan domicile. Bernstein refutes the point to the JN with his side of the story and details the work he’s been doing.
“I was in Dubai, and I was set to go there for about two weeks and that was the plan.” Bernstein said. “The goal in going to Dubai was to help be a part of the Abraham Accords. We were focusing on how when you have a relationship with Israel, it benefits everybody.”
The area Bernstein was focusing on is people with disabilities. Bernstein has been blind since birth.
“The plan was to really focus on the idea of how people with disabilities can bring people together,” Bernstein said. “When you have people that struggle and face challenges, it allows for greater connections, and that was my role.”
Bernstein said the essence of the effort was to allow for deeper learning about people with disabilities in a way they hadn’t learned before.
“A lot of people in the royal families and in influential positions in the Arab world have children that have special needs,” Bernstein explained. “But in that part of the world, you don’t really talk about it, it’s not really discussed. If your child has a disability, ultimately it’s something that’s seen as taboo.”
Bernstein said this outreach allowed them to see new possibilities, and those possibilities were brought to them through the Accords.
“When you would meet with people in the royal family, they would say it allowed them to see their child in a totally different light and see possibilities for their child in a way they never envisioned,” Bernstein said. “Then, they would ask how they could make a difference because they don’t have programs and services like we do.”
Bernstein stressed what was so special about this endeavor is that it was, “the first time a Jewish person has ever been featured in a favorable, positive light by all Arab media.”
“The narrative was changing, and I was asked to be the person to allow for folks to have an opportunity to basically be introduced to a Jewish person,” Bernstein said. “It was thought that a person with a severe disability who’s faced struggles and challenges would be a good conduit to have a new appreciation of Jewish people.”
Originally planned to be a two–week trip, Bernstein says it was then recognized the effort was going very well.
“Things were going better than what had been anticipated, so I was asked whether I was willing to stay on and continue doing the work we were doing from the U.A.E.”
Bernstein noted a unique window had been opened, and if he didn’t take advantage of it then, it wouldn’t be known when that window would open again.
“I was doing what I thought was helpful for Israel, something that I thought was for a higher purpose,” Bernstein said. “Certain people who have personal connections to disabilities were very touched, and they wanted this message out.”
Bernstein says the closed Israeli borders played a role in terms of that situation, but the reason he stayed in Dubai for that long wasn’t only because things were going well.
In regard to blowback he’s received from some in Michigan, Bernstein respects that viewpoint, but says he would be doing the same thing in Michigan as he has been overseas.
“The court buildings have been closed for over a year. You’re not allowed in the building, so everyone’s working from home. I felt that since the building was closed and, since I had ample time to get all of my work done and I’m working by telephone anyways, I looked at it and said, ‘what’s the difference?’”
“If I’m doing it from my apartment in Birmingham or if I’m in the U.A.E., it’s the same phone, and all I’m doing is talking on the phone. If you’re asked to stay because what you’re doing has meaning, I just thought what would be the reason to come home if I’m just going to sit in my living room?”
Bernstein says the idea he had no plans to leave Dubai was not at all correct.
“I was there for a specific mission to do specific work, and then as soon as that work was completed, I moved on to Israel.”
Now in Israel, Bernstein says the plan is to do the same thing as in the U.A.E., getting people excited about the relationship with the Emiratis, with disability work as the conduit to that happening.
Once that happens, the plan is for an official delegation from Access Israel, a non-governmental nonprofit helping people with disabilities better integrate into society, to return to the U.A.E. and start implementation of new programs and services for those with disabilities in the Arab world.
Bernstein doesn’t know if he’s going back with them but is happy to help sign the official memorandum between Access Israel and the U.A.E. if asked to do so.
Bernstein also said he may travel to Uzbekistan and other countries as part of the mission to promote further opportunities.
No matter what, when the courts open back up in Michigan, Bernstein said he’ll be there in person.
“Everyone that’s connected with the work we’re doing understands that the absolute second we do anything in person, I’ll be there. This is over, and I’m done.”
Bernstein is also up for reelection next year and plans to go full force with the “same energy and enthusiasm” as his efforts in the Middle East.