Postcard From Abroad: Student Explores Israeli Legal System

Sarah Houston ’20 Spends Fall Semester Studying Abroad at Tel Aviv University
Sarah and Molly Houston hiking in Masada

Sarah Houston ’20, pictured hiking in Masada with her sister, Molly, studied abroad in Israel for the fall semester. Photos courtesy Sarah Houston

February 17, 2020

University of Virginia School of Law student Sarah Houston ’20 studied abroad at Tel Aviv University during the fall semester.

Israel is a country built on innovation. You cannot walk the streets of Tel Aviv without seeing a new startup or tech hub. It is also a place that isn’t afraid to experiment, acting as a country-sized incubator.

One of the reasons I decided to study abroad at Tel Aviv University for the fall semester was because I wanted to understand how this innovative thinking could be applied in the legal context. Comparative law, both domestic and international, has been an invaluable resource for me throughout law school as I think about when and how the law should progress based on evolving social and cultural norms.

In Israel, I was able to take several classes that compared the U.S. legal system to its own. My criminal justice class was taught by a professor who originally studied law at Berkeley and used what he learned about America’s public defender system to become the first chief public defender in Israel. He took a piece of the U.S. legal system and introduced it in his home country. It was fascinating to hear about the strategic thinking and flexibility that was required as he fought for representation for all indigent clients. He pushed us not only to compare legal systems, but to think critically about how the players within each country may vary or have differing interests, which shape the application of legal programs on the ground.

As part of the class, we attended bail hearings in the Tel Aviv courthouse. After representing a client at a bail hearing last year as part of UVA’s Immigration Clinic, it was fascinating to see how differently Israeli courtrooms are run, with lawyers, police officers and families constantly coming in and out. My classmates and I spent the next few days discussing the differences between our courtroom experiences at home. We did the same in my International Law of Work, intellectual property and antitrust classes, constantly comparing and weighing the pros and cons of each system. I was even given the chance to listen to the President of the Israeli Supreme Court highlight some of the key differences between the United States’ and Israel’s highest courts.

Outside of the classroom, I gained a greater appreciation for ritual and reflection. Every Shabbat, the city shut down. I would prepare for this day of rest by going to the local bustling shook (market) next to my apartment, immediately swept up by the bustling crowds as I navigated my way through huge mountains of brightly colored spices, desserts and freshly baked challah bread. As the sun began to set, I knew I would soon be sitting around a table with friends and bowls of delicious hummus and salad. I cherished these Friday evenings because it felt as though the whole city slowed down, each and every person making time for their close communities. It was during these long dinners that I discussed issues of security, citizenship, religious liberty and international law with fellow students.

My classmates and I also spent time traveling outside the city, to Southern Israel, Jordan and the West Bank. I made a point wherever I went to ask the locals about the laws in place and what they believed were the strengths and weaknesses of the current legal regime. Whether in the Wadi Rum Desert near Petra, the sloping mountains of Nablus or Manger Square in Bethlehem, it was the discussions I had with locals that stick with me the most.

As I prepare to graduate this May and start my career in international law, I bring with me a greater appreciation for comparison and reflection. To be an effective advocate, one must explore all possible avenues and then take the time to step back before choosing the ultimate path forward.

  • Bahai Gardens

    The view overlooking the Bahai Gardens in Haifa.

  • Old City of Jerusalem

    Boys run in the Old City of Jerusalem.

  • Tel Aviv

    Tel Aviv, pictured before a storm.

  • Jerusalem

    Jerusalem’s sloping hills.

  • Western Wall and Dome of the Rock

    The Western Wall and Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem.

  • Cesaria

    The ancient city of Cesaria at sunset.

  • Houston interviewed by a Reuters reporter

    Houston is interviewed by a Reuters reporter during the Christmas Eve celebration in Bethlehem.

  • Sarah Houston and Géraldine Völlmin

    Houston with Swiss classmate Géraldine Völlmin.

  • Law students in Jordan

    A group of law students from Tel Aviv University take a trip to a desert in Jordan.

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