Five Months in Jerusalem
Eliza Ghanooni recounts clerking for Israel’s Supreme Court
Published in 2022 Southern California Super Lawyers magazine on January 20, 2022
Eliza Ghanooni frequently worked out in the summer of 2006—and not just at any gym. It was the world-famous Jerusalem International YMCA in Israel, designed in the 1920s by Arthur Loomis Harmon, the American architect who designed the Empire State Building, and featuring neo-Byzantine architecture, a 152-foot observation tower, three chapels, and an auditorium. One day, out front, Ghanooni was glancing down at the cobblestones. “I just remember thinking about being there, being in Jerusalem, and I was overcome with emotion,” she says.
The recent law school grad wasn’t a tourist; she was clerking for Justice Ayala Procaccia of the Israeli Supreme Court—a gig she’d heard about through a friend and immediately knew she wanted.
“I’m Jewish, and I have family there,” says the consumer bankruptcy attorney with an eponymous firm. “I had been there the first time in 2000, and I did study abroad in law school at Bar-Ilan University. Being able to spend more time there in the highest court was a real honor.”
The timing was challenging: The second Lebanon War had just ended but the country was on high alert. “You would go to the bus stop and there would be a security guard, you’d go to a bakery and there’d be a security guard. Everywhere you went, you would have to go through security,” she remembers. “I had to take the bus to work every day, and it was a little scary. But it all worked out. I’m still here.”
The work environment was the opposite of this—warm and welcoming. Ghanooni was part of a group of international law clerks from Australia, France, Liechtenstein and the U.S. who worked with Justice Procaccia’s Israeli law clerks on comparative law review. “Israel is such a young country,” she says, “they don’t have a lot of precedent of case law. There would be issues that would come up and they’d want to know, ‘How does Australia deal with something like this? How does the U.K.? And the U.S. and Canada?’”
One of the topics Ghanooni researched was when free speech might be curtailed by so-called fighting words: screaming “fire” in a theater, for example. “Basically the idea is, and I’m quoting—it was defined by the U.S. Supreme Court in Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire—fighting words are such that ‘by their very utterance inflict injury, or tend to incite an immediate breach of the peace,’” Ghanooni says. “When is it OK? Is it incitement of a riot or is it free speech? There’s a fine line.”
It helped that the office environment was casual—jeans were common—and the research was in English rather than Hebrew. Ghanooni speaks Hebrew OK, she says, but it got better during her time there. “There’s something called an ulpan, where you’re in immersive Hebrew classes for a month. It’s supposed to give you a good foundation. Hebrew in general is a very difficult language to learn—grammatically it’s very complicated—so by the time I had been there for five months, towards the end, my conversational Hebrew had improved dramatically. I’d be back in LA, trying to speak Spanish, and Hebrew would come out. It’s like my brain had started replacing it. But now I’m back to Spanish being more easily spoken than Hebrew.”
It was upon her return to the U.S. that Ghanooni passed the bar and found her practice area in the oddest of places: Craigslist. “I don’t even know if the ad [from Price Law Group] said ‘bankruptcy law firm.’ But it did say ‘no experience required,’ so I thought, ‘Well, this seems like the job for me.’”
It was. “First, it was working for a great firm that was really ethical and taught us how to take care of our clients,” she says. “I also just appreciated being able to help people, communicate with them, give them comfort during a stressful time.”
Ghanooni’s family was originally from Iran—her last name is Farsi for “legal”—but they left in 1980 after Ayatollah Khomeini came to power. They first stayed in Norway, where an aunt lived, and where Ghanooni was born, before immigrating to the U.S.
“Another amazing memory of my time in Israel was when my parents came to visit me,” Ghanooni says. “I got to take them around and be their tour guide. It was their first time in Israel in 30 years.”
Along with Israel, international clerkships available to U.S. law students include at the high courts of East, West and South Africa; Australia; Canada; Cambodia; Lebanon; and the International Court of Justice in The Hague.