Israel has always been a mainstay in Libby Lenkinski's life. Her mother grew up there and, as a child, she visited relatives living on kibbutzim in picturesque northern Israel.
Then there was her involvement in the progressive Zionist youth movement, Hashomer Hatzair, and her years as a student at Akiba Hebrew Academy.
In 2005, after earning a master's degree in child development and teaching kindergarten at a Manhattan private school, she made aliyah. Now that she's lived there several years, she says that the Israel she encountered as a citizen isn't the same one she thought she knew as a tourist.
"The Israel that I was exposed to was basically Disneyland," said Lenkinski, 33, who grew up in Drexel Hill and became a Bat Mitzvah at Congregation Beth El Ner Tamid in Broomall. "There are, in fact, several authentic narratives in that place, narratives that are silent because of occupation in the case of the territories and discrimination inside Israel."
Two years ago, she became the international relations director of the Tel Aviv-based Association for Civil Rights in Israel, a group that has generated much controversy for its advocacy on behalf of certain clients.
It shares certain qualities with the American Civil Liberties Union and has regularly litigated on behalf of Israeli Arabs and Palestinians; the group is also known for its unequivocal opposition to Israel's presence in the West Bank, although it also has argued for the rights of Jewish settlers to demonstrate.
Last week, Lenkinski and ACRI executive director Hagai El-Ad were in Philadelphia to pick up a $100,000 award in recognition of their organization's work on behalf of human rights in Israel and the West Bank. The group was one of five recipients of the 2011 Gruber Justice Prize, handed out by the Peter and Patricia Gruber Foundation, a nonprofit based in the Virgin Islands.
Previous recipients of the Gruber prize include Aharon Barak, the retired chief justice of Israel's Supreme Court, as well as the late Jerome Shestack, the Philadelphia lawyer who had served on the award committee before receiving the honor himself. This year's ceremony was held in Philadelphia in part to honor Shestack, who died earlier this year.
ACRI shared the 11th Justice Prize with Barbara Arnwine, of the Lawyer's Committee for Civil Rights Under Law in Washington, D.C.; Morris Dees, founder of the Southern Poverty Law Center in Alabama; the Center for Legal and Social Studies in Argentina; and the Kurdish Human Rights Project, which is based in London.
Prize winners include (from left) Morris Dees of the Southern Poverty Law Center, ACRI's Haggai El-Ad and Horacio Verbitsky of Argentina.
Arthur Chakalson, a Jewish attorney who defended Nelson Mandela at his 1963 trial and is a retired justice from the Constitutional Court of South Africa, served as the master of ceremonies.
The Oct. 6 ceremony at the National Constitution Center came a day after ACRI lawyers argued three cases before Israel's Supreme Court -- an unusual development even for a group used to addressing Israel's highest court.
All three cases dealt with the rights of Arab citizens of Israel. The most high-profile suit challenged the Nakba Law, which was approved by the Knesset in March and denies government funding to groups that mark Israel's founding as a tragic day or that undermine "the existence of the State of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state."
During the program, El-Ad delivered a blistering critique of Israel's policies toward the Palestinians.
"In order for human rights to be respected, the occupation must end and that is our goal," said El-Ad. "The occupation is a shameful reality."
Israel's deputy consul general in Philadelphia, Raslan Abu Rukun, attended the ceremony and spoke briefly with the recipients. Later, Daniel Kutner, Israel's consul general in Philadelphia, responded to the speech via email.
"Despite the fact that we do not agree with their views of Israel, as a democracy, we respect their right to pursue their goals within the proper framework of law," wrote Kutner. "We will continue to engage with them to ensure that our standards for civil rights are upheld."
The diplomat added that Israel would like nothing more than to have peace with the Palestinians. "This is why we ask the Palestinians to come to the negotiating table."
ACRI receives about 20 percent of its funding from the New Israel Fund -- which aims to strengthen Israeli civil society by funding other organizations and programs -- though ACRI also fundraises on its own in the United States, Europe and Israel.
The New Israel Fund has come under fire itself in recent years for supporting groups that many see as operating against the interests of the state. Some of the groups it supported, for example, supplied information to the United Nations Goldstone commission, whose highly controversial report slammed Israel's 2008-2009 incursion into Gaza, and suggested the possibility of war crimes. Richard Goldstone later retracted some of those allegations, which the Israeli government had roundly rejected.
Lenkinski said that when she's pitching American Jews, she stresses that her group is pushing for a fairer, more just society, a pursuit that reflects her understanding of Jewish values.
That includes work on behalf of economic justice, she said, explicitly drawing a link between the social protests that took place in Israel over the summer and the Occupy Philadelphia demonstrations that began last week.
Does she still consider herself a Zionist?
The term, she asserted, has been co-opted by the right and has lost its meaning. But she remains committed to living in Israel and "working with as much conviction as I can toward making it accountable for upholding human rights for all."