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Brit Tzedek v'Shalom
Jewish Alliance for Justice and Peace
Kansas City, Kansas/MissouriKansas City Jewish Chronicle
November 12, 2004
By Rick Hellman
Frontline Rabbi: Rabbis for Human Rights Director to Tell of Struggles during KC Visit
Rabbi Arik Ascherman, executive director of Israel's Rabbis for Human Rights group, occupies a unique place in the Israeli-Arab conflict. "He is one of the few people who appears to be trusted by leaders on both sides of the conflict, and that's to his credit," said Allan Abrams, organizer of the local Brit Tzedek v'Shalom chapter that is sponsoring Rabbi Ascherman's visit to the Kansas City area next week.
Rabbi Ascherman's status as a peacemaker - some would say troublemaker - was hard-won. First of all, the 45-year-old Erie, Pa., native made aliyah. Then he learned Arabic. Then he was ordained by the Reform seminary. Then he worked on lots of social justice issues, including work for RHR before becoming their full-time executive director in 2000. He has, for instance, helped to protect Palestinian Arabs trying to harvest their olive crops from attacks by Jewish settlers.
RHR concerns itself with a range of issues. Some, like unemployment and poverty, fall under the category of "economic justice." Others are more abstract, like equality for women, protection for foreign workers and establishing an Israeli bill of rights. The group condemns Palestinian terrorism outright, and has worked to comfort its victims.
Locally, Rabbis Mark Levin and Vered Harris of Congregation Beth Torah and Rabbi Alan Cohen of Congregation Beth Shalom have joined RHR-North America. But what has garnered the most headlines - and landed Rabbi Ascherman in the dock facing six years in an Israeli jail on two counts of obstructing a police officer - is RHR's opposition to house demolitions.
In a telephone interview this week from his home in Jerusalem, Rabbi Ascherman said Israeli law, both in the occupied territories and within the pre-1967 Green Line, is unfair to Arabs, placing them in a Catch-22 situation with regard to housing.
"We are the only organization in Israel in which rabbis from all movements work together," said Rabbi Ascherman. "We have a wide political spectrum, and there's a lot of hot debate in our board meetings. But if there is a consensus, it's on the whole demolition issue, because the unfairness and discrimination is so blatant.
"It's a Catch-22 situation. If you are a Palestinian living in Area C (Editor's note: An Oslo Accords term for areas of the West Bank still under full Israeli control) or in East Jerusalem, you can have a clean security record, you can have uncontested title to your land, you can stand on your head, and without paying a bribe or agreeing to inform, you can't get a permit."
Rabbi Ascherman said Israeli building and planning laws "are exploited to make sure that Palestinians can't build in certain areas, even though it's their own land, for political reasons. Therefore, when you are forced to build a home without a permit, your home is, in quote marks, illegal and subject to demolition. Thousands of homes have been demolished this way, and thousands more are on chopping block potentially."
The rabbi said his group has worked through the courts, through lobbying the government and through working with international organizations "to try to put a stop to this policy." So strong is RHR's belief in this cause that Rabbi Ascherman has risked being thrown in jail for standing in the way of Israeli bulldozers that were prepared to tear down the houses of two Palestinian Arab families not linked to any terrorist crime but who had built their homes without a permit. The incidents took place in April and May 2003, and are detailed at RHR's Web site.
"In a democracy, and Israel is one, civil disobedience obviously needs to be something you do not do lightly," said Rabbi Ascherman. "It must be a matter of last resort. But sometimes, when you have tried everything else, and particularly when you see the values that we are sworn to uphold as rabbis being trampled on, you have no choice but to stand in front of the bulldozers, to exercise that democratic right of civil disobedience to try to have the opportunity in court to show that it's the law, the policy, that's really illegal and immoral."
Owing to the peculiarities of Israeli jurisprudence, Rabbi Ascherman's trial has been an on-again, off-again affair. It's now on break until Jan. 9. More than 400 rabbis have signed a letter of support, urging the Israeli government to drop the charges.
"I have two little children," Rabbi Ascherman said. "I can't imagine missing six years of their lives. I know at some level, they are not going to understand what Daddy has done. They will be angry at Daddy for not being there. But at another level, they are another big motivation for doing what I do. ... I believe this is what God demands of us - Tikkun Olam. We are partners with God in ongoing work of creation, repairing, making a better world. I also do it because I want a better future for my children, and to be able to look them in the eyes when they say 'Daddy, what were you doing when all these things were happening?' And I will say 'I was doing my best to uphold Torah.'"
Rabbi Ascherman said RHR has seen a marked increase in support since 2000, most of it from liberal Jews in North America. Asked why that was so, he replied: "Maybe because it's clear we're not a one-issue organization. ... Maybe because we condemn terror and don't sweep those kinds of things under the rug. What it comes down to is, while there is certainly no one in the affiliated Jewish community in North America who would want to be seen as anti-Israel, nevertheless there is a Jewish neshama, the soul, that continues to be disturbed about some of the things that are happening here. Twenty-five percent of Israeli youth go to bed hungry one night a week."
"The bottom line is that people are looking for constructive outlets. When they learn about RHR, they find you can be pro-Israel by working for a better Israel, one that lives up to our highest Jewish values. One that is not only physically but morally strong. So people don't go away with a downer, but a positive message about what we can do to build an Israel that runs more according to the Judaism we believe in. Even if all is not right, here are people standing up in the name of Judaism and working for the things that I believe in."
Lighting a Candle
Rabbi Ascherman said he realizes that some of those with whom he has worked with on human rights issues over the years do not have the Jewish state's best interests at heart and are, in fact, anti-Zionist.
"That is always a real concern," he said. "Always we are deeply aware of ... the fact that we have to be careful; that people will use our words in ways we didn't intend. ... It's a tension that we live with. Ultimately, I think that building a more moral and just Israel is the best thing we can do to improve Israel's image in the world. What we do is the real Zionism."
Rabbi Ascherman said expressing concern for the human rights of Israeli Arabs is not only the right thing to do, but one that benefits the Jewish state. "There are those who will say that we are traitors, that we are anti-Israel," Rabbi Ascherman said. "And if it wasn't so serious to be called a traitor in the post-Rabin era, I would almost have to laugh.
"I don't know how many times when we've gone to rebuild a demolished home, ... and the parents have insisted on bringing out their kids to meet us. They say 'This is our 10-year-old son; what do I say when he says, "I want to grow up and be a terrorist"? I want my child to see that all Israelis are not bad. I want them to see they are not all like that.'"
In this way, Rabbi Ascherman said, the work of RHR can be seen "as not only the right and just and Jewish thing, although it is all of those, but it's the hard-headed, realpolitik, self-interested thing to do to break down these stereotypes. To light a candle rather than curse the darkness. Otherwise, how can we empower those Palestinians who want to teach their children something else?"
Israeli Human Rights Activist Here
Rabbi Arik Ascherman, executive director of Rabbis for Human Rights, will speak at two events on Wednesday, Nov. 17, in the Kansas City area. His main appearance will be at 7:30 p.m. at Congregation Beth Torah. It is free and open to the public. His talk is being sponsored by the local chapters of Brit Tzedek v'Shalom (the Jewish Alliance for Justice and Peace) and Tikkun.
There will also be a patrons' reception at 5:30 p.m. that same day at the Jewish Community Campus, hosted by Jim and Fern Badzin. For information about or an invitation to the reception, call organizer Allan Abrams, (913) 341-7770, or write e-mail to: firstname.lastname@example.org. Rabbi Ascherman will also address the community's rabbis at a luncheon Wednesday hosted by Rabbi Alan Cohen of Congregation Beth Shalom. Founded in 1988, RHR is a non-governmental organization based in Jerusalem and committed to promoting a democratic Jewish state based on freedom, justice, and peace. It is comprised of rabbis from the Orthodox, Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist movements.
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