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Brit Tzedek v'Shalom
Jewish Alliance for Justice and Peace
Tipping the Mideast Scales
Rabbi Arik Ascherman acknowledges that using nonviolence is not going to solve the Israeli-Palestinian problem by itself. But the executive director of Rabbis for Human Rights says it can "change the dynamic," and used a story to illustrate how at a nonviolence seminar on Sunday sponsored by the Washington chapter of Brit Tzedek v'Shalom, a peace activist group.
Three years ago, Ascherman recounts, he received a call that a 13-year-old boy had been caught by the Israeli Border Police near the separation barrier and was being beaten - and when he arrived, he saw the boy strapped to a jeep and crying. He said the boy was then used as a "human shield" while Palestinians threw stones at the Israeli officers. But when the boy gave an affidavit to the Israeli human rights group B'tselem, he said that a "tall Jewish man in a kippah came to my rescue and told me not to be afraid."
The rabbi said he had been attacked and beaten up by settlers and had stones thrown at him by Palestinians, but "I'd do it again and again and again for that young boy ... because this is the essence of our situation," he said.
Both sides believe the other doesn't want peace, but "we're totally dependent on each other," he said. "Only I as a religious Israeli can break down stereotypes" and give "hope for a different kind of future for all of us."
Ascherman was the featured speaker at Sunday's event, which drew more than 50 people to the Busboys and Poets restaurant in the District. Brit Tzedek D.C. chapter director Lee Diamond also spoke, telling the crowd about his recent participation in a two-week nonviolence training workshop.
Diamond said he hoped the Sunday seminar would bring together community members who are interested in supporting such activities.
"I want the Jewish community to understand people are over there" using nonviolent strategies, he said on Monday. And for those who may be upset by some of the actions of the Jewish state, he hoped he could offer "something more constructive. Instead of attacking Israel, [they can] help us solve the conflict."
Attendees said they appreciated being able to be in the same room with others interested in nonviolent activism and hear from someone living its principles every day.
"You don't hear anything in the media about Israeli Jews participating in the peace movement," said Cedar Dvorin, 57, of Alexandria. "I feel like I saw what's going on."
The American-born Ascherman, who made aliyah in 1994, said he does not consider himself an expert in nonviolence and said it isn't always easy to use that method.
"The real test is when you're getting hit and you know you could take this guy," he quipped. And he said "you don't want anyone to think your presence means it's safe to throw stones," recalling that he has seen Palestinian stone-throwers knock out the eye of an Israeli soldier.
But he says utilizing nonviolence is "about ... trying to defuse the situation ... create a bubble of space and enter into some kind of verbal communication ... [to] calm down and think clearly."
"Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't," he said. "It's a philosophy, a way of life."
RHR, which includes more than 100 rabbis and rabbinical students from across the denominations, helps to ensure Palestinian access to their olive trees for harvest and works to prevent home demolitions, among other activities.
Ascherman said the Israeli human rights community was "decimated by the second Intifada," when "many activists threw up their hands."
"We need to regain the soft core" of support beyond the hard-core activists, he said.
He also said that there are some Palestinian nonviolence activists, but "I'd like to see more of it happening."
In response to questions about a lack of American Jewish community support for his efforts, Ascherman noted that polls show more than half of American Jews support a two-state solution. And he said that he usually gets a positive reception when he speaks at U.S. synagogues. But "most people in the organized Jewish community don't want to be labeled anti-Israel" and "there is a reticence" or fear among some that their words will be twisted by others if they back activities such as nonviolence in the Palestinian territories.
As for Ascherman, he continues his efforts because he believes he is making a difference. He told a story about discovering he was picking olives with a man who had been a member of the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's presidential guard. The Palestinian was "10 times more blown away he was working with an Israeli rabbi."
When the Palestinian told Ascherman that there was "no justice" for Palestinians, Ascherman responded by teaching a lesson about Chanukah and how "all is dark" before one lights the first candle.
"I don't know what he's done since," said the rabbi. "But I'm 200 percent sure that there's a greater chance he will choose the path of nonviolence" after their encounter, he said.
"You never know what little act we take ... that will be the act that tips the scales one way or another."