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Brit Tzedek v'Shalom

Jewish Alliance for Justice and Peace


Town Hall Conference Call with Rabbi Arik Ascherman

A Report from the Ground: The Humanitarian Situation in Israel and Palestinian Territories

On Sunday, July 23, Rabbi Arik Ascherman, executive director of Rabbis for Human Rights, spoke about the moral aspects of the current crisis, and the challenge of achieving a solution that will make a lasting difference. Below is the text of his address.

First of all, I will try and divide my introductory remarks into talking a little bit about Gaza, Lebanon and the West Bank separately.  I think each is a separate matter right now.  I would also add a word of caution that in some ways, certainly in terms of what is going on in Lebanon and Gaza—in places where we can’t physically go right now—our information isn’t particularly more in depth or more accurate than what many of you can gather where you are.  Of course, what I can add is perhaps more in depth thinking about what’s happening and how Israelis are reacting. 

Let’s start with the West Bank.  Simply I can say that people are concerned that this could become a third front, that so far the West Bank is maybe the quiet before the storm.  But in my travels I have been in the West Bank since the outbreak of this latest crisis, and I can’t say there has been any significant change.  The demonstrations in Beilin go on as before.  Here in East Jerusalem we heard that perhaps there wouldn’t be home demolitions because of the fact that Israel would be worried about stirring another front up.  In fact last Wednesday we actually saved five homes—it’s a pretty good batting record and it doesn’t happen very often—but it wasn’t from a lack of trying by the Jerusalem municipality and interior ministry.  So life goes on as normal for better and for worse.  When I go to a place like Beilin I don’t feel like people are looking at me differently or are about to open another front in a major way.  Which doesn’t mean it won’t happen but that’s the situation at the moment as I see it on the ground. 

Now, regarding what is happening in Lebanon and what is happening in Gaza, I will be honest and say that, for those of us at Rabbi’s for Human Rights, how to react has been a real dilemma.  There certainly is a growing protest movement in this country.  Yesh Gvul, one of the ‘refuser movements’, organized a demonstration four weeks ago—about six hundred people came.  A week ago there was a demonstration with one thousand people or so, and then there was a much larger demonstration this last Monday night.  So there is a growing number of people who are coming out and saying ‘enough is enough.’ 

The challenge is, to put it bluntly, in Lebanon and Gaza we were attacked.  And one could argue that, in terms of Gaza, whether or not we agree with the methods of Hamas, Hamas has real claims against Israel for forty years of occupation.  And the fact that even though we left Gaza we continue to keep Gaza in a strangle-hold, controlling its airspace, all of its ports, its gates in and out, and in some ways its like a huge open air prison.  And its very interesting that in fact basically, apparently pretty purposefully, even before the latest outbreak, Israel had a policy not of starvation, but a policy of keeping food and fuel supplies and these kinds of things inside Gaza at a week’s reserve—what someone described as a ‘short leash.’  In other words, it was always very clear who was controlling who, and how easy it would be for there to be a crisis in terms of food, fuel, water, and we’ll get back to that in a minute.  But in terms of Lebanon, we have to start with the fact that Hezbollah has no claims against us, and no legitimate claims against us.  This was an attack on Israeli territory, and as I’m sure you are aware, 2000 missiles have rained down on the north, many Israelis are dead, all of our rabbis know people who have been in shelters, my sisters in law have been in shelters. 

Even when we talk about where the peace movement is at right now it is a much more complex argument—and I’m not saying that there isn’t something we have to say now—but it is a much more complex argument to talk about proportionality and red lines, and what is legitimate and what is not legitimate in terms of self defense when we have our thousands of refugees and our dead in unprovoked attacks.  It is much more difficult.  I can tell you that in Rabbi’s for Human Rights our operative guidelines come from the Talmud, where we are taught in Sanhedrin 70A that if somebody comes to kill you, you get up earlier and kill them first.  Then of course you have to then ask how the Talmud continues.  And very few Israelis know the answer to that.  They all know if someone gets up to kill you then get up earlier and kill them first.  We are taught in 74A a doctrine of minimum necessary force.  And then we are also taught in a famous Midrash about a man who comes to Rabbah, one of the great rabbis who said ‘If someone gets up to kill you get up earlier and kill him first’, but now the question is, ‘Someone threatens to kill me if I don’t go and kill an innocent third person, what should I do?’  With this Rabbah has no problem.  Had the question been ‘Can I defend myself against the person attacking me but in the process I’ll have to kill an innocent third person?’ he [Rabbah] says ‘Let yourself be killed rather than kill.  Who’s to say your blood is redder than his?’ 

Now that is a very tough standard to live by.  And it’s hard to look people in the face and say “You need to risk your security rather than hurt innocent people.”  And I think that our challenge here is that people are so angry and afraid and injured that there is no sense of proportionality, that you cannot wreck destruction on an entire country even if you have legitimate security concerns.  But again these are very complex arguments and it has been the fact up until now that the peace movement has been pretty small, and I think has harmed itself by people who have come up with some fantastic theories that we are trying to replace the government in Lebanon.  We have some goals.  Disarming Hezbollah is legitimate and so is pushing them back from certain points.  I think it is also legitimate to say that we don’t want Qassams falling on Sederot or Ashkelon, and some people say that some of the Qassams have come close to hitting targets that could have caused thousands of Israeli deaths.  I can’t confirm or not confirm that, but they are credible sources and it is very possible.  Even in Gaza, where there are elements of occupation, it still doesn’t mean that you can say to Israelis that we have to continue to accept Qassam attacks.  So the challenge really in this case is not to take the route of ascribing all kinds of ridiculous plans of the Israeli government.  The challenge is to make the much more complex argument about what can make a difference in the long run. 

We may succeed in Lebanon.  We have the Lebanese government pleading practically to make a deal now.  In Gaza we have to remember that Palestinians in many ways see one of their strongest weapons as their ability to suffer.  And the fact that we may pulverize them again and again, and that we may be able to wipe out power plants, and we may be able to go in again and again and push back the Qassam launching points, I think we have to understand that ultimately that is a temporary solution at best.  Even if we put aside the moral issue of what we are doing to civilians, there is no military solution, certainly not in Gaza and that’s why we at Rabbi’s for Human Rights have joined calls on both sides to stop targeting civilians, to stop shooting, to start talking.  It’s very simplistic but that is, and particularly in Gaza, what is going to have to happen and it’s a great concern to me when we hear that the United States is giving Israel more time to continue with military operations.  Again, I want to see the Qassams stopped, I want to see Hezbollah moved further away from our borders.  When we’re looking at the huge civilian toll and looking at what, particularly in Gaza, has a chance of succeeding I don’t think that is a helpful measure just to allow this to continue.

Q&A followed this address, and is available for listening on our website.

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