Human rights movement spreads its wings in Israel, U.S., rabbi says

Given the chance, Rabbi Arik Ascherman will praise Israel whenever he can. However, as executive director of Rabbis for Human Rights, he's not given that chance too often.

Though the former spiritual leader of Richmond's Temple Beth Hillel recalled one recent example in which Jewish settlers were harvesting olives belonging to Palestinian farmers in the West Bank, and the Israel Defense Force was doing nothing to stop them.

"In the first two weeks of the olive harvest, Palestinians and those of us acting as human shields were shot at, and one Palestinian was murdered," said Ascherman in a phone conversation from his Jerusalem office. "But after two weeks, as a result of our pressure, there was a real sea change."

Ascherman, who will be visiting the Bay Area next week, explained that "in a situation of occupation, the occupied power has the obligation to protect the occupied."

He continued, "So often, particularly abroad, it's seen that human rights work is about criticizing the government. And the fact is, if we have a way of working through the system to affect change, and can even say something positive, that's something we'd rather do. We're here to improve human rights, not to criticize, and I'm happy I can say that Israeli security forces fulfilled their moral obligations in this case."

Rabbis for Human Rights is composed of rabbis and rabbinical students from all streams of Judaism. This past year, the organization saw the opening of a North American office — in Philadelphia — and a human rights yeshiva in Jerusalem that currently has 15 students. They combine traditional text study with volunteer work for the organization.

RHR's work is not focussed solely on what's happening over the Green Line. With the Israeli economy in shambles, the group is doing what it can to ensure that disadvantaged people in Israel are provided for.

With a new budget about to be passed, one in four Israelis, and one in three Israeli children are in danger of living below the poverty line, said Ascherman.

RHR has been lobbying in the parliament against the proposed budget cuts.

"This is basically a plan based on the idea that many people who are unemployed or poor are faking it," he said.

While the group is primarily known for its work protecting the rights of Palestinians, Ascherman made the point that all people's human rights must be protected.

"The Israeli single mother opening up the empty refrigerator is just as important to us as the Palestinian wanting to harvest his olives," he said.

Nevertheless, RHR remains concerned with what's going on beyond the Green Line because in 2-1/2 years of the intifada, the situation there shows no signs of improving. RHR has dubbed the Jewish year of 5763 "The Great Land Grab."

"Of all the years I've been working in human rights, I've never seen so much land being stolen in so many different ways, such as the variety we're seeing now," said Ascherman.

When Ascherman speaks of land being stolen, he is referring to the security wall Israel is building to protect itself from Palestinian terrorism.

That Israel needs to defend itself is legitimate, Ascherman maintains, but "our problem is where this wall is being built."

According to Israel's proposed route of the wall, which will mean a virtually sealed border, anywhere from 7 to 25 percent of the West Bank will fall between that barrier and the official Green Line, the line that demarcates the West Bank from Israel proper, said Ascherman.

This will affect tens of thousands of people, he said.

"There are entire cities like Kalkilya that will be closed-in by the wall, and others that will be between the wall and the Green Line," he said, which will mean some residents will be cut off from their water supply or their farmland.

In addition, acres of olive trees are being uprooted to make way for the wall. RHR first initiated a campaign to help Palestinian farmers replant their olive groves two years ago. For many Palestinians, the trees are their sole livelihood.

In some extreme cases, Ascherman said, "Israelis have taken the trees and put them in Israeli nurseries to make a profit on them."

Ascherman described a cognitive dissonance among Israelis: Polls, he said, often show that the majority of Israelis believe the IDF is acting immorally in the territories, but the same Israelis continue to vote for the politicians who enact those very policies.

"Israelis are confused," he said. "They've seen the ideological underpinnings of both the left and the right crumble."

Polls say that up to 70 percent of Israelis believe in giving back all the territories, he said, but at the same time, those same people believe they have no partner to talk with.

"People tend to harden their positions when they're being shot at," he said. "They may know what we're doing is wrong, but if it's giving us a week or a month free of suicide bombings, then 'do whatever you have to do.'"

Not too long ago, the rabbis collaborated with some Palestinian religious leaders, both Muslim and Christian, on a joint declaration calling for a cessation of violence.

"I still believe that we have a challenge and responsibility to do better to make sure people know what's really happening, but…the real thing needed is restoring people's hope."

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."