In the spirit of fairness, Israel should drop the case

On Wednesday, Jan. 14, a day before Martin Luther King Jr. would have turned 75, Rabbi Arik Ascherman, the executive director of Rabbis for Human Rights in Israel, went on trial. The former East Bay rabbi is accused of having twice stood in the way of Israeli army bulldozers that had come to demolish the homes of two Arab families. In neither case were the demolitions prompted by acts of terrorism, nor intended to secure land for new public works; demolitions were ordered because the Palestinian families lacked building permits.

Ascherman reports that at the scene of one demolition: “The families were hysterical. The grandmother was wailing while the father of the family was clutching at his heart and others were begging us to do something. It was simply heartbreaking … We watched helplessly as the pneumatic drills tore into the … home. To officer after officer I read off chapter and verse from various international conventions which Israel is a party to. Commanders ordered their people not to listen or take the paper.”

Home demolitions constitute an especially disturbing human rights issue. A sense of home is an essential part of our humanity; homelessness has always been considered a human tragedy. Jews, because of our own history, are especially conscious of the value of home; indeed, our own lamentable state of homelessness was the motive of Zionism.

The destruction of a home can only be experienced by its inhabitants as a violation — something fundamental to their identity has been removed. To be deprived of your home is to be naked in the world. Without a home, wherever you walk, a sense of tragedy and pain, of emptiness, accompanies you. One of the most fundamental responsibilities of fathers and mothers is to provide their children with the safety and security of a home, and to have failed them in this is to live with deep shame and bitterness.

Therefore, societal authorities must proceed with absolute caution before destroying a home. That is a basic claim of justice and that is why Rabbis for Human Rights has been so concerned with implementations of home demolitions.

The Israeli human rights watch B’Tzelem reports: “Since 1987 the Israeli authorities have ‘administratively’ demolished at least 2,500 Palestinian houses in the West Bank (including East Jerusalem), and hundreds of other structures. Assuming that the average number of residents per house over this period is similar to average occupancy throughout the West Bank, it is estimated that more than 16,000 Palestinians lost their homes since 1987 as a result of ‘administrative’ demolition.”

It then adds yet another moral quandary to see that Jewish Israelis are treated quite differently: “The authorities take a forgiving attitude toward building without a permit in the settlements. … Instead, the authorities retroactively approve plans validating such construction.” Few Jewish homes have been demolished.

The prosecution of Ascherman is disturbing for two reasons: First, it would seem that home demolitions are proceeding without due regard to the effect on the families involved. These homes are not being destroyed for security reasons or to build new public works, but rather there seems to be a selective enforcement of the law in order to achieve political ends.

Second, we have to ask whether it can be in the interest of the government of Israel to prosecute and threaten a maximum three-year jail term for those who would try to ensure that basic human rights are protected. Is it in Israel’s best interest to prosecute those who would try to protect the poor and powerless? In various incidents, human rights workers have been shot, including most recently, an unarmed Israeli protester. We’ve reached a dangerous moment when it may seem as though there is now a policy to silence any who would bear witness to the violation of human rights.

We ought to be asking: Will the result of these prosecutions lead to the Israel we want and desire? Has the Zionist dream now come down to a racially selective enforcement of the law and the prosecution of critics?

People of good will should urge the government of Israel to exercise wisdom in this matter: to drop the case against Ascherman and to reconsider its acts of home demolition. There are those of us who still believe in the Zionist dream of our youth, who believe that the prophetic truth remains as vital today as when it was first uttered 2,500 years ago: Zion will be redeemed through justice and those who return to her through acts of righteousness. What ought a rabbi to do in this hour but stand for the values which he or she sees as being at the heart of Judaism? 

There can not be any greater love of our people. Americans came to understand that it was its critic, Martin Luther King, the person who practiced civil disobedience in opposing injustice, who stood for what was best in America. Perhaps, as Jews and as Zionists, we will learn that lesson, too.

Edward Feld is a rabbi in Northampton, Mass., a member of the steering committee of Rabbis for Human Rights and the author of “The Spirit of Renewal: Finding Faith After the Holocaust.”