Rabbi Arik W Ascherman, President and Senior Rabbi of Rabbis For Human Rights, in an exclusive interview with Mark Ulyseas —————————————————————————————————————-
Why did you to set up an organisation that would inevitably come in direct conflict with many powerful people in Israel and would at some point be a challenge to the socio-religious-political entities in the State?
I actually did not found Rabbis For Human Rights. That honor goes to Rabbi David Forman z”l, who did so in 1988. This was the time of the first intifada. There was much more sympathy among average Israelis for Palestinians than there is today. There wasn’t the same level of Palestinian violence and terror. Many average Israelis, who weren’t necessarily “leftists” or “activists” or “political” simply felt that moral red lines had been crossed. Many of our current Israeli human rights organizations were founded at about the same time. Rabbi Forman wrote an open letter to Israel’s chief rabbis asking, “Why is it that the religious establishment in this country seems only concerned with Sabbath observance and kashrut (Jewish dietary laws). Where are rabbis like Abraham Joshua Heschel speaking to the burning moral issues of our society?” Rabbi Heschel was the descendant of a long line of Hassidic rabbis, saved from the Holocaust, and spent most of his remaining years teaching and writing in the U.S. However, he didn’t simply remain in the ivory tower. He was one of the first to speak out about the Jews of the former Soviet Union. Behind the scenes he was very involved in Nostra Aetate, the clauses in Vatican II fifty years ago that brought about rapprochement between the Jewish and Catholic communities worldwide. He was very active against the Vietnam war, and his picture hangs on our wall marching with Martin Luther King Jr. He is our role model of a rabbi and a scholar, who was also a social activist. Rabbi Forman’s call met a need that many rabbis were feeling for a Jewish, rabbinical response to what was happening in our society.
Are Palestinians, Muslim and Christian, citizens of the State of Israel? Please explain.
There are Palestinians who are citizens of the State, and those who are not. Those Palestinians, also called Israeli Arabs, who were born inside the borders of what became the State of Israel in 1948 (Slightly expanded after War of Independence) are Israeli citizens. They are more or less equal de jure. They vote, are represented in the Knesset, serve as judges, and are involved in most aspects of Israeli society. However, as in every democracy I am aware of, there is racism, discrimination and inequality. After 1967, Israel annexed the Golan Heights and East Jerusalem, although almost nobody in the world recognizes these annexations. Some of the Palestinians living in these areas have chosen to become Israeli citizens. Most have residency status. They can travel throughout Israel, enjoy certain social benefits and vote in municipal elections. (Almost no East Jerusalem Palestinians do so, because they feel that would be legitimizing the Occupation.). They can’t vote in national elections. Palestinians in the Occupied West Bank are not citizens of Israel, nor are those living in the Palestinian diaspora. They have no voice in almost any of the bodies that determine their fate. There are no differences in these matters between Muslims and Christians either in Israel, or in the Occupied Territories.
For many Jews, post WW11, the formation of the State of Israel gave them a home. What has changed since then that now drives a wedge between Israelis themselves in relation to peaceful co-existence with non-Jews?
Two thousand years of oppression at the hands of non-Jews have scarred our souls, and left, perhaps, an indelible mark on our collective consciousness. While the Torah teaches us not to oppress others because we know what it is like to be oppressed (Exodus 22:20, 23:9, etc.), psychologists teach us that those who have been beaten as children are more likely to beat their children. In addition, we live in a difficult neighbourhood, where we have had to fight for our survival. All this leads to a world view in which non-Jews remain uncaring about Jews at best, and are often out to get us. All this blurs the division between being a victim and being victimizer, and sometimes we are both simultaneously. While most of the world sees a powerful Israel and successful Jewish communities abroad, many Jews see Israel as an embattled minority in the Middle East and remember all of the Jewish communities throughout history that were successful until a disaster occurred.
Ever since the marked increase of Jews returning to their homeland and the awakening Arab nationalism in the beginning of the 20th century there has been a struggle between those on both sides that believed in coexistence and those that did not. Between 1929-1936 David Ben Gurion had been in favour of a bi-nationalist state. However, those who did not believe in coexistence won out on both sides, leading to the Arab world attacking after the U.N. voted to create the State of Israel (And a Palestinian State) in 1947, and Israel declared its independence in 1948.
Immediately after the creation of the State of Israel the Jewish majority didn’t know how to treat the Arab minority. Who among Israeli Arabs might have been fighting against them the day before? From the Arab point of view, 1948 was the “Naqba,” the great disaster. Leaving aside the question of to what degree Arabs were told by their leaders to flee or were expelled (there are examples of both), their numbers were decimated. Many former villages became Jewish National Fund forests. Most of the elites were among those were no longer there, causing crises in leadership, education, etc. Arabs were under military rule until 1966. This was exploited to take over lands of Arabs still living in Israel, in addition to those of “absentee owners.” Retroactively, we see that the vast majority of Israeli Arabs have been loyal to the State.
There is an irony that Israeli Arabs are better off economically and have more political rights than they would have in many Arab countries, but at best are second or third class citizens in Israel. (Also among Jews, Israel is a very stratified society.) Many Israeli Jews still do not see Arabs as truly Israelis, and most Israeli Arabs do not feel themselves to be equal citizens.
Immediately after Israel occupied the West Bank, East Jerusalem, the Golan Heights, the Sinai Peninsula and Gaza in 1967, a debate began as to whether Israel’s security interests were best served through territorial depth, or peace. The three no’s coming from the Arab world at the Khartoum conference “No peace, no recognition, no negotiations” made the debate academic. There were certainly hostile and violent elements among the Palestinians in the Occupied Territories. However, Palestinians, who had lived under a series of occupiers (As mentioned above, the 1947 U.N. resolution creating the State of Israel had also mandated the creation of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza, but these areas were occupied by Jordan and Egypt until 1967.), were not particularly hostile to their new occupiers. Israelis travelled freely through the Occupied Territories, and Palestinians could travel and work in Israel.
However, in addition to the desire among some secular Israelis to strengthen their hold on the entire Biblical Land of Israel, the 1967 war unleashed powerful messianic passions among religious Jews. The miraculous victory returning most of the Biblical Land of Israel to Jewish hands when so many had been sure that Israel was about to be destroyed was surely God’s Hand in history. It would be sinful to return what God has returned to us, and we must fulfil the commandment to settle and redeem the entire Biblical Land of Israel by almost any means possible. They initiated the settlement movement.
Today, modern weaponry has greatly reduced the strategic importance of the West Bank. Any arguable security benefit could be accomplished without Israeli civilian presence in settlements. Many generals would say that settlements and the resources needed to protect them are a security liability. However, into the vacuum left by the weakening of the security argument as a reason for maintaining the Occupation, the potent mix of nationalist and religious passions unleashed in 1967 have become the driving force in maintaining the Occupation. The theft of Palestinian land and all of the additional human rights violations imposed on Palestinians for the safety and benefit of settlers, have served to create ever rising despair and hostility. Our Jewish sages abhorred violence and God tells Cain that he is expected to control his anger.
However, while not justifying violence, they were realists, “The sword comes into the world because of justice delayed and justice denied.” (Pirkei Avot) Palestinian violence in reaction to their oppression has created enmity and fear among Israelis. In addition to the State violence we have applied since the beginning of the Occupation, there are increasing numbers of Israelis employing violence either to strengthen the Occupation and/or to take revenge, and/or in the name of self defence. While polls show that a majority of Israelis and Palestinians eventually want a compromise negotiated solution, a larger majority on both sides believe (falsely, in my opinion) that there is no partner.
Increasingly Israelis and Palestinians are on a continuum between apathy and despair, believing that nothing is going to change. There is an image in the Talmud of a person who is ritually impure because he has a dead lizard in his hand. He immerses himself in the mikva (ritual bath) to purify himself, but can’t do so because he continues to hold on to the lizard. Potential solutions are right in front of us, but even those Israelis who are not bent on dispossessing non-Jews don’t see them. This could change overnight. Before former Egyptian President Anwar Sadat came to Jerusalem, Israeli opinion polls were dead set against the very things the majority of Israeli Jews overwhelming supported a week later. Because we don’t believe peace is possible, we harden our positions, and convince ourselves that we don’t want it.
RHR calls for the end of the Occupation, but doesn’t have a position on what that will look like. It is beyond our mandate as a human rights organization to advocate for a one or a two or a ten state solution, or any particular set of borders, or what to do about the settlements. However it is clear that, while there is an almost wall to wall consensus among Israelis about the need to ensure our security, the Occupation and the settlement enterprise are wedge issues. There are those who believe that Occupation is necessary for our defense, those who believe that God commands us to “redeem” the entire Biblical Land of Israel, those who believe that there is no partner for peace, those who simply wish to ignore the issue, and those of us who believe that the command of the Jewish tradition and of Jewish history is to behave more morally than we are today.
RHR is at the forefront of supporting and protecting the civil and human rights of the Palestinians. Have there been any major victories for RHR?
Believing that every human being is created in God’s Image, RHR is always advocating for the human rights of both Jews and non-Jews. We run year long programs every year teaching hundreds of Israeli young people about Judaism and human rights. We have succeeded in stopping a destructive welfare to work program for Israelis that was fighting the unemployed, instead of unemployment. After five years of work by RHR and our partners, the govern-ment is reversing policies in place since the 1990’s to eliminate public housing. We helped to freeze the Begin/ Prawer program that would have led to the demolition of tens of Israeli Bedouin so called “unrecognized” villages in Negev, the transfer of some 40,000 Israeli citizens from their homes to problematic townships forcing them to give up their way of life, and the loss of most of their remaining lands.
In the Occupied Territories RHR has returned many dunams of land to their rightful owners, prevented settlers and/or the government from taking over additional lands, and helped prevent the banishment of the Jahalin Bedouin to some far off location. We helped found the Israeli Committee Against Home Demolitions (originally a coalition, now an independent organization), raising awareness of the catch-22 situation in which all Israeli planning committees make it almost impossible for Palestinians to build legally, then demolish “illegal’ homes built without permits. The number of home demolitions plunged from 1998-2001, but is again several hundred per year. We were part of the coalition that helped return expelled men, women and children to their homes in the cave communities of the South Hebron Hills, and have helped create the international concern that has prevented until now the destruction of the village of Susya, and other targeted communities.
In 2001, RHR staff and volunteers began acting as human shields to protect Palestinian farmers trying to access their olive groves. We were being shot at , beaten, cursed, etc., as Israeli security forces did nothing. As a result of a 2006 Israeli High Court victory, together with the Association For Civil Rights in Israel and five Palestinian local councils, Palestinians are accessing lands they hadn’t accessed for up to 15 years, with the Israeli army protecting them.
Perhaps our most significant accomplishment has been to break down stereotypes, and to restore hope. Like Israelis, a majority of Palestinians also want a compromise negotiated agreement. Like Israelis, an even larger majority says, “We want peace, but they don’t” Many times Palestinian parents make their children meet us because they want to be terrorists when they grow up, and their parents want them to know that not all Israelis come with guns to demolish their homes and steal their lands. Only we Israelis can break down the stereotypes that so many Palestinians have of Israelis (particularly of religious Israelis), thereby empowering Palestinian peacemakers to be heard by their own people. Only Palestinians can empower us to be heard by our fellow Israelis.
Many people across the world watched with dismay the knife attack on you by a settler. This seems surreal – Jews assaulting other Jews in the Holy land. Who are these settlers? There are unsub-stantiated reports that they (settlers) are being ‘supported’ by ultra-religious Jews who want to ethnic cleanse the country, to make it a country only for Jews. Is this true? Or is this merely the role of politicians playing one against the other?
The suspect indicted for attacking me is only seventeen years old. I wanted to cry when I heard that. Many right wing religious parents try to keep their children away from the violent so called “hilltop youth,” as many Palestinian parents try to keep their children from taking up knives. However, there are others who support these actions, and many Israeli and Palestinian young people grow up in communities cultivating hatred and violence.
Sadly, as a rabbi, a Jew, an Israeli and a Zionist, it is true that it is religious Jews in this country that statistically are the most likely to be racist, opposed to human rights, committed to dispossessing Palestinians in the Biblical Land of Israel, and sometimes violent. That is perhaps why another important role that Rabbis For Human Rights plays is introducing into the intellectual universe of our fellow Israelis an interpretation of our tradition that is at least as authentic and textually based as the interpretation that has become so dominant in our country.
However, I don’t think it is proper to place all the blame on this young man’s family and community. (The suspect is from the settlement of Itamar. One of the murdered Fogel family was his friend.) Our political leaders are practically falling over one another to incite and to delegitimize the work of Israeli human rights organizations working in the Occupied Territories. Israeli is split right down the middle issues such as what to do with the Occupied Territories, or how to treat the non-Jews in our midst. There are many settlers who also oppose violence. However, many of those settlers prefer to look the other way. Even many of those who support us are passive. They have given up, or simply are not sufficiently motivated to do more than talk with their friends about how terrible things are.
To modify a quote, “We have nothing to despair of, other than despair itself.” We must remember that the midrash (Rabbinic commentary on the Torah) teaches us that God didn’t part the waters of the sea until the Israelites plunged into the sea. We are taught “You are not obligated to complete the task, but neither are you free to desist from doing your part.”
Could you give us a few instances where RHR has played a pivotal role in defusing a volatile situation and helping bring about an amicable settlement on some issues between Palestinians and settlers? Are there any ‘joint-committees’ of Palestinian-Settler kind? And do Jewish (besides RHR), Christian and Muslim leaders play peace makers?
RHR has from time to time dialogued with settlers, and has in a few instances brought about more moderate opinions. Ironically, as was mentioned above, we are better positioned to moderate Palestinian opinions by breaking down stereotypes. We might be willing to be in a mediating role, if asked by both sides. I can recall instances where we played a mediating role and defused situations between Israeli security forces and Palestinians, but I can’t recall having played that role between Palestinians and settlers. There have been many cases where our presence prevented violence. Occasionally our presence gets people more worked up. Israelis, particularly religious Jews, defending Palestinians can be more of a red flag to settlers than the Palestinians themselves. Traditionally, neither Palestinians nor settlers are willing to speak with each other. Recently there have been some exceptions. The most notable is the followers of the late settler Rabbi Menachem Froman. They are a very small, but very interesting group.
How are the Jews in the Diaspora assisting RHR? Have you observed any difference between the attitude of Jews in Israel and that of those in the diaspora towards the abuse of Palestinians’ civil and human rights?
Jews in the diaspora support us by joining advocacy campaigns, hosting us, coming to volunteer with us, and through financial support. In much of the English speaking world there is more of an understanding of the connection between Judaism and universal human rights and social justice, as well as the role of the rabbi as a social activist. Beyond that, Jewish communities both in Israel and abroad are too varied to generalize.
What are the various projects that you are involved in at the moment?
RHR has an education department teaching year long courses in “Pre army academies,” that are gap year programs between high school and the army. We run two human rights yeshivas in which university students spend a year studying with RHR and doing a field placement with RHR or another human rights organization. Along with the Jewish Learning Works in San Francisco, we are developing an English language version of our main teaching tool with Israelis, a Talmudic style commentary on Israel’s Declaration of Independence.
RHR runs a social rights center in Hadera (mid-size town in the middle of the country) helping Israelis living in poverty to know their rights and obtain their benefits. We helped create and work with grass roots public housing groups in Beit Shean and Jerusalem, as well as the national Public Housing Forum working on policy change. RHR has several additional socioeconomic justice campaigns for Israelis, such as our efforts to prevent Israelis living in poverty from having their electricity cut off.
RHR’s new Interreligious Department seeks to amplify voices from different faith traditions advocating for human rights. We do a bit of advocacy work on behalf of African asylum seekers.
RHR continues to advocate for Israeli Negev Bedouin rights, including advocacy for the ninety times demolished village of El-Araqib. We currently have a letter writin campaign to prevent the Jewish community of Hiran from being built on the rubble of Bedouin Umm Al Hiran, and the Yatir forest from overrunning the village of Atir: www.dontdemolish.com.
RHR recently had a very disappointing result in an Israeli High Court case to end administrative home demolitions by returning planning authority in Area C to Palestinian hands. We now need to devise a next strategy.
RHR continues to engage in field work accompanying Palestinian farmers to their lands, legal work to prevent or reverse land takeovers, and work with Israeli security forces to ensure that they uphold their court ordered responsibilities. We advocate on behalf of the Jahalin Bedouin, and help with summer camps and afternoon programs, as well as trying to save the mud and tires school we helped build.
RHR has support groups in Great Britain, Canada and several U.S. cities, work with many groups abroad to advocate and educate. RHR representatives travel around the world to speak to Jewish and other communities.
Rabbi Arik W. Ascherman, graduated from Harvard University in 1981 and from 1981-1983 worked for Interns For Peace, a community work program in which Israeli Jews and Arabs as well as Jews from around the world, worked together to bring Israeli Jews and Arabs together in positive interaction. For most of this time Rabbi Ascherman lived in the Israeli Arab village of Tamra. He studied in the Schwartz Program for community center directors at Hebrew University while a rabbinical student, and was ordained by HUC-JIR in New York in 1989. At HUC-JIR he helped set up a student-faculty soup kitchen, and worked on issues of advocacy for the homeless. Rabbi Ascherman served as the director of Hillel at U.C. Davis from 1989-1991, as the rabbi of Temple Beth Hillel in Richmond, CA from 1991-1994, Director of Congregation Mevakshei Derekh in Jerusalem from 1994-1997 and rabbi of Kibbutz Yahel from 1997-2000. While in Richmond, Rabbi Ascherman set up a homeless shelter rotating between Beth Hillel and local churches. He and his wife worked with nascent congregations as the Former Soviet Union was breaking up.
Beginning in 1995 Rabbi Ascherman served as co-director of Rabbis For Human Rights, serving as executive director from 1998-2010. He currently is President and Senior Rabbi. Rabbi Ascherman is internationally recognized as leading advocate for human rights and social justice as religious, Jewish and Zionist obligation, and has several times stood trial for acts of civil disobedience. He has received numerous awards and recognitions for his human rights work, as has Rabbis For Human Rights. He is frequently quoted in the press, is a sought after lecturer, and has contributed chapters to several books. Rabbi Ascherman is married to Dr. Einat Ramon. They have two children.
Prizes and Honors:
2005 Abraham Joshua Heschel Award of the “Jewish Peace Fellowship”
2006 Humanitarian Achievement Prize by the ” Wholistic Peace Institute”
2009 Keter Shem Tov Prize awarded by the Recontstructionist Rabbinical College
2010 Yeshayahu Liebowitz Prize awarded by “Yesh Gvul”
2011 Ghandi Peace Prize awarded by “Promoting Enduring Peace.” (Along with Rabbi Ehud Bandel on behalf of Rabbis For Human Rights)
2014 Honorary Doctor of Divinity from HUC-JIR
2015 Honorary Doctor of Divinity from Chicago Theological Seminary
– Speaker of the Knesset’s Prize for Contributions to Israeli Society
– Niwano Peace Prize
Chapter in Nurturing Child and Adolescent Spirituality: Perspectives from the World’s Religious Tradition edited by Yust, Sasso, Jonhson and Roehikepartain 2005
“Does Judaism Teach Universal Human Rights” in Abraham’s Children edited by Kelly Clark, 2012