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November 25, 2009

Rabbis fight for Jewish soul

Reuel S. Amdur

Reuel S. AmdurIt’s a battle for the soul of Judaism. 

Rabbi Arik Asherman, Executive Director of Israel’s Rabbis for Human Rights (RHR), says that the Bible is a multi-layered document, where one can find justification for very different values. 

On November 3 Rabbi Ascherman joined in dialogue with Muslims at the Islamic Community Center in Brossard, near Montreal. 

The topic was “How Muslims and Jews who believe in Justice and Human Rights can Work Together.”  He also spoke the next day at the McGill Centre for Human Rights and Pluralism and at Congregation Beth-El in Montreal. 

On the one hand, Asherman says there are passages where God gives Jews possession of the Holy Land and sanctions the destruction of its inhabitants. 

On the other, there is a call for universal human rights and justice.  (Amos 5:24—“Let justice flow down like the waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”) 

“We’re not prepared to abrogate the field,” said Ascherman.  “Our view is as legitimate and as textually based as the dominant one in Israel.” 

He has even defended the human rights understanding of the Bible in dialogue with rabbis in the settlements in the Occupied Territories.

Rabbi Ascherman is an Israeli citizen who was born in the United States.  He moved permanently to Israel and became a citizen in 1994. 

He is a rabbi in the Reform tradition married to an Israeli-born woman who is a Conservative rabbi.  Ascherman served as a rabbi in Richmond, California and was a student rabbi at Temple Hashalom in Brampton, Ontario. 

He was also a director of Hillel at the University of California at Davis.  In Israel, he served a congregation and a kibbutz.  Ascherman began his tenure first as co-director in 1995, then becoming executive director of Rabbis for Human Rights.

Rabbis for Human Rights is an organization of some hundred rabbis and rabbinical students, founded in 1988.  The founders came primarily from the English-speaking world, but the newer members tend to be predominantly Israeli-born.

The organization has two major thrusts: it battles against human rights violations and it defends and promotes a human rights understanding of what it means to be a Jew. 

It has among its membership rabbis from the various branches of Judaism.

Among other rabbis and among the wider Israeli public, the reaction to RHR is mixed.  Many Israelis are in fact unaware of the organization. 

Some see the organization as the Devil incarnate and others are more sympathetic. 

Some among the Orthodox are sympathetic but are not prepared to take part in an organization that includes non-Orthodox. 

Ascherman finds that support for RHR is strongest among secular Jews.  Paradoxically, in the struggle for the soul of Jews he finds his allies among those who self-identify as non-religious. 

When asked about Zionism, Ascherman said that the organization states that it is Zionist, but no test of support is imposed and he does not know if all members are Zionist. 

Zionism thus appears not to be central to the major question of what it means to be a committed Jew, the issue of the role of social justice in the faith. 

In response to the issue of whether Israel/Palestine should be one state or two, he said that “Rabbis for Human Rights is non-political.  Its focus is on human rights.”

In work for human rights, Rabbi Ascherman has been arrested with others for standing in front of bulldozers to prevent demolition of Palestinian homes. 

The houses were built without permits because the government has made it extremely difficult for Palestinians to get building permits.  (Incidentally, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu is keen on “natural growth” as a rationale for Israeli building in the West Bank but not for Palestinians in Jerusalem.)  The rabbi was let off at the trial with a conditional discharge and a requirement for community service. 

Rabbis for Human Rights opposes construction of the separation wall in places where it expropriates Palestinian land, cuts through Arab villages, or separates farmers from their fields. 

Members and supporters have been very active along with other human rights organizations in assisting Palestinian farmers in the West Bank to harvest their olives. 

In the West there is little realization of the extent to which Palestinian farmers are harassed  by settlers, who attack them physically, steal olives, and destroy trees, making harvest both difficult and dangerous. 

RHR volunteers assist in the actual harvest and in guarding against settler violence.  They also observe the behavior of the Israeli Defense Force, which sometimes protects the farmers, sometimes needs to be prodded to provide protection, and sometimes protects the settlers and attempts to chase the human rights volunteers away. 

Rabbi Ascherman and Rabbis for Human Rights are calling for “an independent state investigation” of the conduct of the Israeli military in Operation Cast Lead in Gaza. 

Ascherman is not prepared simply to take the word of the Israeli Defense Force.  “Unfortunately,” he said, “I have been a firsthand witness to events where the IDF has not told the truth.”

Reuel S. Amdur is a freelance writer living near Ottawa.

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