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The attack on Rabbi Ascherman – Reflections on the 20th Yahrzeit of Yitzhak Rabin

by Rabbi Colin Eimer

Imagine the scene. A rabbi in Israel is being attacked by a man wearing a balaclava and threatening him with a big and dangerous looking knife. They struggle and fall to the ground; the man has the rabbi in a stranglehold, still waving the knife, but incredibly not sticking it in. Eventually the man runs off. Given what’s been happening on the streets of Israel in recent weeks, you might be thinking that it’s not surely all that surprising.

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I Owe My Life to My Attacker

by Rabbi Arik Ascherman

It sounds strange. How can I say anything positive about a knife wielding violent and hate filled young man who has turned the sanctity of the Land of Israel into idolatry?  When one looks at this awful video of the attack filmed from afar by Rabbis For Human Rights’ field coordinator Zakariah Sadeh on October 23rd, one sees that he could have easily murdered me. He was on top of me, my back was exposed, and the knife was in his hand.  One can see him almost plunge the knife several times, but he doesn’t.

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So too must we remember our promise: Passover thoughts 5774

As we prepare for the celebration of the Passover, the Jewish holiday marking the Israelites’ liberation from Egyptian slavery and the beginning of their cohesion as a “people,” Rabbi Arik Ascherman, senior rabbi and president of RHR, shares his Passover thoughts on the holiday, the horrors of housing demolitions,  and RHR’s upcoming High Court date that could end them for good.

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Standing Where Rabbis Have Been Absent: A Purim Message by Rabbi Arik Asherman

Dear Friends and Supporters,

Click here or on the photo above to see some disturbing footage of settlers from Carmel and their supporters ganging up to block Palestinian shepherds from crossing a ridge the settlers are attempting to take over. Note the army standing by and watching.

Here and there you will see me (sans kippah that fell off in the middle of the action) and one of our volunteers trying to help the shepherds keep the sheep on course.  An additional volunteer is behind the camera. By the way, although the video clip ends with a seeming victory for the settlers, we eventually got the shepherds through. Moreover, though we were there that day because the shepherds had been harassed for several weeks, things have been mostly quiet since then. (However, even as I was writing these words, I received disturbing reports of other locations where shepherds are being harassed. Our work is not done.)

B’Makom Sh’eyn anashim, hishtadel l’hiyot ish. “–Pirkei Avot
(In a place where nobody is acting with basic human decency, you must try to be that person)

I reflected on Pirkei Avot  as I began preparing this combination of “Purim Thoughts 5774” and a brief update (with lots of powerful video clips) on what we in Rabbis For Human Rights have been up to. (And the truth is, it’s way more than I will be able to cover here. I would recommend regularly checking our websitefacebook page and/or twitter account, or subscribing to our RSS feeds.)

Nahafokh hu – Things get turned on their head. Everything is topsy turvy on Purim.   We confront a world so opposite the one we would like to live in. Our fate is dependent on the whims of a drunken potentate. We laugh, and maintain faith that the tables will turn.  At the risk of being way too serious for Purim (again), I wonder whether our faith can lead us to look at the world as it is, and then find the way to help God turn things around to the way they should be.  God doesn’t overtly act in the Book of Esther.  People do, and God works through some of them.

Each of us has the ability to, in some way, turn something around in our world. But, as I think about all of our wonderful partners in the struggle for justice in Israel, I know that few are religious, and even fewer are rabbis. I ask:

Why shouldn’t more Israeli rabbis be standing for justice and decency on barren West Bank hills, Knesset committees, and in poverty stricken communities?

So, my nahafokh hu includes an ammendation to Pirkei Avot:

B’Makom sh’eyn rabanim, hishtadel l’hiyot rav.”
(In those places were rabbis are strikingly absent, try to act as a rabbi should.)

This is what we in Rabbis For Human Rights have been trying to do for 25 years. I personally may not be standing in front of the bulldozers or confronting settlers or the army quite as much as I used to, but today we have a cadre of rabbis every day (except Shabbat) trying to be that rabbi in places where rabbis are generally not to be found.

Let me share another nahafokh hu from this little incident. Ironically,  one of the reasons I was with the shepherds of Umm el Kheir that day was because a sympathizer of the Carmel settlers had written to me and to our website to complain about how the settlers were suffering from the Palestinians of Umm el Kheir. That is what we call in Hebrew “hafukh al hafukh,” a distorted misinterpretation turning reality on its head. You can click here to read my answer. Quoting from the Torah and laying out just how the State and Carmel settlers have abused the residents of Umm el Kheir, I had to say nahafokh hu according to its second usage, “On the contrary.” We certainly condemn the uprooting of trees, but this dwarfs in comparison to the ongoing abuse heaped on Umm el Kheir.

Sometimes being that person present and trying to act decently allows us to prevent injustice on the spot.  Additionally, the truth from the field and insights from the Torah often make all the difference when we go to the Knesset or the courts to try and change policy, or when we attempt to influence public opinion, or when we simply need to set the record straight since reality has been turned on its head.

Rabbi Arik Asherman

Student fieldwork with RHR’s Beit Midrash for Human Rights

ReutAs part of her course of study, Reut Schwartz, student at RHR’s Beit Midrash for Human Rights – operated jointly with Hillel: The Center for Jewish Life on the Hebrew University Campus in Jerusalem, is conducting her field work at Koach La Ovdim – Democratic Workers’ Organization.  She has taken over the work of last year’s Beit Midrash student Noa Regev as an organizer for afternoon day-care workers in Jerusalem. Soon, the workers will elect a representative committee, which will begin negotiations with the employers (the Jerusalem Municipality and the Israel Association of Community Centers)

“Today, I am doing all I can to make sure that there will be democratic and accessible elections for all the workers,” Reut reported excitedly.

Reut is helping prepare the logistics and content for the elections conference. She is meeting workers in the various neighborhoods, writing letters to voters and making sure that all the workers receive the letters and are aware of the coming elections. Reut is in contact with the workers’ leadership, and at the same time is making sure to mobilize and empower more workers to take on leadership roles. Today, there are two important positions that must be filled: representatives on the elections committee and representatives willing to run as candidates for the workers’ committee. Making the elections accessible to all of them means making sure that each worker has the opportunity to go to the polling place on a day and at a time convenient for her. In addition, Reut is working with the guidance team to ensure that each neighborhood has a representative on the committee because each neighborhood needs its own representative and it is important that each neighborhood is heard in the negotiations with the employers. The success of the elections – regardless of which women will be elected to the committee – will guarantee the livelihood for the women and their ability to have power and influence over their working conditions.

For more information on the work of RHR’s education department click here.

Interagency Call to End Demolitions

Rabbis for Human Rights are drawing attention to an interagency call to end demolitions:

The Israeli demolition of Palestinian homes and property and the number of Palestinians displaced by these demolitions reached a five-year high in 2013. Throughout the period of peace negotiations in 2013, demolitions accelerated across Area C and East Jerusalem, with a 43 percent rise in demolitions and a 74 percent rise in displacement compared to the same period in 2012.

International and local aid organizations have faced increasingly severe restrictions in responding to the needs created by the unlawful demolition of civilian property, in violation of Israel’s obligation to facilitate the effective delivery of aid.  In 2013, 122 residential and livelihoods structures provided by international donors were demolished by the Israeli authorities. In addition, at least 65 items of aid, including tents, were confiscated.

The destruction and obstruction of aid delivery is so extensive that this week the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) announced its decision to suspend the distribution of shelter assistance to people whose homes were demolished in the Jordan Valley, where there was a 127 percent annual increase in demolitions in 2013.

Such demolition of civilian property violates international humanitarian law, which prohibits demolitions unless rendered absolutely necessary by military operations.

In light of the alarming trends, we the undersigned local and international faith, aid, development, and human rights organizations call again for an immediate halt to the demolitions of Palestinian homes, and for Israel to facilitate immediate, full and unimpeded humanitarian access so that aid can reach people in need.

1. Action Against Hunger (ACF)
2. American Friends Service Committee (AFSC)
3. Al Haq
4. Broederlijk Delen
5. Badil
6. Christian Aid
7. CCFD- Terre Solidaire
8. DanChurchAid
9. Diakonia
10. Handicap International
11. Heinrich Boll Foundation
12. MAP–UK
13. medico internationa
14. Norwegian Church Aid (NCA)
15. Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC)
16. Overseas-onlus
17. Oxfam
18. Polish Humanitarian Action (PAH)
19. Quaker Council for European Affairs (QCEA)
20. Quaker Peace and Social Witness (QPSW)
21. Terre des Hommes CH
22. Terre des Hommes Italy
23. Solidaridad Internacional-Alianza por la Solidaridad (SI- APS)
24. WarChild
25. World Vision West Bank- Jerusalem- Gaza

*The above figures were all compiled using data available from UN OCHA’s Protection of Civilian Database from 1 January 2009- 31 December 2013. The database records a total of 663 demolitions in 2013, 390 of which occurred in the Jordan Valley. In 2012, the database records a total of 172 demolitions in the Jordan Valley. Between 28 July 2013 and 31 December 2013 there were 286 demolitions resulting in the displacement of 452 people, as compared to 200 demolitions displacing 260 people from 28 July 2012- 31 December 2012

For an update on recent demolitions, click here.

RHR update on Far’ata Indictments

Rabbis for Human Rights opposes violating the rights of suspects under investigation, even in cases of severe hate crimes. Rabbis for Human Rights applauds the signs of a new determination on the part of law enforcement authorities to bring to justice perpetrators of hate crimes (“price tag” attacks) against Palestinian subjects in the West Bank. We are proud that we assisted residents of Far’ata to report the incident of cars being set on fire, and that we connected and mediated between them and police officers, prior to the case being passed to our colleagues at Yesh Din.

However, as much as we would like to see the perpetrators of hate crimes against Palestinians in the West Bank brought to justice, this must not be accomplished through proceedings which violate the rights of the suspects.

At this time, there is reason to suspect violation of the rights of the three suspects who, according to yesterday’s (Feb 5th) reports, were indicted in the car arson in Far’ata. If these suspicions are correct, we view this matter as gravely problematic.

We are aware of the significant difficulty security forces face in gathering evidence against suspects in such crimes, but are certain that there are other means of gathering evidence – which require investment of resources and manpower – which do not violate the rights of the suspects. We wish the security forces complete success in eliminating the desecration of God’s name that is “price tag” attacks.

Read more on price tag attacks on the RHR website.

Jalud Farmer Permitted to Sow his Land

Update from Rabbis for Human Rights

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One day after the publication of Amira Hass’s article based on a report by Rabbis for Human Rights, and after pressure from our organization, the IDF rushed to finally authorize a Palestinian farmer to plough and sow his land, which he is forbidden to do without army permission. The IDF, which feared confrontation with violent extremists from the adjacent outpost Esh Kodesh, preferred to ban Fawzi, an elderly Palestinian man, from accessing and cultivating his land. But the pressure accomplished its goal and Fawzi will not suffer the significant harm of missing an entire agricultural season, a loss which would have cost him 200,000 NIS.

Rabbi Arik Ascherman in Manchester

Rabbi Warren Elf reports on Rabbi Arik Ascherman’s visit of Manchester in December 2012.

In Manchester, the Forum for Discussion on Israel and Palestine organised two meetings with  Rabbi Arik Ascherman, one of the founders of Rabbis for Human Rights and currently Director of Special Projects and External Relations: one at the Islamic Cultural Centre and one at the Menorah Synagogue in Jacksons Row.

The majority of the audience at the Islamic Cultural Centre were Muslim and most of them were regulars at the Altrincham mosque. Their Imam and the mosque have a good pedigree of participation in interfaith matters locally, but hosting Arik, a rabbi and an Israeli, talking on Israel, was a definite first for them. There were also a few Christians from different groups, as well as a few members from two Reform synagogues and two Orthodox synagogues present. Arik talked about the ethos and work of Rabbis for Human Rights in Israel and the situations he faces and deals with on a regular basis. As always, he was open and honest, raising many difficult issues in a way that left his listeners spellbound. When he finished his initial talk, the Imam of Altrincham Mosque thanked him warmly and sincerely, embracing the fact that this was the first time the members of the mosque had been able to engage on this topic with Jews, and hear about the real issues in such a frank and personal manner.

The audience at Jackson’s Row was smaller, but again it comprised Jews (primarily from JR), Christians and Muslims. Arik gave a very similar talk but the atmosphere was more informal with participants sitting in a large circle. The talk was again well received and there were some even more difficult questions to answer, which again Arik was happy to grapple with and answer as openly and engagingly as only he can.

Gaining Insight with Rabbis for Human Rights

Rabbi Howard Cooper took part in the 2012 trip to Israel and the occupied Palestinian Territories organised by British Friends of Rabbis for Human Rights. His personal reflections on the visit were first published on the MRJ website .

Take a bunch of British Reform and Liberal rabbis, mix in a few lawyers, judges and anti-racism workers, add a sprinkle of youngsters concerned with social justice issues, shake them up vigorously – and what do you get? The latest visit to Israel by the British Friends of Rabbis for Human Rights.

Rabbis for Human Rights was established in Israel in 1988 by the American-born Reform Rabbi David Forman in order to give voice in the contemporary Israeli setting to the Judaism’s traditional concern for the ‘stranger’, the ‘outsider’ and the disadvantaged. Their initial focus was primarily on protecting the human rights of Palestinians in areas controlled by Israel; but they rapidly expanded their work to embrace the rights of vulnerable and minority groups throughout Israeli society.

Meeting with BedouinOur week-long tour, organised by the MRJ’s new Movement Rabbi, Laura Janner-Klausner, and the Chief Executive of Liberal Judaism, Rabbi Danny Rich – in itself a brilliant advert for the advantages of close co-operation between the two groupings – allowed participants to meet, study and travel with a series of inspirational and charismatic RHR rabbis – and their professional colleagues trained in law, education and civil rights – and thereby gain insight into a whole spectrum of issues that Israeli citizens and those in the Occupied Territories are facing on a daily basis.

Based in Jerusalem, we spent the first day gaining an insight into some of the grotesque consequences of the Separation Wall that now scars the landscape of Jerusalem and the surrounding countryside. Although the wall – built, ironically, by Palestinian workers with concrete bought from factories owned by President Mahmoud Abbas – has given Jewish Jerusalemites a much greater sense of security, its ugly presence is a constant reminder that Jewish security has been bought in exchange for increased hardship for east Jerusalem Arabs: hospitals that were once ten minutes away by car now require a two hour circuitous trip, around Jerusalem and through two checkpoints; livelihoods have been ruined, and families divided.

The shock of the aesthetic desecration of Jerusalem – and Bethlehem, now surrounded by a ‘sleeve’ of brutal concrete that enables pious Jews access to Rachel’s Tomb, but denies access to Muslims, for whom it is also a site of prayer – is mirrored in the moral collapse at the heart of the government’s policy: although Israel has the right and duty to protect its citizens from attacks, the Wall was the most extreme solution available. We witnessed the ways in which its route was designed more for future political purposes – to make territory easier to annex in any future settlement – than for security purposes.

Trip ParticipantsAlthough one reads about these issues, it is not until one sees the reality on the ground that something of the human dimension to these actions becomes clearer. And it is the human costs that the RHR workers and rabbis are focussed on and helped us understand in some depth. Many of the projects we visited are working at grass-roots level on inequities that ordinary Israelis suffer: single mothers in Hadera who need help with economic and legal problems or domestic violence; Bedouin in the Negev whose civil amenities are far inferior to the Jewish neighbours, or whose land is appropriated for reforestation by the JNF; Orthodox women who suffer discrimination in their communities… the work of RHR embraces a bewildering variety of causes, often in partnership with other NGOs, some of whom – like the New Israel Fund, Yisrael Hofshit, and Citizens for Equality – we were also able to meet. Bringing specific human rights grievances to the attention of the Israeli public while pressuring the appropriate authorities – from local courts to the Knesset – is an endless job.

As a group we moved from being depressed, angry and perplexed at some of the glaring injustices – particularly on the West Bank where Orthodox settlers are currently engaged in a series or random attacks on Palestinian homes as well as the fire-bombing of mosques – to feeling stirred and inspired by some of the RHR workers who are battling for the soul of Israel, case by case, family by family.

As Director of New Projects, Rabbi Arik Ascherman (who had been arrested on our first morning, apparently a regular hazard in his work when he insists that the State uphold its own laws) said in our final session on Sunday morning, RHR takes no stance on any specific political solution to the Occupation: its focus on injustices in the occupied areas, which amounts to only half of its work, is part of its wider brief of addressing a range of human rights issues in the light of Israel’s original Declaration of Independence which states unequivocally that the State ‘will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants…it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture…’

In the light of these ideals, the people we spoke with from RHR were vocal in their opinion that Israel was failing to live up to what it aspired to at its beginning – but that individuals and organisations both in Israel and in the diaspora had an ethical imperative to hold each Israeli government to account for their failures, and that a love of Zion – being a Zionist today – necessitated a commitment to redressing injustices wherever they occurred.