A reflection on the current work of RHR

Sermon for Parashat Mattot

 “The tribes of Reuben and Gad approached Moses and the leadership saying ‘If we have found favour in your sight, let this land be given to your servants for a possession; do not bring us over the Jordan.’  And Moses said to the children of Gad and to the children of Reuben: ‘Shall your brethren go to the war, and shall you sit here?” 32:5,6

This question asked by Moses of the two cattle owning tribes is one that resonates so poignantly today. “Shall your brethren go to war, and shall you sit here?”

We have been watching anxiously as Israel has been slipping once more into war. And as we obsess over the news feeds and the reporting, the analysis and the social media links, we wonder about what is our role? how could we sit here while our fellow Jews are at war?  And what is it that we should be doing?

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BFRHR proud to have supported the Bedouin of the Negev

One of the moments that I think that BFRHR can be most proud of in the last few years was our campaign against the Praver-Begin Bill on the Arrangement of Bedouin Settlement in the Negev. This campaign ran from mid 2012 to the beginning of 2013 and was a great example of cross denominational cooperation, quick thinking, immediate action and coordinated multi-faceted response. The Bill proposed the resettlement of 30,000-40,000 Bedouin in the Negev which in effect would have been forcible eviction for this population.

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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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RHR celebrates its 25th anniversary

At 7 pm on Sunday, 6 April 2014 (6 Nissan 5774), at the Jerusalem Botanical Garden Auditorium, Rabbis for Human Rights celebrated its 25th anniversary. The evening events included:

  • Tribute to the founders of RHR and introductions to staff and management
  • A Panel: “The Role of Judaism in the Struggle for Human Rights in Israel: Current Reality and Future Possibilities.  Moderator: RHR Co-Chair Moshe Yehudai; Special guest panelists:
    Rabbi Shmuel Reiner of the Orthodox Ma’aleh Gilboa Hesder Yeshiva, member of RHR
    Rabbi Na’amah Kelman, Dean of the Jerusalem campus HUC-JIR, the Reform movement’s rabbinical school in Israel, long term RHR member and current RHR Advisory Committee member. You can read more about her here.
    Dr. Meir Bouzaglo, Founder of “Tikkun,” a think tank dealing with social issues in Israel; Founder of “Mizrakh Shemesh,” which teaches the religious traditions of Jews from Arab /African countries
    Linda Gradstein, Bureau Chief, The Media Line and Contributor to NPR

The importance of supporting the work of Rabbis for Human Rights

Rabbis for Human Rights is celebrating its twenty-fifth anniversary – a landmark achievement for an organisation that draws support from Rabbis across the religious spectrum in Israel.  Rabbi Israel Newman (zecher tzaddik livrachah), an orthodox Rabbi from London who taught Talmud to progressive rabbinic students at Leo Baeck College and who then made Aliyah on his retirement, introduced many of us to the organisation with which he was deeply involved until his death.  Working to highlight human rights violations, educating the public and pressurising the State institutions to correct injustice both in Israel and in the Palestinian territories were some of the things for which he campaigned and worked.

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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.