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.

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.

The Bedouin of the Negev – a response to Geoffrey Alderman

The Hebrew Bible speaks many times of the importance of how we treat others, speaking of equality under a shared law, of the humanity of all peoples. Leviticus tells us “If a stranger sojourn with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong.  The stranger that sojourns with you shall be to you as the home born among you, and you shall love him as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.  I am the Eternal your God. (Lev. 19:33-34); and “you shall have one manner of law, for the stranger as for the home-born; for I am the Eternal your God” (24:22)

So how can we, who love Israel, stand by silently when we see her breaking a founding principle from her Declaration of Independence that “[Israel] will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; 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” ?

Geoffrey Alderman likened the treatment of the Bedouin in the Negev to that of the people living in the path of the proposed high speed rail link in the UK.  His analogy is disingenuous and ignores the sensitive and complex factors around the historical treatment of the Negev Bedouin. He asserts that the outrage surrounding the Prawer-Begin plan is “completely artificial, pseudo-sentimental, a pollution of rancid hot air” but he is wrong on all counts.

It is true that many Bedouin did not register their ownership of land under either Ottoman, British or Israeli law, but that does not mean that they did not have their own traditional system of communal and individual ownership of land. Forced under martial law in the fifties and sixties to move to a condensed area between Dimona, Arad and Beer Sheva, many later moved into urban townships and had to give up all claims to their land. But some did not and found themselves living in unrecognised settlements, with no municipal status, no supportive infrastructure of water, sanitation, electricity.

They are perceived as criminals, unable to lawfully develop or build on the land on which they live.

Not registering their land did not mean they did not own their land. The JNF and the Jewish Agency bought land from the Bedouin in the years before the State of Israel came into existence – they clearly thought the Bedouin owned that land.

The Negev Bedouin are amongst the poorest Israelis and with the least opportunities to improve their lot. They have limited access to education or to health care. Clearly the situation must be addressed, and I congratulate the Government of Israel for finally trying to solve an issue that has festered for so long. This has been a long lasting conflict between the State of Israel and her Bedouin citizens in the Negev. But how does one begin to create a different future? Not by imposing a ‘solution’, or by treating the other side as less than equal. Not by playing up a stereotype of a rootless and wandering people who have no particular place they call home. Not by saying that because our legal system has no record of ownership, there can be no record of ownership. And certainly not by not bothering to consult with the people involved but rather treating them as primitives or children who cannot know what is in their own best interests.

“If a stranger sojourn with you in your land you shall not do him wrong” says scripture. It matters that the majority of Negev Bedouin are living under the poverty line; it matters that the process of urbanisation has dislocated the Bedouin from their traditional lifestyle of agriculture and animal husbandry. It matters that there is high unemployment, delinquency and crime rates in the townships. We have to find a mutually agreeable solution to the benefit of both the State and her Bedouin citizens so that both people and land can develop sympathetically. The measure of a society is found in how it treats the most vulnerable citizens, and it is also found in how respectful it is of all its citizens. To claim that a solution is “extraordinarily generous” when there has not been any discussion or consultation is to misunderstand generosity. The closest word in Hebrew for generosity is ‘nadiv’ and it bespeaks both generosity of resource and nobility of leadership.

Bimkom, a group of architects and planners have worked with the Bedouin of the Negev to create an alternative plan, based on the existing settlements and which provides a basis for a viable development of the region as a whole, while maintaining the principles of equality, recognition and justice.

A different future could be created if we simply returned to our founding texts of bible and of our modern state – One law for the stranger and for the Israelite; Doing no wrong to people who live alongside us.

It is possible to resolve the disputes of the Bedouin of the Negev if the political will made it so, if the politicians act like nedivim with both generosity and nobility, working together with all those involved rather than imposing a ‘solution’ that does not recognise the needs of those who will live with it. It is possible, with real political will, to give the people of  Israel the leadership they surely deserve.

This article was printed in an abbreviated form in The Jewish Chronicle on 10 January 2014 and online on 17 January 2014. You can view it by clicking here.

Supporting Rabbis for Human Rights and the Bedouin is an expression of Zionism

Yesterday’s event entitled “The Bedouin Community in Israel” made me reflect anew why my support of Rabbis for Human Rights is an expression of Zionism. The event was organised by the Israeli embassy in response to the public protest of Jews and non-Jews against the so-called Praver-Begin bill (for background click here). In the opening remarks, the embassy representative, a Bedouin from the Gallil-region in the north of Israel, explained that the negative headlines concerning the Praver-Begin bill were based on propaganda from, what he called, anti-Zionist groups.

We weren’t off to a good start! I seriously considered leaving the event, but then thought to myself that these views shouldn’t be allowed to remain unquestioned and decided to stick around until the Q&A.

The presentation itself focused on how Israel’s plan to resettle the Bedouin was only in their interest and a plan that focused on not leaving any Israeli citizen behind. Explaining that girls in the Bedouin community generally were not allowed to graduate from High School, Lirit Serphos (Head of Policy and Planning on the Development and Growth of the Bedouin Community) said that resettlement of the community was vital to ensure that these children would have full access to education.

In my response to her, I pointed out that the Israeli government currently fully finances a school system, namely the orthodox religious one, which results in all boys finishing school without a High School Diploma because they stop learning maths, English and science at age 10!

Of course, I believe that every child should have access to a good education but I stressed that in light of the treatment of the ultra-orthodox community it seems as if Israel is applying double standards when it comes to the Bedouin. In their case, the government seems to adopt a quasi-colonialist approach of knowing what is best for the indigenous people. Even Lirat had to acknowledge I might be onto something but then quickly added that one cannot compare the Bedouin and the ultra-orthodox community.

I explained that I was opposed to the bill not because I am an anti-Zionist or a self-hating Jew but because I am a passionate Zionist. Because I am a religious Zionist, I believe that Israel should exercise leadership in accordance with Proverbs 14:34: “Righteousness exalts a nation;” placing justice and compassion at the heart of all policy making. I believe that Israel must show each time anew that it legislates according to the precepts of “freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel,” as stated in the Declaration of Independence. Because I am a religious progressive Zionist and a supporter of Rabbis for Human Rights, I believe that our Jewish values must be in constant dialogue with the values of contemporary society and as such, we must ensure that the rights granted, just as the responsibilities demanded, apply to all citizens of the State of Israel equally – be they Jewish or not.

That’s why we need to fight for the rights of the Bedouin as Zionists for Israel’s sake!

Take Action on Behalf of Bedouin

65 UK rabbis have written to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, Finance Minister Yair Lapid and Welfare Minister Meir Cohen to ask them to prevent the passage of the Bill on the Arrangement of Bedouin Settlement in the Negev. To learn more about their letter click here.

We would like you also send a letter to these ministers protesting against the bill and to find a fair and just solution to the living arrangements and welfare of the Bedouin community in the south of Israel.

It is simple to take action! Just click here to also send a letter to protest against the bill.