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.
Over the years, RHR has developed projects under the leadership of a hard-working and dedicated staff, inspired by Rabbi Arik Ascherman, Director of Special Projects for RHR who is the closest one will ever get to understanding the moral passion of a Hebrew prophet. One of the most extensive of these programmes is in the field of education especially for those who are preparing to join the army and university students.
Just one example can be found at Sapir College, a small college of tertiary education in the northern Negev not far from Sderot. RHR has been involved in pioneering a programme for Jewish and Arab women called “Women Citizens for Equality”. “Education is a journey of trail, error and will,” said Rabbi Nava Hefetz, Education Director at RHR as she witnessed the graduation of ten students drawn from the Jewish, Arab and Bedouin population of the college. The young women worked together to address issues of gender, religion, national and human rights. Amira, a young Arab woman, helped the citizens of her own village to create a small group for children on Saturday mornings; a second young eighteen year old, also Arab became involved in an eco-project at Tel-Sheva; for Avigail who is Jewish, the journey has helped her to become a social worker and others have felt empowered to address prejudice and ignorance against women’s education and public profiles.
Further north in Hadera, Rabbi Idit Lev, head of the social justice department of RHR, works in a modest centre to help those who are at the very bottom of Israel’s socio-economic pile. Together with the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI), RHR has been in the forefront of lobbying the Knesset to embrace its social responsibilities instead of farming out the decision about benefits to privatised entities leaving individuals at absolute subsistence level. Those who suffer most are women, new immigrants, Arabs and those whose circumstances have deteriorated due to continuous unemployment.
Over the past year, RHR has been particularly involved in addressing the rights of the Bedouin – a complex and difficult issue that has partly to do with land ownership, and partly with poverty and generational change. There are 35 unrecognised Bedouin villages in the Negev. It is frankly almost impossible to understand why those villages have no services – no electricity, no running water, no heat, when individual Jewish homes in the same area are provided with all of those utilities. The success of RHR in halting the Begin-Prawer Bill by forcing the government to consider the dignity and human rights of the Bedouin was remarkable, but there is still much to be done if Israel is to hold up its head as a Jewish state that is true to its founding charter of the Declaration of Independence, to uphold “the full social and political equality of all [Israel’s] citizens.”
RHR works too with its field workers in East Jerusalem and the Palestinian Territories. Last month, a ‘price tag’ attack was committed in East Jerusalem. Vandals slashed tyres of 16 cars and sprayed graffiti on walls and a bus with the words “Enough Arab workers – enough assimilation.” The attack took place less than 24 hours after the stabbing of an haredi man by the Damascus Gate in East Jerusalem. Mercifully, the man was treated for “light injuries” and was released from hospital.
There should be no impunity for any kind of violence against Israel’s citizens, but neither should there be impunity for those who escalate tension by attacking Arab villages or displaying violent behaviour in East Jerusalem. RHR is committed to standing by those individuals who are affected by this kind of violence – whether it is in the villages where olive trees are uprooted or homes vandalised or where individual’s lives are made intolerable by the thuggish behaviour of threatening extremist, gangs of young men.
Rabbi Arik Ascherman says: “I want Arabs to see that not all Jews behave in this way. It’s important for them to see Jews in kippot standing by them and upholding their dignity, human rights and freedom.”
For all these reasons, Rabbis for Human Rights has my support for the work its members do in embodying a Judaism by living according to the highest possible ethical and moral principles of justice, compassion, fairness and equality.