This week's portion: the bodies we are
Plagues? Rebellions? May Day? Lag b'Omer.

Words from Rabbi Arik Ascherman

"Rabbi Arik is always there with his hands in the earth, doing the work, being part of the action, with the people, in relationship," said Rabbi Joshua Boettiger in his introduction to a talk by Rabbi Arik Ascherman, the Executive Director of Rabbis for Human Rights, who spoke in the Jewish Religious Center at Williams College last night. What follows is an imperfect transcription of Rabbi Arik's remarks. It's long (about 4000 words!) but worthwhile, especially for those interested in human rights, justice, and the Middle East.

In the Jewish calendar we're in the midst of sefirat Omer, counting from Passover to Shavuot. Many reasons and explanations are given for this counting -- among them that we're counting the days toward Sinai. Liberation is not complete without Sinai.

What was that revelation about, what was being said to us? The midrash tells us many people heard many different voices, everyone heard it in their own way. But when I think about that, about the way that I grew up -- in Erie, Pennsylvania -- what was taught to me by my rabbis, parents, teachers, community, was that a basic part of what it means to be a Jew is to be concerned about universal human rights and social justice.

When I first spent time in Israel, my first big shock was to find out that bagels were not readily available -- what kind of Jewish state was this, that you couldn't get bagels? It's not a problem anymore, but it was at the time. But the more profound shock was when I discovered that these values that were axiomatic on my part were not necessarily shared by all Israelis, particularly religious Israelis. For a variety of historical and sociological reasons that community has increasingly been socialized into a volatile mixture of extreme nationalism and particularism. Most secular Jews believe that this is the true religious Judaism because that's what they see reflected by the "authentic" representatives of Judaism!

At Rabbis for Human Rights, if our first mandate is to rectify human rights abuses, then our second and no less important mandate is to try to introduce into people's intellectual universe that there is an equally authentic, equally textually-based, equally Jewish humanistic understanding of Torah.

One of my earliest memories of working for RHR: back in 1995, just a month after Yitzchak Rabin's assassination. We went for a morning of study in a yeshiva in the Occupied Territories, led by a rabbi who was on the record saying that bombs should be placed by the side of the road to prevent withdrawals from occupied territory. This was one of the rabbis suspected of giving a halakhic justification for the assassination itself. We spent a morning studying with his students, and then we had a roundtable discussion with this rabbi and his students and ourselves. And the very first thing that he said, he quoted from the very verses that are at the heart of what we believe at RHR -- that all human beings are created b'tzelem Elohim, in God's image, and that therefore Judaism cannot and must not condone the mistreatment or oppression of any human being. So we agreed! But when it got to the details, there we were in trouble...

RHR was founded in 1988 during the first Intifada. Remember, there was a lot more sympathy on the part of average Israelis for Palestinians than there has been during the second Intifada. There wasn't the level of violence or terror, and many average Israelis, not particularly leftwing or political, simply felt that red lines had been crossed. B'tselem, Physicians for Human Rights, RHR -- all created around the same time. Our founder, Rabbi David Forman, wrote an open letter to the Chief Rabbinate saying, "Why is it that the religious establishment in this country seems only concerned with kashrut and Sabbath observance -- where are the Heschels [who should be] running around this country crying 'gevalt!'?"

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel is our role model of a rabbi and a scholar who is also a social activist. Many rabbis felt that there needed to be a Jewish rabbinic response to what was happening. And to this day we are the only rabbinic organization in Israel in which rabbis from different streams of Judaism all coexist in one organization without strangling each other!

In Israel, we are at the human rights table, with all of the responsibilities that that entails. We work every day with people who are making public policy: army, government ministers, members of Knesset, the press, diplomats, what have you. We work sometimes through the courts, sometimes through the press, sometimes through direct fieldwork, sometimes lobbying the government, sometimes working with the international community, and sometimes when all else fails through acts of civil disobedience.

I was on trial a few years ago for standing in front of bulldozers which had come to demolish Palestinian homes not for any security reasons but because of the Catch-22 situation that if you are a Palestinian living in east Jerusalem or in the West Bank there is a purposeful, written, black-on-white policy that we want to keep a clear Jewish majority in Jerusalem and to do so we will expropriate Palestinian land to build Jewish neighborhoods on, and what we can't expropriate now we won't zone for building, so the Palestinians can't build until we can expropriate. You can see this in the minutes of city council meetings! So Palestinians -- having no way of legally building, without being informers or paying a bribe -- resort to building without a permit, and then their homes are demolished.

For a few years we, in coalition with other organizations, succeeded in largely reducing the number of demolitions. Though more recently those have skyrocketed to all-time highs.

Israel's a democracy. Israel's a very strong democracy. And in democracy, civil disobedience must be a matter of last resort, not first resort, because we have other tools at our disposal to change policy that we don't agree with. But as Rabbi Heschel so often said, in a democracy a few are guilty but all are responsible.

There comes a certain point where you see the consensus that a policy is wrong. You see bullets tearing into the walls of this home, you see women tearing out their hair pleading with us to do something, and you know the worst is yet to come. The moment I would not wish on my worst enemy. And that's when the children come home from school, and now there's only rubble. They're trying to search through it to find a favorite toy or a book. When they went to school in the morning they had a house and now they have rubble.

The bus driver bringing a little girl home, I remember, drove in circles -- he didn't want her to see what had become of her home. Children collapsing in the street with panic attacks, losing faith in their parents who weren't able to protect them. Seeing the Torah, which I as a rabbi am sworn to uphold, being ground into the rubble along with that home --! The image of God which we are supposed to honor being banished from that place. There comes a point where one has no choice but to stand in front of those bulldozers.

We were put on trial. There were some amazing moments. There was an open letter signed by well over 400 rabbis from all over the world about the home demolition policy. It's not easy for a Jewish leader outside Israel to publicly talk about how they feel about these things! The day I took the stand to testify on my own behalf fell during the aseret y'mei teshuvah. What kept ringing through my head were the words we say just before Kol Nidre -- "in the heavenly court above and the earthly court below, we can all pray together on this eve." And I asked the judge, how can we on this day ask God to move from the throne of strict justice to the throne of compassion if in the earthly courts and institutions where we are responsible for mercy and for justice we do not do the same? In the Bible in the original Hebrew, justice and law are synonyms.

We were convicted, though immediately unconvicted. The prosecution asked to have it expunged. And, having not got justice in a court of law, we went immediately to lay the cornerstone for a new home for one of the families. Until a few months ago I would have been able to tell you how, because of our work, that family was living with a roof over their heads. I would have told you about the housewarming gift we brought, a vine and a fig tree. How no Israeli shou'd be afraid of terror and no Palestinian should fear their home being demolished. But in December that home was demolished again.

We have an administrative appeal now on the policy itself. For the first time the municipality and the ministry of the interior will be forced to explain in court what I think is unjustifiable, the built-in discrimination that's a part of this policy. Just before I left the municipality contacted us; they wanted to cut a deal. If we would withdraw the petition, they would remove the danger from a large number of homes. On the one hand, the fact that they're making the offer means they're feeling the heat, we may have a chance of getting the policy to be abolished! But we're also playing with people's homes, and we need to take that seriously.

On principle, RHR is always involved with at least one issue dealing with the human rights of Jewish Israelis and one dealing with the rights of the non-Jewish part of our society. There are three principal pillars of our work: 1) Education. We work with the army, with youth taking a year off between high school and the army, all kinds of educational opportunities and projects. We've created Masekhet Atzmaut, a Talmudic-style commentary [downloadable at the bottom of this page, in pdf format] on Israel's declaration of independence, which is an amazing foundational document.

We believe that 2) Economic justice is a human right. In Israel some 20% of the elderly are chronically hungry. 20-25% of children and youth go to bed hungry one night a week. Between a fifth and a quarter of Israelis live under the poverty line. Some of this is beyond our control but some of it is an attitude which says that the weakest and poorest Israelis are the parasites bringing down the rest of society. We're working now against the Israeli Wisconsin Plan, named after the American one -- designed to get people off welfare and into the workforce, who could argue with that? But studies around the world show that this [kind of plan] invariably increases poverty, and Israel is not creating living-wage jobs today!

We have one foot in the grassroots, and we take what we've learned into the Knesset. The government is on the verge of eliminating this program. First and foremost, [what's damaging is] the way human dignity is ground into the dust [in programs like the Wisconsin Plan.] If your benefits are cut you can go before an appeals panel, but imagine: someone who maybe doesn't have a lot of self-confidence to begin with, going before these three judges. There's no confidentiality; your "personal counselor" who was supposed to help you through the process is brought to testify against you! So thank God, we send in our lawyers to represent people and we're winning most of the cases and we can restore to many people their lifeline. One who saves a single life is as if he saved an entire world.

And 3) in the Occupied Territories, we help Palestinian people access their land to harvest and to plow. Maybe they haven't been able to get to that land for 2, 5, 15 years! One man I remember got down on his knees to thank us, he said he'd been asking for help and we were the first people who actually offered it to him... What kind of world have we created in which a grown man gets down on his knees to thank us for such an elementary human right?

I've finally figured out why they make us study all of that Talmud in rabbinic school. I don't know if any of you have ever seen a budget bill -- they're thousands of pages -- and you need an amazing ability to sift through that and understand what's really going to happen for people! In the 2006 budget, one line item was going to eliminate all the funding for sick children to be able to study at home or in the hospital. We're the People of the Book, we value limud, study! By restoring that funding, did we reshape Israeli society? No -- but we changed the world for those few students.

When the Oslo accords were signed a parallel process was created through which Israelis and Palestinians were looking ahead to the final talks and what would arise then. We are a human rights organization, not a political organizaiton. Whether there should be a one, two, or ten-state solution is not within our purview. Where we begin to have an issue as a human rights organization is when you allow the ends to justify the means.

From the beginning of Oslo, how did that change how Israelis and Palestinians saw the process? From the Palestinians' point of view, by signing the Oslo accords they had given away what they considered 76-78% of historic Palestine. They therefore assumed that the other 22-24% would be a Palestinian state at the end. Israelis saw it differently. They thought it was all to be negotiated. To this day, people talk past each other. Israelis say, why are Palestinians so intransigent? You have to have give-and-take! Palestinians say, what are you talking about, we gave it all up before negotiations even began, we have nowhere now to retreat! We may not agree with them but we have to understand how they see the situation...

This brings me to the second Intifada. Few people remember, if they ever knew, that when the second Intifada broke out -- there's two versions of the story. That Yasser Arafat didn't like what he got at Camp David and started the Intifada; or, that it was spontaneous. But we didn't need to hear this debate, those of us working in the field, because we'd been predicting this since a year and a half before it happened. That doesn't mean justifying it; murder and violence and terror are never justified. But if we're not going to repeat history we need to learn from it. So why did we know it was going to happen?

In the same way that many Israelis were becoming disillusioned by the peace process when the Palestinians couldn't successfully tamp down violence, many Palestinians were becoming disillusioned by the peace process because of the human rights violations. Rightly or wrongly, the average Palestinian no longer believed that this was a peace process. That's what made society ripe for a second Intifada.

Someday we'll get back to having a peace process. Will we have learned anything? The majority of Israelis and Palestinians want compromise, peace. Palestinians must learn that violence does not promote but destroys a peace process; Israelis must learn that there's no symmetry here, we are far and away the dominant political power and when we use our domination to violate human rights that too will destroy a peace process.

I do an exercise with Israelis. Every Israeli school child can quote the Talmud where it says, if someone's coming to kill you, get up earlier and kill them first. We're not a pacifist religion. I have two little children at home and you'd better believe I want my government to do what it has to do to protect my children! But then I ask people what the Talmud says after that, and I get blank stares. We're also taught that if you can stop the aggressor by any other means -- shouting, shooting them in the foot -- and you kill them, even though you were trying to save a human life? You're guilty of murder. And then we're taught about a man who comes to tell a Talmudic sage, I'm going to kill you if you don't kill this other guy. Regarding the innocent third person, Rav says, allow yourself to be killed rather than kill.

Our founder, Rabbi Forman, tells a story about being a soldier in the first Lebanon war. Soldiers are holding civilians in front of them as human shields and he couldn't shoot. Two of his Army buddies were killed as a result. It's a lose/lose situation. And that's one of the reasons we say the Occupation must end. How that happens is up to the politicians. But from a human rights perspective it must end.

In the Second Lebanon War we were attacked, from Lebanon and Gaza. We had every right to attack in return. But entire families wiped out in Gaza beach, 1200 civilians dead in Lebanon...? Of course, try to explain that to my two sisters-in-law who had homes in the North. It's complicated. Even in times of war when you have legitimate self-defense responsibilities, there have to be red lines. The question is where do you draw those red lines.

One of our major campaigns during the Second Intifada is the olive tree campaign. We've replanted thousands of olive trees that had been uprooted. People say, how can you replant those trees, when people hide behind those trees to shoot from? But often the uprooted tree provides better cover than it did when it was standing. And the trees we're planting are too thin saplings to hide behind. But it's not about intellectual arguments; it's about emotion.

We've sent people out as human shields to protect Palestinians when they go to harvest or plant, to protect shepherds, from settlers. Just last Friday settlers came to attack while I was off shooing away the sheep and the goats. My other 2 volunteers called me to come quickly; one of my volunteers was on the ground with her arm twisted because this maniac was trying to grab her camera and smash it. He came after me, prodding me with a police-issue baton. I'm trying not to be violent myself while keeping him away from the Palestinians and the other volunteers. And this is parashat Kedoshim we're reading last week -- how many mitzvot were being violated there? Where was "Love your neighbor as yourself"?

The good news is, if that was commonplace back in 2002, that Palestinians were being threatened or shot-at and the security forces wouldn't respond, today it's become an irregular kind of thing. Israel's highest court last year came out with a scathing decision saying the army and police hadn't done nearly enough to help Palestinians access their land or to arrest and bring to justice those who were doing these deeds.

On an average day, we work very well with the senior commanders, but on the ground we have trouble with the footsoldiers who are angry and resentful. "Why is my officer telling me I have to protect Palestinians?" Who knows who's lost an army buddy or a family member to terror? It's an emotionally difficult thing for anybody.

The midrash says, when Hagar and Ishmael are being banished into the desert, before God prepares a well the angels come up to God and say, "What are you doing? Don't you know all the tsuris the Jewish people are going to suffer from the children of Ishmael throughout history?" God, according to this midrash, says, "right now, in front of me, there's a child. Right now this child is innocent." We too are created b'tzelem Elohim, and are commanded to be as Godlike as humanly possible. We too must distinguish between the terrorists coming to murder my family, and the Palestinians who just want to put a roof over their head s and harvest their crops.

It comes down to hope. For the last seven years Israelis and Palestinians have been living without it. We can talk about peace and human rights until we're blue in the face, on both sides, but if there are buses blowing up or mortar shells raining down, who's going to listen to us? Only I as an Israeli can break down the stereotypes the Palestinians hold about us; only a Palestinian can break down the stereotypes we hold about them. I can't tell you how often I've gone to rebuild a house and the parents bring their children out to see us, to show them that not every Israeli  is here to destroy their homes but some are here to stand shoulder-to-shoulder and help rebuild.

If we teach hate about each other, no treaty can last. What are we doing to empower that Palestinian parent that wants their child to grow up to know something else? So what we're doing is not only the Jewish thing to do; it's also the self-interested thing to do. It's what I can do to protect my children, spiritually, morally, physically, to guarantee them survival.

I spend every waking hour fighting Israeli injustice. But I want to say very clearly that we have to avoid a double standard. It's not just in Israel that these things happen. Still, that everybody does it -- that's cold comfort. It's not what I demand of my army, of my people.

The work that we do is not fun. As an Israeli, a rabbi, a Jew, a Zionist, there is no great pleasure in dealing with the deepest and darkest corners of a country that I love. I would be a happier man if I did not know a fraction of what I know. But once you know you have a choice. You can hide your head in the sand. Or you can take the pain of knowing that things are happening that should not be happening, to spur you to do work of tikkun olam, to make the world a little bit better.

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