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RHR 2008: Zionism, Israel and Human Rights

RHR 2008: Opening

Adas Israel congregation, home of this year's RHR-NA conference.

This is the first in a series of posts about the Second North American Conference on Judaism and Human Rights, which I'm attending over the next few days. There doesn't appear to be wifi in the synagogue where the conference is being held, so I'm transcribing things while they happen and will post them as soon as I'm able, which may mean you get a flood of RHR posts in the evening over the next few days! I hope you enjoy this chance to experience part of the RHR conference with me.

The conference began at 4pm with a performance by Noa Baum called A Land Twice Promised, which was honestly amazing. Over the course of 90 minutes she embodied so many voices/stories: her voice and the voice of a Palestinian friend she made after moving to the States, and the voices of each of their mothers, and the long histories that feed into both of those sets of experiences. I can't do it justice here; you'll just have to take my word for it. It blew me away.

After a dinner break, the first plenary session began with a Special Award Presentation in Honor of the 20th Anniversary of Rabbis for Human Rights. Larry Garber, the Chief Executive Officer of the New Israel Fund offered an introduction.

The NIF is an organization dedicated to promoting human rights in Israel through funding civil society organizations and facilitation of networks & coalitions among organizations to effect social change. "Our goal is to ensure that Israel remains a viable, democratic and Jewish state," he said.

Larry pointed out that Anita Steiner and Arik Ascherman "speak out against injustices" both within Israel and across the green line, and that RHR is one of the most effective human rights organizations working within Israel today. It is important, he said, that civil society there remain robust, not only in terms of providing social services but in terms of utilizing Israel's democratic institutions to challenge the government to comply with its responsibilities. "Those who care about Israel and the region must be aware of what is happening there politically and economically," and that makes the work RHR is doing even more important.

The award itself was a shofar, which "symbolizes the prophetic call," and also a wooden bowl representing the olive branch (and the education work RHR does which is so important for our collective future.)

The award was accepted by Rabbi Anita Steiner, Chair, Rabbis for Human Rights - and Rabbi Arik Ascherman, the Executive Director of Rabbis for Human Rights who I've blogged about before.

Rabbi Arik Ascherman told the story of lighting a chanukah menorah in a demolished home, symbolizing the hope for a better future. He spoke about parashat Vayetzei, which we read yesterday: "Surely God is in this place, and I did not know it." Over the years, he said, he's thought more and more about how often we don't see God's presence in human beings. "Our task in this world is to find God in every place, but first and foremost in every human being we deal with: friend, or so-called enemy."

It is no cause for celebration that RHR is still around: we wish the organization weren't necessary, but it is. Rabbi Ascherman told some stories about different stages in the development of the organization, about becoming grassroots. "We aren't rabbis for Palestinian human rights; we're rabbis for human rights, and therefore we must deal with issues of human rights for foreign workers, for Israeli all these stages, up until today, the common thread is looking for that presence of God where people so often miss it."

"The question is, where do we go from here, so that we won't be here in another 20 years?" In the first years of the org we focused on being a rabbinic presence. We moved into being grassroots. "Today those two things must come together: we must take what we've learned at a grassroots level, and bring a message about what Judaism must be."

"Our goal isn't to bash Israel, but to change Israel. And to do that, we must change Israelis. In the last few days we've been absorbed in what's going on in Hebron. There's been a change; I don't know how many people who never would have said this even a week ago are coming up to me, to others, saying 'who are these rabbis who are sending their children to act violently in Hebron?'...This is not the Judaism we believe in."

"The children of settlers who go through our educational programs may not agree with everything we think. But I cannot believe that they would be some of the soldiers standing by as a pogrom goes on. I don't think they would listen to the rabbis if they said, 'go and beat up Palestinians and cause mayhem to prevent a house from being evacuated in Hebron.' So as we move into our next 20 years, now is the time, more than ever, that we must focus on doing what we must continue to do, to care about every unemployed Israeli, and every Palestinian farmer who can't reach his olive groves; and we must really focus on what we can do to educate a society in a different Jewish way... That's how we can reach the reunion we see in this week's Torah portion between Jacob and Esau. May it happen speedily and in our day."

Rabbi Anita Steiner added that "we're really saddened to see how much we still need to do; how much the voice of RHR still needs to be heard." Her 34-year-old son is in the army reserves and is serving in Hebron right now, and he said to her before she left for this weekend, "Ima, it's too much; I can't do it." It's hard, being here now while he's back there.

"May we be blessed to continue with our holy mission of being frontline activists, not only recognizing but standing with and helping those in need."

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