RHR2010: From the Frontlines - Perspectives on RHR’s Work in the West Bank
RHR2010: Israel, Exceptionalism, Human Rights and the Road Ahead, Part 1

RHR2010: The Most Pressing Human Rights Issues In Israel

I'm blogging from Human Rights Under Fire: A Jewish Call to Action, Rabbis for Human Rights - North America's third conference on Judaism and human rights.

The Most Pressing Human Rights Issues In Israel with Rabbi Paul (Shaul) Feinberg, RHR Israel.

"It's clear what's wrong," says Rabbi Shaul Feinberg; "I want to talk about what's right." He calls back to what Naomi Chazan said on the first night; the issue is the Occupation, of course, and he will have things to say about that. Reconciliation, he agrees with Chazan, is necessary.

The head of Israeli military intelligence in the 1970s and 80s (whose name I didn't catch) was the first to publish the Palestinian national covenant -- and we all remember some of the egregious parts of that document, Feinberg quips -- and yet even that man advocated for a Palestinian state! That man said, "I do not do that as a lover of Arabs -- I don't love Arabs -- I happen to be a Jew living in the land of Israel, and this is our vested interest."

Feinberg speaks out against the "egregious" crime against Naomi Chazan. (You can see the hateful advertisement in English here.) "She is president of the New Israel Fund; there was demonization of her with the worst kind of antisemitic canard, where she was pictured with horns -- and we know how words can lead to actions, even murderous ones, and not enough was done by the authorities; we should have learned a lesson with the assassination of Rabin!" But, he says, the papers do still hold contrary opinions (meaning, I think, that at least there is still some disagreement and the whole nation isn't in lockstep.) He hopes that his anecotal observations will be useful in carrying the conversation forward.

He speaks with us about using traditional texts to inspire Israeli children to tackle questions about water rights in the desert. He alludes to the trafficking in women, the abuse of foreign workers; these, he agrees, are crises. (We learned about these yesterday.) Atzum is fighting a campaign against the trafficking of women, and as a result, the government is more aware and alert and more is being done, says Feinberg. What's painful now is that women who made aliyah out of Ethiopia and Russia are still being oppressed in these ways -- "the crisis has not been eradicated; this is still a pressing crime."

"The picture," he says "is not all black and all white." There are now 300,000 Israelis living in Judea and Samaria. "Many of them arrived there with the support not only of Likkud governments but of Labor governments. Labor was responsible for settling in Hebron." This is a heartland, he says, and whatever the political and social aberrations of the people living there, particularly in relationship to their minority Arab community (Christians and Muslims), there are Jews living there, and this is their home. "If we talk about compromise... we will have to compromise not only with the Palesitnians, but with the Jewish men and women who are living in these areas, from those living on mountaintops to those living in larger cities." He does not anticipate a wholescale evacuation as happened in Gaza; no one has the political capital to do that. "Much will have to be given up, and this is part of our pressing human rights conversation."

Recognizing that compromise and negotiation are with Jews as well as with Palestinians -- that is a pressing issue. "I stand behind any initiatives which will push that forward," he says. We've all heard that there are two narratives, one for each people, but there are more than two narratives: the Jews living in the West Bank, Samaria, Occupied Palestine (call it what you will) have their own narratives. Feinberg has family living in a settlement which is one kilometer from the old Green Line borders. He reminds us that Clinton and Barak had hashed out an argument within which the borders of the two states would be basically the Green Line, with minor adjustments, and Har Adar -- where his family lives -- would have been on the "right" side of that line... but the Palestinians didn't accept the deal, so it was moot.

There are more than two narratives. Independence and Naqba. Both have to be recognized. When we recognize the tragedy of the other... that is a pressing human rights phenomenon! How do I talk to somebody who's different than I am, in their views? No one in the Middle East is interested in history but I must, when I look at the pressing issues, think about how we became occupiers in 1967 of that area. The history is there. There was a decision to push Israel into the sea; it didn't work; Leibovitz said, now is the time to relinquish these territories for peace, and -- who knows. We didn't. I'm not here to debate that, but I am here to remind us how we got to the position where we are.

"Everybody's afraid of everyone else," he says. Fear has to be recognized and dealt with. "There is legitimate fear on all sides, and we have to find a way of defusing it!" There's fear of outward symbols, fear of behaviors. There have been terrible actions on all sides, Feinberg says, and that is a human rights matter too.

He tells a story about Amos Oz and Sari Nusseibeh speaking on a panel together. At the end, the moderator asked, "what would you want to say to this other person before you?" Nusseibeh said, "My home; you are in my home." And Oz said, "We have no other place to go."

Where do we go, asks Feinberg. "How do we deal with these pressing realities of Israeli life?" Avraham Infeld, the educator, said that a Jew is someone who asks questions. "We have to keep asking questions," Feinberg urges us, "and don't let them go unanswered." We're a people of sh'ma -- we need to listen with super-attuned critical ears. Chazan told us that we have no time for despair, and Feinberg agrees. "Despair is not relevant! We have to go on. The moment we open our eyes in the morning, it's a blessing for those parts of the body to be closed and those parts to be opened [he's referring to the asher yatzar blessing] -- it's in our religious traditions and our humanistic tradition, and we've got to hear the summons" to resist despair and to be grateful.

He quotes Bucher in saying that God calls to us in the place where our deepest joy and the world's great hunger meet. Of course there are tragedy, illness, suffering. But we need to hear God's call. Today is the first day of the new month of Tevet. In a month is Shvat, the renewal of the trees. Right now there is no moon, but in a day or two there will be a sliver of light. And on a deep level, the light is always there.

He closes with a citation from Rabbi Naftali Rutenberg, an Orthodox rabbi, a member of the Orthodox establishment. (Read more: U.S. Jewish community's new mission: Equality between Israeli Jews and Arabs.) He cites Deut. 17:23, "And he shall dwell with you," and teaches that the halakha has clear applications in regard to the fundamental standards of the protected status of the minority. "Assurance of any and all human rights -- honoring these obligations constitutes the appropriate Jewish, Zionist, and human response," Rutenberg says.

"Why do I continue doing what I do?" Feinberg asks rhetorically. And his answer is to give us a list of the names of his children. He is doing this work on behalf of the next generation.