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Israeli rabbis’ group fights for human rights

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TORONTO — Israeli civil society is replete with organizations championing the cause of human rights, so is there really a need for another such organization representing rabbinic authorities?

Rabbi Arik Ascherman

Rabbi Arik Ascherman, executive director of Rabbis for Human Rights, leans back in his chair, ponders the question for a moment, and begins by acknowledging something that was not asked: “Much bloodshed and strife is due to nationalism and religion.”

But as for human rights, “as a religious person, it’s part of who I am and feeds my soul. Whether we like it or not, religion is an incredibly powerful force, especially in the Middle East.

“When I grew up, “ said the Erie, Penn., native, “the basic part of being a Jew was being immersed with universal human rights and concern for justice… North American Jews identified with Judaism and justice… It was a profound shock that in Israel these things that were axiomatic to me were not shared by most Israelis, particularly religious Israelis.”

Ascherman, who was in Toronto recently for the Reform movement’s biennial conference, said polls show most Israelis share RHR’s concern for human rights, if not the religiosity associated with the group.

RHR, a 21-year-old organization that consists of 120 rabbis, mostly Conservative and Reform, has adopted a dual mandate of “preventing and reducing human rights abuses” and influencing “the intellectual life of Israelis that there’s another equally Jewish, authoritative, textually-based humanistic view of the Jewish tradition.”

The first verses of the Torah says that all humanity was created in God’s image, and for RHR, that means treating fellow human beings equally, he said.

With that worldview in mind, RHR has championed the causes of foreign workers and refugees from Darfur. It has also sought “economic justice,” raised concerns over the “social gap in Israel” and the territorial struggle between Israelis and Palestinians, and has referred to Jewish tradition to back up its points.

Though Israel doesn’t have a constitution like Canada or the United States that sets out fundamental rights, courts have looked at its Declaration of Independence as setting out the country’s basic principles, including freedom, justice and peace as envisioned by the prophets of Israel.

Referring to the book of Genesis, Rabbi Ascherman pointed out that the patriarch Abraham argued with God over the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. “It showed that Abraham was concerned about justice for every human being, whether Jewish or not.”

In dealing with modern issues, such as Sudanese refugees, “making war on the poor” or the conflict in Gaza, “I often ask myself, is there an Abraham to ask God, ‘Should not the judge of all the earth do justly?’”

Ascherman, who has served as the organization’s executive director for 15 years, said RHR “shoots in all directions” when it sees human rights violations. It has launched court cases – in one instance, to prevent seizure of land in the West Bank for settlers – and it has partnered with other organizations to champion a cause, sent “volunteers as human shields to protect Palestinians from settler violence,” lobbied government ministers, worked with international diplomats and practised civil disobedience.

One issue that has drawn international attention was the effort to halt the demolition of Palestinian buildings in east Jerusalem. His act of civil disobedience earned him a criminal conviction, although his record was expunged in exchange for community service, he said.

RHR has called on the Israeli attorney general to initiate an independent investigation about alleged Israeli actions during the Gaza war. RHR made the suggestion prior to the Goldstone report, which made a similar recommendation about Israel and Hamas.

Rabbi Ascherman said that until nine months ago, “I’d have said, very much so, that I never felt marginalized in Israeli society.” Polls showed many Israelis agreed with RHR’s principles of promoting human rights and serving as a watchdog organization.

But “since Gaza, I feel more marginalized… If you question how the war was fought, it’s assumed you do not support Sderot and Ashkelon. Even asking questions regarding what happened in Gaza is taken as equivalent to being traitorous.”

Rabbi Ascherman suggested there may have been alternatives to the war, and he stressed Judaism advocates a doctrine of using minimal force, so as not to injure innocents.

“We see very clearly that we support Israel’s right to defend itself. We care about Sderot and Ashkelon. But when you ask these questions, that doesn’t come across.”

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