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Jews have an obligation to fight for human rights for all

Retired admiral Ami Ayalon, left, and Rabbi Arik Ascherman. MARK TENNENHOUSE PHOTO

Two of Israel’s leading activists say that the Jewish state must safeguard its principles as a democracy while also acknowledging its human rights violations against Palestinians.

Retired admiral Ami Ayalon, a former director of Shin Bet, and Reform Rabbi Arik Ascherman, founder of Jewish-Arab interfaith group Haqel, addressed their concerns to a rapt crowd at Toronto’s Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema last Thursday evening.

Despite their shared messages, Rabbi Ascherman’s speech had more of a spiritual bent.

Rabbi Ascherman used scripture to argue that since all people were created in God’s image, observant Jews have an obligation to fight for human rights for all.

The rabbi recounted an incident in October 2015 when he walked with Palestinian shepherds near settlements in the West Bank, only to be attacked by masked Israelis. He was accompanying the shepherds because they felt unsafe walking near the land where they used to graze.

For some Israelis, especially those who live in perpetual fear of violence and conflict, the idea of meeting with Palestinians is hard to swallow.

But Rabbi Ascherman explained that he volunteers and demonstrates in the West Bank partly to deconstruct the idea, among some Palestinians, that every Jew is their enemy.

“Only we as Israelis can break down the stereotypes Palestinians have of Israelis,” he told the crowd of more than 200.

During his 30-minute address to the audience, Rabbi Ascherman often referred to the idea of tikkun olam, or repairing the world, which he says is a way to bring Jews closer to God. (Rabbi Lisa Grushcow made a similar point recently in The CJN.)

The talk, entitled “50 Years at the Crossroads,” was hosted by the left-leaning New Israel Fund of Canada. The occasion was to mark five decades since Israel’s military victory of the Six Day War and the occupation that followed.

Retrospectives of the Six Day War at this anniversary have been a mix of celebratory looks at Israel’s military triumph and critical examinations of the subsequent occupation.

Admiral Ayalon, who was featured in the Oscar-nominated documentary The Gatekeepers, explained that the Six Day War was an essential victory for Israel. Although that was a war fought in self-defence, he also noted that Israel does not face the same existential threats in the 21st century.

The “crossroads” in the event name, Admiral Ayalon says, refers to various dilemmas Israel faces.

One of them is grappling with the history of the past, which includes thousands of years of Jewish exile and victimization, and the events in the present, when Israelis have the upper hand over Palestinians.

A former member of the Knesset, Admiral Ayalon has a long history of being outspoken about Israel’s human rights violations, even when those claims have been unpopular.

He remarked that Israel’s future should be one where the ideals of Zionist are more “egalitarian.”

“Palestinians have the right to self-determination and deserve equal rights,” Admiral Ayalon concluded.

As he explained, people from around the world – including those within the Jewish community – are finding it more difficult to identify with Israel.

The speeches from Rabbi Ascherman and Admiral Ayalon led to some thought-provoking audience questions, including one about using the term “occupation.” (CJN columnists, including Gil Troy and Mira Sucharov, have also covered the controversy surrounding this word recently.)

Rabbi Ascherman explained how the debate around language in describing the occupation is politicized in Israel. As a contributor to the Jerusalem Post, the rabbi can only use that word in print if it surrounded by quotations.

Admiral Ayalon added that it took him a long time to begin using that term.

“Is there another [appropriate] word?” he asked the room. A scattered applause greeted his question.

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