Rabbi Arik Ascherman, who for 21 years led Rabbis for Human Rights, an Israel-based advocacy organization, visited Pittsburgh last week to tout his newest venture, Torat Tzedek-Torah of Justice. Much less a dream deferred than a dream disturbed, Ascherman, 57, insisted that despite an organizational realliance, his calling remains unshaken.
“I continue to be a rabbi dedicated to human rights,” said the Harvard-educated Reform rabbi.
For decades, Ascherman, largely through RHR, has combated self-perceived injustices and other wrongs. His actions, which have attracted the attention of politicians, policymakers and others focused on Palestinian-Israeli relations, have rendered him both an internationally celebrated activist and a renegading pariah.
In 2015, he was both feted with an honorary doctorate from the Chicago Theological Seminary and attacked by a knife-wielding settler near Nablus.
Such divergence of reception is now commonplace for Ascherman, whose first foray into social justice came via his youth-group involvement nearly 40 years ago in Erie, Pa. The protests against anti-Semitism in France in the late 1970s, coupled with a “family that taught me to be conscious of the world around me,” paved the way for later activities as an undergraduate involved in the anti-apartheid movement, the J.P. Stevens boycott, farm workers’ rights and issues of discrimination on campus, he said.
As an impassioned student, Ascherman found it frustrating that “people weren’t seeing the connections that I was seeing. Judaism and social justice were so entwined for me.” Such is why he eventually studied for the rabbinate, made aliyah and focused on causes including the protection of Palestinian farming lands and public housing in Israel.
Decades have passed since the rabbi’s entry into activism. And although Ascherman’s allegiance to human rights has not abated, his attitude toward others has eased.
“I’ve probably learned more about acknowledging that I don’t have all the truth and that good and decent people can have, on certain issues, different opinions,” he said.
But even with such acceptance, a breaking point still exists, he explained.
“You have to draw a certain line when you talk about the fundamentals of respecting God’s image in every human being. And there’s a place where you have to be understanding to different points of view and also be able to say, ‘That’s it, this is the line that cannot be crossed because it is harming other human beings.’”
These days, Ascherman perceives those infringements most notably in the actions taken against Palestinians and their olive trees.
“Many settlements were created in the middle of a Palestinian olive grove,” and because of either fencing, building construction, vandalism or a refusal to allow Palestinian farmers access to the land, the olive trees have been destroyed, he explained. “In those places, we need to develop a plan of what it would take to reconstruct that land.”
Within his solely staffed new organization, Torat Tzedek, Ascherman is working with mayors and farmers on a proposal to best manage the olive trees and adjacent land. Upon completion, “we would then create a table and present it to the army,” he said, before dismissing particular implications raised by his efforts.
“Whatever the case will be, Palestinians still have a right to have roofs over their heads, and they still have a right to hold onto their land and enjoy the fruits of their labor,” he said. “It’s not dependent on what eventual political solutions will or won’t be. As long as the occupied territories are going to be under Israeli sovereignty, that just increases our responsibility to respect the human rights of people we are going to have control over.”
Ascherman welcomes dialogue on the issue. Immediately following his Pittsburgh talk at a private residence, the rabbi traveled to Providence, R.I., to meet with representatives from J Street U Brown and Brown RISD Hillel and to discuss “communities that are in immediate danger, such as the Palestinian village of Susya in the West Bank,” as well as “the challenges of power and whether Israel can still be called a democracy,” explained materials publicizing his visit.
From that function, as well as others scheduled, newcomers to Torat Tzedek should understand that the organization functions from a moral base, explained its founder.
“Human rights need to be above and beyond politics. Whether you think that the ultimate solution in the territories should be this or that or the other, we should all be able to agree that every person, including Palestinians, has the right to access their trees and put a roof over their heads.” PJC
Adam Reinherz can be reached at