Rabbis for Human Rights — an organization of rabbis from across the denominational spectrum that promotes human rights in Israel — has fought some tough battles.
The group, led by Rabbi Arik Ascherman, an Erie native and resident of Jerusalem, has represented impoverished Israelis whose welfare benefits were in danger of being cut, playing a key role in getting the Knesset to cancel the so-called Wisconsin Program, designed to reduce the number of Israelis getting government assistance.
It has fought the depletion and lack of maintenance of public housing for Israelis.
And it has worked to promote education about, and protection of, the human rights of Palestinians.
But the group finds that it is facing a new, and very tough challenge, said Ascherman: “the demonization of human rights organizations working in the occupied territories.”
Many will remember Ascherman as the rabbi who was arrested in 2003, and brought to trial, after standing in front of Israeli bulldozers headed for Palestinian houses.
He was in Pittsburgh last week to speak at a parlor meeting before heading to New Haven, Conn., to accept the Gandhi Peace Award for his nonviolent methods of resolving human rights abuses in Israel and the occupied territories. Rabbi Ehud Bandel, a co-founder of RHR, also received the award.
Ascherman believes that since the war in Gaza, the climate in Israel has changed for organizations such as his.
“Up until the Gaza War, even people that didn’t agree with us were proud we existed,” Ascherman told the Chronicle. “They understood that even if it’s not always comfortable, watchdog human rights organizations are essential to a democracy.”
Ascherman believes that the “demonization” of human rights groups may be a way for Israelis to deal with negative world opinion.
“Israelis start with the belief that the world is against us, so it is a coping mechanism,” Ascherman said. “They think, ‘We’ll weather the criticism, and it will go away.’ But the Gaza War has not gone away. The Goldstone Report has not gone away. Israelis are frustrated.”
Moreover, Ascherman believes that the demonization of human rights groups is also a function of what the Israelis see — and do not see — through the media.
“Any Israeli could watch what was being reported on BBC or CNN or FOX, but they don’t. The rest of the world saw real time footage of the Israeli army using white phosphorous in Gaza, but that didn’t appear on Israeli TV. At the time, there was a denial by the army that it used white phosphorous, but they admitted it a year later.”
Ascherman also called out publications such as The NGO Monitor as stoking the flames of outrage against human rights organizations by publishing reports in which “many facts are not checked.”
Despite criticism of certain Israeli policies by RHR, it is a Zionist organization, Ascherman said.
“Our membership is all rabbis,” he said. “As Zionists, we are dedicated to an Israel that lives up to our highest Jewishness as articulated in Israel’s Declaration of Independence.”
While working with RHR is not always easy, Ascherman says it is important for the cause of peace and the ideals upon which Israel was founded.
“It is the single best thing I can do, as bombs go off near my home, to protect my two little children morally and physically,” he said. “It’s not fun work. It has its risks. I’ve been beaten up by settlers, and have had my car stolen by Palestinians.”
Each small success, he said, “reminds us that things that don’t seem possible now can be achieved.”
“All of life is two perfectly balanced scales,” he said. “You never know what will tip the scales. You have to remember our task in life is to tip the scales in the right direction. That’s what we’re trying to do.”
(Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)