Rabbi Arik Ascherman has been fighting for human rights in Israel for many years, but there is one issue in particular that, lately, has been keeping him up at night: the proposed re-settling of 40,000 Bedouin living in the Negev.
Ascherman, the director of external relations for the advocacy group Rabbis for Human Rights, was in town on Monday to speak at Rodef Shalom on “A Rabbinic View of Human Rights in Israel.” His appearance was co-sponsored by Rodef Shalom and J Street Pittsburgh, along with the Pittsburgh Area Jewish Committee.
The Erie native, a Reform rabbi, has been living in Israel since 1994. He is a co-founder of Rabbis for Human Rights, an organization of rabbis from across the denominational spectrum, which works to protect the rights of both Jewish Israelis and “non-Jews living under our control,” Ascherman told the Chronicle.
While the group has worked on a “plethora of social service issues,” including the protection of the rights of public housing tenants in Beit Shean, and, now, trying to influence the Knesset’s proposed budget to protect the funding of services to the poor, “we are infamous for the work we do on behalf of Palestinian human rights,” he said.
But it was the Bill on the Arrangement of Bedouin Settlement in the Negev — also known as the Prawer-Begin bill — that, if passed, would relocate thousands of Bedouins living in the Negev, that Ascherman planned to focus on in his talk here on Monday.
The bill, which is being debated in the Knesset, proposes to resolve land use issues related to the Bedouin population, and to provide the Bedouin who are relocated with financial compensation as well as new plots of land.
But the law has been criticized by Bedouin leaders as “immoral and impractical,” according to an article published in Haaretz May 7.
Rabbis for Human Rights opposes the measure because its members believe it would cause “30,000 to 40,000 Bedouins [to be] expelled from their homes, and most of their land taken,” Ascherman said.
The Negev Bedouin have proof of land ownership dating back to 1908, according to Ascherman.
“This is unacceptable by any legal or moral standard,” he said. “This has me just crazy. I cannot accept that my people would do this. This would be the greatest potential moral tragedy in the state of Israel in the 18 years I’ve been doing this kind of work. … There are no extenuating circumstances that can justify what we are doing here. And it is happening in the light of day, by Knesset decree.”
But according to Benny Begin, one of the authors of the plan, “only a small part of the Bedouin population will be moved a very short distance from where they currently live,” Haaretz reported. “[Begin] says the Bedouin will gain a significant improvement in their living conditions, and will at last have electricity and water infrastructure, as well as the use of public institutions.”
The results of the passage of the proposed plan are clearly in dispute. Ascherman, however, is confident that once the Jewish people understand the law’s potential negative effect on the Bedouin, it will never pass.
“I believe in my people, and the basic goodness of my people,” he said.
Ascherman referred to a video made by Theodore Bikel, who has played Tevye countless times in productions of “Fiddler on the Roof,” urging people to protest the Prawer-Begin bill.
“We are not supposed to do to others what was done to us,” Ascherman said. “We, the descendants of the real Anitekva, shouldn’t be doing this to others.”
(Toby Tabachnick can be reached at email@example.com.)