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Judaism in defense of human rights

Published on March 29, 2014 by: in: Society

”When I see a demolished house through the eyes of Palestinian children, I

want to show them that not every Israeli wants to demolish their home, in fact

some want rebuild that home”, says Arik Ascherman – a Reform Rabbi and

an activist. Currently he holds the position of general secretary for Rabbis for

Human Rights (Rabbanei Shomrei Mishpat), an Israeli organization founded

as a voice of conscience in Israel and which seeks to mitigate the quarreling

among ordained Orthodox, Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, and

Renewal Rabbis. The main idea that stands behind the ideological backgrounds

of Jewish religious activism, such as that shared by RHR, is that the main

concept behind being a religious Jew is being considerate about universal

human rights and social justice.

”Our involvement in human rights issues comes from the principal belief

written in the very first verses of Genesis that all human beings are created

in God’s image, not just the rich, or not just Jews, but men and women. This

belief extends to Israeli Arabs, Palestinians, and African asylum seekers.” He

doesn’t differentiate between religion and activism, because he thinks that in

Judaism it’s much more important what you do than what you think, but what

leads him to social activism is the religious dimension of who he is.

It is not accidental that the people who founded RHR came from English –

speaking backgrounds, with the best role model being Rabbi David Forman

who had an activist past. He stood against the Vietnam War. The fact that

rabbi Ascherman was born in the United States has influenced him directly and

caused him to be engaged in human rights issues. When he was young, he was

influenced by the Jewish involvement in the civil rights movement in the United

States and by the writings of Warsaw-born Rabbi Avraham Joshua Hechsel,

a scholar fighting in Black civil rights battles and involved in Nostrae Aetate

during Vatican Council II.

It’s quite interesting that there is a disproportion in representation between

Israeli natives and the people who emigrated from the United States,

regardless of whether they are ideologically left or right wing activists. ”The

point is that if you’re a native-born Israeli you’re less selective towards the

environment you’re living in, because you have everybody available on site

without necessarily clicking into place.” Those who made aliyah (immigration

to the Israel) from various parts of the world do so because they suffer

extreme antisemitism or poor economic conditions. There is no particular

selection in terms of activism and non-activism. Coming to Israel from the

United States, where people are more exposed to activism in society, and

where the quality of life is quite high, one has to be ideologically or spiritually

motivated to leave the United States and come to Israel.

The other thing is that a public opinion poll of the North-American Jewish

population showed that of all the different measures of Jewish identity, that

aspect of Judaism with which more Jews identified than anything else, and that

gave more Jews pride in being Jewish than anything else, was the connection

between Judaism and justice. ”When I first came to Israel the first greatest

shock I had was that it was hard to find bagels here. It’s not like that anymore,

The more profound shock I had was when I discovered that these values which

were axiomatic, not to be questioned as far as I was concerned, were not

necessary shared by all, particularly by religious Israelis”.

The Judaism that with which socially active rabbis grew up in the United

States was a bit different to Judaism in the Israeli context. The religious

community in Israel has been socialized into very extreme nationalism and

particularism. Particularistic values mean basically that Jews apply Jewish

values for interpersonal relations only to other Jews, or perhaps only to their

own closed circle within the Jewish community. The humanistic understanding

of Jewish tradition applies these values to all human beings. ”One of the ways

of discounting and degrading us in many parts of the religious community in

this country is that they perceive us as not really religious. You’re Reform, it’s

not authentic, they say”.

However, the serious problems they deal with are affecting public opinion,

voting in the Knesset, winning cases in courts or convincing a particular army

commander. The three pillars of their educational activism are Judaism and

human rights, economic social justice for Israelis, and Palestinian human

rights, specifically the human rights violations stemming from the struggle for

control over the land. It is essential that these three mandates are followed

in their daily work. The first thing is to try to prevent or readdress human

rights abuses. The second is to introduce their understanding of Judaism into

the intellectual universe of their fellow Israelis. When they protect Palestinian

human rights, they also restoring hope and break down stereotypes.

The fact that RHR is not respected by the religious establishment of Israel is

nothing new. It happened before when after the 1st

wrote an open letter to the chief Rabbi of Israel inquiring as to the reasons

behind the rabbinic establishment being apparently interested only with

Sabbath observance or with the kashrut (Jewish dietary laws), as if there were

no other relevant issues in society.

As Rabbi Ascherman claims, human rights should not be perceived as only left

or right wing, because they are universal. In Israel, the motivation of RHR is

very much religious, but since the society is very divided, one of the major

issues that they face is that people who agree with Rabbi Ascherman’s values

and those of RHR tend to be secular Jews. ”In most of the world you think

about left and right in terms of economic and social policy whereas in this

country left and right are more associated with your positions on the Israeli-
Palestinian conflict”.

”RHR has no political affiliation. Most of us are probably center-left, with some

people going to the right. We are not affiliated with any political party, and

believe that human rights is above “Left” or “Right”. We don’t have a position

on political borders, or a one versus a two state solution. We can therefore

form coalitions with people on one issue whom would not agree with us on

another issue. For example, there was a Member of Knesset from the National

Intifada Rabbi Forman

Union Party whom we worked with very closely on foreign worker’s issues. We

differed on Palestinian issues. That’s partly illusory, it was more ideological

than it is today that most people assume that you can be concerned about

human rights for Palestinians only when you are left wing. Israelis are much

more simplistic about that, unfortunately”. That’s a problem faced by human

rights organizations, which are subsequently delegitimized.

The Rabbi looks at the peace process as a question of hope between two

nations. ”There’s a large percentage on both sides that say, “We want peace

but the other side doesn’t.” We have more political, economical and military

power but we are terribly symmetrical in this respect. Religious Israelis express

the worst Palestinian stereotypes about religious Israelis. Only we, as religious

Jews, can break down those stereotypes. Only Palestinians can empower me to

be heard by my fellow Israelis”.

Asked about the intolerance often discussed in Israeli public discourse, he

thinks that compared to the rest of the world, Israel isn’t more racist or less

sensitive about human rights, but the combination of the centers of oppression

and a struggle of survival have created a mentality here which sometimes

certainly goes into racism.

”I also think there is a connection between the history that took place in

Poland and what’s happening here, because psychologists say that when

people are beaten as children, they are more likely to beat their own

children. “It is thought that the Holocaust has shown that they all hate us

and don’t want us and this is one of the excuses why we don’t need to pay

attention to international law. It is directed against us, and we have to look

out for ourselves. That’s very ingrained in the Israeli psyche”. However it is

hard not to admit that in some communities all over the world the xenophobic

attitude towards Jews does exist.

Nevertheless, Rabbi Arik Ascherman holds onto hope by saying ”I try to

imagine a world where we act on our belief that everybody, even people we

don’t particularly like, are created in God’s image and where we need respect

the human rights of all human beings”.

Tagi: judaism, human rights, reform rabi, Rabbis for Human Rights, Rabbi

David Forman, antisemitism, jewish, Acherman, RHR, racism

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About Aleksandra Piwowar

graduate of Ethnology and Cultural Anthropology at the Faculty of History and Cross-cultural Relations at the Faculty of Oriental Studies at the University of Warsaw. Currently doctoral student at the Department of the History of Ideas and Cultural Anthropology of the Institute of Applied Social Sciences, University of Warsaw. Her research experience includes identification under social changes of the Chechen community in Georgia, the Roma community in Albania and Macedonia, and of various religious and ethnic groups in Israel.

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