This is part of Marc H. Ellis’s “Exile and the Prophetic” feature for Mondoweiss. To read the entire series visit the archive page.
With world having its fill of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s Holocaust revisionism, we are now confronted with a video of the President and Senior Rabbi of Rabbis for Human Rights, Arik Ascherman, being pursued by a Jewish settler, knife-wielding assailant in the West Bank. Fortunately, Ascherman escaped with minor bruises.
Unlike Netanyahu, Ascherman and his colleagues in Rabbis for Human Rights defend Palestinians in the West Bank and beyond. They show courage by putting their bodies and Jewish values on the line.
So Arik Ascherman and the Rabbis for Human Rights he heads are Jews of Conscience. Yes. Depending on one’s perspective, he and some of other rabbis are also Israeli settlers. Can they be both, Jews of Conscience and an American Jewish-Israeli settlers?
As the situation in Israel-Palestine continues its downward spiral this is an important question. Are the courageous Jews who seek to protect Palestinians from Israel’s brutality part of the solution or part of the problem?
Many Palestinians ask a similar question about the Palestinian Authority. Ostensibly created to protect and enhance Palestinian life, does the the PA actually function as way to legitimate Israel’s occupation?
These are difficult questions with many angles. But, then, the situation of Palestinians demands a hard look at everything that has gone before.
Arik (Eric) Ascherman, for example, is American-born, in Erie, Pennsylvania, and educated, at Harvard University. He received his Reform Rabbinical training at Hebrew Union College in the United States. According to his biography, Ascherman established residence in Israel in 1994. Though he lives within the Green Line, that is, within Israel proper, for Palestinians who were expelled during the creation of Israel and beyond, the definition of settler can be broader than usually understood. The issue for Ascherman is further complicated by his late arrival in Israel. Many Jews who are outspoken advocates of Palestinian rights are American-born, but they came to Israel in its American heyday, after the 1967 war. Some of these advocates, like Jeff Halper, have relinquished their Zionism. They now favor a One-State solution to the Israel-Palestinian quagmire.
Though desiring to protect Palestinians from the latest form of Israeli settlements, Ascherman and Rabbis for Human Rights, rarely enters this more specific political arena. Part of their founding principles, principles they continue to adhere to today, is their desire to uphold and burnish the more just Zionist principles that for them undergird the founding of the state of Israel. Their website is explicit in its mission:
Founded in 1988, Rabbis for Human Rights is the only rabbinic voice in Israel that is explicitly dedicated to human rights. Representing over 100 Israeli rabbis and rabbinical students from different streams of Judaism, we derive our authority from our Jewish tradition and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Our mission is to inform the Israeli public about human rights violations, and to pressure the State institutions to redress these injustices. In a time in which a nationalist and isolationist understanding of Jewish tradition is heard frequently and loudly, Rabbis for Human Rights give expression to the traditional Jewish responsibility for the safety and welfare of the stranger, the different and the weak, the convert, the widow and the orphan.
Though high-minded, notice its founding year, 1988, during the Palestinian Uprising. It seems that their “About Us” hasn’t changed much since then. This despite the fact that the situation on the ground has changed dramatically.
Will the recent escalation of Israeli brutality, coinciding with the continuing diminishment of Palestine, change the progressive Zionism of Rabbis for Human Rights?
Beyond their principles, Rabbi for Human Rights have often acted as a buffer against more radical critiques of Israeli power developed by American and Israel Jews, as well as Palestinians and others who cross the Green Line of the Two-State solution. I recall my own experience with the late co-founder of Rabbis for Human Rights, Rabbi David Forman, in my new book, The Heartbeat of the Prophetic. My encounter with Forman is of interest and involved. But the long and short of it is telling. The fact that I invited a Palestinian to share her view on the meaning of the Holocaust for her own people at my Center for Jewish Studies sent Forman over the edge. His emails, which I publish in my book, show a disdain for Palestinians and Jewish dissenters that is unrelenting and disgusting. It showed me that Rabbis for Human Rights are as much gatekeepers of Jewish dissent as they are advocates for Palestinian human rights. That is why I have come to think of them as Rabbis for Jewish Rights.
Though there was extensive coverage of the talk in the local newspaper, Rabbi Forman missed her engaging and deep rendering of Palestinian suffering after the Holocaust. Her talk was framed around Anne Frank. The refrain throughout with reference to Israeli behavior and Palestinian suffering:”What would Anne Frank think?”
Do Rabbis for Human Rights continue to function in the way that I experienced their founder? Perhaps Rabbi Ascherman and Rabbis for Human Rights have already or are about to move in another direction. If so their focus on enhancing the reputation of Israel and Zionism as progressive and ethical has to be abandoned.
Perhaps because of his recent experience, Rabbi Ascherman and other Rabbis for Human Rights will finally get the point they have avoided for so long. Guarding the Palestinians against Israeli power is a failed project. Israel as a Jewish state is a failed state. Israel’s apartheid is permanent. Ethical Jewish history as we have known and inherited it is over.
Guarding Palestinians against Israeli power diverts Jews and others from the task at hand. Especially when framed in the guise of guarding Jewish values and the Jewish state of Israel.
What is the task at hand?
We know now that despite the real commitment, the churches and NGO’s working in Israel-Palestine have become part of the occupation. So, too, with the Palestinian Authority. Can Rabbis for Human Rights escape this same designation of commitment and enablement?
If, through a new discernment, this disconnect of commitment and enablement cannot be resolved, it is time for Rabbi for Human Rights to call it a day, announce its dissolution and embark in a more radical direction. Perhaps this could be done in conjunction with the Palestinian Authority announcing its own dissolution. Imagine Rabbis for Human Rights and the Palestinian Authority dissolving themselves together. The impact would be wide-ranging. A witness for the future.
Though many Jewish supporters of Rabbis for Human Rights will howl in protest, accusing them of abandoning Israel and Jewishness itself, that very howl would be telling. Nonetheless, when Rabbis for Human Rights abandon their progressive Zionism, the Jewish community will be closer to turning its final Israel-Palestine corner.