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Do ‘Rabbis for Human Rights’ protect Palestinians or the Jewish State?

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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.

Marc H. Ellis
About Marc H. Ellis

Marc H. Ellis is Professor of History and Jewish Studies and Director of the Center for the Study of the Global Prophetic. His new book, Finding Our Voice: Embodying the Prophetic and Other Misadventures, is forthcoming.

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7 Responses

  1. Mooser
    October 26, 2015, 1:13 pm

    “the Jewish community will be closer to turning its final Israel-Palestine corner.”

    Ever hear tell of a condition which crops up sometimes before “turning the final corner”? It’s called “terminal understeer”.

    Great article, but I’m left confused. I don’t know whether to let Tribal Unity see this one or not. Thanks, Mr Ellis.

  2. CitizenC
    October 26, 2015, 4:20 pm

    Ascherman and Halper should come home and confront the zealots of US Jewish institutions. As native born US citizens their responsibility lies at home, opposing the forces that drive US policy on Palestine (and much else). Not as part of some Jews-only protest designed to showcase “Jewish debate” but in concert with large crowds of gentiles, since this is all of our urgent business. “Jewish people yes, Zionism no!,” chanted at the doors of the DC convention center during the annual AIPAC mtg in March, is the needed approach

  3. heb
    October 26, 2015, 4:56 pm

    Interesting piece. Can you please ask Rabbi Ascherman to write a reply to it ?

    • pabelmont
      October 26, 2015, 5:08 pm

      Good idea, heb. And ask him to confirm that — per UDHR — every person has a right to return to his own home country and then ask him whether RfHR defend the right of the Palestinians exiled in 1948 (and thereafter) to return to their homeland (which is Israel-48).

      I didn;’t know that RfHR was a branch of that very confused thing, Liberal Zionism. Better to be a one-democratic-stater.

  4. tokyobk
    October 27, 2015, 4:08 am

    A side note but I think germane:

    American born rabbis were to the man silent about slavery and congregation leaders in the Antebellum South went out of their way to proclaim loyalty to the cause.

    Only a few European transplants to the US , prominently David Einhorn, one of the founders of the Reform movement, who vehemently challenged that awful institution in enlightened and religious terms.

  5. Kay24
    October 27, 2015, 6:46 am

    Israel passes bill mandating life imprisonment for terror acts.
    Are the Jewish terrorists also going to face the same sentence for their heinous crimes?
    Will the monsters who burnt and killed a family while they slept, including a baby also be
    facing the same sentence, or is this entirely for those they hate?

    “Ministers Approve Bill Mandating Life Imprisonment for Terror Acts
    Under the new bill, ‘murder will be defined as murder and killers will be punished,’says Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked.
    read more:

  6. Linda J
    Linda J
    November 1, 2015, 3:59 pm

    Here is Rabbi Ascherman on Democracy Now.

    It could be Amy’s fault because she NEVER mentions the occupation when she is reporting on the knife attacks, etc. But here again there is no context except that the IDF is supposedly guarding the Palestinians during the Olive Harvest. Ha!

    I’m with Citizen C. Jeff and Erik should come home and work in the belly of the beast.

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