any given day, Rabbi Arik Ascherman might be found in a West Bank
village helping his Palestinian neighbors harvest olives. Or he could
just as easily be blocking a bulldozer from demolishing a Palestinian
home. However, on an unseasonably warm day last month, he was sitting
at a Starbucks in Prairie Village, KS, sipping an iced latte.
Ascherman is the executive director of Rabbis for Human Rights (RHR)
(www.rhr.israel.net). Founded in 1988, this Israel-based, non-governmental
organization is dedicated to the Jewish religious tradition of human
rights for all. He is visiting the U.S. to address the topic of Jewish
Values, Human Rights and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict.
Born in Erie, PA, Ascherman received a bachelors degree in sociology
from Harvard University in 1981 and rabbinical ordination from Hebrew
Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York in 1989. He
became a citizen of Israel in 1994, where he lives with his wife,
also a rabbi, and their two children.
In the tradition of rabbis, Ascherman wears a kippah (Hebrew for
skullcap). Black curls and a full beard and mustache frame his intense
blue eyes. Tall and lanky, he leans away from the wobbly, three-legged
I think the tradition of human rights in Judaism starts in the
Bible, says Ascherman. Jews know the Old Testament as the Torah.
In the very first verses of the Bible, where we are told all
human beings are created in Gods image. And if humans beings
are the image of God on earth, to harm another human being is to attack
God or to diss God.
Ascherman says the original Zionist vision was to build an ideal country
that was going to be a light unto the nations.
Another idea you find earlier in Zionist thinking was to make
the Jewish people a normal people as opposed to the abnormal situation
we were living with in Europe because of anti-Semitism.
And these two values, says Ascherman, have always been in tangent.
In recent years, perhaps the vision of becoming a normal nation,
not having any expectations of being different than any place else,
has perhaps gained weight at the expense of being a light unto the
nations. I think when that happens, some of what I see as important
in terms of building a state based on our highest Jewish values gets
set aside a bit.
Ascherman says the real quest of Zionism today, and the focus of RHR,
is to work for an Israel that is not only physically strong but is
morally strong and lives up to the highest Jewish values. RHR works
on issues of human rights for Jews and non-Jews, ranging from economics
to education to health care. It also includes advocating for Palestinians
whose olive trees are uprooted, lands expropriated and homes demolished.
To replace uprooted olive trees on the West Bank olive oil
is a major export for Palestinians RHR sponsors the Olive Tree
Campaign. North American Jews, says Ascherman, largely fund the project.
There is also a North American RHR chapter.
Another initiative that RHR has been involved with is the Separation
Barrier between Israel and Palestine. Ascherman says RHR doesnt
have an issue with the Separation Barrier itself, but that the route
of the barrier is a human rights issue for them as well as a violation
of international law.
I can tell you, with two young children at home and bombs going
off not too far from my home, you better believe, knowing there are
terrorists wanting to come and murder my family. Im personally
for a barrier.
But weve created a conflict between right and right. Between
our right to self-defense and the Palestinian right to their lands,
which are being separated from the current route of the barrier to
access hospitals, which can be life and death for them.
RHR also opposes Israel bulldozing Palestinian homes. Ascherman says
the current system creates a Catch-22 for Palestinians
wishing to build homes for their families. Most Palestinians are prevented
from obtaining building permits and then when they build because they
are homeless, the Israeli government demolishes the structure.
In 2003, Ascherman, along with two other activists, attempted to block
the bulldozing of a Palestinian home. They were arrested and charged
with interfering with the police in the execution of their duties.
This act of civil disobedience could land them in jail up to three
years. The next trial is set for January 2005.
Sometimes there is no alternative to standing in front of the
bulldozers, says Ascherman.
RHR also helps rebuild demolished homes. And the rewards are well
worth it, says Ascherman. He says Palestinian parents often bring
their children out to meet them while they rebuild.
The parent says my 10-year-old has just seen our home demolished
in front of his eyes. Hes just seen his parents humiliated in
front of his eyes. What do we say to our 10-year-old child when he
says, I want to grow up to be a terrorist.
We want our 10-year-old child to know that not every Israeli
comes with guns to demolish our homes, that there are Israelis who
come to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with us to rebuild our homes.
This is the essence of what RHR is working for, says Ascherman.
We know that even if we sign a perfect treaty tomorrow, if we
continue to teach hate about each other, theres no way that
treaty can survive. So we all understand that our long-term self-interest
is predicated on breaking down the hatred.
Ascherman presses this point. So who is really working toward
Israels long-term interests? The people who demolish homes and
steal olives and violate human rights or those of us who rebuild homes
and harvest olives and help protect human rights?
That evening, he asks this same question of audience members at Congregation
Beth Torah in Overland Park, KS. The Kansas City chapters of Tikkun
and the Jewish Alliance for Justice and Peace are sponsors of the
As Ascherman nears the end of his presentation, he sheds his suit
jacket and rolls up his shirtsleeves as if hes no longer standing
in the synagogue but is once again in a West Bank village. He closes
with the story of a Palestinian child who testified before the courts.
The boy tells the judge how he witnessed his home being razed
and his parents being humiliated, says Ascherman. And
when the boy is almost finished, he tells the judge, And then
a tall man in a kippah came to help me and told me not to be afraid.
Rhiannon Ross is a writer living in Kansas. She can be contacted
at Rhiannross@aol.com or publisher_editeKC@kcactive.com.