news feature
Dec. 7, 2004


A tall man in a kippah
by Rhiannon Ross

On 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 Starbuck’s in Prairie Village, KS, sipping an iced latte.

Ascherman is the executive director of Rabbis for Human Rights (RHR) ( 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 bachelor’s 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 table.

“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 God’s 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 doesn’t 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. I’m personally for a barrier.

“But we’ve 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. He’s 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, there’s 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 Israel’s 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 event.

As Ascherman nears the end of his presentation, he sheds his suit jacket and rolls up his shirtsleeves as if he’s 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 or


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