Rabbis for Human Rights Leader Warns of Increasing Israeli Intransigence

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American-born Reform Rabbi Arik Ascherman experienced two shocks when he first moved to Israel: first, he recalled, there were no bagels; second, he found that religious Israeli Jews interpret the Torah differently. Ascherman assumed that Israel's core values, as stated in its Declaration of Independence, of "freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel" meant total equality for all. He came to realize, however, that most observant Israeli Jews have been socialized into extreme nationalism, wherein the positive values apply only to how Jews treat their fellow Jews. Israeli settlers, according to Ascherman, are reading from "a warped Torah," while those Israeli Jews who share his more universal views tend to be secular. At a June 16 fund-raiser in Princeton for Rabbis for Human Rights (RHR), of which he is executive director, Ascherman described the biggest division in Judaism today as the tension between particularism and inclusiveness.

Reshaping thinking about the Torah was a motivating factor in the 1998 founding of Rabbis for Human Rights, but its first mandate, Asch? erman insisted, is to protect people from abuse. The organization's proj? ects include protecting Palestinians from settler harassment and working to prevent the demolition of their homes, advocating for the rights of foreign guest workers, and fighting "the epidemic of trafficking in women." Because Israel now has the biggest gap between rich and poor, he continued, the issue of economic justice among disadvantaged Israeli Jews has gained in importance.

Ascherman said it is a running joke that he is an eternal optimist, but acknowledged that he is now a worried man who feels things are so seriously wrong that he is in danger of losing his adopted country. Among the warning signs he cited are the 95 percent of Jewish Israelis who supported Operation Cast Lead against Gazans, and extreme settlers who threaten mayhem and violence in what they call "Operation Price Tag" if the government moves to evacuate any outposts. In Jerusalem alone, Ascherman pointed out, Israelis are building a Museum of "(In)tolerance" on a Muslim graveyard, have plans for "Judaizing" the Palestinian neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah, and are transforming Silwan into an archeological site of the City of David where "you would think there is no history from the second expulsion in the first century to the onset of Zionism in the 19th." Although RHR won a major decision in 2006 when Israel's High Court ruled that the army must do more to allow Palestinian farmers to access their land and protect them from settler violence, Ascherman has observed that under the new Netanyahu government the army is less willing to control settlers.

Asked what the role of American Jews should be, Ascherman responded that he predicts the coming year will reveal tensions between those whose role is to support Israel no matter what and those whose role is to not let friends drive drunk. …