Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

If All Rabbis Were like Arik Ascherman, Middle East Peace Would Be Attainable

Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

If All Rabbis Were like Arik Ascherman, Middle East Peace Would Be Attainable

Article excerpt

If All Rabbis Were Like Arik Ascherman, Middle East Peace Would Be Attainable

Pat McDonnell Twair is a free-lance writer based in Los Angeles.

Viewers of CNN news probably are familiar with Rabbi Arik Ascherman, the tall, thin bearded man who places himself before Israeli bulldozers on their way to demolish Palestinian homes or olive groves. There he stands--until Israeli soldiers drag him away.

The American-born, Harvard-educated idealist explains that he had an epiphany during the sixth and seventh months of the current intifada. It was then that he graduated from protesting the war against civilians to performing acts of resistance, such as defying bulldozers and trying to refill ditches blockading Palestinian villages.

"I've moved to a different space," he said recently in Los Angeles, which he visited as part of a nationwide American tour. "I am trying to get through to the average Israeli, to make him understand the wholesale war that is being waged against the non-combatant Palestinian population."

In 1998, Rabbi Ascherman became executive director of Rabbis for Human Rights (RHR), an organization including 90 ordained Israeli rabbis and rabbinical students. They joined forces in 1988 in an attempt to counteract the indifference of much of Israel's religious leadership and citizenry to their state's abuse of the Palestinian people.

Ascherman stressed that RHR works for the human rights of Jews, Palestinians and foreign workers alike. It has condemned both Israelis and Palestinians, he explained, but contends that it is Israel who holds most of the power.

"The work I do isn't fun," stated the dedicated humanitarian, speaking to a small audience at the Workmen's Circle in Los Angeles on May 9. "As a rabbi and a Zionist, it's not a great pleasure to work in the deepest, darkest secrets of Israeli society that most would rather think do not exist."

Rabbi Ascherman first locked horns with Israel's Catch-22 mentality in his attempt to preserve the house of Saleem Shawarmah. The modest house has come to symbolize Israel's policy to make it nearly impossible for Palestinians to receive legal building permits. Then, when they are forced to construct a house without a permit, their homes are demolished for having been built illegally.

Shawarmah built his house in 1996 in the West Bank village of Anata.

"Anata is the biblical Anatot, home of Jeremiah the Prophet," Rabbi Ascherman noted. "I wonder what he would have to say about all this if he were here today."

The house was demolished in July of 1998, rebuilt, and demolished again in August 1998. In the summer of 1999, the house again was rebuilt and dedicated.

"Israel lives in a bubble in which it claims every action is carried out according to law," Rabbi Ascherman said. "It is important to step back and look at the big picture--that no Palestinian is getting a permit--and then step forward and recognize the absurdity of the micro view that questions the legality of the decision."

When it questioned the reason for the demolition of the Shawarmah house, RHR was told that the family had no permit to build on agricultural land, that the house was on a slope with a steep incline, or was too close to a strategic road.

"When all these excuses resulted in bad public relations, the government floated a trial balloon that two co-owners of the land had failed to sign a permit to build," the rabbi continued. "We replied, `Fine, tell us who the two co-owners are and we will get their signatures.' The civil administration stated it couldn't release this information, then it claimed it had lost the file. Finally, we signed up everyone in the village and we never found these two co-owners.

"Thirty days ago," the rabbi told his audience, "the Israelis bulldozed Saleem's home again. I was arrested for trying to prevent the demolition. I believe his house was targeted because it has become a symbol of the struggle against house demolitions. …

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