JERUSALEM — To Israeli state prosecutors Arik Ascherman is a criminal, but to Palestinian Bassam Kiswani he is "the sweetest rabbi."
Ascherman, an immigrant from Erie, Pa., is the head of Rabbis for Human Rights, an organization of 90 rabbis, almost all of them immigrants from Western countries, who bring alleged human rights abuses, usually against the Palestinians, to the attention of the Israeli public and authorities. It is at times unpopular work in a society that views itself as being in a war for survival and where rabbis are often identified with hawkish, right-wing attitudes.
Ascherman, joined by two other defendants, went on trial Wednesday for interfering with police during demolitions of two Palestinian homes last year. In one case, he blocked a bulldozer and in another, he refused to leave the roof of a house threatened with destruction. The houses were destroyed on grounds they were built without permits.
Former municipality officials admit that many Palestinians are forced to build illegally because the city denies them the chance to obtain permits as part of a policy to maintain Jewish demographic superiority in Jerusalem.
Mr. Kiswani says he poured about $100,000 into building his home despite being denied a permit and lived in it for two years until he and his family of 12 became homeless when police dragged Ascherman away and completed the demolition. "I saw him defending my house," said Kiswani outside the courtroom.
The trial is the highlight of a decade of activism for Ascherman, who draws on the Bible, Jewish philosopher Abraham Joshua Heschel, and Martin Luther King Jr. as inspirations. Ascherman and other activists accompany Palestinians every fall as they harvest olives, to discourage West Bank settlers from attacking the farmers. He tries to help Palestinians in need of medical treatment get past checkpoints speedily. His group also lobbies against government budget cuts which hit Israel's poor hard. But his critics say his universalism has taken him too far and that he neglects self defense and other rights of Jewish Israelis.
Seated in his office, the lanky Harvard graduate says his human rights emphasis derives foremost from Genesis Chapter 1 verse 27, which says that "God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them."
He also emphasizes Leviticus 19 verse 33, which highlights the need to not maltreat the stranger, and verse 35, which rules out double standards in judgment.
Ascherman says that Israel's demolition policy contravenes that and he hopes to use his trial to put government actions in the public spotlight. "Not everything that is legal is just and that is the whole point of civil disobedience," Ascherman says. "The demolition policy tramples on the torah, which is my duty as a rabbi to uphold."
Heschel, a Vietnam War opponent, taught that "in a free society some are guilty and all are responsible," Ascherman stresses. "The principle is that if the law is unjust you challenge it as a last resort," Ascherman says."There is something more confrontational about facing a bulldozer than sitting at a lunch counter but the principle is absolutely the same and some of the things Dr. King did become confrontational."
Israeli state prosecutor Shlomit Landes has little patience for Ascherman's arguments. "This trial is not the place to deliberate over the question of discrimination," she says. "They can turn to the political system for that. They interfered with the police." More than 300 US rabbis have petitioned the Israeli government asking that the charges be dropped and that the demolitions be halted.
But inside Israel Ascherman has many critics, including several rabbis that dropped out of Rabbis for Human Rights on the grounds that he was soft on Palestinian human rights violations or was inattentive to Israeli concerns.
"The problem is not only Israeli bulldozers, it's Palestinian suicide bombers and [the] hate being taught in their schools," says Jerusalem rabbi and philosopher David Hartman. "They should protest against mosque sermons that demonize the Jews."
"Occupation is not an abstraction," he adds. "There is a reality of war and that reality has not been given up by the Palestinians. They still are in armed conflict against us. It's a terrorist war. The occupation is a result of trying to protect human lives. It's an attempt to enhance the dignity of man. I wonder about Israeli lives as well, which also concern the dignity of man. There is a horrible perversion here of seeing the enemy aggressor as victim."