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In Israel, a rabbi who argues that anti-Arab measures are un-Jewish

Arik Ascherman, a Harvard grad who helped found Rabbis for Human Rights, is struggling to present an alternative voice amid rising anti-Arab and anti-foreigner sentiment in Israel.

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How RHR responded

At the first sign of trouble last month, when rabbis in Tel Aviv called on landlords not to rent to African asylum seekers, RHR put together its own religious opinion, signed by 50 liberal rabbis. RHR rabbis wrote that banning rentals – a movement that has gathered steam, with 50 rabbis around Israel endorsing it – contradicted biblical values and was reminiscent of Jewish persecution, including that by Nazi Germany.

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“The tradition of Israel comes out against the natural human tendency to hate the stranger and those who are different,” the rabbis wrote. They quoted Leviticus 19:34 in the Old Testament: “The stranger that sojourneth with you shall be unto you as the homeborn among you, and thou shalt love him as thyself, for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt. I am the Lord your God.”

Over the years, Ascherman has applied that injunction to the Pales­tinians. Every autumn, he organizes RHR volunteers to protect Palestinians from Israeli settler violence during the olive harvest.

And six years ago he had to perform 120 hours of community service after being convicted of interfering with the Jerusalem municipality’s attempt to destroy an unlicensed Palestinian home by blocking a bulldozer. His reasoning: It was unjust and un-Jewish to demolish the homes when Palestinians did not have a fair chance to obtain a building license.

Why RHR struggles to be heard

RHR is not popular with West Bank settlers, and has struggled to gain traction even with average Israelis.

“Ascherman instigates Palestinians against the Jewish residents, I’m sorry the organization exists, it is very unproductive,” says David HaIvri, spokesman for the Samaria Council in the northern West Bank. “It is definitely not concerned with the human rights of Jews or assisting in a peaceful solution. Its agenda is to show how evil settlers are.”

Ascherman says the organization is now having an internal discussion on whether to go further and to issue a call on the government for the dismissal from their posts of the rabbis – most of them on state payroll – who called for halting rentals to Arabs.

But RHR has limited impact on Israeli public opinion, partly because most of its rabbis come from non-Orthodox streams of Judaism, including conservative, reform, and reconstructionist traditions.

In Israel, where only Orthodox rabbis are officially recognized, such streams have small followings and are widely viewed as foreign imports.

“Ascherman is saying clear things but in the confused Israeli agenda they are hard to swallow,” says Uri Dromi, once a spokesman for former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. “People say, ‘What kind of rabbis are these?' Most of the population does not connect with reform or conservative Judaism.”

“Neither the public nor the religious community are receptive to their messages,” agrees Menachem Klein, a political scientist at Bar Ilan University near Tel Aviv.

Ascherman is more optimistic, but admits RHR’s task is a tough one. “There’s been a lot of progress on people understanding there is another authentic Jewish voice. But many know more about the 50 rabbis [who issued the edict] than they do about our rabbis and we clearly have a lot of work to do.”


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