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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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At first glance, Arik Ascherman seems more like a soft-spoken university lecturer than a combative crusader for the rights of the “other,” be they Palestinian or African refugee.

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Yet the American-born rabbi is embroiled in two of Israel’s main conflicts today: the struggle with Palestinians over the West Bank and, within Israel, a rising tide of anti-Arab and anti-foreigner sentiment. The latter is starkly illustrated by an unprecedented rabbinical edict calling on Jews not to rent or sell property to non-Jews.

Both conflicts are at the heart of a debate over whether Israel can be live up to its ideal of being democratic as well as Jewish.

Israel is at a particularly sensitive, even dangerous point in its history, argues Rabbi Ascherman, a liberal voice struggling to be heard among Israel’s more prevalent Orthodox strain. In the face of “huge warning signs,” such as the recent rabbinical edict, he sees an urgent need to temper xenophobic fears with education about human rights.

“Things always go in waves, but they have reached a height I don’t ever recall seeing before,” says the Harvard grad, who helped found Rabbis for Human Rights (RHR) in Israel more than 20 years ago.

“Your average Israeli does not want bad things for non-Jews,” he says, “but they think: (a) our self-defense comes first, and (b) we are a small country and must take care of ourselves first. The demagogues play on these fears – the danger of an Arab living next to you or the danger of allowing refugees in our society, diluting Jewish culture, [the danger] that our children will intermarry. All of these play on fears so that even decent people who are not racist are overcome by these fears.”

Rabbi rulings against Arabs, Africans

Indeed, the religious edicts banning rentals to non-Jews seem to be based as much on xenophobia as religious beliefs.

Seven rabbis in the Tel Aviv suburb of Bnei Brak published a ruling last month calling on landlords to refrain from letting to “illegal residents and their ilk.” The rabbis wrote that an influx of African asylum seekers had reached “horrific proportions,” accusing the refugees of being idle and harassing others.

Then there were the statements of rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu of Safed, a northern town, who spearheaded an edict to ban Arabs from living there. According to the rabbi, this was self-defense – otherwise Arabs would gradually take over Safed, considered a holy Jewish city.

“I have great compassion for human beings, even for animals. I have no compassion for enemies,” he told Maariv newspaper last month. “The moment a person comes and tells me in my house that I am a guest and not the owner, the moment a person distorts history, the moment a person acts in my city as if its his village, I have no obligation to be merciful towards him.”

Rabbi Eliyahu’s approach was adopted on a national scale last week, when some 50 rabbis from across the country issued an edict banning the rental of apartments to Arabs.

“The land of Israel is intended for the people of Israel,” Yosef Shainin, chief rabbi of the coastal town of Ashdod, explained to Army Radio.

All of this is anathema to Ascherman and his group, which draws on the humanistic teachings of the late American rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who marched along with Martin Luther King in the civil rights movement and opposed the Vietnam war.

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