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.

Nasser Ishtayeh/AP
In this October 2001 photo, Israeli human rights activist Rabbi Arik Ascherman joins a small group providing the Palestinian villagers of Haris a Jewish human shield and helps them harvest the new olive crop.

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.

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.

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.

“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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