In West Bank, rabbi leads search for peace, one olive harvest at a time

Arik Ascherman, who heads Rabbis for Human Rights, invokes texts that call for tolerance. For years he has worked to protect the Palestinian olive harvest from Israeli attacks.

Joshua Mitnick
Two weeks after being attacked by a fellow Israeli, human rights activist Rabbi Arik Ascherman walks the West Bank hillside to monitor the Palestinian olive harvest in the village of Einabus on Nov. 4, 2015.

For more than a decade, Rabbi Arik Ascherman has patrolled these hills to help shield the Palestinian olive harvest from extremist Israeli violence and ensure that the Israeli Army protects the Palestinians.

When a wave of Palestinian stabbing attacks broke out a month ago in Jerusalem, colleagues warned the US-born rabbi that it might be too dangerous.

But late last month, it was a fellow Israeli who descended on Rabbi Ascherman with a knife as he escorted Palestinian villagers harvesting olive trees beneath the hard-line Jewish settlement of Itamar. The dramatic struggle that ensued, in which he was struck with a stone and kicked down a hill, was captured on a video that went viral.

Last week, still nursing a bandaged broken finger from the attack, Ascherman, a Reform rabbi who heads the multidenominational peace group Rabbis for Human Rights, bounded up a hilltop in search of a lone group of Palestinian olive pickers to see if they felt secure enough to venture out.  

Blithely referring to the near-stabbing as “the incident,’’ he says he has returned to the hillsides with Israeli volunteers to continue his work. Staying home, he says, would be a victory for vigilantes. 

In the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, religious fundamentalism on both sides drives a cycle of violence and refusal to compromise. But Ascherman, a Harvard grad from Erie, Penn., who was ordained at Reform Judaism’s Hebrew Union College in New York, invokes Jewish texts that he says are both a call for tolerance and a call to action against what he considers excesses of the Israeli government and extremist settlers.

He and his organization have organized harvest volunteers, blocked bulldozers about to demolish Palestinian homes, and fought for Bedouin land rights. In 2006, Rabbis for Human Rights won an Israeli Supreme Court decision ordering the army to protect the olive harvest.

The olive harvest – an important economic lifeline for many Palestinian villagers – has been a battleground for more than a decade. The Israeli human rights group Yesh Din has documented 260 cases of olive tree vandalism over the last decade. Some 15 percent of the incidents were reported in the area just south of the Palestinian city of Nablus, near the settlements of Itamar and Har Bracha. Settlers say the Palestinians cut down and burn their olive fields, and that they face frequent incidents of rock and Molotov cocktail throwing by Palestinians. 

“When we created the state, we legitimately said, ‘Never again. We will never again be powerless,’” Ascherman says. “That has morphed into ‘we can use the power we have to oppress others.’ Way before ‘never again’ the Torah tells us, ‘Never ever. You know what it’s like to be oppressed, don’t oppress others.’"

Fear on both sides

Ascherman argues that Israelis have created a society that has become violent both internally and externally. “There’s a midrash [rabbinic commentary] that says don’t delude yourselves – a hand that strikes the non-Jew will eventually strike the Jew as well.”

Ascherman and his cadre of Israeli volunteers have been working in the West Bank olive fields going back to the second intifada. The wave of stabbings and murder of Eitam and Naama Henkin while driving with their children near Itamar in October have sown mutual fear: Palestinians are reluctant to harvest olives on their own for fear of settler vigilantes looking for revenge, while Israeli security forces have bolstered their presence at West Bank intersections in an unprecedented deployment to protect settlers.

"Every time the Palestinians, with the Israeli army protecting them, successfully work their land, it’s like shattering that aspiration to use violence and economic pressure to get people to leave," Ascherman says. "I think we are actually contributing to Israel’s security, because we are showing them there are other types of Israelis."

Palestinian Mohammed Assous’s family was out harvesting olives with the rabbi’s group last week just a few feet away from an Israeli vineyard the Palestinians claim belongs to them. “In our village, a lot of people don’t know there are good Jews. The don’t know people like Arik,’’ he says. “They only know from settlers and soldiers.”

Settlers see a provocateur

But settlers see Rabbis for Human Rights in a different light. They insist Ascherman is a provocateur who instigates angry confrontations and damages otherwise good relations with Palestinian villagers. Ezra Ben Saadaon, a vintner from the settlement of Rehelim, says he’s seen the rabbi in two angry showdowns over olive trees and vineyards in the West Bank.

“He’s stirring things up. It cause a needless mess,’’ says Mr. Saadon, who nonetheless says the stabbing attack on the rabbi was unjustifiable.

Despite the tension, this year’s olive harvest has gone better than expected, with lower rates of vandalism and theft compared with previous years.

“I’d like to think it's because of our discussions [with the army] and influence we’re doing a better job,” Ascherman says. “Maybe many people, including the settler population, understand there’s a lid that could blow off at any second.’’

At the Assous family olive grove below the Israeli settlement of Har Bracha, volunteers and Palestinian villagers worked together shaking olives from branches before sitting down to a lunch of hummus and pita. Just a few feet away was a fence separating olive trees from a small settler run vineyard. Tempers have flared in the past in the field; the family said they felt safer working in the company of the Israeli activists. 

“Some [Israelis] say we are helping the enemy,’’ says Yael Vurgan, a rabbinic student and volunteer coordinator. “[Volunteers] want to feel like they are doing something. They can’t solve the big problems, but they want to take a stand, and repair the world.”

'There is another way'

Zacharia Sadeh, a Palestinian field worker for Rabbis for Human Rights, documented the attack on Ascherman two weeks ago. After his video footage was picked up by news organizations, Palestinians called to express their support for the rabbi, he says.

“This makes a big difference for the Palestinians,’’ Mr. Sadeh says. “They see that there are other kinds of religious Jews, who are willing to help and stand next to them.”

Israel police said they arrested a 17-year old minor on Nov. 8 , who was from the settlement of Itamar and confessed to the attack. The minor was indicted in a juvenile court on Nov. 13 on charges of aggravated assault, possession of a knife and ammunition.

The attention surrounding Ascherman after the attack has contributed to a boost in the number of volunteers for the human rights group after years of decline. Though the prospects for Israeli-Palestinian peace seem dim, Ascherman says he tells Palestinians and Israelis that even small actions have the potential to spur change.

“For a lot of our volunteers, it’s what helps them get up in the morning,’’ he says. “When you are in the middle of this insane situation with violence in all directions, and everybody is losing it, this is something concrete which reminds us that there is another way.”

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