“I know some will hear what I am saying as a political statement. Well, it is that – how can we be concerned about what happens in society, any society, but particularly Israeli society and not have a Jewish view on it?” | Israeli Art: Orange-2 By zeevveez cc: flickr
Just under a month ago Rabbi Colin Eimer was part of a group of nearly 20 Reform and Liberal rabbis who, together with some members from our communities, spent a week in Israel with Rabbis for Human Rights.
RHR was founded in 1988, and today has over 100 members- ordained rabbis and rabbinical students. Isaac Newman, rabbi at Barnet United for many years before he went on aliyah, was one of the founder members. RHR describes itself as the rabbinic voice of conscience in Israel. It isn’t aligned with any specific political party and is the only rabbinic organization in Israel in which Orthodox, Reform, Liberal, Conservative, Masorti rabbis work together.
I’ve been a supporter of its work for many years but this is the first time I’ve been on one of the study tours they organize from time to time. I think the work they do is of profound importance on the ground; they are the only organization in Israel today that speaks about human rights in the voice of the Jewish tradition. I came across them in the context of the work they did upholding the rights of, primarily, Palestinians in the occupied territories who don’t have the weight of law behind them and suffer both at the hands of settlers and the army.
And that was what I thought would be the bulk of what we would be seeing. In fact, as I learned, only some 50% or less of their work is beyond the Green Line, the pre-1967 6 Day War border. Now they do very important work within the Green Line, with those who are disadvantaged in society: the poor and the unemployed; minorities – Israeli Bedouin in the Negev, Palestinian Israelis, foreign workers in Israel; Jews from Ethiopia and the former Soviet Union – and now, in particular, on matters relating to the status of women. In many areas of Israeli life, reactionary forces are working against democratic principles and human rights: attempts to separate men and women on buses; to tell soldiers that they shouldn’t listen to women singing; calls being made even in the Knesset to monitor Israeli university lecture theatres to make sure lecturers are expressing correct attitudes and ‘correct’ means, of course, correct in the eyes of those calling for the monitoring.
As we heard on a number of occasions there is a battle going on for the hearts and minds of Israelis – the forces of reaction, entrenchment are seeking to impose their view, style, and approach on society.
What were some of the highlights?
The first day we spent following the line of the Separation barrier around Jerusalem. RHR recognizes, and kept on emphasizing, that there must be a balance between ensuring that Israel’s citizens can live in peace and security, on the one hand, but not achieve that at the cost of so restricting the human rights of those non-Israelis who are under their control. We went to the village of Abu Dis where the Separation Barrier runs right through the village. What had once been a short, five minutes, say, journey to see friends or get to hospital, now might take well over an hour with the need to negotiate one or two army checkpoints.
We went to Sderot on the Gaza Strip – the town mercilessly bombarded by Hamas rockets and where they still land almost daily. On arrival, we’re told that if we hear ‘red warning’ over loudspeakers, we should take cover in one of the crude air-raid shelters all over the place. We went to a college where we saw part of the RHR’s ‘Citizens for Equality’ programme. 8 women students speak to us – 4 Bedouin, 4 Jewish. It is only open to women because empowerment of Bedouin women, in particular, is an issue. They attend lectures by RHR staff and commit to working on local volunteer projects – all of which is in addition to the degree courses they are doing. Two of the women are working on literacy projects in a nearby Arab town, where illiteracy among women is very high. One of the Jewish women comes from a West Bank settlement. She explains that her family and friends can’t understand why she’s involved with this programme. She says she wants to encourage the settler community to have deeper awareness of their impact on the people and the area they live in.
Later on we go to a big school nearby – abandoned because of the rockets – where a number of young people are doing mechinah, an extra year of army service before their formal conscription into the IDF. Another RHR programme working to raise awareness of issues to do with democracy, human rights, gender issues, equality, how minorities are treated. They study and they do project work. They will be in the elite of the IDF leadership, in part because of what they have done during their mechinah.
Wherever it can, RHR’s lawyers provide legal expertise and representation. They know how to negotiate the labyrinthine Israeli legal system – especially in the Occupied Territories – and show where the authorities are not doing what they are obliged to do by the law, or, doing what they shouldn’t, by law, be doing. Often they end up going to the Israeli Supreme Court and have had notable successes there. Wherever possible they lobby members of the Knesset to enlist their support.
The Wild East
On another day we go the South Hebron hills, an area which used to be called the ‘Israeli Wild West,’ because it was so lawless. Settlers, often from settlements illegal even by Israeli standards, given weapons by the army, would take pot shots at Palestinians on the road or working their fields. It’s a sad story of dispossession, with little protection from the army who are meant to be protecting the rights of all people living there.
In one village, a Spanish Government project had provided solar panels for a Palestinian village, so that they could have electricity. But the legal struggle to get them installed had been horrendous and in other places, such solar panels had been destroyed by settlers. And when the villagers went to the army to seek redress or protection they got neither. A story we heard repeated with distressing frequency during all our time there.
We spent a day in the RHR office in Hadera. There they work with the unemployed, minority groups, foreign workers and so on. We did an interesting exercise. We were given ‘Monopoly’ money to the value of the unemployment benefit. We walked around the town – when we came to the Gas Company, for example, we were handed a gas bill and had to pay out that number of shekels; and the same at the phone company, the electricity company, the pharmacy and so on. At the supermarket we had a very basic shopping list. No frills, no “I’ll get that for the kids.” So each group arrived back at the office with just a few shekels left – only to be presented with the rent bill! En passant, an exercise I think all of us in this consumerist society could benefit from doing.
There were positives. While settler violence is not yet a thing of the past it is much reduced. As is localised Palestinian violence – the outcome of years of frustration and ill-treatment. And while Palestinian violence is invariably dealt with punitively, settler violence is seldom punished by the legal system or the army,
We did see some positive and encouraging things. Those kids doing mechinah in that abandoned school; the 8 women in gthe Sderot College and so on; generally more interest in the work of RHR, success in the courts, better coverage in the media. But it was hardly a pleasant or enjoyable week.
It doesn’t match with the image I, we, have of Israel and Israelis. We saw the underbelly of society within the Green Line and of the occupation beyond the Green Line. Usually it’s those at the bottom of the social ladder who experience the darker side of a society. When you are there, you have to deal with the arbitrariness of life and of the authorities – never knowing if the soldiers at the checkpoint are going to make life easy or difficult; is the clerk in this or that office going to be helpful or make life miserable? The rule of law doesn’t always extend this far down.
Whether you are Israeli or Palestinian, you would now have to be into your late 40s, at the least, to remember a time when there wasn’t an occupation. It sows bitter seeds and destroys lives in both communities – thankfully not too often actually through death – but spiritually, internally, morally it most surely does destroy: hope, human decency, aspiration, the idea that life can be different from what it is now. Israel cannot remain an occupying power for ever; the Palestinians will not accept being occupied for ever.
What can we do as a synagogue?
We are heirs to a tradition and teaching of tikkun olam – the idea that the injustices we see in the world can move towards better resolution; we are heirs to a great tradition of prophetic Judaism which speaks of responsibility towards others in society, not just our own. The prophets were concerned with how the powerful treat the powerless. If that is not the situation currently in Israel, what is?
I know some will hear what I am saying as a political statement. Well, it is that – how can we be concerned about what happens in society, any society, but particularly Israeli society and not have a Jewish view on it? So in that respect it is political, but it isn’t a party political statement. I don’t care which part of the Israeli political establishment does it, but how can there still be equivocation about the need to get out of the occupied territories? Of course there are problems about that – but the need is not in question. If only out of pure self-interest because it is so damaging to Israel, the vision of Zionism, the moral values that Israel believes that it stands for and so on.
We should be absolutely clear about only supporting programmes that work for dialogue, reconciliation, co-operative ventures and so. Conversely we should resolutely oppose anything which doesn’t work towards that end.
We’re in that part of the Torah which speaks of building the mishkan, the portable tabernacle in the desert. In our reading the phrase b’makom kadosh – a holy place – came up. Albeit often in a very secular way all Zionist philosophies saw Eretz Yisrael as a special place, a makom kadosh, in which Jewish moral and ethical values might find expression in the sort of society that was to be created there, the sort of people who will inhabit the land. That is what RHR is trying to do.
Our prayer is that, with whatever help and support we can give, Israel can, bimheyrah b’yameynu, become the best that it might be.
3 March 2012