General, Justice in Israel

At economic committee hearing, Housing Ministry Director General Shlomo Ben Eliahu claims that public housing “doesn’t work”

No Comments 04 December 2013

Press release

At a hearing of the Knesset economic committee, Housing Ministry Director General Shlomo Ben Eliahu claimed that public housing “doesn’t work.” However, in conversations after the formal discussion, Director General Ben Eliahu told organizations from the Public Housing Forum that the problem of public housing is a budget deficiency. He claimed that more than half of the public housing tenants today do not meet the present strict criteria. The statements were made at a hearing of the Knesset economic committee which mostly consisted of a report by housing Minister Uri Ariel about his ministry’s activities. The organizations managed to get the minister to focus on public housing. A central part of the discussion was about the ministry’s wish to transform a large part of public housing to a rent assistance model and thereby cancel most of the public housing.

At the hearing on Wednesday, November 27, 2013, contradictions were seen between the housing ministry’s official messages about public housing and statements that were made informally. At the hearing, the Director General Ben Eliahu said that public housing was a faulty model that does not work.

However, in informal conversations with organization representatives after the hearing, the director said that the problem with public housing stemmed from a budgetary deficiency and the fact that money that had been earmarked for public housing had been redirected over the years to other purposes. MK Avishai Braverman (labor), who chaired the hearing, was more specific and mentioned that some of the money was divertd among other things to construction in the occupied territories.

The director general added that today more than half of the public housing tenants did not meet the (strict) current criteria to receive public housing. This figure shows that the present criteria do not meet the needs of most of the people in Israel who need public housing in order to have a roof over their heads.

Rabbi Arik Ascherman, president of Rabbis for Human Rights, member of the Public Housing Forum: “Jewish tradition teaches us integrity and avoiding fraud, and the representatives of the finance and housing ministries should tell the public directly that the issue at hand is a moral not a technical one: should the adequate amount of money be invested in order to guarantee what the state once promised: housing for every resident? The housing ministry must not hide behind claims that public housing doesn’t work.”

Occupied Territories

Start of the olive harvest

1 Comment 04 October 2013

RHR’s first olive harvest of 5774 will take place this Sunday. 

Rabbi Yehiel Grenimann had to travel abroad for an urgent family matter, and I have been asked to help out.

I will therefore be there personally on Sunday, and we hope that many of you will be there as well. Let’s begin the season on the right foot!!! We will read this Shabbat of the dove with the olive branch in her mouth, and then go out on Sunday to again make the olive branch a symbol of peace. Continue Reading


RHR assif rukhani (Spiritual Harvest)

No Comments 17 September 2013

One theory of regarding why Sukkot is called “HeKhag,”(The quintessential pilgrimage holiday) is that it was the most important holiday to the Jews in an agricultural society.  On Passover farmers would bring grain offerings to the Temple in Jerusalem, and first fruits on or after Shavuot. Not only would a farmer bring offerings from the harvest on Sukkot, but until today we begin to pray for rain.  In our part of the world, sufficient rain is a survival issue for a farmer.  Halakha (Jewish law) stipulates that the Sukkah (Holiday booth in which we are commanded to dwell during the holiday)  must provide shade.  However, it is intentionally frail, temporary, and the skhakh (thatching) can not be so thick as to keep out the rain or prevent us from seeing the stars.  We are commanded to be happy, yet also read the sobering book of Ecclesiastes.  We count our blessings, but we express concern for the future.

We in the human rights community always have an eye toward the future.  The moment we accomplish something, we immediately turn our eye to the next injustice that must be addressed.  We are painfully aware that many of our accomplishments may be as frail and temporary as the Sukkah.  I recall how back in 1988, when as a founding member of ICAHD we helped bring about a drastic decline in the number of administrative home demolitions, I was convinced we had ended this policy.  Others, a little more experienced than I was at the time, were not so optimistic.  They were right.  That is why in 2013 we need to petition the High Court to return planning for Palestinian communities in Area C to Palestinian hands.  (At the governmen’s tequest, has just rescheduled the hearing on our petition to the beginning of January, and believe that there will be no more posponements..  We very much want rabbis and international jurists in the courtroom on that day.  Please consider very seriously making a trip at that time, and we will try to reschedule our planned Jewish Leadership Study Tour for that time.

Many squirm and find it almost impossible to read through the long list of our societal sins included in RHR’s Yom Kippur Vidui(Confession) .  Sometimes we hear, “Well, if you really think everything is so terrible here, go live in Gaza or Syria.”  It is as if the fact that Israel is far from the worst human rights violator in the world and that Israeli human rights activists have the privilege of being able to work more or less freely means that we have nothing further to aspire to and should turn a blind eye to Israel’s faults.

Many also squirm when they read through RHR’s celebration of Israel’s assif rukhani (spiritual harvest.)  Obviously, those who seek to delegitimize Israel do not want anybody to hear anything positive. I recently heard that some criticize me because I am motivated by the desire to redeem the Jewish people.  However, there are also many who share our dream of an Israel living up to our highest Jewish values who simply are so overwhelmed by the evils and injustice they encounter every day that that they are incapable of counting our national blessings.

Neither the RHR vidui, nor the RHR assif rukhani (Spiritual Harvest) alone gives an accurate picture of Israel and Israelis society.  Together, they begin reflect our reality.

The Sukkot holiday therefore teaches us an important lesson in living with the contradictions inherent in life.  We can and must genuinely rejoice in the fact that we live in a strong democracy, without ignoring the threats to that democracy, those of our citizens whom our democracy tramples or the fact that there is no democracy for those whom we are occupying.  Living in the Sukkah for a week, I can’t help but think of the hundreds of homes demolished this past year in the Occupied Territories, the sharp rise in Bedouin home demolitions in the Negev, or those Israelis who have been evicted from public housing.  None of that takes away from the fact that there have been real changes improving the lives of real people.  When people ask me how I can continue doing what I do after 18 years, two of the answers are a real sense of accomplishment and a genuine belief in the goodness and decency of my fellow Israelis.

If we did the spiritual work we needed to do on Yom Kippur by relentlessly looking at our faults and thinking about how to correct them, we have earned the right to celebrate our assif rukhani, that which is good in us and in Israeli society.  Now is the time to savor our accomplishments of the last year.

There are two sections to this list of our spiritual harvest.  The first is a list of what we can take pride in as Israelis. The second section is a list of some RHR’s accomplishments.  It is no more complete that was the list of wrongdoings in the RHR vidui.  The fact that there are limitations, threats or exceptions to many of the items listed here makes them no less real.

Israel’s Spiritual Harvest


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  • Israel is a strong and vibrant democracy in which RHR and other organizations critical of Israeli society can freely operate, express our opinions, use the courts and our free press.

  • Israel is a small and relatively informal country.  Individuals and small groups can impact policy.  Even those without huge bank accounts can have access to the countries decision makers.

  • Israel has a large, creative, active and influential NGO sector.

  • Israel is culturally diverse.

  • Israelis care.  We saw this in the many Israelis who reached out to Rachel Levy, homeless since evicted from her public housing apartment two years ago, and now setting up her doghouse in front of the homes of government ministers.

  • The average Israeli puts his/her security and wellbeing first, but does not hate others.  We saw in focus groups we conducted two years ago that the average Israeli wishes only good things for Palestinians.

  • Israelis do not aspire to or wish to see themselves as destroyers, transferors or dispossessors. In May, an RHR commissioned opinion poll showed that when the average Israeli understood that the sum total of Bedouin land claims are only 5.4% of the Negev, s/he thinks that is fair and reasonable.

  • The majority of Israelis want peace with the Palestinians.  They would be prepared to make painful concessions if they believed that they would really bring about peace and security.

  • Not only our “Tag Meir” coalition, but Israeli leader, and the vast majority of Israelis and even some settler leaders clearly and publicly condemn the “Price Tag” attacks on Palestinians and Palestinian property.

  • Israel’s free press.  I am constantly amazed by the fact that Israel dedication to a free press allows reporters from around the world to report on all of our faults and wrongdoings.  In israel the mainstream press has a much wider range of opinions regularly expressed than in the press I grew up with in theU.S.  My colleagues and I can regularly write columns saying exactly what we think, not to mention paid media.

  • Israel’s Court System.  In recent days Israel’s High Court has ruled that the law allowing the State to detain asylum seekers for up to three years is illegal, and ordered the Government why it wasn’t allowing public housing tenants to buy their apartments and what has happened to billions of shekels from previous sales that were not used to replenish public housing.  In an RHR case, they first pressured the State to take action to protect the elderly Saleibi brothers whose lands are underneath the Bat Ayin settlement from constant attacks and destruction of fruit trees and grape vines.  In December, the High Court ordered the District Court to hear the land claims of E;-Araqib residents.  While there is also a long list of decisions we haven’t felt were in accord with Jewish tradition and international law, the fact is that the Israel High Court regularly protects human rights by taking decisions that contradict Government policy and infuriate some of the public.

  • Many Israelis believe in listening to multiple voices.  In addition to the free press, we see that in the right-wing educators who invite us to teach in their institutions, invitations to lead tours for the army, etc.   Debate remains very strong in this country.

  • We have a beautiful country, and a growing green movement trying to protect it.

  •  Israeli Youth. We have wonderful youth in this country.  I see it in the idealism of the youth movements and in the support that some of them give to the issues we champion. The well known midrash (Shir HaShirim Rabah 1:3) tells us that, before God gave us the Torah, God wanted a guarantor.  Neither our patriarchs and matriarchs nor our prophets were sufficient, but God saw our children as worthy guarantors.  If we teach them Torah (v’shinantem l’vaneikhem) they will help us fulfill Torah.  This year there are 2,130,000 children in our educational system.  150,000 began first grade.

  • According to the OECD we have one of the best systems of higher education in the world.

  • Israeli Creativity and innovation.  A higher percentage of our GNP goes to research and development than any other country.  This probably includes the arms industry, but also includes high tech, desalinzation, etc.

  • We also rank high in terms of health care, lifespan, sense of wellbeing, etc.

  • Israel ranks first in the world in terms of use of solar energy per capita.

  • Polls show that a strong majority of Israelis still support universal human rights in theory. Even if they do not always support our vision of human rights in practice, they aspire to be a moral nation.

  • Most Israelis really believe that we have the most moral army in the world.  They believe that human rights violations are aberrations, and are not systematic.  Yes, this is very problematic and points to just how much work we still have to do simply to educate our fellow Israelis about the realities on the ground.  However, this also point to something very positive.  Most Israelis want to be moral and want to believe that we are acting justly.  If people want to be just, we have a chance to eventually help them understand what we need to do in order to be just.

  • In Israel, not only are Jews free to wear kippot (traditional Jewish head covering), but Muslims and Christians are free to wear and display the symbols of their religion.  While non-Orthodox Jews and members of other faiths still face discrimination in terms of state funding, etc., for the most part all are free to practice their faith.

  • Israel Has a thriving, and often radical cultural scene.

  • According to Bloomberg, Israel has the 4th most effective health care system in the world.

RHR’s Spiritual Harvest

  • I would be remiss in not pointing out that Mira has just replaced our secretary of many years, Rivka Shohat.  When speaking of spiritual harvest, we have all been enriched by Rivkah’s presence.

  • In general, the incredible RHR staff is a big part of our spiritual harvest.  They work day and night to protect human rights.  In many cases they applied for a job, and discovered that they had found a calling.

  • Our volunteers.  Hundreds of Israelis picked olives with us, marched with us, attended court hearings, etc.  They enriched themselves and others.

  • Thousands have sent letters to Government ministers and MK’s protesting the Begin/Prawer bill.  Many have participated in our Negev tours.  We have formed Israeli and international coalitions.  International concern is growing, some MK’s are starting to look for solutions outside the box, and the architects of the plan are taking notice.  Friendship, trust and solidarity with the Bedouin community have been strengthened.

  • Ruti Kedem now has a degree and is working.  Her case may be the trigger for changing the catch 22 policy forcing people to take low paying jobs as a condition for receiving funds to get degrees allowing them to support themselves, but those jobs prevent them from being able to complete their degrees.

  • The evictions from public housing of Itzik and Lilly, Moshe, and many others have been prevented.

  • Na’amat signed a contract with the “Ma’abarah,” giving us a neighborhood public housing advocacy center in the heart of Jerusalem’s low income Katomonin neighborhood.

  • Thanks to the RHR Occupied Territories Field Department, thousands of olives picked and olive trees planted.  Farmers in tens of villages safely worked their lands.  In some cases our volunteers were standing shoulder to shoulder. In other cases, we were not physically present, but worked with the farmers and the Israeli security forces to ensure that they enjoyed full and safe access.

  • Our  financial and moral supporters around the world have demonstrated incredible commitment to improving Israeli society by hosting, writing, visiting, volunteering and contributing. This is the time to mention that, we really rely on your financial support.  It is not too late to support our High Holy Days campaign, and full contribution information can be found at  Supporters in North America are reminded that RHR and RHR-NA (Now renamed “T’ruah”) fiscally separated in January.  T’ruah does not accept contributions for RHR.

  • In addition to the concrete improvement of people’s lives, among the thousands of Israelis, Palestinians and African asylum seekers whose lives we have touched this year, hope has been restored and stereotypes have been shattered.  The belief that things could be different bring our country, our region and our world a little closer to the reality God planned for us.

Eloheinu V’Eloei Kadmoneinu, Our God and God of our ancestors, may it be Your Will that we will use the gifts we have received from You so that next year our vidui (Confession) will be shorter and the list of our asif (Spiritual Harvest) longer.  May the promise of bikurim (First Fruits) be fulfilled as asif,  May our ability to rejoice in our accomplishments and see the good in Israelis and Israeli society fortify us for the work yet ahead.

Khag Sameakh – Wishing You and Our World a Truly Joyous Holiday,




GLIMPSING THE WORLD OF TRUTH – Yom Kippur Thoughts 5774

4 Comments 11 September 2013

Yom Kippur Thoughts 5774
On Shabbat and holidays the Amidah prayer includes the words, “Our God and God of our ancestors, (favor our rest.) Make our lives holy through Your Commandments and my we have our portion in Your Torah. Satisfy us with Your Goodness and may we rejoice in Your Salvation. Purify our hearts to truly serve you. ..” I love the idea that the performance of commandments makes us holy, and allows us to become part of the Torah or somehow inscribe a letter that helps complete the Torah. Maybe we even become Torah.

However, the words that jump out at me almost every time are “V’taher leebeinu l’ohvdekha b’emet.” (Purify our hearts to truly serve you.” What does that mean, “Truly.” These words speak to me because they contain a message I really need to hear. “But I am a known advocate for human rights. There is nothing more noble than that. Obviously, all my motives are pure. I’m the good guy.” “B’Emet?” (“Really?”) Am I really so sure that I never act out of motives other than unadulterated commitment to human rights? I never let personal or organizational considerations cloud my judgment or influence my decisions? Nothing ever comes before human rights? I never allow myself to be insensitive or insulting or use people in the name of my holy work? It is so easy to make allowances for myself precisely because I am working for such an important cause. Religions, nations, states and other reference groups are more or less the same as individuals and NGOs in this regard. Fairly frequently I speak with fellow Israelis who justify injustice against individuals and/or groups because, “Our needs require it.” I referred to one aspect of this in my “Tisha B’Av Thoughts” as “Privileged Victimhood.”

This is why, considerably before Kantian ethics, the Jewish tradition said that Khessed Shel Emet (True loving-kindness) is taking care of the needs of the dead. This is so because we can’t expect anything in return. The truest loving-kindness should have no ulterior motives or considerations. I will get back to the combination of “khessed” and “emet” a little later.

On Yom Kippur we are required to do the extremely hard work of uncompromisingly peeling away all our layers of justifications, illusions, delusions, and excuses, in order to see ourselves and our identity groups as we truly are. May it be God’s Will that we internalize that “It’s not (only) about us. It is true that each of us is the hero of the private movie of our lives, but the world doesn’t revolve around us or our identity groups.

The point is not to beat ourselves over the head and say how awful and hopeless we are as individuals or as a group or as a people or as a country. It is not that our needs are illegitimate. It is of course OK to attend to our own true needs in a proportionate way. Our true selves individually and collectively, that we try to return to on Yom Kippur, are good. The challenge is that we have distanced ourselves from our truest and highest selves. Furthermore, it is actually a sign of strength to look at ourselves uncompromisingly. A person who is weak or lacks self confidence will find it much more difficult.

It is also legitimate, and even required, that we criticize others, “”You shall surely rebuke your associates” (Leviticus 19:17). It is just that we have the entire year to fulfill our obligation to improve others. On Yom Kippur we forgive and see the positive in others, and concentrate on our own individual and collective shortcomings. Neither the harsh traditional Yom Kippur vidui, nor the RHR or other modern confessions are written, “For the sin that “YOU” or “THEY” have sinned.” Rather, they read, “That WE have sinned.” On Yom Kippur, instead of letting it go to our heads when people tell us how courageous we are for criticizing our own society, we should be asking ourselves whether we b’emet (truly) were criticizing OUR society. Are our criticisms a way of standing apart and absolving ourselves of responsibility by saying that we aren’t really part of the group we are criticizing? – “Our hands didn’t shed this blood” (Deuteronomy 21:7)?

The word “emet”(true, truth) also stands out in the “U’NetanahTokef” prayer that defines the High Holy Days for many Ashkenazi Jews:

Your throne will be made firm by means of loving – kindness (or “Out of loving – kindness”) and You will sit upon it in truth (Or, “You will truly sit upon it.”). It is true that You alone are the One Who judges, proves, knows, and bears witness…”

It is relatively easy to understand “It is true that You ….,” but the pairing of “Your throne will be made firm by means of loving-kindness and You will sit upon it in truth” is more difficult. What is the relationship between “Khessed” (Loving-kindness) and “Emet” (Truth)? On this Day of Judgment, we pray that God will not judge us while sitting on the throne of din (strict law), but rather move to the throne of “Rakhamim” (mercy). One of the classic books on the liturgy of the High Holy Days is “Justice and Mercy” by Max Artzt. Loving-kindness and mercy are closely related in rabbinic thinking, as are truth and strict law. And, the balance between khessed and emet doesn’t appear only in U’Netaneh Tokef. How many times during Yom Kippur will we repeat the Thirteen Attributes of God, including, “V’rav khessed v’emet” (Abounding in loving – kindness and truth.”)

Our very existence is dependent on the successful balance of loving-kindness/mercy and truth/strict law. A well known midrash on the creation of the world says that the balance of strict law and mercy is analogous to the mixing of hot and cold water in a glass. Either hot water alone or cold water alone will destroy it. (Bereshit RRabah 12:15) Back to emet, another well known midrash teaches us that loving-kindness and justice were in favor of creating humanity, whereas peace and truth were opposed. God casts truth out of heaven, to earth, in order to silence truth and be able to create humanity. (Bereshit Rabah 8:5)

In light of these midrashim, perhaps you are asking, “So, why are you now insisting on pure truth. Even God understands that unadulterated truth makes life impossible.”

Furthermore, the Talmud tells that the son of Rabbi Yehoshua once fainted, saw the world of life after death, and returned. He related that he saw an upside down world in which the upper worlds were below and the lower worlds were above. Rabbi Yehoshua says to him. You saw the World of Clarity (Olam barur raita) Bata Bathra 10b) Pure truth is for the world after death. In fact, our tradition sometimes says that we live in “Olam HaSheker” (“The False World” or “World of Lies” or perhaps, “The World of iIlusion.”). The afterlife is “Olam HaEmet” or “Olam sh’kulo emet.” (“The World of Truth/Clarity” or “The World that is Pure Truth/Clarity”)

Maybe emet is something good, but not made for this world?

After God casts emet to earth, the midrash continues and tells us that the angels ask God, ” Why do you despise Your Seal? Let Truth arise from the earth!” Hence it is written, “Let truth spring up from the earth.” (Psalms 85:12) This could mean that emet returned to the heavens, or to the afterlife, or that actually emet sprouted in our world. Maybe that sprout links heaven and earth.

We can then connect this to the fact tradition of wearing a “Kittel” on Yom Kippur reminding us of the shrouds we will be wrapped in when we die. Despite the story of the son of Rabbi Yehoshua, Judaism doesn’t emphasize as much as some other traditions, and both ancient and modern mythologies, the idea of visiting the land of the dead and returning to our world. But, perhaps on Yom Kippur we experience the world of the dead that is pure truth, in order to come back with a pure heart and cultivate some measure of emet in our world. During Sukkot we will act with loving-kindness towards ourselves and celebrate both our physical and our spiritual harvest. However, we do so after our uncompromising encounter with the World of Emet. For, we all know that praise from the person who will uncompromisingly criticize us is much more meaningful believable than praise from the person whom we know tells us what we want to hear. Furthermore, what we bring back from the World of Pure Truth will make us better people in this world.

So, my prayer for myself and our community of human rights and social justice activists is that the uncompromising encounter with the World of Emet on Yom Kippur will purify our hearts. May it be God’s Will that we will refine the genuine and just and true intentions that motivate the vast majority of us, and that we will know how to retain the proper amount of concern for our own needs and those of our reference groups. May we do so without sacrificing others under the guise of serving God.

My prayer for my people and my country is that we will refine our aspirations for a state “Based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel, and carry out total social and political equality regardless of religion, race or gender” (Israeli Declaration of Independence.) even as it safeguards our security and economic prosperity. I pray that we will know how to distinguish between our true existential needs and the needs rooted in the World of Falsity. Regarding the needs rooted in the World of Falsity, may we never again hear in our Land, “It isn’t just, but our needs come first.” May we understand that there is room to bring Jews to the Negev and foster green development without dispossessing the Bedouin. May we understand that we can build a healthy economy which also cares for the weakest and poorest among us. It is possible to nurture a Jewish society without closing our borders to asylum seekers. It is possible to live full and meaningful Jewish lives in our ancient homeland without oppressing the Palestinian people. It is not only possible, but we must ask ourselves what kind of Judaism are we living if we do otherwise.

Our uncompromising glimpse of the World of Emet is not easy, and reveals many things that are the exact opposite of the world we have become accustomed to. However, we return with a clarified vision of what we can and must do in this world.

G’Mar Khatima Tova – May the Final Seal Be For the Good,


In Lieu of Organians: Rosh HaShana Thoughts 5774 | Rabbi Arik Ascherman

No Comments 08 September 2013

RHR/Truah sign on letter opposing the Prawer/Begin Bill, and other ways to be involved

On the eve of the High Holy Days, you can declare your renewed commitment to human rights and an Israel living up to our highest Jewish values by clicking and contributing to our High Holy Days campaign. On line donations can be made through “Israel Gives” in many currencies.  Donations by U.S. and British citizens are tax deductible. For additional information about how to donate to RHR, please click here.  U.S. and Canadian supporters should note that, after the January fiscal split with RHR-North America (Renamed “T’ruah”) T’ruah does not accept donations for RHR. 

Many of you have been writing to express concern about Alon Tal’s attack on RHR in “Haaretz” on Monday and/or to ask how we respond to his points.  Rather than hurry to respond publicly, I have been corresponding with Alon in the hopes that he might himself publish a correction of some of the factual inaccuracies in his article. Very much respecting Alon, we have also suggested setting up a new media forum allowing us and others to dialogue on issues that are a matter of opinion. In the meantime, we have responded to the concerns by creating the following link does give some of our factual corrections. It is wonderful that some of you are planning on speaking about the Bedouin issue during the High Holy Days.  Please do not hesitate to contact me if you would like additional help with factual information, Jewish sources, etc. To see all of our on-line materials on the Begin/Prawer Bill, please click here. I particularly recommend the slightly abbreviated version of the Recognition Forums: 



Please Find Included:

1. Link to RHR High Holy Days Fundraising Campaign

2.  D’Var Torah for Parashat Ha’azinu/ Shabbat Shuva by Rabbi Yehoyada Amir

3.  Link to factual corrections to Alon Tal’s attack on RHR in HaArtetz, links to additional materials on the Negev Bedouin that may be helpful for sermons and teaching opportunities

4.  Social Justice U’Netanah Tokef by Rabbi Kobi Weiss

5.  A rabbis’ prayer by Rabbi Nava Hefetz and Debbie Shuah-Haim


In Lieu of Organians | Rosh HaShana Thoughts 5774 | Rabbi Arik Ascherman

I, like many of us, find myself in a deep dilemma about Syria.  It is almost impossible for me to mouth or write words advocating the use of military force for anything other than direct self defense.  However, I was also taught from an early age “Do not stand idly by while your neighbor bleeds. (Leviticus 19:16)  We are our brother’s keeper (And our sister’s).  It is even more impossible to advocate standing by and letting slaughter continue, in any direction.  We as Israeli human rights organizations are in an even more difficult dilemma, knowing as Israelis that anything we say or do can be twisted and misrepresented as the designs of the Zionist enemy.

So, I have been fantasizing about Star Trek.  (You probably imagine that all of our RHR board and staff meetings are focused exclusively on human rights, Torah and international law, but we actually have a number of trekkies…)  “An Errand of Mercy,” first aired on March 23rd, 1967.    (Transcriptclip. I am told that I can’t view the entire episode in my region, but you can try)

Watch: Star Trek: TOS Errand of Mercy

The Federation and the Klingon Empire prepare for war. The Organians,  a form of life “As far above us on the evolutionary scale as we are above the amoeba,”   do not permit them to do so.  Responding to protestations that people have a right to determine their own affairs, the Organians ask, “To wage war, Captain?  To kill millions of innocent people?  To destroy life on a planetary scale? Is that what you’re defending?”

We don’t have Organians.  U.N. peacekeeping forces are supposed to keep warring parties apart, but don’t always seem to manage to do that when one or both parties are determined to fight.  Educated in the school of hard knocks, it is hard to imagine any country or coalition of countries today that would willingly put themselves between the forces of the Assad regime and Islamic fundamentalists for the sake of Syrian civilians.

I, and many of you, believe in a Being that is even more beyond us than the Organians were beyond humans and Klingons.  However, God, for reasons I am not sure I understand, has given us free will.  There may be additional potential disasters that did not happen because of God’s intervention, but both the Torah and human history teach us that God does not physically prevent us from killing millions, or any of the other terrible things we do to each other and to the earth.

As woefully inadequate as it may seem at times, and as incredibly powerful as it proves itself to be at other times, what we have in lieu of Divine Intervention is our own faith that God is even more pained than the Organians when we harm each other and thereby deface God’s Presence in the world. On God’s pain, see Rabbi Meir’s midrash in the Mishna Sanhedrin 6:5.  Mekilta d’Rabi Yishmael HaKhodesh 8 teaches that bloodshed actually diminishes God’s presence in this world.  Of course, by definition, if our belief is a matter of faith, others may with equal passion hold beliefs contradictory to ours.  However, what brings us together in the extended family of Rabbis For Human Rights, our partners and our supporters is our faith is in a God Who passionately commands us to join together in an aguda ekhat l’asot ratzonkha b’levav shalem,  to wholeheartedly aid in the creation of a more just world honoring God’s Image in every human being.

The question remains, what makes the difference between faith that seems impotent and faith that moves mountains?  We all know of examples of both.

Please don’t expect a definitive answer.  I don’t know exactly how it works, only htat it does. However, clearly Judaism, and other faiths and ideologies, try to do strengthen and inspire us to achieve the seemingly impossible.  All year long, our rituals and holidays and teachings try to forge such a faith.  We reach a crescendo at Rosh HaShanah and throughout the High Holy Days season. If we allow our tradition’s messages of self introspection, teshuvah (Answering God’s still small Voice, turning and returning to our highest selves), rejoicing in creation, renewal and God’s absolute sovereignty to work their magic,

Our tradition employs many ways of imagining God and how God works in the world.  On the High Holy days, even those of us who prefer our tradition’s less hierarchical imagery during the rest of the year, are returned to God’s commanding Sovereignty. The very words of the traditional prayers are in some cases literally changed to reflect this.   During the year I question Abraham’s seeming willingness to sacrifice his son.  On Rosh HaShana Abraham is a role model for absolute and unquestioning faith. Yom Kippur’s Eileh Ezkarah, even contains the story of Rabbi Yehudah Ben Bava, whose faith literally causes him to place himself as an “Immovable rock” between Roman soldiers and his students to prevent violence.  Unlike the Organians, he cannot save himself as well.

I have no immediate plans to place myself or send anybody else to stand between Syrian government forces and rebels.  It is perhaps one more reason to be thankful that I live and act in Israel/Palestine because here we are often able to physically position ourselves between groups to prevent violence, and do in fact do so.  I and many of my colleagues have been injured from time to time, some seriously.  In most cases, unlike what would be the case in Syria, we were not endangering our lives.  Usually, the intended violence is unidirectional.  Security forces and/or settlers threaten Palestinians or Israeli Arabs or Israeli social justice protestors.  However, there are times when we must restrain “Our side” as well.

Often intended violence is not directly physical.  It takes the form of  abusing state power to take over land, to dispossess, manipulate building criteria or eligibility for public housing and other social benefits, or to close our borders to those fleeing for their lives.  Sometimes it is even more banal.  An individual soldier in the Occupied Territories, or social worker in Hadera decides to abuse the power in his/her hands.  Here too, we must be an immovable rock standing between those wielding power and their intended victims.  However, when the danger is not as immediate as a physical attack, we must work with the victims as partners,  empowering them to become rocks themselves.

We many times find that our efforts often freeze the immediate threat. A combination of faith and hard work sometimes lead to more systematic and permanent change. .,

When he returns to the Enterprise, Captain Kirk is embarrassed that he had argued with the Organians over the right to act violently.  In his case, the Organians were also successful educators.  RHR runs formal educational programs and engages security forces in conversation at demonstrations out of faith that we are not doomed to endlessly need to stand in the middle.  It is not a law of nature that there must always be “Sides” – Not between Israelis and Palestinians, and not between Israelis and Israelis. “Who is the mightiest of the mighty?… There are those who say ‘The one who turns his enemy into a friend.'” (Pirke Avot d’Rabi Natan  23

As I think of the year ahead, it is hard for me to think of a year in which the fate of more people I feel personally and directly responsible for has been in question.  This year will likely be the year in which Israel decides whether or not to implement the Begin/Prawer bill, that would likely lead to the destruction of tens of Israeli Bedouin villages, the transfer up to 40,000 citizens from their homes, and dispossessing them of most of their lands.  The government is bent on bringing back the Israeli Wisconsin Plan, and both our Housing and Finance ministers want to deliver a final blow to public housing.  Our National Insurance Institute estimates that the budget we just passed condemns another 25,000 Israeli children to poverty.  Just yesterday the Israeli High Court heard arguments whether or not cave dwellers of the South Hebron Hills will be expelled in the name of an army live fire zone.  The judges suggested mediation, and representatives the State said they needed to consult before giving an answer.  Even if they are not expelled, we have a pending case to challenge the current draconian restrictions on development practically keeping these cave villages in the dark ages.  The court will also hear the petition to demolish Susya, and our petition to return zoning and planning authority for Palestinian communities in Area C to Palestinian hands.  Also just yesterday we met with the army about how they will handle the upcoming olive harvest and whether they will fulfill court ordered obligations to protect trees from being cut down in the middle of the night.  Will Israel “Succeed” in oppressing African asylum seekers to “Voluntarily” leave?  Will they go to a country that can truly look after them, or be condemned to an uncertain fate?  Will we continue to close our gates to those seeking asylum?

We will need a great deal of faith this year, a great deal of strength, and many partners.

On this Rosh HaShana, may we allow our Eternal Rock and Redeemer to implant rocklike faith within us.  In turn, may this faith enable us to stand as unmovable rocks, protecting without becoming violent ourselves in deeds or words.  May rocklike faith never be rocklike obstinacy.  May it nurture the love and flexibility necessary to dissolve hardened opposition, and turn enemies into friends.

Wishing You and Our World a Shana Tova U’Metukah, a Good and Sweet New Year, Filled with Human  Rights as the Pomegranate is with Seeds.


President & Senior Rabbi

General, Justice in Israel, Justice in Israel-Negev Bedouin, Press Releases

Factual Corrections To Alon Tal’s Attack on RHR Rabbi Ascherman

No Comments 08 September 2013

Many of you have been asking for a response to Alon Tal’s attack on RHR in “Haaretz” on Monday. We have preferred not to rush to respond to Alon because I have been communicating with him in the hope that he might be willing to himself publish corrections of the factual errors in his piece, and we have suggested setting up a forum to air our differences of opinion. Continue Reading

General, Parasha / E-Letter

On inclusiveness, democracy, Elul and choosing life: Dvar Torah for Parashat “Nitzavim-Vayelech”

No Comments 26 August 2013

Dvar Torah to Parashat “Nitzavim-Vayelekh” by Rabbi Arik Ascherman

The opening imagery of Nitzavim is awesome and inclusive.  We were all there, regardless of status.  The Midrash teaches that the souls of all future Jewish generations were standing at Sinai.  (Tanhuma-Nitzavim 3 on Deut. 29:13-14).

This inclusiveness continues with “Lo B’Shamayim Hee.”  Deut. 30:11-14).  God’s command to us is not in the heavens or beyond the sea, requiring somebody to bring it to us.  Rather, it is “Very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to observe it.”

In the famous Talmudic agada, “Tanuro shel Akhnai,” the rabbis democratically overrule God citing Lo B;Shamayim Hee.”.  I am not sure that I would stick to my opinion were a Divine  Bat Kol to tell me I was wrong.  However, the Talmudic rabbis are acknowledging that their decisions aren’t in the heavens either.

In “VaYelekh,” we learn that the entire Torah is to be publicly read in the presence of all once every seven years on Sukkot, “Gather the people-men, women, children and the non-Jews accepting your laws and residing in your midst…” (Deut. 31: 12)

I firmly believe in inclusiveness in the sense that everybody must be sitting at the table.  Everybody should feel like they belong and are able to contribute..  All Jews heard God at Sinai.  Jewish and non-Jewish citizens of the State of Israel, and citizens from different economic strata, etc., must all have an equal ability to participate in the democratic process.

However, there is an all too widely held misconception, certainly seen in Israel today, that in a democracy, everything should be decided by the majority.  Sophisticated democracies also delineate what the majority can not do.  For example, minorities must be protected from the majority.  Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch taught that we need Torah because we must be beholden to rules we didn’t write. (Commentary to Lev. 23:22)  Otherwise, there is the all too human tendency to find a way of justifying even the darkest passions of our hearts.  In particular, those with power, property and privilege, will trample those without. In our Parasha, Moses says that the Torah is necessary because of our ability to be defiant and stiff-necked. (Deut 31: 26-27).

On the other hand, most human beings have an innate sense of right and wrong.  Even the rabbis and the Torah are only teachers and guides to help us discover what we already know.  Just as we must avoid the “Tyranny of the majority,” we must be wary of the tendency of privileged minorities to think they know best.

This incredible ability to distinguish right from wrong entails incredible responsibility.  We can not pass the buck, as do Adam and Eve when confronted with their wrongdoing.  We can not say, in the words of the 1970s American comedian Flip Wilson, “The devil made me do it.”  This is a central premise of this season of khesbon nefesh self introspection and teshuvah (Answering the Divine Voice calling to us, turning and returning to our highest and truest selves) that began on the first of the Jewish month of Elul and continues through the High Holy days (And even through Hoshanah Rabbah, the seventh day of Sukkot).  Even if we have managed to ignore the Call until now, everything about this season bids us to take responsibility for our own lives, our society and our planet.

Nitzavim therefore concludes with the warning and the promise, “I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life…”(Deut. 31:19).  There are those who believe that, when we point out what is wrong in the country we love, we are cursing and choosing death.  I am prepared to believe that at least some truly believe that.  With equal fervor and passion, we believe we are choosing life over death and blessing over curse.  This is true when we advocate economic polices promoting what we believe is a Jewish vision of a community that takes care of its own.  This is true when we promote policies towards asylum seekers and Palestinians based on honoring God’s Image in every human being.  Perhaps there is no clearer example of the disaster that awaits us than what we can expect if the Begin/Prawer bill is passed. Nowhere is it clearer that we have an alternative that would be better for Jew and Bedouin alike.

Did you notice that we apply this verse from Nitzavim?  Our starting point is of course that Begin/Prawer is what is perhaps Israel’s greatest potential moral tragedy I have faced in 18 years of working for Rabbis For Human Rights.  If the Begin/Prawer bill is passed, tens of Bedouin Negev villages could be destroyed in the light of day by Knesset decree.  Up to 40,000 Israeli citizens could be transferred from their homes to poverty stricken townships.  They will be dispossessed of most of their lands, the mere 5.4% of the Negev that they claim.  The bill contains a map of the Bedouin “Pale of Settlement” reminiscent of the Pale of Settlement imposed on our people in 19th century Russia.  No Bedouin community will be allowed to remain outside that pale.


However, the choices we make regarding how to treat the Bedouin are truly choices between blessing and curse. In December the villagers of El-Araqib were in the High Court to ask that the District court give them the opportunity to prove ownership of the lands they purchased in 1908.  Dr. Awad Abu-Freikh said to me, “I hope the judges realize that doing justly in this case isn’t just good for the Bedouin, but for all Israelis. (The Court agreed, but the State is asking the Court to rehear the case with an expanded panel of judges.)  Last night Sheikh Sayakh of El-Araqib said that there are both Jews and Arabs who oppose the idea that we can share a meal together, or stand shoulder to shoulder in solidarity.  He said that these people must be removed from positions of leadership.

“Choose life.”

Watching our clip’s footage of the 2010 demolition of El-Araqib,  it is clear why our Interior Security Minister wouldn’t sign off on this legislation without money for a special police unit to enforce the bill. Look at the helicopters and huge number of special operations officers brought in to demolish the homes of 600 Bedouin.  Imagine what it will be like to demolish tens of villages and transfer some 40,000 citizens. The atmosphere created will drive Jews from the Negev and dry up investments. As protests spread even beyond Israel’s borders, think what this means for any possibility of the current peace process succeeding.  When we know that the biggest obstacle to peace is that both Israelis and Palestinians believe that the other side doesn’t really want peace, what do we think the average Palestinian will think when s/he sees how we treat our own citizens?

But, there is an alternative future of Bedouin-Jewish cooperation leading to a booming Negev. There is an alternative future in which we broadcast to Palestinians, and the entire Arab world, that we have done teshuvah, and have turned over a new leaf in terms of how we treat our fellow citizens.

The blessing and the curse.

The good news is that Israelis do not aspire to destroy, transfer and dispossess.  We have certainly done these things, but generally in the fog of war, far from the public eye, and often with extenuating (not justifying) circumstances.  The Panels opinion poll we commissioned found that 70% of Jewish Israelis thought the Bedouin were demanding 26% and up of the Negev. When told that the Bedouin only claim 5.4%, the majority thought this was fair. When they heard that this bill has an expected 6-8 billion price tag, most said that we shouldn’t be spending such sums on a program like this.  After meeting with Bedouin and seeing aerial photographs of pre-State Bedouin agriculture, Israeli media personality Avri Gilad publicly apologized for posting that the Bedouin have taken over the Negev. In Great Britain and North America, rabbis, rabbinic organizations and youth movements have expressed dismay.  When disinformation is stripped away, opinions change.

I am still betting on the Jewish people.  In our mouths, our hearts, and our neshama (soul), we know right from wrong, and we know how to choose life.

Shabbat Shalom,


photo: The approach to Mount Sinai, painting by David Roberts cc: wikimedia

General, Justice in Israel, Justice in Israel-Negev Bedouin

Watch: Rabbi Ascherman on the plan to seize Bedouin villages

No Comments 31 July 2013

Rabbi Arik Ascherman explains how the Israeli government is considering a plan to seize a score of Bedouin Arab villages in the Negev desert. The government would take the land and force the Bedouin into township which are notorious for poverty, drugs and crime. (Think U.S. policy of taking Indians from their land and putting them on “reservations”



God’s mightiness is God’s concern and care for the weakest in our society

1 Comment 28 July 2013

Members of the Shabi family and actvists protest for public housing and to show solidarity with the Shabi family, which was evicted from her house and now lives in a park, in the city of Petach Tikva, July 23, 2013. Photo by: Oren Ziv/ cc: flickr

I want to share with you what RHR board member Rabbi Levi Weiman-Kelman taught yesterday on Parashat Ekev at Kehilat Kol HaNeshama: Continue Reading

General, Justice in Israel, Justice in Israel-Negev Bedouin

Three Myths about the Bedouin

26 Comments 21 July 2013

Many years ago, a Christian friend of mine accompanied me to a local production of “Fiddler on the Roof.” She burst into tears at the end, because of what “her people” had done to mine.  Continue Reading

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