Rabbinical Watch Dogs – Rabbis for Human Rights

Today didn’t quite go as I hoped it would.  I had a 9am meeting with Rabbi Arik Aschermann, senior rabbi for Rabbis for Human Rights, a watch dog organization that serves to tie together all the various Jewish denominations, with a focus on curbing human rights violations by the Israeli government, and by Israeli security forces.   The meeting was at their offices in the Ha-Bankin area, several blocks west of Hebron Road.  I opted to take public transit, and took my first bus ride.  Not bad.  5.9 shekels each way, took about 20 minutes.  Would have cost me 30 or 40 shekels for a cab, given traffic maybe more.

I got there, and the rabbi was a bit late, but that was ok, it gave me time to arrange my thoughts.  It was an intriguing hour.   Rabbi Aschermann looks very much like a human rights activist.  A bit disheveled, a long beard, but incredibly passionate about the work he does.   RHR does a wide range of work, from using talmudic commentary to provide education about what judaism has to say about human rights, calling for economic justice, human rights, economic poverty, public housing, etc.   Its most famous work its work on behalf of Palestinians, to ensure they can safely access their lands.

RHR does its work through multiple tracks — grassroots activism (with members and volunteers( who will serve as human shields to stop the seizure of land by the IDF) to work in the cooridors of power, through the courts, media campaigns, and lobbying.    Their mandate is human rights, and they don’t take political positions on how to end the conflict, “whether it is one state, two state, or ten state.”   They don’t seek to stop the expansion of new settlement homes on the West Bank, but they  focus instead on preventing the expansion of settler appropriation of farm lands.  To them that is the big picture.  They believe that by definition, every settlement is illegal, but they maintain their focus, to prevent their work from being muddled.  As an Israeli organization- with ties to all Jewish religious entities, it does not focus much on Palestinian Authority Human Rights violations.  “As Israelis our mandate is to deal with the things that we – Israelis – are doing, and less what others are doing.”  But they condemn all terror attacks.

We talked about a lot more, and even about the “toxic” approach of the Presbyterian Church USA (his words, not as RHR but as an individual), and I’ll expound on that later.  But for now, he asked a question.  At the 221st General Assembly, the divestment resolution included language added to the floor for the church to call for positive investment, but he asks, has that happened?  It is the most important thing, in his mind, for improving the lot of Palestinians.  This does not surprise me.   And it fits with what I have heard from others, including Bassem Eid — who discussed  how the failure of the Palestinians to do anything to stop the stabbings and murders since last October, has resulted in a huge loss in economic terms.  Bethlehem was practically empty over the Christmas holidays.

But getting back to Rabbi Aschermann, I was impressed by his ability to bring the economic questions back to the talmud.   He referred me to a blog he wrote in the Times of Israel during the 2014 Gaza War.  “When Justice Blinds” provides an excellent overview of issues. He wrote, “As I said at the outset, Israel is absolutely justified in defending herself against rockets and tunnels, even though Pirke Avot 5:11 teaches that, “The sword comes into the world because of justice delayed and justice denied,” and even though a just solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is essential to protecting ourselves in the long run.”    But justice blinds in that while the Israelis were correct in that they had total justice in their claim to fight back against rockets being fired into Israel, they forgot that there are human beings on the other side.  And from the Palestinian side, they are absolutely correct that they have lived under occupation for 50 years, and the justification of their cause blinds them to the fact that there are human beings on the other side as well.

The meeting was very much enlightening, and there is much more to sort through.  When it ended, I had 3 hours before my next meeting, with the Citizens Accord Forum Between Jews and Arabs, which happened to be 2 blocks away.   I decided to walk through some Jerusalem neighborhoods and find a cafe to have a snack and try to catch up on my work.  Well, that’s when things went south.   I walked about 1/2 mile north into a beautiful neighborhood filled with shops, cafes, and restaurants, and even found a bakery shop called Marzipan, which was recommended by one of my students.  Alas, my stomach was acting up, and sweet treats were not in the cards.   I spent an hour, maybe 90 minutes, and started to walk back.  Dang, that’s when it all went south.  Lets just say, I had a full blown stomach bug.   I thought after an unfortunate incident (in which a very kind Israeli woman immediately came to my aid) I was ok, and I found a pharmacy in a mall to find some pepto.  I decided I thought I’d be ok for the second meeting. I was wrong.  I got about 10 minutes in, and had to excuse myself.  I returned, and managed to continue the meeting, but to be honest, I need to listen to the tape, as I am unclear exactly he said, but it was quite valuable, in terms of challenging some of the methods used for co-existence projects, but not rejecting the idea of co-existence or shared societies.   More on that later.

I managed to get back to the bus, and made it to the hotel, where I rested for about 4 hours, and then felt good enough to go out to dinner with my friend Rabbi Rebecca’s daughter Rachel, who is studying at Hebrew Union College, in a graduate program on jewish education.  We had a lovely conversation and a nice evening.  I had some soup.   Yeah, taking it slowly. But so far, I am feeling better, and I will do everything to go on the trip to Ramallah tomorrow.  That will be a highlight.     I can hardly believe I only have 2 more days in Jerusalem.    Ok,that’s it for today.

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