A Rabbi’s Struggle for Peace and Justice

(This text was published in Swedish here)

The first time I heard of Rabbi Arik Ascherman was a day in October 2015, when media reported about an attack against him in Awarta, a northern West Bank village. As Ascherman and other volunteers helped Palestinian farmers harvest olives, a number of young Israeli settlers came to sabotage the fragile security situation prevalent when the harvest is carried out close to Israeli settlement and settlement outposts. In this confrontation, a young settler armed with a knife, attacked Arik.

– The whole situation was saddening to me. When he wielded the knife at me, but did not complete the motion that would have killed me, I hoped and believed that he, at the very last moment, understood that he acted wrongly, Arik Ascherman tells me.

Now, the 17-year-old boy who attacked him is arrested and indicted, but has, according to Ascherman, not shown signs of regret. This event, when a young, religious, Israeli settler attacks an Israeli rabbi among olive trees on occupied Palestinian territory, highlights the manner in which the conflict in Israel and Palestine not necessarily conforms to dividing lines such as Israeli and Palestinian, Jews and non-Jews, or religious and secular. When I speak with rabbi Ascherman, founder of the organisation Rabbis for Human Rights, in a cluttered office space in Western Jerusalem about the Jewish message of social justice and the importance of empathy with people of other convictions than one’s own, I understand that he, and the organisation, refuse to comply with stereotypical fault lines.

The work of the organisation, he tells me, aims to prevent human rights breaches, while also presenting a way to practice Judaism, which inescapably carries a strong message in regards to coexistence and support for vulnerable groups, both in Israel and the West Bank. Rabbis for Human Rights also work to break down the stereotypes that Palestinians have in relation to religious Jews. When rabbis, rabbinical students and other Jews of strong faith enter the West Bank to aid Palestinian farmers in accessing their land or document crimes against Palestinians’ rights, there grows an understanding that all religious Jews are not settlers with intent to harm and disenfranchise.

When I bring up the question of the latest wave of violence in Israel and Palestine, Ascherman emphasises the lack of leadership of both governments in their responsibility to curb the violence, collective anxiety and mutual distrust.

– The Jewish tradition tells us that the sword comes into the world when justice is delayed, and justice is denied (see Pirkei Avot 5:8). It is from this vantage point we are to understand the current wave of violence. We look at our work to give Palestinians another experience of Israelis and religious Jews as a source of strength, support and encouragement to Palestinian peacemakers, says Ascherman.

According to Ascherman, this contributes to a positive reciprocity, where a strengthened Palestinian peace movement leads to both increased security for Israelis and, in turn, also encouragement to Israelis working for peace.

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When we discuss this year’s olive harvest, Ascherman mentions the important role that Yanoun village (where the World Council of Churches has been constantly present in the last 13 years) has had for Palestinian farmers’ right to access their land. It was the legal case brought to the Israeli High Court by Rabbis for Human Rights, in conjunction with the people of Yanoun, that led to the judgement which obliges Israeli military forces to ensure the safety of Palestinian farmers and their access to their land during the olive harvest season. This verdict is named after Rashed Morar, the Yanoun mayor. According to Rabbis for Human Rights, efforts by the Israeli military to protect Palestinian in sensitive areas during the harvest has improved during these years, although they maintain that the military severely falls short of its legally bound responsibilities, and in many cases prevent Palestinians from accessing their olive trees.

The character of Rabbis for Human Rights is distinctly both pragmatic and idealistic. The small steps for Palestinian rights, as for example the Morar court case, is seen by Ascherman as important, despite the shortcomings of the Israeli authorities when law is to be transformed into action. All the while, Rabbis for Human Rights, and many other peace and human rights organisations operating in the midst of this conflict, works concretely and tirelessly for a higher aim – that Israelis and Palestinians shall be able to live side by side also when peace is achieved.

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