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Between 2004 and 2010, Just Vision interviewed more than 80 Palestinian and Israeli grassroots leaders. The interviews in this archive represent a fraction of the civic leaders working in the field at a particular moment in time, and aim to provide audiences access to a range of perspectives and approaches.

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Rabbi Arik Ascherman

Rabbi Arik Ascherman is the Executive Director of Rabbis for Human Rights Israel. Rabbis for Human Rights advocates for human rights and social justice based on a humanistic interpretation of Judaism. The organization struggles against Israeli expropriation of Palestinian-owned lands, house demolitions, and settler takeovers of land, as well as advocates for social welfare rights for participants in Israel's Wisconsin Plan and others of its kind. The organization is also engaged in the struggle against discrimination of Palestinians in East Jerusalem, and particularly in Sheikh Jarrah.

  • You have been with Rabbis for Human Rights for nearly fifteen years. Please tell me how you've come to do this work.

    Something that's been a part of my vision ever since age thirteen is what we now call tikkun olam, this idea of trying to uphold some of the ethical teachings of the Jewish tradition vis-à-vis how we treat our fellow human beings. I think it comes from a background where I was taught by my parents, my rabbis, my community and my family, that a basic part of what it means to be a Jew is to be concerned with universal human rights and social justice, that you have to be involved, that you can't turn away - you don't stand idly by while your neighbor bleeds. Those things were ingrained upon me very early, both in teachings and by example. A lot of the role models we were given, even in religious school, were people that were doing social justice work. These were leaders of the Reform movement, these were the textbooks we read, these were the people who came to speak to us and who would bring tears to my eyes, and I would see that my parents were very active in all kinds of things in the community as well. I would guess that although I already had leanings, probably some of my more specific political directions came about in my college years. It was really a time of learning. The biggest issue, and the one I was most identified with, was the Anti-Apartheid Movement and trying to get Harvard to divest its portfolio of corporations doing business in South Africa. 90% of the people in a lot of these activist organizations were Jewish, most of them having nothing to do with being Jewish, and so many people involved in Hillel, the Jewish community on campus, mostly having little to do with anything that had to do with social justice work. And these things were so intimately connected for me that it was very frustrating and confusing that other people didn't see what was just so patently obvious to me. I was going to go straight from college to rabbinical school, and God had some other ideas. I was actually not accepted, I was told that they wanted me to reapply but that I had to go out do something in the world first instead of going from school to school to school. It was painful at the time, but they were right. I'd been debating a little bit because I heard about this program called Interns for Peace, a wonderful program, unfortunately it doesn't exist anymore, in which Israeli-Arabs and Israeli-Jews, and people from abroad, like myself, work to bring together Israeli-Jews and Israeli-Palestinians together in coexistence work. I thought it was an amazing thing that I really wanted to do, and at rabbinical school they said, "This is just the type of work we want to see you doing." I spent two years living in Tamra, a Palestinian-Israeli village in the Galilee working to bring Israeli-Jews and Israeli-Arabs closer together. That was when I made my decision to make aliyah, and that my life's work is going to be here. I never thought of myself as a Zionist because I didn't believe then, and I don't believe now, that all Jews should live in Israel. Some strands of Zionism I find abhorrent and racist, and others I very much identify with. But the common denominator is the liberation movement of the Jewish people. During those two years working for Interns for Peace, I began to feel a sense of community with people in Israel doing this kind of work, and I began to feel that this was the place I could make my most significant contribution to tikkun olam.

  • At Rabbis for Human Rights you're involved with human rights work. What is important for you to achieve and how do you hope to contribute to this goal?

    There are different levels of what we want to achieve. Obviously, the ultimate goal is a world in which humans beings will recognize - not only recognize but practice, act upon the fact that every human being is created in God's image. Put it in religious terms as I do, or put it in secular terms, if you prefer, to talk about the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, or any way that you want to. Looking at history, we live in a generation that has seen the collapse of socialism and communism. We've seen some of the worst kinds of capitalism, and basically any ism that has every existed or ever will be created by humanity will rise or fall, succeed or not succeed, depending on whether the people who are trying to promote it are actualizing the practice, honoring the image of God in every human being. And in the same way you can have all these great ideas, but without honoring God's image, they are all going to fail.

  • In this process, that you feel you are part of, what are some of your achievements?

    Well, what my achievements are is more for other people to say than for me to say.

  • How about personal achievements?

    I've tried to be a good son, and a loving parent, father. I think that I have succeeded in being a role model for many people in terms of being a religious social activist. Especially given the fact that as we are taught that we are not free to desist from the ultimate tasks. We are not expected to complete them ourselves - but we are not allowed to desist. I hope and believe I have been able, in some way, to inspire others, especially the younger generations, about a religious model of commitment to social justice. Unfortunately, a lot of things I am proud of are things I wish had never had to be done. Here in terms of the Middle East conflict, I am of course constantly spurred on by all that has not yet been accomplished. Just last year we had our 20th anniversary for Rabbis for Human Rights, but it was no reason for celebration because if we had done our job, we would been out of business by now. But I do think that there are Israelis with better health care because of the work we have done. There are people today in Hadera and Wadi Ara, and other places that are caught up in the Israeli Wisconsin Plan, that have food on their table because we helped them get their benefits back. There are Palestinian farmers getting to lands that they weren't able to reach, for two, five, ten, fifteen years, and others who had their lands taken by settlers and have their lands back because of the work we have done. There are Palestinians who have roofs over their heads because of the work we have done fighting house demolitions. Sometimes I think that in terms of the work that I do today with Rabbis for Human rights, more important than anything that I or we have succeeded in doing vis-à-vis the Occupation at least, in terms of preventing or dealing with human rights abuses, has been perhaps breaking down stereotypes and engendering hope. The way I see it, opinion poll after opinion poll shows the same majority of both Israelis and Palestinians who want a compromised, negotiated agreement. An even larger percentage on both sides say, we want peace, the other side doesn't - there is no one to talk to. Obviously, we have to be very careful about how we talk, when it would sound like symmetry when talking about Israelis and Palestinians because we Israelis have so much more political, economic and military power. But there are two ways which I find us very symmetrical. First of all, we all so deeply feel ourselves to be the victims that we are outraged if anyone says we are victimizers. "How dare you call us victimizers? We are the victims." The other way we are parallel is that "we want peace and they don't", and so what is the incentive to move forward, taking a risk for peace when there is no one to reciprocate? I don't know how many times we have gone to rebuild demolished houses and how many parents have insisted that children come and meet us and like déjà vu, I've heard the same conversation over and over - a ten year-old who has just seen their house demolished and his parents humiliated, what do you say to a ten year-old child when he says, "I want to grow up and be a terrorist"? We have to show them that not every Israeli comes with guns to demolish their homes, that there are Israelis who come help rebuild homes. And when people rightly get upset about propaganda against Israelis taught in Palestinian schools, my question is, well what are we going to do about it? Instead of just cursing the darkness, let's light a candle. What are we doing to empower that Palestinian parent that wants their child to learn something more about Israelis? Some of the Palestinians that we worked with at certain points - certainly at the height of the second intifada - were getting asked why they were engaged in nonviolent cooperative activities with Israelis. As some of the results of what we did became apparent, there was newfound support from the highest level from the Palestinian authorities and Palestinian society. One of my heroes is man who spent thirteen years in our security prisons and says, "I was part of the armed resistance but there is no blood on my hands." Thirteen years gave him a lot of time to think, and he came out not only with respect to prisoners but totally committed to nonviolence. I have seen him a stop a stone thrower's arm in mid-air. We would talk about how important it is for him that his fellow Palestinians saw success as coming out of nonviolent actions.We Israelis can talk about peace and human rights until we are blue in the face, and if God forbid a bomb goes in a bus somewhere in Israel, who is going to listen? And Palestinian peacemakers can talk about peace and human rights until they are blue in the face but when our mortars are wiping out families in Gaza, who is going to listen? So I really think that what we have to create is a coalition of hope.The same majority on both sides, only I or we as Israelis can break down the stereotypes that so many Palestinians have about Israelis, thereby empowering Palestinian peacemakers within their own people. Only Palestinians can empower me to be a hero among my fellow Israelis. I think there is still a long way to go to that. I hear it all the time, people come in and see me with my kipa - my Jewish head covering - and my beard, and assume I am another violent fanatic settler... and it's a very eye-opening experience when you think I represent a whole organization of rabbis who think differently. Perhaps that, along with concrete successes that have been able to break down Palestinian stereotypes of Israelis and which empower Palestinian peacemakers to say, "Look we can move forward in this kind of way with these kinds of people", perhaps this has been more important than anything else that I have done.

  • What do you see as the challenges? Do you receive resistance or do you receive support from people around you?

    It is very varied. There are people who think that we are or I am the devil incarnate and some people stop us in the street and say, "You're saving Judaism for us." I'm surprised, particularly in the [Jewish] Orthodox world, where many people do not particularly subscribe to our way of things, how aware they are of our existence - some of them are more aware or less aware of what we stand for, but they are very aware of our existence.

  • Going back to challenges on the personal level, what are the personal challenges of being a rabbi, and leading an organization?

    We just read two weeks ago in our weekly cycle from the reading from the torah : in a few verses, Abraham argues with God to save the people of Sodom and Gomorrah, and then without issuing a word of protest listens to God and almost sacrifices his own son. I think that those of us doing social justice work - speaking for myself - the struggle is to remember that my family is human rights also. It might be easier if I felt we were marginal and not really effective - I would say it doesn't really matter what I do, but I don't feel that way and I do feel we make a difference. So there is always imbalance in feeling I am neither doing my family nor my work justice. I think another huge challenge is that today we are a much larger, well-known and successful organization, a larger staff, a larger budget and everything else, and we have to remember to celebrate our successes. One of the highest, greatest causes of burnout by activists is a feeling that you always have to be running to the next battle and never permitting yourself to take some satisfaction in what you have accomplished. The other side of the equation is staying hungry. To remember that as much as we have accomplished, there is so much more that has to be done. I often get the question, why don't you get burned out? I have seen, of course, many, many people get burned out over the years. Faith helps a great deal. First of all, it's that looking at the world as an ongoing tapestry, that we do our parts, as I said before, we are not free to desist but neither are we expected to do it all. Second, the Sabbath helps me a lot. I am the person who definitely burns the candles at both ends and this is twenty-four hours I take to be somewhere else. And the third thing that helps me keep going is the fact that I can look and see that we have made - in very concrete ways - people's lives better. It helps just with the faith or belief that this is what God put us on earth to do, and helps me to look in people eyes, I want to be able to look my kids in the eyes in another ten or twenty years. Compare it to a doctor: a doctor will burn out quickly if she or he falls to pieces every time a patient dies... If you're involved in medicine, that's going to happen. You have to have a shield of sorts. And if the shield is nonexistent or too thin, you are not going to make it, you are going to go to pieces. And if it is too thick you will lose your passion.

  • What do you feel you have learned doing this work?

    That is a very depressing question to me in some ways because I think with all that experience and grey hair should come some wisdom. And at this stage I should be able to say, "Well, this is the best strategy, at least in this kind of case," and "This is the best strategy for this kind of case," and it's not true. With all this supposed experience I still don't know what strategy and what tactic is going to work in any given situation, all I've learned is that you have to try them all, and in a surprising - not in every case but in a surprising number of cases - one of them works if you just keep the faith and do what you need to do.

  • At Rabbis for Human Rights you use nonviolent tactics, occasionally practicing civil disobedience. Does Judaism have a position on civilian disobedience?

    I was on trial for civil disobedience back in 2004 - 2005, for standing in front of bulldozers that had come to demolish Palestinian homes in two separate cases, both in East Jerusalem. And the day the trial opened was the week that we commemorated the yahrzeit of Rabbi Heschel and the birthday of Martin Luther King, and also the weekly Torah reading was the first verses of Exodus. There we learn about perhaps the first recorded example of civil disobedience: the [Hebrew] midwives who defied Pharaoh. It would be great hubris to compare myself with any of those, but I certainly had a sense that I was standing on their shoulders and continuing their tradition, taking the road they had paved. So I think even from the Bible we have wonderful example of civil disobedience. Another very important principle we are taught is that there are levels, gradations of commandments, mitzvot. We are taught about all kinds of laws, and except for three laws, every law can and should be broken for saving a life, what we call pikuakh nefesh. It's the principle that some things are more important than the law. I want to say one more thing about the whole idea of Judaism and civil disobedience, and nonviolence and disobedience. There is a teaching I do often from the Talmud tractate of Sanhedrin that I use more in terms of when it is appropriate or inappropriate for the State to use force - when it's appropriate or inappropriate to go to war, but I think it also reflects on the ethics of civil disobedience. We are taught that if someone is chasing someone else with a knife to kill them, you are not only permitted but obligated to stop the pursuer - not only to save the person pursued, but to save the pursuer from him or herself. But we are taught if you stop that person by killing them, if you could have hurt their foot to stop them, even if you are trying to do the right thing - you are trying to save a human life - the Talmud says you are guilty of murder. And I draw from that a couple of rules. First of all, whether it is the State going to war, demolishing homes, or whether it's us activists doing civil disobedience, the first aspect is to what degree is your action going to have an effect? If I really thought you could save human lives by demolishing homes, I would probably grit my teeth and say, human life trumps and therefore we have to do it. And what you learn from that story that someone is guilty of murder if they kill somebody when they could have stopped them by other means, that is a doctrine to use minimal force. So even if demolishing a home would stop a terror act, if there had been another, less horrible way to do the same thing, there is not permission to do this collective punishment. But if we were to do civil disobedience every time we disagreed with a policy, there would be chaos. A reworking of this idea of using minimal force is the idea that you use civil disobedience as a matter of last resort not as a first resort, only when you have no other options. It is one thing to block the bulldozer coming to demolish a home, and another thing to block a road to protest. As we think about the ethics of civil disobedience even if there is no Talmudic tractate on how to conduct civil disobedience, I do think there are teachings that we can extrapolate to get to some kind of Jewish notions. Somewhere in the Talmudic tractate called Shabbat it is taught that everybody is responsible when they could have protested and didn't. We are taught - whether it is a family, community or the world, where you could have protested something and don't, you are responsible.

  • How do other rabbis receive your work, especially in Israel?

    I think some find it very meaningful, while others find ways to denigrate it and say it's not very authentic, but very few ignore it.

  • How do you feel your activism has changed since the second intifada and why?

    I don't think our work has changed, though everything around me has. We know that the second intifada caused many, many people that have been activists to throw up their hands. This collapse affected the peace movement in this country more than it did the human rights movement. Human rights are maybe of even more importance when you are dealing with conflict situations. Human rights are not predicated by having partner for peace. Right after the second intifada broke out, a boycott was issued by the umbrella organization of Palestinian NGOs (PNGO) on working with Israeli NGOs. Up until now, we have never been boycotted and Palestinians have continued to work with us. Also, the PNGO boycott had certain exceptions, one of them was human rights organizations. I think the two reasons that the [Palestinians] continued to work with us was, first of all because we did our best - and I'm by no means saying we were perfect at this - at working at eye level, as equals. Second, I think we had some results to show - practical, concrete gains that people could show that came from their work with us. We were responsible for what was the first major Israeli-Palestinian joint action of the second intifada: an olive harvest. That was when villages were totally blocked in and blockaded. We marched out with Palestinians to their lands. At first the army was blocking us and then they were protecting us from the settlers who were harvesting their [the Palestinians'] olives, and this kind of thing. The year after that we started with sending out people as human shields. In the [Palestinian] village of Yasuf, the nearby settlers of Kfar Tapuach for three days had been coming and stealing [the Palestinians'] olives. One British woman who was volunteering was shot at. The [Israeli] police or army would come by on their jeeps every couple hours and look and move on. Needless to say, we were there the next day, if for no other reason than that friends stay with friends. What happened on that particular day was that at first the army was protecting us, then settlers gathered with their dogs and you could hear the army on the walkie-talkies not knowing how to handle it, and so the easiest thing, rather than deal with the violent settlers was to get rid of the nice peaceful activists, get them out of the area, and so they closed the area and declared it a closed military zone and moved us out of there. By word of mouth, there were activists that were willing to serve as human shields to help harvest olives. That's really how that started as well, even if not directly because of the second intifada.

  • Do you see a relationship between your work and a future peace process?

    We were predicting the second intifada a year and a half before it happened - those of us working on the ground. In the same way, we saw many Israelis becoming disillusioned about the peace process when the Palestinian Authority was unwilling to stop terror, and average Palestinians were seeing these ongoing human rights violations and saying, this is not a peace process. The week before Anwar Sadat came to Jerusalem, opinion polls showed overwhelming rejection of the very things that Israelis overwhelmingly accepted after Anwar Sadat's visit. His speaking from the Knesset to the Israeli people just turned everything on its head. [This has to do with] everything I talked about earlier, in terms of our work breaking down stereotypes and giving people on the other side hope that there is someone to talk to and that there could be a different reality. Whenever we preserve land from being expropriated or being taken over by settlers or get it returned to its owners, when Palestinians believe that they have something worth having or a reason for living left by the time there is a peace agreement. There is hope engendered when stereotypes are broken down and people see that there is someone on the other side, that we can make peace for these people. I think on those two levels what we do is essential to the peace process.

  • And what do you think are your next steps? What's your strategy for the coming years?

    Our preferred mode of working is having one foot in the grassroots and the other in the quarters of power. So I am looking for issues where we can do grassroots fieldwork, and where that can also give us the knowledge and the moral voice then to go to the press, Knesset, the international community, courts or whatever. Some people don't want to know that we have a democracy in Israel, but when I look at how with basically one lawyer and then a few other lawyers doing a few things here and there, we were getting thousands of dunams won back for their rightful [Palestinian] owners. I have been saying for the past few years that if we had ten lawyers, we could stop 90% of land takeovers in the West Bank. We just received a few major grants, and we're up from one lawyer to three, and hopefully there will be a fourth one next summer. More and more legal victories, preventing takeovers and winning land back - that is one piece of what I see us doing. We do less work today on trying to protect individual homes against demolition. Now we are looking at ways of undermining the whole basis of allowing demolitions. Also, we're working in the field of education about Judaism and human rights with the army and with kids taking a year between high schools and the army or university, doing economic justice for Israelis, for Sudanese refugees [seeking asylum in Israel]. I have always believed in our education activities, but now I am more convinced than ever of their importance. While we are out looking for "peace now", others with very different visions were quietly and out of the spotlight doing grassroots education. I see it in the faces this hard generation, totally convinced that they are right and that God is on their side - I see that in so many places, and of course we don't have 40 years to undo that. But I find that we have to do even more than what we have done so far, in terms of educating young Israelis. The materials we've created - a Talmudic style commentary, and re-working the Declaration of Independence, and working with pre-army academies - we just need to find ways of doing much more of that. In East Jerusalem right now we are going to have a huge dilemma. It will be very interesting because on one hand, as a human rights organization we've never had an official position on the Palestinian right of return. But we certainly do have a position on the Jewish prohibition against eifa ve'eifa - of double standards. I think one of the reasons that Teddy Kollek, the legendary mayor of Jerusalem, supposedly warned all the years not to open the Pandora box of the Jewish claims [in East Jerusalem], which means that these [Palestinian] families in Sheikh Jarrah will have to be evicted because Jewish groups owned the land before ‘48. Of course, how many Israelis would want us to have a principle that everybody goes back to where they lived before ‘48? Israelis would certainly be on the short side of the stick. But we have started with people in Sheikh Jarrah; we took Um Kamel to court - one of the first people evicted - and then to symbolically pitch a tent where the family used to live in West Jerusalem. We are starting to take more people on publicized tours to where their families used to live. We may get to the point of launching a court case. Some of these families have documents of where they lived before ‘48 because if they kick them out of their homes, they want to go back to their [previous] homes [in West Jerusalem].

  • Is this work sustainable for you? Do you see yourself doing this or taking this path in the next 20 years?

    It is not that the work is fun, as a rabbi, an Israeli, a Jew, a Zionist, to deal with the deepest, darkest corners of the country that I love, but I think it's the most significant thing I can be doing in my life right now. I am incredibly proud that we have a wonderful staff doing amazing things, and that comes about because there are so many people in the world who believe in what we are doing, and share our vision of what this country should be about, and what I think the country originally wanted to be about. The [Israeli] Declaration of Independence talks about freedom, justice and peace as envisioned by the prophets of Israel.

  • What would you want people to do to support your work?

    Well, to the Israelis that will hear this, I just hope people will join our work. We have hundreds of volunteers that come out and harvest olives with us. I have seen declining numbers of volunteers - I think we still have a lot - but I think it's because people are so exhausted and depressed or saying, what good is it going to do? What you do does make a difference and we need you out there. To Palestinians, I would say, avail yourselves of us where we can be of help. Remember that coalition of hope I've spoken about? Only you can empower me so I'll be heard by my fellow Israelis, it is your actions and the things we do together. To people abroad, we need you to come volunteer also, to learn about the realities here so you can go back and explain it, especially from countries where your governments are players here. I also think it is important for people with disparate opinions to come here together. It doesn't mean everyone will agree afterwards, but it will give everyone a common set of experiences to argue about. Last but certainly not least is money. We only do what we do because many people from around the world - and Israelis and Palestinians can help as well - believe and support what we do. If not everyone can be with us the classroom or in the Knesset or in the olive groves, people around the world are with us when they are enabling us to do what we do.

  • What are the roots of the conflict?

    I've already said it: it is so far our inability and unwillingness to recognize and honor the image of God in every human being.

  • And what would be the role of religion in resolving it?

    The solution has to be not to abandon the field but those of us who have a different understanding of their respective religions, in my case Judaism, need to fight from within and not only surrender the field to those who have a different vision. I think we can't say, unfortunately, that those who take xenophobic and racist and discriminatory readings of our Jewish tradition have nothing to stand on. They can find sources in the Talmud and the Bible and a lot of Jewish sources, just as I can, but at least we can show that our vision is - and this is another mandate of ours, us as Rabbis for Human Rights - as authentic, as textually based, as Jewish, and to struggle from within for our humanistic understanding of the Torah.

  • How do you see fears affecting the conflict? You talked about victim and victimizer, but what role does fear play in this conflict? Do you think the Palestinians and Israelis have similar fears? Do you share these fears yourself?

    When I was working with Interns for Peace it was the first Lebanon War, I was working in the Israeli-Palestinian village of Tamra, and the Israeli-Jewish community of Kiriyat Ata near Haifa. In Kiriyat Ata, people would say "Now that we're at war the Israeli-Arabs are going to be a fifth column - they're going to stab us in the back." In Tamra, people said, "Look what happened in Sabra and Shatila, the [Israeli] army is going to come here and do something like this tomorrow." I think that fear comes from our perceptions of reality and truth. With all the psychologizing we can do, people create their truths - those truths are real for people and you have to be with people where they are if you ever want those truths to move and change. It's a two-part process to recognize - as opposed to belittling - fears, understanding the truths people have created for themselves that bring these fears into play, and then from that point trying to move people a bit.

  • Where do you see signs of hope?

    I see signs of hope when we have little victories, when I spend time with my fellow Israelis and Palestinians, and it is so clear to me that the vast majority are good people who want a better future for all. And I know it's just a matter of helping us all to get there. And a big piece of getting there is that psychological piece, and I know it's possible, it will always be possible. I think that it is true for the world as well, not just for the Middle East. When I think about what a messianic age would be, I think about that I don't think I want to see a world where we lose our free will and have to be "good." But I think that in the world today a little bit of bad intentions, a little bit of evil - or not even evil - a little bit of fear and all kinds of things, has much greater weight than the vast amount of good that there is in human being. So my idea of a messianic age is that this good would have its proper weight. And if I'm already speaking about weights and measures, balances and scales, when I give talks I almost always finish with the wonderful image we have in the Talmud both on the individual and cosmic levels. We should always look at ourselves as hetz'yo zakay, hetz'yo hayav - everything is perfectly balanced, and we never know what little act we will take that seems meaningless, pointless, irrelevant, useless at the time - but whether that will be the act that tips the scales one way or the other. And of course that's a slave or taskmaster, because you will never be free, because the thing you are too tired to do will be the thing that tips the balance. But it is also a wonderfully liberating thing to know, to believe that even when you can't see things, things are happening. I hope and wish for a blessing for us all, whether in the Middle East or in any spheres of our personal and public lives. You should have the courage and wisdom and faith to tip the scales in the right direction. End