Saturday, July 31, 2010

Rabbis for Human Rights: the voice of a God who loves

Rabbis for Human Rights is a humanitarian organization that seeks to restore true righteousness to the State of Israel.

Meeting with Rabbi Michael Schwartz, around a wide oval table in their headquarters in Jerusalem, we were told that their organization is driven by the Old Testament command to take care of the fatherless, the widow, and the stranger in the land.  That, said Rabbi Schwartz, is what true religion looks like.  

The work of the rabbis is multi-faceted, centering on Social and Economic Justice (the protection of the poor), Human Rights in the Occupied Territories, and Human Rights Education. 

Much of their work in the Occupied Territories revolves around helping Palestinians maintain physical access to the land they own.  According to the law, if Palestinians can be kept off their land (even by such unjust means as barbed wire fences, armed soldiers, or violent settlers) then the land attains the status of "no-man's land" and is legally seizable by the Israeli government.  This is one of the main techniques that has gained settlers the control of 42% of the West Bank.  

(Look at that percentage again.  Did you really see it?  42% of the WEST BANK is controlled by settlements considered illegal under international law.)

Some of their most unique work, however, is under the heading of Human Rights Education.  RHR rabbis work with religious youth preparing to serve their country in the IDF (Israeli Defense Force).  Together they look at Israel's Declaration of Independence (in the absence of a constitution, which Israel does not yet have), in combination with relevant scripture, and wrestle with questions of ethics and morality.  How does a soldier, loyal to his country and obedient to God, make decisions within the impossible situations that young Israelis are likely to find themselves in?  How do they maintain the innocence, humanity, and dignity of both themselves and their Palestinian brothers and sisters (or enemies, depending on how you want to categorize)?  

One of the reasons that this work is so vitally significant is that the IDF has their own rabbis (and here there was a trace of anger -- or was it pain? -- in Rabbi Schwartz's voice).  Rabbis who hand out pamphlets to young soldiers declaring that Palestinians are less than human; declaring that annihilating such sub-humans is the act of a holy war; declaring that killing them is not murder, but righteous victory.  

For all our sakes, Rabbi Schwartz seemed to plead, we must teach them another way.

But perhaps most important of all their work, they seek to generate hope.  There are Israeli and American Jews who have come to them, Schwartz told us, and said that the only reason they can continue to wear the kippah, or call themselves religious Jews, is because of the work of RHR and those like them.  

My favorite story illustrating this work of hope-building was the one Rabbi Schwartz left us with (a story that is briefly referenced in the New York Times op-ed article about RHR, In Israel, the Noble vs. the Ugly):
His coworker (Rabbi Asherman) once got a call about settler violence against Palestinians.  When he got there, the Palestinians, extremely agitated, began throwing stones at the settlers and the soldiers protecting them.  Unable to condone violence, he left.  Only to get called minutes later to be told that Israeli soldiers were using a Palestinian child as a human shield.  He returned to the site to find a 13-year-old boy tied to the front of a tank.  Going up to the soldiers, he asked them if they knew that such acts were in violation of the Geneva convention, and could constitute war crimes.  In response, he was head-butted, and tied to the front of the tank with the child.  When the traumatized child was later interviewed by Al Gazira, he told them that, yes, he was having nightmares, and, yes, he was terrified of the soldiers.  But he also said that a tall Jew, with a red beard and a kippah on his head, came to his rescue. 
And that, right there, is the testimony of hope.   

But although it was Rabbi Schwartz who told us that bitterness is the result of inaction, still there are elements of the situation that even he will admit are very bleak indeed.  

For instance (and this was a sentiment repeated by almost every human rights group we met with), one of the strongest movements in Israel today is the movement to de-legitimize human rights groups, and exhaust the strength of those opposing injustice.

May the day never come when they succeed.    

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