Wednesday, February 16, 2011

"What is a blessing for us, should be a blessing for others"

“If what is a blessing for us is a disaster for others, that’s a problem.” 

So began Rabbi Arik Ascherman of Rabbis for Human Rights (, with specific reference to the 2008 commemoration of the 60th anniversary of Israeli statehood, which Palestinians commonly refer to as “the Catastrophe” (see

Rabbi Ascherman quoted the words from God’s promise to Abraham in Genesis 12:3, “and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you,” and commented that “what is a blessing for us should be a blessing for others.”

As their website says,
Rabbis for Human Rights gives voice to a Jewish and Zionist tradition of concern for Human Rights. RHR sounds the shofar of alarm on issues of human rights in Israel and in territories for which Israel has taken responsibility.”

As with other posts, I will not go into all the details of what RHR are doing, but focus on a few ways in which our meeting with Rabbi Ascherman impacted me personally, in thinking about what it means to work for peace.

He quoted Ben-Gurion’s vision for the nation of Israel at it’s founding, reflected in the Israeli Declaration of Independence (, e.g., in the paragraph:

THE STATE OF ISRAEL … will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture; it will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions; and it will be faithful to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations.

His (their) approach is not to chronicle or dwell on the failings of the the Israeli people and government, but rather to ask them, what did we dream we were doing, in founding this state? Where have we succeeded, and where have we not yet succeeded? I.e., their work is to call people to strive for a vision of themselves as a nation, what they could be, what they want to be.

Part of their mandate in RHR is to try to roll back human rights abuses, in part by promoting a different way of understanding Judaism than what is becoming widespread in Israel, and what is being promoted by the ultraorthodox community (in which, he said, “people are being socialized into a narrow understanding of Judaism”). RHR are asking questions like, what did the prophets have to say about freedom, justice and peace? What does Jewish tradition say about property rights of non Jews in the state of Israel? What do Jewish texts have to say about human rights?

A central question being debated now, he said, is whether Jewish teachings about how to treat human beings refer to all people, or just Jews (“our own community”)? Are all people created in God’s image, or just Jews? (Note the fact that B’tselem, the name of “The Israeli Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories, means “in his image,” from the Genesis account of the creation of mankind).

One of the inspirations of RHR is Rabbi Heschel, who is quoted as saying, “In a democratic society, some are guilty, but all are responsible.” Thus, they act. (I should note that Rabbi Ascherman clearly stated (and I’ve heard RHR spokespersons say this before to American groups) that Israel is more democratic in some ways than the U.S., and that Americans, with all the unsolved problems of our society, have no business “throwing stones” at Israel.)

Rabbi Ascherman made the interesting point that in Hebrew, “justice” and “law” are synonymous, which forms an interesting connection to a point that one of the Palestinian Christians we met with said, when asked what he thought would be a “just” solution to the conflict. His answer was to have international law applied.

Other points the Rabbi emphasized:
  • He quoted as motivation for their work the Jewish saying, “one who saves a single life – it is as if he has saved an entire world”
  • Never write anyone off. Never discount the possibility of the truth in our hearts speaking to others.
  • There is a Midrash about God providing the spring for Hagar and Ishmael, after they had been driven away. The angels said, “no – what are you doing? Let them die, it would be better…” but God said no, and let them live, even though He knew what problems would come between the descendants of Isaac and those of Ishmael. In other words, it is not a solution for Israel to try to get rid of the Palestinian people – they need to learn to live with them.
  • It all comes down to hope, and people on both sides have lost hope. The majority want to compromise, but a larger majority don’t believe the other side wants peace.
  • You can be victims and victimizers at the same time. Neither recognizes themselves as victimizer.
  • “This work is not fun!” (dealing with the deepest darkest corners of life)
  • “If you really want to break down stereotypes, there’s nothing like getting beaten up together.”
  • There has been enough destruction. We want to contribute to co-creation (including coexistence).

I close with one of the Rabbi’s stories. In 2004, Rabbi Ascherman was called out to a confrontation between Israeli border police and Palestinian youth, in which a twelve year old Palestinian boy was tied to a jeep as a human shield (there are various accounts of this incident, e.g., or Rabbi Ascherman tried to intervene, was head-butted by on the of the police, and also tied to a jeep. After the incident ended, the Israeli human rights group B’tselem ( interviewed the Palestinian boy, to get his account of the story. After detailing what had happened to him, and his fear of the soldiers, he concluded his account by saying, “and then a tall Jewish man wearing a kippa came and rescued me.” Making a difference, even for one Palestinian young person, is what keeps RHR going.

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