A Zionist Fights for Palestinian Rights

JERUSALEM — To many people, Rabbi Arik Ascherman would appear to be a contradiction in terms. He is an ardent Zionist and religious Jew who believes that God made a covenant with the Jewish people and the Land of Israel. But the core of Ascherman’s Zionist ideology revolves around fighting for human rights, especially those of the Palestinians.

“I believe the best way I can protect my children and safeguard their future is to fight for justice and take a stand on the suffering of the Palestinians,” Ascherman tells IPS.

For many, Palestinians especially, the sight of the lanky rabbi, with his woolly beard and tangle of curly hair beneath a skull cap, loping through the hills of the occupied West Bank, the first impression created would be that of one of the many armed, violent, and fanatical Israeli settlers who attack Palestinians and their property on a regular basis.

But Ascherman’s modus operandi involves helping Palestinian farmers harvest their olives, rebuild Palestinian homes destroyed by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), and build wells. Acting as a human shield for Palestinians under physical attack from Jewish settlers and Israeli soldiers has become the norm for Ascherman.

“There is nothing like getting beaten up together by the Israeli security forces to form a common bond and give Palestinians a new perspective on those they regard as their enemies,” laughed Ascherman.

“I’ve been assaulted, arrested numerous times, and jailed once by Israeli police and soldiers, but I’ve also had my car’s windscreen smashed by stone-throwing Palestinians who mistook me for a settler. It can be an equal opportunity playing field in the West Bank.”

Ascherman, who is married with two children, immigrated to Israel from the U.S. in 1994. He is a leading member of Rabbis for Human Rights (RHR) in Israel.

The organization was established in 1988 to specifically champion the cause of the poor in Israel and support the rights of Israel’s minorities and Palestinians. The group also works to stop the abuse of foreign workers, promotes the equal status of women, and battles trafficking in women.

In 2006 RHR was awarded the prestigious Niwano Peace Prize for its efforts to promote peace in an interfaith context, and in 2011 Ascherman and Rabbi Ehud Bandel won the Gandhi Peace Award.

Zionism has come to equal racism and fanaticism to many in the world, as it is often associated with the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians from their homeland and the abuse of Palestinians in general.

RHR believes that it stands for the authentic voice of Zionism and the Jewish tradition of human rights.

“There are many different strands of Zionism, religious and non-religious, some of which I abhor and which disgust me, but they do not speak for all Jews,” says Ascherman when questioned about the dispossession of Palestinians, which made way for the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948.

“There were certainly those Zionists who were exclusionary and didn’t want to share the land with the Palestinians. But there were also the early socialist Zionist pioneers who wanted to share the land and saw themselves co-inhabiting with the Palestinians as the forefront of the workers’ revolution.

“Although I believe in the right of Jews to live in Israel and for the state to exist, Jewish biblical tradition states that justice and human rights triumph over establishing a greater Israel. If territorial compromise means avoiding bloodshed then it is a no-brainer.”

A lot of RHR work takes place in the West Bank, where through the group’s legal petitions Palestinian farmers once again have access to their orchards after being banned for years by the IDF. The group’s work in East Jerusalem is under extreme pressure.

The situation in the West Bank has calmed down somewhat, but tension is high in East Jerusalem. Ascherman believes that a third Intifada could break out, and if it does it will happen in East Jerusalem.

“In the West Bank, I can use certain tools of Israeli democracy to fight for Palestinian rights such as petitioning the courts, getting the media and activists involved. In East Jerusalem the situation is a different story. I see the same signs of Palestinian anger and frustration building up that preceded the second Intifada.

“The Israeli authorities are determined to limit the Palestinian presence in East Jerusalem and to continue the silent transfer of Palestinians to make way for Israeli settlers by establishing facts on the ground. A lot of this is financed by wealthy Jewish expatriates.” Ascherman believes every person is obliged to play their part even if the issues are not immediately resolved. “In the bigger scheme of things a higher force is involved, but that does not abrogate us of our responsibility.”

(Inter Press Service)

Author: Mel Frykberg

Mel Frykberg writes for Inter Press Service.