Rabbi with a cause

Committed to "saving the soul of Judaism," Arik Ascherman has long blocked bulldozers in support of Palestinians in the West Bank. Now he has been convicted for that resistance.

By Chris McGreal
Published March 25, 2005 3:05PM (EST)

Rabbi Arik Ascherman has spent years planting himself atop doomed Palestinian homes, reading extracts of international law to Israeli forces as they demolish the buildings beneath his feet. More recently, the American-born rabbi, with a knitted blue skullcap pinned to his woolly black hair, has been at the forefront of resistance to the construction of what Israel calls its "security barrier," penning in and carving up West Bank villages.

Along the way he has been a persistent embarrassment to the Israeli government as a fervent Zionist who claims to reflect the true soul of the Jewish state by resisting its oppression of Palestinians. He has been arrested many times, but this week, for the first time, the 45-year-old director of Rabbis for Human Rights was convicted for his form of resistance.

"The way to be pro-Israel is to work for a better Israel, and the real Zionism is to work for an Israel that is not only physically strong but morally strong," he said. "There is a false equation that if you voice any criticism of Israel you are delegitimizing Israel at some level. I believe the opposite."

The prosecution has asked the court to sentence Rabbi Ascherman to do community service after he was convicted of obstructing the demolition of illegally built Arab homes in East Jerusalem by standing in front of the bulldozers. It is a dangerous business; an American peace activist, Rachel Corrie, was killed doing the same in the Gaza Strip.

"The families were hysterical. The grandmother was wailing while the father of the family was clutching at his heart and others were begging us to do something. It was simply heartbreaking," the rabbi said after his arrest. "To officer after officer I read off chapter and verse from various international conventions which Israel is a party to. Commanders ordered their people not to listen or take the paper."

The trial judge would not permit Rabbi Ascherman to present evidence about the context of his actions, which he says are motivated by opposition to "clear discrimination" that is illegal and immoral.

Israeli human rights organization B'Tselem estimates the authorities have demolished the homes of more than 16,000 Palestinians over the past 18 years for building illegally (separate from the mass demolitions in the Gaza Strip on "security" grounds). Israel maintains that any government is entitled to tear down buildings constructed without planning permission. But since the Israeli army occupied East Jerusalem in 1967, the government's policy has been to contain the growth of the Arab population by refusing to issue building permits while confiscating Palestinian-owned land to build sprawling Jewish neighborhoods in the city. "Nobody says to the Palestinians outright that we're not going to give you a permit because you're a Palestinian, but there is a policy of exactly that," said Rabbi Ascherman.

He says he wanted to be a rabbi from an early age while growing up in Pennsylvania, and later came to Zionism. "I began to define myself as a Zionist after reading a view of Zionism as a liberation movement of the Jewish people," he said.

But it was not until he visited Israel in 1982 and spent 18 months as a community worker in an Arab village that he began to appreciate some of the costs of Zionism to others. "I came to work here knowing there were issues of discrimination against Israeli Arabs, but there was always a difference between what you know on a theoretical level and what you experience. And what I experienced in those years is not as horrific as some of the things we've seen in the occupied territories," he said.

The Harvard-educated rabbi adheres to the teachings of Jewish theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel: "He wrote that only a few are guilty but we are all responsible."

When he returned to Israel in 1994, married to Einat Ramon, the first Israeli-born woman to be ordained as a rabbi, that philosophy led him into regular confrontation with the government over what he calls the "enormity of the injustice" of house demolitions, the confiscation of Palestinian land and the destruction of their olive groves.

Recent protests have also focused on the construction of the vast steel and concrete barrier through the West Bank because it seals off Palestinian villages and expropriates their land.

The rabbi was arrested when he objected to the Israeli security forces tying a Palestinian to the front of a jeep as a human shield against stone throwers. On other occasions he has been attacked by club-wielding Jewish settlers.

Rabbi Ascherman's first protest also became one of the most celebrated. He attempted to defend the home of Saleem Shawarmah, built in the West Bank village of Anata and demolished in 1998. He helped rebuild the house. A few days after it was complete, the army demolished it again. It was rebuilt in 1999, and then bulldozed. The ensuing public attention led to a dramatic decline in demolitions for a few years. "In 1998, the government was demolishing one or two Palestinian homes each day," he said. "But then the government changed its policy as a direct result of the work we had done." That success started to crumble with the onset of the second intifada in the fall of 2000, and house demolitions surged again.

None of this has caused Rabbi Ascherman to question his Zionism, but it has changed his view of the Jewish state's claim to moral superiority and the "purity of arms" of its military. "It reinforces my belief that this is a country fighting for its soul, that Zionism is fighting for its soul, that Judaism is fighting for its soul. Nothing, even after the terrible things I've seen, causes me to call the enterprise into question," he said.

"But as a Jew, as a rabbi, as an Israeli, as a Zionist, I've always wanted to believe that we're better. I don't think we're any worse, but I can't anymore say that we're better. It only reinforces my commitment to save the soul of Judaism."

Chris McGreal

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