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American Rabbis Urge Dismissal of Charges Against Israeli Human Rights Leader

Allan C. Brownfeld, Editor
Special Interest Report
January - February 2004

American rabbis representing the four major streams of Judaism in the U.S. went to the Embassy of Israel in Washington, D.C. in January in behalf of one of their Israeli peers, a leader in Israel’s human rights movement.  

Rabbi Gerold Serotta, who co-chairs Rabbis for Human Rights (RHR) North America, RHR advisory council members Sidney Schwartz, Marc Gopin and Jack Moline brought with them a letter with some 350 signatures by North American rabbis. Other activists delivered a copy to the Israeli consulate in New York.  

Washington Jewish Week (Jan. 15, 2004) reports that, “The missive called for dismissal of the charges against Rabbi Arik Ascherman, who faces charges of interfering with police for protesting home demolition in Beit Hanina and the village of Issawiyah, north of Jerusalem. Ascherman, 44, is the executive director of Rabbis for Human Rights in Israel ... If convicted, the U.S.-born Reform rabbi who now lives in Jerusalem could face three years in jail and fines. But Rabbis for Human Rights is hoping that it will be Israel’s policy of demolishing illegally built Arab homes that really will be on trial.” The letter said: “These prosecutions will never lead to the kind of Israel we want and desire: a Jewish State that celebrates the prophetic voice which has animated our people for centuries. True democracies protect minority rights, and cherish and listen to their critics, to those who stand with the poor and powerless.”  

Rabbi Schwartz, who directs the Washington-based Panim: The Institute for Jewish Leadership and Values, says he believes backers of Israel must also stand ready to point out policies that need changing. He argues that “the best expressions of our love for Israel is not only to support her against her enemies, but also to help the society live up to its own aspirations, as stated in the Israeli Declaration of Independence.”  

The document delivered to the embassy contends that the houses posed no security threat to Israel: “None of the people in these homes engaged in violence or harboring terrorists. They were demolished because of a violation of zoning regulations in the context where it is almost impossible for Palestinian families in those parts of the West Bank under Israeli civilian control or in Jerusalem to legally obtain building permits.”  

The letter also included the signatures of, among others, Rabbi David Saperstein who heads the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism and Scott Sperling of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations.  

Rabbi Ascherman and other members of his group expect the trial to take months. The rabbis want to turn the spotlight on Israel’s demolition policy, which they say violates both Palestinian human rights and Jewish and Zionist ideals. They charge that Israel discriminates by destroying Palestinian homes built without permits while encouraging construction in Jewish neighborhoods in the West Bank near Jerusalem. In addition, they argue, since the 1967 Six Day War, Jerusalem officials have tried to keep the city’s Arab sector at about 28 percent of the population, moving Jews into eastern Jerusalem and limiting building permits for Palestinians. The Israeli human rights group B’Tselem says that 2,500 homes have been demolished in eastern Jerusalem and the West Bank since 1987, leaving 16,000 Palestinians homeless.  

Israel’s consul for media and public affairs in New York, Ido Aharoni, backed the demolition policy and the charges against Ascherman. Authorities tear down illegal buildings, whether they are in Jerusalem or Tel Aviv, he said. If Ascherman “were doing the same thing in New York, I guarantee you that the New York City Police Department would arrest him.”  

Last April, an Israeli bulldozer rumbled toward Ascherman as he protested a home demolition. He was not hurt, and lost only his skullcap in the rubble. He says: “I am hoping that someday Palestinians will dig up the kippah and see that Jews in the name of Torah tried to fight this policy.”

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