By Ben Tinsley
DALLAS — Rabbi Arik Ascherman, a peace activist from Israel, puts his life on the line on a regular basis to protect human rights.
The rabbi and members of “Rabbis for Human Rights” — the group he co-founded — act as human shields during olive harvests to protect Palestinians from settler violence. The hope is to create dialogue between Israelis and Palestinians.
Rabbis for Human Rights consists of 100 or so rabbis and rabbinical students who also wish to prevent or redress human rights violations. Clashes are reported between settlers and Palestinian farmers every year, and members strive to inspire that dialogue.
Rabbi Ascherman truly believes in his work.
“I think that when we founded Israel we correctly said, ‘Never again — never again will we Jews be helpless. Never again,’” he explained. “For 2,000 years we had no power. If we have the power now we should use it to better ourselves.”
Ascherman, 56, discussed this work with a group of about 10 people on Tuesday, Dec. 1. His presentation took place in a conference room in the offices of the Jewish Federation of Greater Dallas.
The American-born Israeli Reform rabbi — a native of Erie, Pennsylvania who attended Harvard University — talked about many dangerous incidents in his line of work over the years.
Any one of these events might have cost him his life:
On April 15, 2004, the rabbi came across a 13-year-old Palestinian boy tied to an Israeli police jeep for use as a “human shield” against demonstrators protesting the routing of the Israeli government’s barrier through Palestinian land.
It was clearly an illegal action. Israel’s Supreme Court barred the use of Palestinians as human shields in 2002.
The 13-year-old Palestinian boy was tied by an arm to a mesh on the jeep windscreen — the mesh had been intended to protect the vehicle and its driver against stones and rocks.
Rabbi Ascherman also noticed the boy being beaten by border police. He and two other Israelis approached the jeeps.
During the melee, the boy reported suddenly seeing a “tall Jewish man” coming to help him.
“Do not be afraid,” the man said.
It was Ascherman, according to both the rabbi and media reports.
But the commanding officer on the scene summoned the rabbi forward, grabbed him by the throat, head-butted him and screamed that he was under arrest.
The rabbi and the two others were handcuffed and put in front of other jeeps. Palestinian youths began to throw stones.
Rabbi Ascherman’s demands not to use them as human shields were met with laughter and threats.
Eventually, all of the human shields were released. But the emotional effect the incident had on the young man was evident to many.
According to the BBC, the boy said he was terrified he would be put in prison or injured.
His father told Reuters news agency: “When I saw him on the hood of the jeep, my whole mind went crazy — he was shivering from fear.”
Rabbi Ascherman said it is important at this point to remember the 2006 Supreme Court ruling that requires Israel to protect Palestinian harvests from attack. On the day of the attack against the rabbi, the Palestinian harvest was accompanied by Israeli police protection.
According to Ascherman, Palestinians often face harassment and violence from Jewish extremists during their olive harvests.
“We Arabs and Jews so vehemently fight to claim Abraham’s inheritance,” he said. “If we spent any time to become worthy moral heirs of Abraham’s moral example, we’d be in a better place.”
Rabbi Ascherman said it is important to break down stereotypes to plant seeds of hope among those who do not believe they can expect a lot from the groups the rabbi and others represent.
For instance, when the rabbi and members of his group go to a demolished Palestinian home, the Palestinian parents express concern about the effects of seeing their home demolished on their children.
“What do you say when a 10-year-old child says, ‘I want to be a terrorist?’” he asked.
Rabbi Ascherman discussed the 60th anniversary of the founding of the state of Israel in 2008 — an event marked with air force jets and celebrations with fireworks and concerts, picnics and barbecues across the land.
“We had this dream — not what the rest of the world was expecting of us but what we were dreaming for ourselves,” he said. “We ask questions where we succeeded and where we had not succeeded — I don’t say ‘fail’ because 60 years is really not that long a time.”
Rabbi Ascherman stressed the importance of speaking honestly about all the amazing and wonderful things the people of Israel have accomplished.
“But we haven’t yet lived up to our own dream,” he said. “Our first goal is to uphold a Jewish tradition starting with what we learned in the very first chapter of Genesis … ‘All humans are created in God’s image.’”
Anita Zusman Eddy, executive director, Jewish Community Relations Council of the Jewish Federation of Greater Dallas, said she thoroughly enjoyed the rabbi’s presentation.
“I greatly appreciated the opportunity to hear his remarks,” Eddy said. “I am impressed with his passion and more so his commitment and follow through. And it absolutely affirms for me how complicated is the situation in Israel and her place in the world.”
Nancy Kasten, who also was at the meeting, said she was encouraged to see community leaders make time in their busy schedules to hear about what Rabbi Ascherman and Rabbis for Human Rights are doing, and why.
“We cannot be reminded enough that while the forces of evil are daunting, and Israel and the international Jewish community face real threats, we have choices as to how to respond,” Kasten said.
She said Rabbi Ascherman offers a model of response that is courageous, hopeful and inspiring.
“His life’s work keeps a vision alive of an Israel that most of us wish to see, where all citizens are treated with dignity and respect, equity and justice,” Kasten said. “I hope that his visit will inspire more members of the Dallas Jewish community to support Rabbis for Human Rights and other organizations that are dedicated to making this vision of Israel more real.”