By Rabbi Alexandra Wright, Senior Rabbi, Liberal Jewish Synagogue
Rabbis for Human Rights (RHR) is celebrating its 25th anniversary – a landmark achievement for an organisation that draws support from rabbis across the religious spectrum in Israel.
Rabbi Israel Newman (zecher tzadik livrachah), an Orthodox London rabbi who taught Talmud to progressive rabbinic students at Leo Baeck College and who then made aliyah on his retirement, introduced many of us to the organisation with which he was deeply involved until his death.
Working to highlight human rights violations, educating the public and pressurising the state institutions to correct injustice in Israel and in the Palestinian territories were some of the things for which he campaigned and worked tirelessly.
Over the years, RHR has developed projects under the leadership of a hard-working and dedicated staff, inspired by Rabbi Arik Ascherman, RHR’s director of special projects, who is the closest one will ever get to understanding the moral passion of a Hebrew prophet.
One of the most extensive of these programmes is in the field of education especially for those who are preparing to join the army and university students. One example is at Sapir College in the northern Negev. RHR has been involved in pioneering a programme, Women Citizens for Equality, for Jewish and Arab women. Its education director, Rabbi Nava Hefetz, witnessed the graduation of 10 students drawn from the college’s Jewish, Arab and Bedouin population.
The women worked together to address issues of gender, religion, national and human rights. Amira, a young Arab woman, helped people in her village create a small children’s group. Another, an 18-year-old Arab, became involved in a Tel Sheva eco-project; for Jewish Avigail, the journey helped her become a social worker.
Others have felt empowered to address prejudice and ignorance against women’s education and public profiles. In Hadera, Rabbi Idit Lev, head of RHR’s social justice department, works to help those at the bottom of Israel’s socio-economic pile.
With the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI), RHR has been at the forefront of lobbying the Knesset to embrace its social responsibilities. Those suffering most are women, new immigrants, Arabs and those whose circumstances have deteriorated due to continuous unemployment.
Over the past year, RHR has been particularly involved in addressing the rights of the Bedouin – a complex and difficult issue partly to do with land ownership and partly with poverty and generational change. There are 35 unrecognised Bedouin villages in the Negev. It’s almost impossible to understand why these villages have no services – no electricity, no running water, no heat – while Jewish homes in the area do.
RHR’s success in halting the Prawer-Begin Bill by forcing the government to consider the Bedouin’s dignity and human rights was remarkable, but there is still much to be done if Israel is to hold up its head as a Jewish state true to its founding charter of the Declaration of Independence, to uphold “the full social and political equality of all [Israel’s] citizens.”
RHR also works with its field workers in East Jerusalem and the Palestinian Territories. Last month, a ‘price tag’ attack was committed in East Jerusalem. Vandals slashed tyres of 16 cars and sprayed graffiti on walls and a bus with the words “Enough Arab workers – enough assimilation”.
The attack took place less than 24 hours after the stabbing of a Charedi man by the Damascus Gate in East Jerusalem. Mercifully, the man was treated for light injuries and was released from hospital. There should be no impunity for any kind of violence against Israel’s citizens, but neither for those escalating tension by attacking Arab villages or displaying violent behaviour in East Jerusalem.
RHR is committed to standing by people affected by this kind of violence – whether it is in villages where olive trees are uprooted or homes vandalised or where individual’s lives are made intolerable by the thuggish behaviour of threatening extremist, gangs of young men.
Rabbi Ascherman says: “I want Arabs to see that not all Jews behave in this way. It’s important for them to see Jews in kippot standing by them and upholding their dignity, human rights and freedom.”
For all these reasons, Rabbis for Human Rights has my support for the work its members do in embodying a Jewish way of life.