Throughout the centuries, Jews have suffered whenever a lie repeated often enough becomes believable.

Fifty dedicated people were brought to Israel this week under the specious premise that tens of thousands of trees had been uprooted in Arab villages by Israeli soldiers and Israeli civilians. These volunteers came to plant trees and distribute more than $100,000 a.m.ong Arab villagers.

The organization that imported this delegation is known as the Rabbis For Human Rights, which posted on their website,on e-mails, in opeds and even in full page ads taken out in the New York Times over the past year that proclaim that Israeli soldiers and civilians who have “marauded” through Arab villages and cut down between 30,000 and 100,000 trees.

While it is an empirical fact that there have been cases where the IDF cut down some olive tree groves in a few Arab villages that had been used as convenient cover to protect snipers, and while there is no doubt about it that some Arab grove owners have suffered financial difficulties as a result, such an allegation that Israel has conducted such a policy would seem to fly in the face of reality, since none of the three hundred news agencies based in Israel or the PA have ever discerned that such a massive policy exists or that tens of thousands of trees have even been uprooted.

Where did the Rabbis for Human Rights get the idea that such a policy of mass uprooting of olive trees exists?

Rabbi Arik Ascherman, the director of the Rabbis for Human Rights, was asked for his sources. His reply was “LAW or PHRC”.

Both of these are Palestinian organizations. LAW is the leading Palestinian lawyers association, while PHRC is the Palestinian Human Rights Center – both of which work closely with the Palestinian Authority. In July, 2001, the LAW organization organized forty Palestinian Non Government organizations To condemn the Israeli human rights organization B’tzelem for denouncing The decision of the Palestinian Authority to endorse the killing of anyone Whom the PA would define as an Israeli settler.

Later, Asherman added, “different organizations and eyewitness experience” were his sources and would not give more details.

Rabbis for Human Rights claims not to take a political stand. However, their 10-day visit in Israel was characterized by meetings arranged exclusively with Palestinian groups or with Israeli political groups from the far left side of Israel’s political map.

When delegation participants were asked about whether they had requested a rebuttal from an IDF spokesman or the Israeli civilians that Rabbis for Human Rights accuses of mass uprooting of Arab orchards, such a question drew blank stares.

Rabbi David Forman, a founding member and spokesman of RHR offered the following comment, “I know it’s true that in some cases Palestinians stand behind trees and snipe at people, but in 95% of the cases, the trees were removed needlessly. According to Palestinian sources, 25,000 to 30,000 trees have been removed.

“It reminds me of when I served in Lebanon. Our commander showed us, ‘There’s the sea, and there are the banana fields.’ There were women working in the banana fields and there were snipers there. Our commander told us, when attacked, to shoot first and ask questions later. Once we didn’t shoot back and two tanks of ours were taken out. Three of my soldiers were killed.”

When asked, in retrospect, would he do the same thing again? Rabbi Forman paused and answered, “Yes. These are difficult moral dilemmas, but yes.”

T.T. Fitzgerald, M.D., a delegation member who works for an organization known as “Medicine for Peace”, came from Baltimore, where he is part of a group called ‘Baltimore Area Jews who work for Israeli-Palestinian Peace.’ He spoke passionately about the Beduin in the Negev where the group had planted that day. It had been considered too dangerous to go over the green line, as there had been shooting there that day.

“The village is not recognized by the government… they pay taxes and lots of them serve in the IDF but they don’t have electricity and water.”

Question: How did you get involved in RHR?

“I work against whatever war the U.S. is in… 3-5,000 children die in Iraq every month. Friends of mine were subject to indictment for bringing toys and medicine to Iraq… [America] should stop making war in the rest of the world.”

Question: What happened to the olive trees?

“They were destroyed by the military or by settlers.”

Question: Do you know where that information comes from?

“No.”

Question: Did you meet with any government officials?

“No. It wouldn’t be a good use of our time.”

Richard Kohl is an American-born economist from western New York living In Paris who conducts policy research on poverty and inequality. “

Question: What happened to the olive trees? “Vigilante groups of settlers and the IDF or border police pull them up.

Question: What are your source? “Arik Asherman. He showed me clippings in London, of the Washington Times, for instance.”

Question: What are the primary sources? ” Palestinian villagers said that in the middle of the night, 25 trees disappeared. Arik said, it’s Kafkaesque, the settlers expand the borders of their settlements, so the Palestinians don’t have access to their trees. They (RHR) wanted to help harvest, the settlers let in the Israelis but not the Palestinians. They let the bus through because it had yellow plates.”

Question: What do you think of the Karine A boat episode? “I’m not sure if it was a boat going to the Palestinians or if, like they say, it was set up by the Israelis. The Middle East is full of conspiracy theories. I don’t know which is the truth.”

Rabbi Gerald Serotta, of Chevy Chase, Maryland, is the acting chair of the RHR in the U.S. and is in the process of organizing an independent North American support group.

Question: What are the sources of information regarding the number of trees That were cut down and who did the cutting?

“I don’t know, but I trust the rabbinic leaders here in Israel. Anyone can go see where they are. Visual evidence is obvious about what’s for security, which is legitimate and what is collective punishment and a violation of Jewish law and traditions.”

Ruth Atkin, Mayor of Emeryville and delegation participant, was not new to the idea of enriching the environment and quality of life for individuals. Emeryville is a city with 7,000 people, located between Berkeley and Oakland, at the base of the Bay Bridge.

“There is now a hi-tech and retail center that the city has just completed. I was elected in November of 1999 and when I came into office the city Was just finishing its last major deal, creating an urban village with a pedestrian Main Street. We are now finishing up that Renaissance and conversion and will deal with the residential quality of life issues. We’re converting an abandoned railroad spur into a greenway and are working to balance residential needs with a diversified economy.”

Atkin’s passion in life involves planting trees in the urban environment, and presented the villagers of Hares with the idea of a sister-city partnership.

Atkins was yet another mission participant who believed the claims of the Rabbis for Human Rights that thousands of trees had been uprooted by IDF troops and Israeli civilians.

Atkins also described a meeting that she had been set up to meet with a family in Beit Jala, near Bethlehem, and how all their children were wetting their beds at night because of the Israeli shooting. Nobody bothered to tell Atkins that Beit Jala is the place from where Arab sharpshooters fire on the Jerusalem neighborhood of Gilo, and on traffic below, and that five Israeli drivers have been murdered on that road. When asked if she would at least meet with a family in Gilo, Atkins replied, “No, they don’t have the level of unemployment in Gilo that they have in Beit Jala.” Two nights after Atkins had dinner in Beit Jalla, PLO gunman from Beit Jala fired on Gilo, damaging twenty Israeli homes.

Janet Tobacman, a health educator who originally hails from Cleveland and now lives in San Francisco, had the same feeling:

“My understanding is that a combination of the Israeli army and Jewish settlers have cut down thousands of olive trees throughout the West Bank and Gaza and people have depended upon them. Lots have been cut down and the official understanding of that from Israel is that trees are a security risk, but there are great numbers, so either you can look at it as a matter of Israel wanting the land, or as harassment or collective punishment.”

Some American born Rabbis in Jerusalem are upset with the Rabbis for Human Rights.

Rabbi Gershon Winer is one of them. He served as a Conservative rabbi in Grand Rapids, Michigan and in Long Island before he made aliya to Israel in 1970. He is professor emeritus of Yiddish Literature at Bar-Ilan University and the author of The Founding Fathers of Israel.

Rabbi Winer has spearheaded a campaign to have a resolution officially adopted at the next Rabbinical Assembly of the Conservative movement, to take place in February in Washington, D.C., in which he calls for the Rabbinical Assembly to “no longer ‘applaud and endorse’ the policies and activities of the Rabbis for Human Rights in Israel.”

His proposed resolution uses strong language. It reads: “The statements and activities of the Rabbis for Human Rights organization often run counter to national interests and policies as determined by the Israel government and supported by public polls, such as interfering with necessary security measures taken by the Israel Defense Forces against the enemy, or advocating the repatriation of Arab refugees within the borders of Israel.” Rabbi Winer’s proposed resolution also criticized the RHR for, “… remaining at the Durban Conference after all other Jewish delegations, joined by the official representative of the United States Government, left in protest against the anti Israeli bias infecting the proceedings…”

According to Winer, “what really ignited me against the RHR is their Yom Kippur ‘confession’ that they sent out last year and asked to be read in synagogues during the services.” We obtained a copy of that “vidui”. While referring briefly to Palestinian violence, the main thrust of the “prayer” is a sweeping, total and chilling condemnation of Israel and the Jews for their behavior toward Palestinian and Israeli Arabs. The collective Jewish people are accused of incitement, demonizing, abuse, hardening of hearts, and the use of “excessive lethal force to kill and maim.”

“When I found out about this,” says Winer, “I decided to introduce the resolution. I also found out about the olive tree project, the attempt to remove roadblocks that have been set up by the IDF against terrorists [the roadblock removal is referred to by Rabbi Arik Ascherman in a description of the action he wrote about on a Palestinian website]

Rabbi Ehud Bandel, President of the Masorati (Conservative) Movement in Israel, was asked to respond, “I am a member of the RHR and was their founding director in 1988. Today, because of my role as President of the Conservative movement, I feel I cannot be responsible for their actions and therefore resigned as a board member. The prohibition against hurting trees during war appears in Parshat Ki Tetzeh [in the Tora]. I agree there are certain circumstances in which peoples’ lives are more important. I trust that RHR knows where they’re planting them.

Bandel emphasized that he cannot take responsibility for actions taken by the RHR. “For instance, if money were given to families of terrorists, I would not stand behind it. I intentionally don’t arrive at meetings.” Concerning the Durban conference, when the RHR was the only Israeli or Jewish group that did not walk out together with Israel and the U.S., Rabbi Bandel said, “I warned Jeremy about Durban and that the anti-Israel and anti-Semitic groups would exploit us.” [Rabbi Jeremy Milgrom is the RHR Field Director for the Rabbis for Human Rights. – TKG]

Conservative Rabbi Ben Hollander, a founding member of RHR, teaches at The Schechter Institute in Jerusalem, noted the lack of balance in the tone of the RHR literature referring to the olive tree project, and in the 10-day program itself, during which the group met exclusively with Palestinian groups and left wing groups.

Rabbi Hollander: “Contrary to popular conception, RHR is not a political organization but a human rights organization. Many of those coming from America for this mission are political activists on the left and actually we did not plan their program. This was their goal in coming here. It’s like asking, how can a solidarity group come and only meet with Palestinians? But that is their orientation. This group from America does have a political agenda and I saw [it] in the program…I am much more centrist and moderate. There are also people who are liberal and who believe that we in Israel did more than our share -this is my personal view as well – to achieve peace.

Asked why he is still a member of RHR, Rabbi Hollander said that “a watch dog organization like ours is enhancing security because it is preventing human rights abuses.

Funding from the New Israel Fund and The Shefa Fund RHR receives funding through the New Israel Fund and from the Shefa Fund.

On the NIF website, it states, “The New Israel Fund is a philanthropic partnership of Israelis,. North Americans and Europeans that works for equality and social justice for all of Israel’s CITIZENS.” (CAPS are the author’s)

Palestinians who live in the West Bank and Gaza are not Israeli citizens.

Itzik Shanan, Director of Communication and Public Relations for the New Israel Fund, was asked if NIF funds was intended for grantees who hold activities in the West Bank and Gaza? His answer was a flat “no”, yet he said that he did not to know too much about the Rabbis for Human Rights tree planting activities in Arab villages, even though the Rabbis had sent out a daily e-mail on this project and its connection to the New Israel Fund throughout the past year, always mentioning the New Israel Fund and the Shefa Fund of Philadelphia as the conduits for funds. RHR went so far as to place a full page ad in the New York Times that advertised the New Israel Fund and the Shefa Fund as the place where funds could be sent to help replant “thousands” of trees that the IDF and Israeli civilians had uprooted.

The word “allegedly” does not appear in the literature of the Rabbis for Human Rights.

IDF Spokesman responds to RHR accusations regarding the numbers 30,000 – 100,000 that appear on the RHR website, IDF spokesman Capt. Yaakov Dallal responded by while exact numbers of uprooted trees are not available, the IDF rejected any notion that there were such a massive number of olive groves that had been uprooted over the past two years.

Regarding accusations that the IDF cuts down more trees than is necessary, Dallal said, “There is such a thing as cutting down trees or shrubbery and also other cases, such as demolition of houses, when these serve as cover for Palestinians who are carrying out attacks on Israelis and on Israeli soldiers. It happens all the time that people hide in orchards, in areas close to roads that have plants and trees, and that they plant a roadside bomb and hide again. They use these areas for ambushes on civilian and IDF vehicles. We’ve seen a ton of this on a daily basis over the past 16 months.

“Occasionally a decision is taken to clear an area. That decision is based on the experience in the area, a record of previous attacks and a determination that the attacks would have been thwarted if this area were cleared. The permission to clear an area is not taken by a local commander; it is generally a brigadier general or the head of the central or southern command, for instance.

“The Alei Sinai case [in which Palestinian terrorists broke into a Jewish community in Katif and murdered two people] was a particularly severe case, first of all because of the type of attack, and secondly because the plants and growth significantly helped the infiltration and helped the terrorists make their way to the settlement.

“There have been other attempts and it makes it easier if the area is cleared to spot the terrorist, especially because they usually come at night. It’s much easier to spot them now, as they are continuing to attempt to infiltrate and attack, and continue to be spotted – and that’s thanks to the clearing of the area, which gives a lot of advance warning, for half a kilometer.

Most significantly, Capt. Dallal invoked international law: “According to International law, if any property – such as a building, orchards, a greenhouse, or a tree – is used for to launch military activity, it is no longer regarded as personal civilian property. Under international law it is possible to clear the area because it becomes a place from which attacks are launched; it takes on a different legal status.

Emmanuel Nachshon, spokesman for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, reinforced the position of the IDF, “Unfortunately, the IDF sometimes has to take part in certain activities, such as uprooting of trees, to protect soldiers and others on the roads from Palestinian gunfire. That is not a matter of policy, but a necessity within the framework of our duty of self-defense. Those who show blatant disregard towards the trees in this country are the Palestinian terrorists who do not hesitate to use them as shelters for their criminal activities.

So there you have it. The Rabbis for Human Rights have prepared fifty “ambassadors” to spread the word throughout the world that Israel carries out a policy that does not exist.

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