- David Bedein wrote in his April article, “Rabbis Who Ignore Human Rights”, “Ten years ago, a group known as the Rabbis For Human Rights”… was formed to relate to the human rights and civil liberties of the non-Jew in the land of Israel.” In fact, we are a universal human rights organization which has also defended the rights of Jews, including Ethiopian Jews, agunot (Jewish women who can not remarry because they can not obtain a Jewish divorce), and currently we are part of a coalition to defend Israeli health care.
- David wrote, “The Rabbis For Human Rights have instead chosen to identify and coordinate its actions with the PLO, the Palestinian Authority, and UNRWA.” We have never identified or coordinated actions with any of these bodies. In fact, while as rabbis we believe that we our mandate is to speak to our fellow Jews about human rights abuses they have committed against Jews or non-Jews, we have expressed our concern about PA human rights abuses to the PA and to Chairman Arafat himself when we have had the opportunity. In October of 1995, in a meeting with Chairman Arafat, we presented Chairman Arafat with a document (which was sent to David Bedein) expressing concern regarding PA human rights abuses and asking that he do more to help locate Israeli MIA’s. When RHR chairperson Rabbi Levi Weiman-Kelman participated in a larger delegation meeting with Arafat, he did the same. Although it is not our mandate, we have expressed concerns from time to time when Palestinian human rights activists have been arrested, etc.
- David wrote, “As a matter of policy, The Rabbis for Human Rights have maintained a silence in the face of daily executions orchestrated by the Palestinian Authority and the PLO. In addition to the general concerns outlined above, RHR has specifically expressed our concern on this issue, as David himself acknowledges in his current article.
Now regarding David Bedein’s current article. In this article David thankfully refrains from the factual errors which characterized the previous article. He also apparently accepts our statement that our primary mandate as rabbis is to speak to Jews, although he backtracks on this in his subsequent list of questions and “epilogue.” David therefore concentrates on the fact that Israel finances a high percentage of the PA’s budget and therefore has responsibility for the widespread human rights abuses perpetrated by the PA.
David Bedein raises serious and thought provoking questions. I will be perfectly honest and admit that, before David raised the question, I had not given much thought to the level of Israeli funding of the PA. I have not checked the accuracy of David’s figures, nor have I spoken with this directly with organizations with whom we work, such as LAW (Cited by David).
I suspect that, when I do ask, LAW will not support the withholding of funds which would lead to the collapse of the PA, but rather actions to strengthen those fighting to democratize the PA from within. However, this is speculation, and I will issue a correction if I find out otherwise. I must also add, that while silence can be seen as tacit support, we have never actively supported any of the policies which David decries. In general, I can add that during the Rabin/Peres years, there was a principled disagreement between those, such as Yossi Sarid, who argued that some sacrifices in the field of human rights were temporarily justifiable for the sake of achieving peace. Human rights organizations, such as Betzelem, disagreed. We did not publicly take part in this debate as far as I know (I began to work for RHR in the summer of 1995.) I would say that our position is more toward the Betzelem side….
What is the implication of David Bedein’s questions regarding our “support” for Israeli funding of various Palestinian institutions? The implication seems to be that we are not truly concerned about Palestinians. If we were, we would be shouting “gevalt” about these issues that he brings up. Somehow the fact that we do not automatically adapt the issues which David brings up indicates illegitimacy, insincerity or some other deficiency on our part. He states in his “epilogue”, “For RHR to not conduct press conferences and public forums concerning the PA’s suppression of human rights and civil liberties would negate its definition as a human rights organization.” This is analagous to saying that we don’t really care about economic justice for Israelis because we work on health care issues but not housing policy. Now it may come as a surprise, given our accomplishments over the year, but I currently hold a 3/4 time position with RHR, we have a field director at 1/4 time, and a 1/4 time secretary. That’s it! After sending me the article to respond to, David posed 5 additional questions about PA injustices and asks when we will convene a press conference to condemn each one of them. Not only have we sent a statement to David on one of the issues and not only are we again speaking about speaking to Palestinians as opposed to Jews, but when was the last time that RHR on its own (as opposed to as part of a coalition) held a press conference on anything? I wish that we had half the capacity that David attributes to us.
The fact is that I would fully support any organization that wishes to research and address these issues in a serious way. We may do it ourselves at some point. However, I wish that David Bedein would invest the energy he has invested in trying to find fault with RHR in attempting to rectify the issues that we do work on.
David has repeatedly expressed to me concern about some of our issues, but the continued effort to criticize RHR is a convenient way to avoid dealing with them. Even if David is 100% correct about the evils of Israeli funding of the PA, that does not in any way lessen the evils of the Israeli policy demolishing homes in Area C and East Jerusalem when most of these families, whose title to their land is undisputed, have almost no chance of obtaining a legal permit. Estimates of standing demolition orders go as high as 6,0000. Neither does Israel’s funding of the PA lessen the evil of attempts to move groups of Bedouin such as the Jahalin out of their encampments by bulldozing them in the middle of winter and giving them shipping containers to live in. They do not justify mistreatment of foreign workers or cuts in our health budget.
I wish to conclude with a true story. A number of months ago an angry woman contacted me by email listing injustice after injustice perpetrated by Palestinians against Jews. My response was, “You are right. Every one of the injustices which you list is terrible. I am sure that with your deep concern for injustice you are equally bothered by the terrible injustices perpetrated by Jews upon Palestinians.” I proceded to enumerate some of them, and suggested that we dedicate two days. On one she would guide me to visit with Jewish victims of Palestinian crimes, and on the second I would guide her to visit Palestinian victims of crimes perpetrated by Jews. (If David had been part of the conversation, we could have added a third day dedicated to crimes perpetrated against Palestinians by Palestinians.)
This woman begged off, saying that the issues which I was bringing up weren’t important, that she didn’t have time, and that maybe we could do it toward the end of the summer. I’m still waiting. Injustice is injustice is injustice. The fact that organizations with limited resources concentrate on certain issues shouldn’t be taken as a lack of concern for other issues. In the words of our sages, “I am a creature of God and you are a creature of God. My work may be in the city, yours is perhaps in the field. As you rise early to your work, so I rise early to my work. As you do not claim that your work is superior to mine, so I do not claim that mine is superior to yours. And should one say, I do more important work and the other less important work, we have already learned: more or less, it does not matter, so long as the heart is turned toward heaven. (Talmud Bavli: Berakhot 17a). There are enough issues and enough work for many human rights organizations.
Instead of finding fault with what each of us doesn’t do, we would all be better served by respecting and responding to what each of us does manage to do.
May 5760 be a year of human rights for all of our global community.
Rabbi Arik W. Ascherman
Rabbis For Human Rights