Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Rabbi Ascherman Discusses Role of Law in Human Rights Work in Israel

Rabbi Ascherman with Fatma Mouhammd Nawaja from the village of Susya (Photo: Eoghan Rice). 

Rabbi Arik Ascherman, the founder and director of the Israeli human rights organization Torat Tzedek (Torah of Justice), spoke at Yale Law School on November 27, 2017. His presentation covered the possibilities and limits of the law in addressing human rights violations in Israel.

Rabbi Ascherman began his talk with a few caveats. He identified himself as a Zionist and explained that it pains him to spend every day dealing with the darkest aspects of a country that he loves, such as Israel’s restrictive policies towards African asylum-seekers or the mounting distrust of local human rights organizations. He insisted, “A lot of what I talk about involves criticism of Israel, but that shouldn’t be taken as a de-legitimization of Israel, any more than criticizing human rights violations in the U.S. should be interpreted as negating the right of the U.S. to exist.” And he emphasized that it is just as important to address human rights issues facing many Jews in Israel, such as poverty and lack of affordable housing, as it is to tackle those affecting non-Jews.

For the rest of his talk, Ascherman focused on the disenfranchisement of Palestinians in the Israeli judicial system, Parliament, and local zoning and planning committees and the human rights violations that result from this state of affairs, such as the demolition of many Palestinians’ homes. He emphasized that there are benefits and drawbacks of addressing such violations through the legal system. Israel has a legally binding declaration of independence and the nine Basic Laws, two of which enshrine the human rights to dignity and liberty. But, as Ascherman explained, since Israel does not have a constitution or a bill of rights, its Parliament can override any decision made by the Israeli High Court. This power, he argued, makes it difficult for human rights activists to achieve progress and makes the High Court hesitant to overrule the Parliament, especially on decisions of military defense: for example, legal challenges by human rights lawyers did not prevent the Israeli government from building the Israeli West Bank barrier in the early 2000s.

However, Ascherman also brought up examples of human rights legal victories: In a 2006 case brought to the High Court by organizations including Rabbis for Human Rights, which Rabbi Ascherman led at the time, the High Court ruled in favor of Palestinian farmers who had been denied access to their land. Ascherman called the ruling a “gold standard,” because it demanded that Israeli soldiers not only allow Palestinian farmers through checkpoints to get to their land, but also protect them in areas where they might be in danger. It further stipulated that Israelis must stop uprooting Palestinian farmers’ trees and that those who perpetrate the act must be brought to justice. Ascherman admitted there are still barriers to all Palestinian farmers regaining access to their land. But, he said, “When I look into the eyes of a farmer who has got to their land for first time in sixteen years, it makes everything else worth it, even if it doesn’t mean that we’ve ended occupation.”

Ascherman also insisted that no legal success would be possible without on-the-ground action. “My entire career has been based on premise that to achieve human rights victories, you need one foot in the grassroots and the other in corners of power, whether that’s the courts, the media, or Parliament,” he asserted. Ascherman’s stories made clear that grassroots work can be difficult and dangerous. He and many other activists formed human barricades to protect Palestinian farmers as they tried to get to their land, enduring verbal and physical harassment from Israelis who opposed their actions.

He feels conflicted about how to measure progress and judge whether things have changed because of human rights work. “Sometimes,” he said, “it seems as though the most important thing that we do is restoring hope.” He told stories of helping Palestinians rebuild their demolished homes and meeting Palestinian children whose parents wanted them to know that there are Israelis who stand in solidarity with Palestinians, in addition to those who destroy homes. He recounted that once, a young Palestinian soldier asked him why he was protecting Palestinian farmers. In reply, Ascherman told the young man the story of Hanukah and said to him, “When all is dark, you have to light that first candle.” Impressed, the soldier took the line and shared it with his neighbors and friends. Ascherman told the audience, “I’m not naïve; I don’t know what that young man has done since that conversation. But I’m 200% sure that because he heard that, there’s a greater chance that he will have chosen the path of nonviolence when faced with a moral crossroads.”

Ascherman has endured bomb blasts near his home and attacks from those who mistrust him or oppose his work. In 2015, he was assaulted by a knife-wielding Israeli settler. Despite this incident and his many moral problems with Israel, Ascherman maintains that he still has faith in the basic decency and goodness of fellow Israelis, even as he recognizes that most need a “reality check.” He says that he will also urge Americans he sees on this trip to stand up for the rights of all peoples living in Israel and the occupied territories. He called on the audience to take action as well, urging them to call their representatives and demand an end to the demolition of Susya, a village in the occupied West Bank.

“All of us have those moments where people in our lives who we love very much—our family, friends, school, or even our country—do intolerable things,” he concluded. “In those moments, we have to ask ourselves, ‘What do you do?’ You can hide your head in sand and say, ‘I don’t want to know.’ You can point the finger at everyone else. Or you can take the pain you feel and let that push you forward to do some kind of work to make things a little better.”