Rabbi’s Trial Draws Protest

By Nathaniel Popper

Published January 23, 2004, issue of January 23, 2004.
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The trial of an Israeli rabbi who attempted to physically block the demolition of two Palestinian houses is drawing increasingly vocal protest in the United States.

In the boldest act of protest yet, Rabbi Arthur Waskow stood up in the middle of an event commemorating Martin Luther King Jr. at the Israeli embassy in Washington and delivered an impromptu speech denouncing the arrest of Rabbi Arik Ascherman and Israel’s demolition policy. Ascherman, the executive director of the Israeli group Rabbis for Human Rights, and two other Israelis were arrested last April after trying to serve as human shields for two houses built without permits by Palestinians in East Jerusalem.

Waskow also signed a letter of protest to Prime Minister Sharon that has now been endorsed by over 400 American rabbis, including David Saperstein, the director of the Religious Action Committee of Reform Judaism, and Elliot Dorff, one of the most important theologians in the Conservative movement. Asherman’s trial, which could land him in jail for three years, began on the same day as Waskow’s protest last week.

The controversy over Ascherman and housing demolitions has reopened the debate over the proper way for Diaspora Jews to protest Israeli policy. In many American Jewish circles, there has been a reluctance to make any public pronouncements about Israel’s approach to domestic security.

“When it comes to issues of security,” said Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union of Reform Judaism, “proceed with caution.”

Aware of this concern, the letter to Sharon from the American rabbis noted that, “The homes that were demolished were not demolished for any security reason.”

Waskow said he was so adamant in his protest because the bulldozing of the houses in question was a simple matter of discriminatory policies.

“Permits are almost never granted [to] Palestinian families to [build homes],” Waskow said, “while Jewish families either get permits easily or find the lack of permits is totally ignored.”

But other Jewish religious leaders said that whatever the facts of this specific case, there are few situations that give American Jews a right to push for policy change in Israel.

“Israel is a democracy,” said Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb, executive vice president of the Orthodox Union. “We don’t look over their shoulder, we don’t monitor the Israeli government.”

Several Reform and Conservative leaders also chose not to sign the protest letter to Sharon.

Rabbi Joel Myers, the executive director of the Rabbinical Assembly of the Conservative Movement, said that, although he agreed with protesters that “Israel has been negligent in not providing permits in a timely way,” he was unwilling to sign the letter.

“We’re dealing with complicated legal and moral issues here,” Myers said.

Myers and Yoffie, who also declined to endorse the letter, both rejected the argument that American Jews should not speak out against Israeli policy.

“People who care deeply about Israel’s well-being inevitably are going to have things to say about these matters,” said Yoffie, “particularly when, as in this case, the issues involve Jewish teachings.”

Ascherman, who is thankful for all the support coming from America, did say some caution was necessary. “Jews around the world must always remember that it is we Israelis who must live with the consequences,” Ascherman said. Still, he agreed that protest from Americans was vital and proper. “Israelis aren’t the only ones who bear consequences for our actions,” he said. “American Jews are also judged by what Israel does, for right or for wrong.”

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