Activist Rabbi Group Ramps Up Efforts

By Nacha Cattan

Published March 19, 2004, issue of March 19, 2004.

Rabbis for Human Rights, a multi-denominational international group, is ramping up efforts to clear its Israeli executive director of charges for attempting to block the demolition of Palestinian homes.

The group is running an advertising campaign in North American Jewish newspapers calling on Israel to rescind its “illegal and immoral” policy of Palestinian home demolition. The ad, framed as an open letter to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, appeals to the Jewish state to drop the case against peace activist Rabbi Arik Ascherman, who will face trial on March 24. The letter is signed by more than 400 rabbis from North America and Europe, including top leaders of the Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist movements and a handful of Orthodox clergy.

The campaign is the latest sign that some American Jewish community leaders are willing to take a public stand against certain Israeli policies.

“The home demolition policy contradicts the kind of Israel envisioned by the founders of a Jewish state,” the letter states. “We fear that the decision to prosecute [Ascherman] is an attempt to silence his voice.”

Ascherman was arrested in the spring of 2003 for standing in front of bulldozers on two separate occasions in East Jerusalem while trying to prevent Israeli police from flattening Palestinian houses. If convicted, he faces up to three years in jail or a fine.

His hearing, on March 24, is the result of a January 14 decision by a Jerusalem Magistrate Court judge to allow arguments on the broader topic of Israel’s home demolition policy. The Jerusalem district attorney’s office is arguing that the case be limited to the acts of civil disobedience committed by Ascherman and two codefendants. Ascherman will attempt to prove that home demolition violates international law and rabbinic law, even though it is permitted in a “narrow” sense by Israeli law, he said. He has submitted a report to the court with documents from Jerusalem city planners and policy-makers that he says proves that the municipality uses zoning laws to perpetuate a “systematic discrimination” of Palestinians by preventing them from legally building homes.

“The material we submitted from Jerusalem insiders shows it wasn’t something that just happened but was planned and purposeful,” he said.

But Israeli officials deny that the home demolition policy is motivated by politics: “For many years, Arabs illegally constructed homes while Israeli authorities were unable to enter these areas due to security risks,” said Israel’s consul for media and public affairs in New York, Ido Aharoni. “The government’s recent decision to put an end to this situation is not politically charged.”

While Rabbis for Human Rights opposes all home demolition on principle, arguing that the practice does not save Israeli lives, the group makes a distinction between the razing of houses of political enemies such as suicide bombers and what it calls “administrative demolition.” The group only actively demonstrates when a home is destroyed because a family did not obtain permission to build or expand.

Notable signatories of the open letter include Rabbi Elliot Dorff, rector of the University of Judaism in Los Angeles, a Conservative institution, and Rabbi Paul Menitoff, executive vice president of the Reform movement’s rabbinical arm, the Central Conference of American Rabbis.



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