Nonviolent Rabbi Faces Trial for Protecting Palestinian Homes

Rabbi Arthur Waskow & Rabbi Arik Ascherman, 12/30/2003

Dear Friends,

Rabbi Arik Ascherman — one of the gutsiest and decentest rabbis — Jews — human beings - on our planet — has been arrested and on January 14 will be put on trial by the State of Israel for nonviolently trying to prevent the bulldozing of two Palestinian homes.

Homes that NO ONE claims have anything to do with terrorism or terrorists, anything to do with those who have perpetrated mass murders of Israeli civilians.

Why the bulldozers came is described in Arik's letter below.

But I want to add a note as an historian, not only as a rabbi:

No oppressive government can for long oppress another people without soon needing to repress its own citizens.

Why? Because human decency bursts forth at home when it sees decency violated abroad. Because Pharaoh's own daughter steps forward to save the life of baby Moses from Pharaoh's murderous decree.

Three years ago, my wife Phyllis Berman (who on January 4 will be ordained a Rabbi) and I visited a Palestinian village that was hospitable to us as Jews despite the Israeli government's violence against it.

** Hospitable because it knew Rabbi Arik Ascherman and honored his honesty and courage.

** Hospitable because the village knew how to distinguish between oppressors and decent people, just as it knew how to distinguish between terrorists and decent people — and knew those distinctions were far more important than the distinction between Jews and Palestinians.

Phyllis and I were horrified to see hundreds of olive trees in the village that had been uprooted by Israeli settlers and soldiers — olive trees that had been standing nowhere they could be used to shield snipers or terrorists.

So that year, 2001, The Shalom Center stood alongside Rabbis for Human Rights to raise more than $100,000 to plant new olive trees and help the families whose basic income had thus been ripped to shreds.

Olive Trees for Peace.

The Shalom Center needs your help because we have consistently pioneered such efforts — awakening Jews to protect the earth from corporate ruin; awakening Jews to strengthen the spiritual joys and responsibilities of marriage by opening it to same-sex couples; awakening Jews to the lies spewed forth by a power-hungry government to justify a war against Iraq.

Because we dare to pioneer, some institutions are unwilling to support us.

So I hope you will send us the help we need.

AND --- I hope you will also respond to Rabbi Arik's letter, below - including his plea to help RHR's campaign against this practice of smashing homes - a practice that violates Torah and human decency; a practice that is part of a policy that even the Chief of Staff of Israel's Army says helps to breed terrorists, not end terrorism.

And to help RHR defend the human rights of Israelis as well - the Torah rights to justice and a decent income that the new governmental budget is slashing - in order to pay for this war against homes. To do so, please get in touch with RHR/ North America at 508/696-1880;

Shalom, Arthur

Rabbi Arthur Waskow, Director
The Shalom Center

From Rabbi Arik Ascherman:

Dear Friends and Supporters,

I will be put on trial on January 14th, 2004, facing two counts of standing in front of bulldozers which were demolishing Palestinian homes.

Let me briefly tell you about the home of the Maswadeh family of Beit Hanina, on the outskirts of Jerusalem, so you can appreciate the compelling, Jewish ethical stance which Rabbis for Human Rights has taken — not only with our mouths, but with our whole beings.

The Maswadeh family sought to build a home to accommodate their growing family. Despite a letter from the Municipality stating that the Maswadeh family's home was in a location for which a permit could be obtained, the bulldozers came, rendering homeless an entire family — Sufian Maswadeh, his wife, children, sick grandmother, as well as his brother's entire family — within a matter of minutes. I personally was on the phone, in negotiations with the mayor's office the night before, trying to prevent the demolition — and I was there in the morning when the bulldozers came.

I am proud to report that the RHR board made the bold decision not to plea bargain, but rather, in the best tradition of civil disobedience, to put the very policy of home demolitions on trial. We do this believing that we can count on you should we be given a heavy fine for our principled stance.

Of course, our work against home demolitions is only one of many human rights foci of RHR:

* We are just finishing another olive harvest season. Because of extended curfews...because the new security fence cuts many Palestinians off from working their land... and because of the threats and violence of some of the settler population, Rabbis for Human Rights sent out buses of volunteers day after day to help Palestinians harvest in areas they could not have reached without our presence and support. When we were beaten and stoned by settlers while documenting hundreds of trees they maliciously (and against Jewish law) cut down, the pain was easier to bear knowing that so many supporters like you believe in what we are doing. I asked myself every morning before we set out for ours day's work: How were we ever going to cover the considerable costs involved? I was reassured knowing that I could count on you .

* When I travel around the U.S., I encounter many people who would like to join us this January or February to plant olive trees. I need to tell them our olive campaign fund is depleted and that they must raise the funds both for their ticket and to buy trees. Your pledge will allow us as time is running out to issue a general call for people to join us.

* On my desk, there is a growing list of names of people with urgent medical needs, whom I have had to put on hold because our humanitarian fund is so depleted, as is our fund to aid victims of Palestinian terror. Your contribution will allow us to help these people — again, to "walk the walk" as rabbis/Jews, and not only to "talk the talk."

* December is state budget time, and once again RHR is lobbying in the Knesset, seeking to prevent yet another set of budgetary body blows to the poorest and weakest sectors of Israeli society. We are printing materials and planning a Hanukah march and candle-lighting from the home of Treasury Minister Netanyahu to the home of Prime Minister Sharon. As needed, we will fund buses to bring in people from around the country. The funds for this are not in the bank right now, but we will take a leap of faith that you will stand with us and with the Israeli poor. Spiritually, if not physically, you will be riding those buses with us.

* We have just begun the second year of our Human Rights Yeshiva. We increased the number of students and made the position of the Yeshiva Coordinator full-time. I know that our colleague and RHR's founding chair, David Forman, has turned to some of you for help with this specific project.

* The funding needs for our educational programs on Judaism and Human Rights in Israeli schools for the coming year will require approximately $80,000. Based on our limited funding projections, we were only able to approve $40,000, but with your help, we can reach the full amount and open the minds and hearts of many more hundreds of Israeli schoolchildren.

Perhaps the true miracle of Hanukah was that the Maccabees dared to believe. Most of our accomplishments over the last few years are ones that many believed to be impossible. We have always believed that, if we do the just, right and Jewish thing, the money will be there. We have always believed in you and in your belief in us. Right now we need our little "oil" to multiply several times over.

Please stand with us, with the Maswadeh family, with the Israeli poor, with victims of terror and violence. Please make the most generous gift that you possibly can. We appreciate every donation we receive. We would be very grateful if some of you would join our growing list of Shomrey Mishpat/Guardians of Justice by making a contribution of $1,000 or more.

In the U.S., your tax deductible donation to RHR-North America can be sent to RHR-North America, Box 1539, West Tisbury, MA 02575 and you can donate on line at the RHR-NA website - In all countries in which NIF operates you can send a tax deductable donor advised donation through NIF. Non tax- deductible donations can also be sent to RHR-Great Britain at 25 Westmost Road, Hinchley Wood, Surrey KT109BE and to RHR in Israel at 42 Gaza Street Jerusalem 92384 Thank you in advance,

Rabbi Arik W. Ascherman,
Jerusalem, Israel

There is a Kipah In the Rubble

I was arrested last Wednesday. Again.

Many of you know that we are experiencing a new wave of demolitions for lack of building permit in and around Jerusalem. The Shawamreh home was demolished for the fourth time and Arabiyeh is so traumatized that she is hardly eating.

On Wednesday the Municipality came to demolish four homes. The families had exhausted their legal options although they thought they had an agreement allowing them additional time to rezone their land. They didn't. (In any case they didn't have much of a chance. All four homes are located in a part of the Issawiya which the governement refuses to recognize as a part of the village, let alone zone them for building.)

By the time another activist and I had reached Issawiya two homes were already lost. However, we knew which other homes were scheduled for demolition and managed to reach the homes before the police sealed them off. They fired teargas when they saw us approaching, but that did not deter us. The families were hysterical. The grandmother was wailing while the father of the family was clutching at his heart and others were begging us to do something. It was simply heartbreaking.

The police quickly arrived, but backed off — either because the families' lawyer was in court trying to get a stay or because they agreed to give the families time to get their belongings out of the houses. Friends and family set out to act as quickly as possible, even chipping away to remove the iron bars on the windows. We received word that the lawyer had not been able to receive an injunction. I was determined to stay with the family in the home, hoping that would buy time for something to happen. However, the head of the local council had seen the violence at the first two houses and persuaded the family to leave. He told me that adults were free to do what they wanted - after the children and elderly were out of the way.

We watched helplessly as the pneumatic drills tore into the final remaining home. To officer after officer I read off chapter and verse from various international conventions which Israel is a party to. Commanders ordered their people not to listen or take the paper. I have to be careful in describing what happened next, as this may come to trial. The charge sheet against me claims that I ran in front of the bulldozers, interfering with the work of security forces and endangering myself. I can say that I lost my kippah in the ensuing moments. There isn't much in the rubble of those houses, as the families succeeded in removing most of their belongings. It is not like some of the demolitions where we find children's toys, clothes and schoolbooks among the rubble. However, there is a kippah and I feel that it means something. Perhaps it symbolizes the trampling and burial of the Jewish Values I grew up believing in. Perhaps it means the opposite. Perhaps it symbolizes the fact that their were Jews who stood against this injustice in the name of Torah.

What is clear is that we have work to do in the face of rising demolitions. For those of you in Israel we need your help to lobby, to attend court hearings and to defend homes with our bodies. Had we been 20 activists the outcome might have been different.

For those of you abroad, we need you to write letters. We know how letters influenced former U.S. Secretary of State Madeline Allbright and we have even heard complaints from the Army about Colin Powell's anti-demolition positions. Letters help.