Trying to impact hearts and minds: ExBay Area rabbi fights on for Palestinians, justice

Midway through an interview in downtown San Francisco, Rabbi Arik Ascherman’s cell phone rang, and he didn’t let it go to voicemail. It was a call the executive director of Rabbis for Human Rights had to take.

One of his staffers back in Israel had just received word that Jewish settlers had torched several acres of Palestinian-owned olive groves in the West Bank. At 2 a.m. Israeli time, the staffer called Ascherman for guidance on how to help the Arab olive growers.

Rabbi Arik Ascherman

Standing with Palestinians who have had their homes demolished or orchards burned has made Ascherman — the rabbi at Temple Beth Hillel in Richmond in the early 1990s — a target in some quarters of the Jewish world.

He made headlines a few years ago for personally placing himself in front of Israeli bulldozers and for taking on a 2006 case in the Israeli Supreme Court over the fencing off of an Arab village.

Thanks in part to Ascherman and his organization, the Arab village won.

Ascherman refutes critics who accuse him of aiding Israel’s Arab enemies. He says he is simply upholding the highest Jewish values.

“I believe in the basic goodness of my fellow Israelis,” said Ascherman, 50, a Pennsylvania native and Harvard graduate who moved to Israel in 1994 to serve as co-director for Rabbis for Human Rights. “I want to try to impact their hearts and minds.”

After his ordination 20 years ago, Ascherman spent two years as the rabbi-director at U.C. Davis Hillel and then three years as the rabbi of Beth Hillel. Last week, he was back in the Bay Area as part of a national fundraising tour for his organization.

Though some Jewish groups won’t book him as a speaker because of his views, Ascherman said more often than not, even those who disagree with him end up shaking his hand after hearing him out.

“People ask tough questions,” he said, “which I welcome, because I’d rather they give me a chance to answer them rather than go home grumbling. Once they listen, they find what we’re doing really is a program for Israel’s survival and security interests.”

Ascherman pointed out that before he started working for RFHR in 1995, “95 percent of what we did had to do with Palestinian human rights. Today it’s 50 percent or less.”

A big part of the organization’s agenda includes economic justice campaigns on behalf of Israeli workers, immigrants and the unemployed. The organization also sponsors many education programs, including yeshiva-like courses on Judaism, human rights and democracy.

Ascherman speaks out on the important issues of the day, especially when they impact Israel’s human rights image around the world. Case in point: the May 31 flotilla incident in which nine Turks were killed aboard a Gaza-bound cargo ship after Israeli commandos boarded it.

RFHR has long opposed Israel’s naval blockade of Gaza, calling it a moral and strategic failure. The flotilla incident underscored that, according to Ascherman.

“We clearly support Israel’s right to defend itself, to check that missiles and other weapons are not coming in,” he said. “Even people concerned with Israel’s security had some serious questions about what and why [the incident] happened. Our message is, ‘It’s the blockade, stupid.’ If there was no blockade, there never would have been a flotilla and there never would have been an incident.”

He also welcomes Israel’s upcoming investigation of the flotilla, the blockade and its ramifications, preferring an in-house query to one overseen by third parties. “Not only do I want an inquiry,” Ascherman said, “I want some debate about it. There’s a much better chance of that happening if it’s an Israeli inquiry.”

Ascherman and his wife, Rabbi Einat Ramon, compose what is perhaps Israel’s most prolific activist couple. Ramon, who earned a Ph.D. at Stanford University and then became interim rabbi at Berkeley Hillel in the early ’90s, has fought many progressive and feminist battles in Israel, including being at the forefront of the Masorti (Conservative) Movement. They live in Jerusalem with their two children.

Ascherman said his organization, founded in 1988, has “one foot in the grassroots, another in the corridors of power.” RFHR members include Israeli rabbis from all denominations. In 1993 the organization received the Speaker of the Knesset’s Award for its work advancing democracy in Israel.

Near the top of the RFHR agenda these days is a battle against the Israeli government’s so-called Wisconsin Plan, a welfare-to-work policy modeled after the one tried in “America’s Dairyland.” It’s a plan Ascherman considers draconian and hurtful to unemployed Israelis. He says his staff has worked with Knesset members to successfully roll back the policy.

He is also still fighting for Palestinian farmers and homeowners, both in the field and in the courts. Some Israelis, especially those living in the West Bank, have criticized him. But have his actions really won him any friends among the Arabs?

“Palestinian parents have insisted their kids meet us,” he said. “They tell us they want their children to know something positive about Israelis. We need a coalition of hope between sane Palestinians and sane Israelis.”

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is J.'s news editor. He can be reached at dan@jweekly.com.