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Activist Rabbi in the Dock, but He Hopes Israeli Policy Will Be on Trial

As the Israeli bulldozer rumbled toward him, Rabbi Arik Ascherman says, he thought of Rachel Corrie.

Ascherman, 44, a U.S.-born Reform rabbi who now lives in Jerusalem, was trying last April to block the demolition of the Maswadeh family’s home in Beit Hanina, an Arab village on the outskirts of Jerusalem. The house violated municipal zoning regulations.

Corrie, 23, an American activist with the pro-Palestinian International Solidarity Movement, had been crushed to death a month earlier by an Israeli bulldozer demolishing a Gaza Strip home that allegedly concealed the exit of an arms-smuggling tunnel.

“I don’t think we’ll ever know whether she fell, whether the bulldozer saw her or whether it was a game of chicken that went too far,” Ascherman says. “If it was an accident, it drives home that when you’re in front of a bulldozer knocking down a home, accidents can happen.”

Ascherman was luckier. He lost only his skullcap in the rubble of the Maswadeh home.

On Wednesday, Ascherman, the executive director of Rabbis for Human Rights Israel, is due to appear in court to face charges of interfering with a police action in Beit Hanina and in the village of Issawiyah, north of Jerusalem. If convicted, he could face three years in jail and fines.

But Rabbis for Human Rights is hoping that it will be Israel’s policy of demolishing illegally built Arab homes that really will be on trial.

On Tuesday, Rabbis for Human Rights North America delivered a statement by 300 rabbis spanning the denominational spectrum to Washington’s Israeli Embassy and New York’s Israeli Consulate demanding that the charges against Ascherman be dropped and urging Israel to stop demolishing Arab homes.

Ascherman is “totally devoted to the moral heritage of the Jewish people, and that is precisely why the Israeli government is prosecuting him,” said Rabbi Brian Walt, executive director of the group’s North American chapter.

Israel’s consul for media and public affairs in New York, Ido Aharoni, promised that the protest letter would be relayed to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s office.

But Aharoni backed the demolition policy and the charges against Ascherman. Authorities tear down illegal buildings, whether they’re in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv or anywhere else, he said.

For years, Arabs built homes illegally while Israeli authorities were reluctant to enter Palestinian areas due to “security threats,” he said. “Now the government is determined to put an end to it. The motivation is legal, not political.”

Ascherman “was trying to do something illegal,” he added, “and if he were doing the same thing in New York, I guarantee you that the New York City Police Department would arrest him.”

Ascherman and other members of his group expect the trial to take months. The rabbis want to turn the spotlight on Israel’s demolition policy, which they say violates both Palestinian human rights and Jewish and Zionist ideals.

“These prosecutions will never lead to the kind of Israel we want and desire: a Jewish State that celebrates the prophetic voice which has animated our people for centuries,” the letter said. “True democracies protect minority rights, and cherish and listen to their critics, to those who stand with the poor and powerless.”

The Maswadeh family, whose home has been razed and rebuilt four times and turned into a peace center, stands as a “symbol” of the struggle against house demolitions, Ascherman says.

While Ascherman’s reference to Corrie carries heavy symbolism, the two cases are also different. The rabbinical group combats only zoning-related demolitions, even though it also officially opposes the kind of security demolitions Corrie was fighting — where the army razes homes used to hide weapons or that belong to terrorists or their families.

The group also helps Palestinians harvest olives from their trees.

Walt said Israel discriminates by destroying Palestinian homes built without permits while encouraging construction in Jewish neighborhoods in the West Bank near Jerusalem, like Har Homa, Ma’aleh Adumim and Pisgat Ze’ev.

Critics say that since the 1967 Six-Day War, Jerusalem officials have tried to keep the city’s Arab sector at about 28 percent of the population, moving Jews into eastern Jerusalem and limiting building permits for Palestinians.

The rabbinical group cites statistics by the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem, which says 2,500 homes have been demolished in eastern Jerusalem and the West Bank since 1987, leaving 16,000 Palestinians homeless.

Others say illegal Palestinian construction continues unabated and Jerusalem’s population is shifting in the Arabs’ favor.

Justus Reid Weiner, a scholar with the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, wrote in a recent report that illegal Palestinian construction “has reached epidemic proportions.”

The city has issued 36,000 new housing permits to Arabs, but they also have built 6,000 new homes without permits in the last four years, Weiner says.

Moreover, more illegal Jewish homes than Arab ones were razed from 1999 to 2001, according to Weiner’s report.

Arabs constitute an ever-larger percentage of Jerusalem’s population. In 1967, when Israel conquered the city’s eastern half, the ratio of Jews to Arabs in the capital was 73 percent to 27 percent.

That shifted to 68 percent Jewish to 32 percent Arab by 2000, Weiner writes, and is projected to shift to 62 percent Jewish and 38 percent Arab by 2020.

Ascherman and Walt say Palestinians must either bribe city officials to secure building permits or become informants, forcing many into a “Catch-22″ of building illegally and risking retribution.

Rabbis for Human Rights’ home-demolition protest comes at a time when few major American Jewish groups have taken a stand on such issues. Many groups contacted by JTA said they have no policy on the demolitions.

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

But Rabbis for Human Rights says its rabbis, including top officials of the liberal movements and a handful of Orthodox clergy, represent “mainstream” American Jewry.

Ascherman says he hopes the group’s protest will have an effect somewhere down the line.

“I am hoping that someday Palestinians will dig up the kippah,” — the yarmulke Ascherman lost while protesting the demolition — “and see that Jews in the name of the Torah tried to fight this policy,” he said.

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