Rights-Watch Rabbis Face Israel Dilemma


Some 250 North American rabbis sat in rapt silence for a full minute on Monday when an Ursuline nun kidnapped, tortured and gang raped by Guatemalan soldiers halted her account of that experience in mid-sentence to turn away and weep.

Sister Dianna Ortiz composed herself and then softly described how one of her interrogators forced a machete into her hand and then shoved it to plunge the point into the chest of another female detainee. She spoke, too, of the presence of an American during her 1989 abuse, and U.S. government resistance during both Democratic and Republican administrations to her efforts to obtain classified documents about her case.

“I made this promise,” she said, referring to her commitment to other prisoners she saw tortured, “that if I survived, I would tell the world what I had seen. If I had made that promise to God, I would have tried to renege on it. But I made it to the others. Today, I am shackled to that promise.”

For the rabbis, it was the most intense moment of a three-day gathering that marked their first national conference – a reminder of the moral purpose behind their activism. Rabbis for Human Rights, the relatively new U.S. arm of an Israeli rabbinic group that seeks to defend Palestinians’ rights, offered its members a virtual religious bazaar of traditional text study, speaker presentations and practical workshops at UJA-Federation’s seventh-floor conference center in Midtown this week.

The schedule included analysis of rabbinic tractates on rules against abuse of suspected criminals; on the question of pre-emptive force against individuals or countries viewed as threats; on worker’s rights and the problem of below-living-wage service jobs in the U.S. economy; and on the textual basis for human rights as a Jewish concept.

There were reports from activists and legal and military experts on the battle to restore the right of independent court review to individuals whom the president has designated “enemy combatants” and imprisoned without trial at the Guantanamo Bay prison and elsewhere.

There were even presentations from two new groups whom RHR welcomed as coalition partners: Evangelicals for Human Rights and Imams for Human Rights.

But the persistent issue preoccupying many participants remained the issue that first brought together their Israeli counterparts in 1988, during the first intifada: how to stand up as rabbinic lovers of Zion against violations of Palestinian human rights by the threatened government and nation they love.

In Israel, Rabbis for Human Rights has gone successfully to court to force the state to compensate Palestinians in refugee camps after the Army unjustly demolished their homes. They have accompanied Palestinian farmers tending their olive groves to protect them from West Bank settlers who attack them when they try to work. They have sued, again successfully, to force the Army to protect those farmers. They have even been arrested while trying to protect Palestinian homes threatened with demolition.

But in the United States, “Israel is the third rail,” said Rabbi Sid Schwarz during a workshop on “The Challenges of Incorporating Human Rights Work in Our Own Jewish Communities.” “If you don’t handle the issue properly, so both congregants and the larger community can hear it, it can backfire on you. You have to know how to talk so both your congregants and the larger community can hear it.”

Melissa Weintraub, RHR’s education director, spoke of cases in which congregants quit synagogues or withheld capital fund contributions when rabbis brought up human rights abuses by Israel.

“We have to find a way to do this while honoring differences of opinion in our congregations,” she said, “with safe and inclusive dialogue.”

Blocking Demolitions

Indeed, during the conference itself, a concrete case presented itself. Word arrived that the municipality of Jerusalem had demolished a Palestinian family’s home in East Jerusalem that RHR-Israel had long sought to protect. Rabbi Arik Ascherman, the Israel group’s executive director, explained to the group that the government refused to issue building permits to Palestinians in Arab East Jerusalem neighborhoods in an effort to limit their demographic growth there.

In this case — one of many — the Dari family, said Ascherman, had built their home in an area of Issawiyah for which the government refused all permits, even though the neighborhood was there before the city’s master plan was created. Many more such demolitions were slated to follow, he said.

Faced with this real-life case, 143 of the rabbis quickly signed a protest letter to Jerusalem Mayor Uri Lupolianski. Twenty of them — from all denominations — delivered the letter in person to the Israeli consulate after issuing a press release. They also raised $30,000 to help the family to rebuild there.

“We cannot accept your justification that the members of this family are criminals when it is municipal policy that has put a stumbling block before the blind,” the rabbis wrote. The letter noted a report by Jerusalem’s comptroller on municipal permit policies demonstrating “that the municipality has violated the prohibition against “eifah v’eifah” — discriminatory practices.

Despite this bold action, debate on how to address Israeli human rights violations ran the gamut. It played out in numerous sessions in which important nuances emerged. In one discussion, Rabbi Joseph Berman proposed that prominent American rabbis travel to Israel to get arrested while trying to protect Palestinian homes from demolition. “Let’s get it in The New York Times,” he said.

Ascherman cooled him down. “We have a policy that no foreigner gets involved in confrontations with the IDF,” he said referring to the Israel Defense Forces. It was an action, he said, that HRH-Israel reserved for its own, Israeli citizens.

On the other hand, both agreed on the utility of parallel protests in Washington and Jerusalem in such cases.

Appealing To The Orthodox

It was, perhaps, partly a fear of human rights being used as cudgel against Israel that accounted for a vast under-representation of Orthodox rabbis at the event. Of some 300 registrants, only a handful were Orthodox. A conversation among Orthodox participants — virtually all of them affiliated with Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, a centrist Orthodox seminary — focused on how to draw more Orthodox rabbis into human rights work.

“There are divisions here on how open and loud to be on criticism of Israel,” said Rabbi David Seidenberg of Los Angeles.

For Rabbi Jay Rosenbaum of Seattle, forging a rabbinic voice for human rights is a strategy to take back the issue and, perhaps, redirect it, in a world in which it has been “hijacked by people who are anti-Israel and anti-Semitic.”

“I realized when I saw the phrase ‘human rights’ I immediately associated it with anti-Semitism,” he said. “I thought that’s insane. So, I thought Jews must get back in the game. We should be in the forefront. Israel and the United States are blamed as the most egregious violators. One way to deal with that is to direct the world’s attention to the most hard core violators.”

But for Rabbi Brian Walt, the group’s executive director, finding a way to responsibly address the problem of human rights in Israel is one of the organization’s key attractions. Speaking from personal experience, he depicted this as crucial to keeping Jews from falling away from Jewish life.

“I grew up in Cape Town, South Africa, under apartheid” he explained. “As a young person, I was stunned and dismayed by the silence of my rabbis on the issue — and sustained and nurtured by one or two who had the courage to speak out.”

During the presentations, it appeared that some of the Jewish human rights attorneys so prominent in the courts but often alienated from their own communities were similarly struck.

“As a kid, I wanted to be a rabbi,” mused Michael Ratner, president of the Center for Constitutional Rights at one presentation. “It turned out not to be. But I uphold the same values now I would have if I had become one. … Now, Rabbis for Human Rights — I can’t say it’s restored my complete faith, but it’s going some distance in doing so.”

Peter Weiss, the center’s chairman, noted that after 9/11 when lawyers willing to defend terrorism suspects were scarce, “the first four attorneys to defend Guantanamo detainees were Jews.”

Some Jewish groups have specifically cited Israel as their reason for refusing to take a stand against legislation recently passed with the Bush administration’s urging that restores the government’s ability to use what Bush calls “alternative interrogation techniques.”

But ironically Israel is not in danger of being tarred so much as it is in danger of failing to be publicized when it comes to the issue of torture. Since the Israeli Supreme Court definitively outlawed even “moderate physical pressure” in interrogation of terrorism suspects in 2000, Israeli human rights groups report a sharp drop in reports of torture by detainees.

“That’s a revelation to many people,” said Weintraub. “They associate human rights with criticism of Israel and don’t know that Israel has been in many ways more exemplary than America on torture.”