Subscribe Today

Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, August 2010, Pages 61-62

Waging Peace

Rabbi Arik Ascherman: There are "Limits to Human Rights"

Rabbi Arik Ascherman. (Staff photo I. Ali)

RABBI Arik Ascherman, self-identified cultural Zionist and leader of Rabbis for Human Rights in Israel, discussed human rights and Zionism in Israel at a June 10 event co-hosted by the Foundation for Middle East Peace, Americans for Peace Now, Churches for Middle East Peace, and the Middle East Institute. His organization, Ascherman explained, works for human rights for Jewish and non-Jewish Israelis, but their "most famous—or infamous" work is for Palestinians' rights. Rabbis for Human Rights attempts to win back lands from settlers, as well as preventing home demolitions (Ascherman himself is banned from the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah as a result of his protesting).

On reconciling Zionism with his struggle for human rights, Ascherman described the former as a liberation movement for the Jewish people to end their oppression, and noted the many strands of Zionism; some he called "racist" and "disgusting," while others conform to his views. On discussing the compatibility of Zionism with any notion of human rights, he claimed that human rights for the Palestinians as individuals are easy to agree on and compatible with the Zionist ideology, but that such rights for the Palestinians as a collective group is a different issue. While admitting that one can find "many types of discrimination and racism" within Israel, he challenged the audience to find a democracy without these challenges.

Ascherman considers the right of return an international right. Just as the Jews prayed for the right of return for thousands of years, he cannot deny Palestinians this hope. However, he believes, these two rights of return contradict each other. Because a Palestinian majority would challenge Israel's Jewish character, it will not happen, Ascherman declared. He called for the parties to make compromises, and said that as a human rights activist he understands that "there are limits to human rights." Accordingly, the Palestinians have to make a tough choice between peace and claiming their aforementioned rights.

When asked what compromises Jews have made in the conflict, Rabbi Ascherman argued that Israel has given up land rights since accepting the U.N. partition plan of 1947, in which a Jewish state was carved out of Arab Palestine, allowing the minority Jewish population the greater share of the land—although it is difficult to see how one could assert that this was a compromise, especially since Israel has seized even more land than it was allotted by the U.N. General Assembly. Ascherman calls himself the "last optimist" and hopes for a future where one can realize all rights—although he characterized the near future as "a conflict between right and right."

—Imaan Ali