Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Sept/Oct 2009, Pages 34-35

New York City and Tri-State News

Rabbis for Human Rights Leader Warns of Increasing Israeli Intransigence

By Jane Adas

Rabbi Arik Ascherman of Rabbis for Human Rights. (Staff photo J. Adas)

American-born Reform Rabbi Arik Ascherman experienced two shocks when he first moved to Israel: first, he recalled, there were no bagels; second, he found that religious Israeli Jews interpret the Torah differently. Ascherman assumed that Israel’s core values, as stated in its Declaration of Independence, of “freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel" meant total equality for all. He came to realize, however, that most observant Israeli Jews have been socialized into extreme nationalism, wherein the positive values apply only to how Jews treat their fellow Jews. Israeli settlers, according to Ascherman, are reading from “a warped Torah," while those Israeli Jews who share his more universal views tend to be secular. At a June 16 fund-raiser in Princeton for Rabbis for Human Rights (RHR), of which he is executive director, Ascherman described the biggest division in Judaism today as the tension between particularism and inclusiveness.

Reshaping thinking about the Torah was a motivating factor in the 1998 founding of Rabbis for Human Rights, but its first mandate, Asch­ erman insisted, is to protect people from abuse. The organization’s proj­ ects include protecting Palestinians from settler harassment and working to prevent the demolition of their homes, advocating for the rights of foreign guest workers, and fighting “the epidemic of trafficking in women." Because Israel now has the biggest gap between rich and poor, he continued, the issue of economic justice among disadvantaged Israeli Jews has gained in importance.

Ascherman said it is a running joke that he is an eternal optimist, but acknowledged that he is now a worried man who feels things are so seriously wrong that he is in danger of losing his adopted country. Among the warning signs he cited are the 95 percent of Jewish Israelis who supported Operation Cast Lead against Gazans, and extreme settlers who threaten mayhem and violence in what they call “Operation Price Tag" if the government moves to evacuate any outposts. In Jerusalem alone, Ascherman pointed out, Israelis are building a Museum of “(In)tolerance" on a Muslim graveyard, have plans for “Judaizing" the Palestinian neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah, and are transforming Silwan into an archeological site of the City of David where “you would think there is no history from the second expulsion in the first century to the onset of Zionism in the 19th." Although RHR won a major decision in 2006 when Israel’s High Court ruled that the army must do more to allow Palestinian farmers to access their land and protect them from settler violence, Ascherman has observed that under the new Netanyahu government the army is less willing to control settlers.

Asked what the role of American Jews should be, Ascherman responded that he predicts the coming year will reveal tensions between those whose role is to support Israel no matter what and those whose role is to not let friends drive drunk. He pointed out that the progressive American community is now stronger and better organized, as exemplified by J-Street, and suggested that President Barack Obama may prove to be Israel’s true friend.

“the thousand and one nights" at New York City’s Postmasters Gallery

Shadi Habib Allah and curator Mary Evangelista with Allah’s “On-going Tale.” (Staff photos J. Adas)

A photograph of a man supporting the arch of a partially demolished house on his bent head; a video of a goldfish swimming over an aerial photograph of a region in the West Bank; photographs of the interiors of shops in Gaza, in each of which one’s eye is drawn to the prominently displayed portrait of the shop’s founder—these suggest the imagination and variety of the works of six leading contemporary artists from Palestine featured in the exhibition at the Postmasters Gallery in New York entitled “the thousand and one nights."

Mary Evangelista, a writer and art critic who curated the show with Michael Connor, spent two years traveling through Palestine to meet artists and review their work. All six artists selected have exhibited their works internationally, and every piece Evangelista chose for the exhibition is challenging and thought-provoking. The demolished house in the first photo is in the village of Kufer Bir’im, whose residents Israel expelled in 1948. It belonged to the grandfather of the photographer, Hanna Farah. Shuruq Harb, who created the goldfish video, was born in Ramallah and studied in London and New York. Taysir Batnijji is from Gaza, where he photographed the “father figures," and now works in Paris.

In “Jericho First," a wry critique of the Oslo “peace process," Sharif Waked takes as his starting point a detail depicting a lion attacking a gazelle from an 8th century mosaic floor in Hisham’s Palace, which was excavated in Jericho. He renders the entwined animals in a monochromatic acrylic, then gradually, reading from right to left and top to bottom, transforms the image into a featureless abstraction. The Guggenheim Museum in New York recently acquired another of Waked’s works.

Jerusalem-born Shadi Habib Allah spent a year creating the images in an animation entitled “On-going Tale" (2006). The endless video loop depicts a wolf-like creature threatening humans who, in spite of their mutual distrust, celebrate their discovery of fire and create a weapon to turn the tables on the beast, then lose their weapon to a meteor strike and are again vulnerable. Jumana Manna’s “Familiar" is a photograph of the artist and her mother seated on a bed in identical postures. This is paired with a video of the mother nursing her adult daughter, a concept that is both disturbing and comforting. Manna now lives and works in Oslo, where she finds it a relief not to have to explain, justify, and defend being Palestinian.

Images from the exhibition may be viewed at <artpalestine.org/images>. 

Jane Adas is a free-lance writer based in the New York City metropolitan area.

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