A short article in the Independent talks about the work of Rabbi Arik Ascherman, director and Co-founder of Rabbis for Human Rights. The organization is perhaps one of a very few which represents rabbis of all branches of Judaism, who together stand up for Human Rights in Israel.
The organization has three main focii: “human rights education, including courses in pre-army colleges; social and economic justice in Israel, which has seen it, with other Israeli groups, win a signal victory in halting the country’s draconian welfare-to-work project; and Palestinian human rights. This last includes a legal initiative which has reversed the takeover of hundreds of acres of Palestinian land by the settlements.”
Of the three, the project which RHR is perhaps most famous for is the protection of the olive harvest in Israel. Despite ostensible legal protection for olive trees in Israel – not to mention the law of the Torah which forbids attacking trees and cutting them down wantonly, even at a time of war, olive trees have been a target of settlers who also may attack Palestinians, settle illegally on Palestinian land or engage in other un-Torah-like behavior.
The inspiration came in 2002, when Noaf abu Ghabia, a Palestinian deeply committed even at the peak of the intifada to co-existence and non-violence, and with whom RHR had joined in various symbolic Jewish-Arab tree plantings, appealed for help against settlers attacking harvesters in the village of Yanoun. RHR began bringing volunteers, and three years later won a crucial High Court ruling ordering the army to protect the harvest.
While it was, as he puts it, a “high maintenance victory”, requiring a constant presence of the volunteers, Ascherman says that this year the army has – despite some exceptions – largely fulfilled the first two requirements of the ruling: protection of access to the land and of Palestinian farmers as they pick the olives. “There are farmers reaching olive trees they haven’t been able to reach for 10 and 15 years,” he says. What the army has been much less good at – so much so that RHR is close to returning to the High Court for a new order – is preventing the destruction of trees and theft of olives by the settlers.
Ascherman has a theory that the settlers’ actions are a response to the nascent peace process, which they see as an “existential threat” to their way of life. He reels off a list of villages where olives have been stolen – sometimes before the harvest – or trees poisoned or cut down. Then he takes us to perhaps the saddest sight of this year’s harvest, the scorched fields within sight of the notably hard-line settlement outpost of Havat Gilad.
Here, between 1,500 and 2,000 trees were burned two weeks ago by settlers – according to some witnesses, with troops looking on – as the “price” for the destruction by the army of two illegal buildings in the outpost earlier in the day