Photo of Rabbi Arik Ascherman by Trocaire
Rabbi Arik Ascherman is not an ordinary Rabbi. He does not serve a congregation. Rather, as President of Rabbis for Human Rights (RHR), his pulpit includes all of Israel and the territories it occupies. Ascherman puts his body on the line to protect human rights on almost a daily basis. As a rabbi, he says, his morality is not defined in justice alone as he sees that both Israelis and Palestinians use the so-called justice of their cause to commit injustices on each other.
I spent some time with Rabbi Ascherman on his recent tour of the Midwest, where he was reaching out to American congregations, talking about human rights, and fundraising.
While some consider his work fruitless, Ascherman describes himself as “the last optimist standing.” His fight for human rights is based on the Jewish concept that God is everywhere and in every single human being.
He tells a lot of stories of struggle— about those for whom he struggles, and those he struggles with.
Rabbis for Human Rights supports Palestinian farmers by helping them pick their olives. Recently, in an incident that was captured on video, a knife-wielding 17-year-old masked Israeli settler attacked Rabbi Ascherman as he tried to help with the Palestinian olive harvest. He described how he feared for his life as the attacker plunged the knife at him 3 times. Yet, just a few weeks after the attack, Ascherman chooses to focus on the fact that the settler did not kill him because somehow that 17 year old discovered about himself that he was not a murderer.
Another compelling story involved coming to the defense of a 13-year-old Palestinian boy whom Israeli soldiers had strapped to the windshield of a jeep while Palestinian onlookers threw stones at the soldiers. Ascherman came to the boy’s defense and the soldiers put him in handcuffs while the stones kept coming. While he is confident that this young boy was traumatized, he told congregants of the affidavit which the boy wrote recalling the tall Jew who came to his defense, giving the boy a small ray of hope.
Ascherman’s group focuses on other issues beyond the occupation of Palestinian land, including successfully advocating for the largest expansion of low-income housing in Israel since the 1990s, and pushing back against Israeli encroachment on Bedouin land in the southern Negev. Rabbis for Human Rights' work includes what they describe as holding up a mirror so Israelis can truly see what is going on in their country.
Ascherman enjoys taking questions and many people ask him where he finds his optimism in what appears to be a hopeless situation. He recalls his high school football coach in Erie, Pennsylvania who only yelled at the good players (which did not include Ascherman) because his coach did not want to waste his energy on those players who could not help the team. Similarly, Ascherman raises his voice in Israel and its territories because he truly believes that there are good people who can change and uphold the highest human-rights values from the Jewish tradition. He encouraged his Midwestern Jewish audiences to come to Israel and the territories, where, he says, he will gladly show anyone who is willing what is really going on
RHR does not take a political position on a one or two state solution or a specific peace plan. As Ascherman says, “We don’t need another peace plan, we need a bi-national psychiatrist.” In a twist on Roosevelt’s maxim, Rabbi Ascherman insists that, “we having nothing to despair, but despair itself.”
Before he flew back to Jerusalem, he left his American audience with this message: “In the darkness, we start by lighting just one candle,” because one “never knows which one act will help balance the scales of justice.”