This is how it starts: ‘Purpose of visit?’ ‘A study tour with British Friends of Rabbis for Human Rights. Here’s the itinerary.’ ‘How long?’ ‘You can see on the itinerary – Sunday to Sunday.’ ‘What are you doing on the tour?’
Hesitation. I think of the ambiguity within the Security guy's question. English is not his first language. Is he asking what the tour will include? The details are all there, it’s laid out in black and white, a daily schedule, hour by hour: Jerusalem, South Hebron Hills, Tel Sheva, Sederot, Hadera, West Bank, meetings with NGOs, studying with rabbis, meetings with Bedouin and Palestinians and workers for RHR. Does he want me to repeat to him the itinerary? Or is the question more personal – ‘what are you doing on this tour?’ - how is it that I have decided to go and see for myself some of the human rights, civil rights and humanitarian projects that my rabbinic colleagues in Israel and Palestine are engaged with?
As I hesitate about what will be the simplest response at the El Al check-in at Heathrow – i.e. the response he wants to hear so that I can be processed through security and on to my flight – I realise that it has already started: the encounter with a country that is in a state of heightened suspicion and fear. Where everyone is a potential enemy. Where everyone who is ‘Other’ is threatening. And – as I learnt during an exhausting and revelatory week in Israel – the ‘Other’ is also within.
For Israel is in a state of undeclared war within itself, and with itself. And the battle lines are becoming clearer and clearer. Will Israel become a racist and theocratic state where the rule of law is continually over-ridden by interest groups like religious settlers and nationalists; or will it retain its original democratic ethos as inscribed in its Declaration of Independence? A Declaration that says that the State ‘will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants...it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture...’
But I am still at the airport. ‘Why is there Arabic here?’ – he’s pointing to the paper that I’d hope would save a lot of time and tedious explanation but now has become a focus of scrutiny and concern. The organisation’s name, ‘Rabbis for Human Rights’, is in English, Hebrew and Arabic on the letterhead of the itinerary. And while I pause and consider what to say, another question arrives, or maybe it is a statement, I am not really listening any longer: ‘You are meeting Palestinians...’
What I want to say is that Arabic is still, the last time I checked, one of the official languages of the State of Israel, so it has a right to figure in the letterhead of an Israeli human rights organisation. But I don’t want to be sarcastic, or provocative, because I want to catch my flight - but I am aware of how easily aggression can be generated by the fraught and dense emotionality that is wrapped up in this beleaguered country.
So that was how it started. And that was how it continued. As several of the rabbis we met on the trip said, in a manner so casual that one could easily miss its significance, there is a battle going on ‘for the soul of Israel’, and that ‘the Jewish soul is threatened’ – but most Israelis are living in denial. Denial of the moral and spiritual costs of the Occupation, denial of discrimination and inequalities that are systemic in Israel itself, denial of how a critique of the government or the army can come out of love of Zion rather than anti-semitism or Jewish self-hatred.
Rabbis for Human Rights was established in Israel in 1988 by the American-born Reform Rabbi David Forman in order to give voice in the contemporary Israeli setting to the Judaism’s traditional concern for the ‘stranger’, the ‘outsider’ and the disadvantaged. Their initial focus was primarily on protecting the human rights of Palestinians in areas controlled by Israel; but they rapidly expanded their work to embrace the rights of vulnerable and minority groups throughout Israeli society.
During the week we met, studied with and travelled with a series of inspirational and charismatic RHR rabbis (from across the religious spectrum, including Rabbi Gideon Sylvester an ex-United Synagogue rabbi who now runs the RHR Human Rights Yeshiva) as well as hearing from and seeing in action their professional colleagues trained in law, education and civil rights.
Based in Jerusalem, we spent the first day gaining an insight into some of the grotesque consequences of the Separation Wall that now scars the landscape of Jerusalem and the surrounding countryside. Although the wall – built, ironically, by Palestinian workers with concrete bought from factories owned by President Mahmoud Abbas - has given Jewish Jerusalemites a much greater sense of security, its ugly presence is a constant reminder that Jewish security has been bought in exchange for increased hardship for east Jerusalem Arabs: hospitals that were once ten minutes away by car now require a 2 hour circuitous trip, around Jerusalem and through two checkpoints; livelihoods have been ruined, and families divided.
The shock of the aesthetic desecration of Jerusalem – and Bethlehem, now surrounded by a ‘sleeve’ of brutal concrete that enables pious Jews access to Rachel’s Tomb, but denies access to Muslims, for whom it is also a site of prayer - is mirrored in the moral collapse at the heart of the government’s policy: although Israel has the right and duty to protect its citizens from attacks, the Wall was the most extreme solution available. We witnessed the ways in which its route was designed more for future political purposes – to make territory easier to annex in any future settlement – than for security purposes.
Although one reads about these issues, it is not until one sees the reality on the ground that something of the human dimension to these actions becomes clearer. And it is the human costs that the RHR workers and rabbis are focussed on and helped us understand in some depth. Many of the projects we visited are working at grass-roots level on inequities that ordinary Israelis suffer: single mothers in Hadera who need help with economic and legal problems or domestic violence; Bedouin in the Negev whose civil amenities are far inferior to the Jewish neighbours, or whose land is appropriated for reforestation by the JNF; Orthodox women who suffer discrimination in their communities...the work of RHR embraces a bewildering variety of causes, often in partnership with other NGOs, some of whom – like the New Israel Fund, Yisrael Hofshit, and Citizens for Equality - we were also able to meet.
Bringing specific human rights grievances to the attention of the Israeli public while pressuring the appropriate authorities – from local courts to the Knesset - is an endless job. Visiting the RHR website – www.rhr.org.il/eng - is an experience both exhilarating and maddening: as I read it I am in awe of the dedication of those who are fighting injustices but enraged at the ways in which the State of Israel acts in ways contrary to humanitarian and ethical principles.
As a group we moved from being depressed, angry and perplexed at some of the glaring injustices – particularly on the West Bank where Orthodox settlers are currently engaged in a series or random attacks on Palestinian homes as well as the fire-bombing of mosques – to feeling stirred and inspired by some of the RHR workers who are battling for the soul of Israel, case by case, family by family.
One of the comments that struck me most was that of a lawyer for RHR who said that this work offers you a ‘one way ticket’ – once you have opened your eyes to the reality of the suffering and discrimination that the State and the army (and the two are entwined in a fatal embrace) inflict on people who are seen as ‘Other’ – like Palestinians in the territories, or Bedouin in the Negev, or Arab-Israeli citizens in east Jerusalem – there is no going back. It isn’t possible to un-know what one knows – or it isn’t possible to do so and keeps one’s soul alive (my words, not hers).
It so happened that while I was there I came across an article in Ha’aretz written by Amira Hass, a continual thorn in the side of the government for her exposure of injustices. After detailing some cases in the Territories in Israel proper where ‘the right to memory is presented as a security risk’, she went on to talk about the work of Rabbis for Human Rights in this way:
‘This organisation...takes part in dozens of campaigns, most of them Sisyphean, to rescue people from the civil jaws of the regime of Jewish privilege. They are, unintentionally, bold and painful attempts to save “Jewish” from being a synonym in Israel for racist, lordly, hard-hearted, hypocritical, shortsighted.’
And so it continues, day after day. Let nobody in the future say : ‘We didn’t know...we didn’t know what is being done in our name’.
For more information on – and details of how to join – the British Friends of Rabbis for Human Rights see www.rhruk.co.uk