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As Israelis march en masse against Benjamin Netanyahu’s judicial coup, many around the world are questioning why these protests did not materialize in defense of Palestinian land and life. For a special Passover installment of the “Not in Our Name” series, Rabbi Arik Ascherman joins The Marc Steiner Show to talk about the current protest movement in Israel and why democracy there cannot be attained without Palestinian liberation.
Rabbi Arik Ascherman is a Reform rabbi and executive director of the Israeli human Rights organization Torat Tzedek-Torah of Justice. He is a recipient of the Gandhi Peace Prize and the Rabbi David J. Forman Memorial Committee’s Human Rights Award.
Studio/Post-Production: David Hebden
The following is a rushed transcript and may contain errors. An updated version will be made available as soon as possible.
Marc Steiner: Welcome to the Marc Steiner show here on The Real News and another edition of Not In Our Name, which is our continuing series of the struggle for freedom and democracy, and the anti-occupation in the Holy Land of Israel Palestine. I’m Marc Steiner, and it’s great to have you all with us. So we’ve all seen the scenes of hundreds of thousands of Israelis demonstrating across Israel against the far right government’s push to overturn the power of the Supreme Court, to give more power to the right-wing religious fundamentalist settlers, to see increasingly fascistic laws being put into place to undermine the Israeli democracy, even with all those contradictions. Now, can you call the democracy in Israel and the fight to end this subversion of constitutional law without fighting for the rights of Palestinians and the end of occupation? That’s one of the questions. They’re all very intertwined.
And as you’re seeing at this moment, not only the rise of the right, but a new movement building, could this be a movement of Israelis and Palestinians uniting for the future? Maybe yes, maybe no. But we’re begin this new series of conversations with rabbis and others on the Eve of Passover, a holiday that’s about… The history and definition of it is about liberation and freedom and fighting for freedom. And today we talk with Rabbi Arik Ascherman, reform rabbi, executive director of the Israeli Human Rights Organization, [inaudible 00:01:24] for Justice, who has been beaten by settlers and police, stood trial for fighting against the occupation. He’s a recipient of the Gandhi Peace Prize and recipient of the Rabbi David Foreman Memorial Committees Human Rights Award, among others. And I welcome you back to the Marc Steiner show. So good to see you, Arik.
Rabbi Arik Ascherman: All right, it’s nice to be back. Thank you.
Marc Steiner: And back in the United States and welcome back to the States for a minute.
Rabbi Arik Ascherman: Right. It’s very strange to be here while my country’s falling apart and burning and be here. But I’ve been here speaking to people about the situation.
Marc Steiner: But let’s talk about that. You just said you see things falling apart, and the question is… There’s so many levels of this. Let me just begin by talking about what appears to be Israel coming apart at the seams. And maybe that’s an over exaggeration, but talk a bit about what you see.
Rabbi Arik Ascherman: Well, first of all, when Yitshak Rabin was assassinated, and many people gathered outside his house in solidarity and sympathy. And his wife Leah Robin came out and she said, “[foreign language 00:02:38]. It’s a pity that you just came now. Thank you for being here, but I wish you’d been here earlier.” And that’s kind of the way I feel when I see the hundreds of thousands of people in the streets in Israel, many people in the American Jewish community waking up. And I’m very grateful and it’s important and it has a lot of potential. And yet I say, were things okay until now? It’s not as awful and as taking the things from another level that we have with this current government and the convicted terrorists and people or inciters like Ben Beer [inaudible 00:03:30] Ben Beer in the [inaudible 00:03:32] and everything else. It’s not as if we were a paragon of human rights in the previous governments or under any government.
And I suppose no government in the world is. So I feel this very strange conflict between how happy I am to see people waking up and wishing that they’d been here earlier. And you asked a very important question. What is this to do with the occupation? Within the protest movement, during the first week of the protests, there was a lot of talk from the podium about the occupation, and there was a backlash. And many said, “This is not the time to talk about this. We need to have the widest tent possible. We need to bring in people from the right. We need to bring in settlers who have some understanding of democracy.” And there’s some strategic legitimacy to that. But the fact is that it is very difficult after 55 years to call Israel a democracy when occupation continues. In the beginning you could say that perhaps. You could say it was temporary.
But now that we’ve been holding another people, unoccupied people without any basic democratic rights for over 55 years, not if they’re making them a part of our society so that they can vote and be a part of the [inaudible 00:05:08], vote for the [inaudible 00:05:09] that decides what happens in their lives. Neither do we apply international law, which is supposed to even the playing field. If you say, well, of course they can’t vote. They’re an enemy population. And then you talk, look at the discrimination inside Israel among for non-Jewish citizens. You look at the discrimination against Israeli Jews living in poverty.
Yes, it is true that there is no perfect democracy anywhere in the world. But yes, it is true that this crisis we’re going through now has great potential. It’s an opportunity. It is certainly true that after the pogrom in Hawara with 400 settlers rampaging through a Palestinian community, as the Army did nothing to stop it. Five hours into it, I talked to the command center. I said, “What are you doing?” He said, “It’s a mess out there. We can’t do anything.” I said, “Would you say that if Palestinians have been attacking a Jewish community?” There is a possibility when people start waking up, even if they’re not where we would like them to be, even if some of them are saying let’s not talk about LGBTQ, even if people are saying let’s not talk about the occupation, there’s potential, but we’re not there yet.
Marc Steiner: We said a whole lot, Arik, in that response. So the way Israel and Palestine are set up speaks to all the contradictions you’ve just laid out. So here we have this in the [inaudible 00:07:05] this very far right wing government, perhaps the most far right wing government ever in the history of Israel, that won by a narrow margin. But still they’re in charge. And you have this massive demonstrations taking place throughout Israel. Very few Palestinians involved. Palestinians not allowed to speak from the platform or fly their flags. So I’m curious how you see this playing itself out. I mean, is there a kernel here that a broader movement could take place that unites Israelis and Palestinians, Arabs and Jews, Christians, Muslims, and Jews? Or do you think that the divide is so deep that it cannot be bridged in the crisis they’re facing now, given the hundreds of thousands of Israelis saying no to this right-wing government?
Rabbi Arik Ascherman: That’s an open and maybe not an answerable question. I do see a gradual change within the protest movement, and sometimes even think the flames that were burning in Hawara may have lit a flame of hope, kindled a flame of hope, because it did cause many people in among unlikely suspects to pause and say, how we come to this? But it’ll take a lot of work because already people have put Hawara and everything behind them. It’ll take a lot of work and there is no clear answer whether we will succeed in building on this movement so that it becomes a movement, not just for democracy, for Jews, if it is such a possibility. It’s like to think of Martin Luther King, injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. Lack of democracy anywhere is a threat to democracy everywhere. But there certainly is potential.
Marc Steiner: You’ve been in the midst of this struggle, and for a long time. And you’ve put your life on the line more than once. And for a long time, Jews who did that, and even here in the States, people like me and others, but to a lesser degree than, obviously a lesser degree than you in Israel itself. And we’re always outliers. [inaudible 00:09:50] fighting to say, no, this is not who we are. This is not how… We cannot have a democracy with just Jews and oppressed Palestinians and steal land and jail people and run through their communities. So again, I want to come back and explore what the possibilities are. You said, you talked about this being just the beginning, that it could grow into something. The question is how does that even begin? For somebody like you, for others, Israelis who are in the movement to end the occupation, and will you fight for a democratic society? How do you build on this? What do you begin? What do you see the possibilities?
Rabbi Arik Ascherman: Well first of all, let’s start with this, that in the second week or so of the demonstrations, I literally saw some demonstrators pulling Palestine flags out of the hands of other demonstrators. And among our [inaudible 00:10:58] was actually more central to the organization of these demonstrations then. It’s now moved a little bit more to a small group of individuals. But I said, I can live with the strategic decision to talk about just the judicial revolution from the podium, but when we start tearing down each other’s flags, we’re no better than the people than we’re demonstrating against. And if that continues, some of us are going to have to call for boycotting the demonstrations.
That did carry the day. And now there’s a modus vivendi, where in many of the cities there is a very strong presence of what we call the [foreign language 00:11:41], the anti-occupation block, which is a very, very visible presence at these demonstrations. Not everybody likes it, but the sky hasn’t fallen. And now that the people that were staying home and passive for years and years, some of them maybe not be anti-occupation at all, or people were, yes, of course we’re against the occupation. Isn’t it terrible? But we’re not going to do anything about it.
When they’re now in the streets, that is something. When they’ve been partially waken up, now that is something to build on. We need, and we are trying, to talk to them at the demonstrations and elsewhere about what is democracy, what is democracy about and what could be democracy. And so the fact that they’re out of their houses and in the streets means that we can start a conversation in a way that we couldn’t before, and so that’s why there’s potential. It’s up to us now. It’s up to us to successfully, in the WhatsApp groups, in the discussions that happen when someone comes up to you and says, why are you holding that sign? In all the discussion that’s taking place in traditional and in social media, we need to stay on message and on target to make sure that people don’t go back to sleep.
Marc Steiner: I’m going to come back to that. I’m thinking about people in this new government, like Itamar Ben-Gvir, we’re calling for what’s tantamount to a nationalist militia to take hold, to confront the demonstrators, but also to confront the Palestinians. How dangerous is it at this moment that Ben-Gvir and other religious Zionists and right wing nationalists are really in power and pushing power from the right, even pushing Netanyahu further right? Talk about what the danger you see in that, or what you see happening.
Rabbi Arik Ascherman: It’s incredibly dangerous. It’s terrifying. And even among Palestinians, after the elections, many of us were much more concerned than they were. All the governments have been bad. What’s the big deal here? And some people even say, well, now you’ll have a government that will show the true face of Israel, and that will eventually help us. I remember hearing that also being said when Ariel Sharon was elected. Now the Palestinians [inaudible 00:14:50] I’m working with are speaking differently. I think it’s also sunk in for them that as bad as things were, sadly they can be worse, and this government is worse.
In terms of the, whether you’re talking about the… It’s already been true that so rarely does anyone ever pay any price for being violent or for taking over Palestinian land, even land that Israel knows, according to its own maps, it belongs to Palestinians. But all that’s going to get worse. It is getting worse. And the idea that a pyromaniac, an insider, a demagogue like Itamar Ben-Gvir is potentially now going to have his almost what amounts to a personal militia is not good for anybody. And anybody who thinks that… There are people in Israel today who are breathing a sigh of relief. We’ve paused in the rush to pass all the anti-democratic legislation. There’s now talking going on and all right, so now there’s this quid pro quo about this militia. I don’t think they understand just what this could mean. I mean basically, as the proposal now stands, anytime the Prime Minister can declare a state of emergency, and then the security cabinet, which are all part of the ruling coalition, which include only… Are basically all radically oppressive parties with a radically anti-human rights agendas, can give that militia basically free rein to do almost anything. I mean that is simply terrifying.
Marc Steiner: In all of this, I keep looking and reading everything and following stuff in the speeches and trying to find a beacon here of hope that something new can be built. I mean, if I was in Israel, I suppose I would be in the streets as well as you were in the streets. On the one hand, I mean there seem to be so many divides at one time. This is clearly dividing the Jewish world and it’s dividing the Israeli society, this right wing government. You have reservists saying, “We’re not going to fight.” We have Air force pilots saying, “We’re not going to fight and fly.” And so someone said to me today that you could see a war inside of Israel between Jews alone.
Rabbi Arik Ascherman: That’s actually true is, and there’s an irony that in his speech yesterday, Netanyahu used the same biblical story that I’ve been repeating as I speak of the two women come to King Solomon, one whose baby has died in the night and then she switches the babies in the middle of the night and they both come and say, “The live baby is mine.” And then King Solomon says, “Oh, let’s take a… I’ll bring my sword. We’ll divide the baby in half and give each of them half.” And the real mother then of course says, “Let her have it. I don’t want the baby to die.” And so sometimes I’ve asked myself when we are having money flee the country, when we have people who are essential for our security, when there are still people that would throw us into the sea if they could, saying we’re not going to serve, is there a point where we have to concede?
But unlike the biblical story, if we were to do that, we wouldn’t have a healthy baby. We’d have a very sick, even darker society than with all the problems we have now. And now let’s make it even a little bit more complicated. We are out there fighting for a judicial system that has largely failed us. If I were to list the number of times that the high court has ruled in accordance with human rights and international law, and when it hasn’t, the amount of times where it hasn’t would be longer, would be much larger. And we know that that doesn’t mean that you take a hammer to destroy everything because there will be worse. Because there have been cases where we have succeeded to the high courts and to take that out entirely, it’ll simply be worse. But when I see signs at the demonstrations, [foreign language 00:20:08], the bagats protects all of us. I say, “Hey, that’s not true. It hasn’t.”
And you mentioned the reservists. Why are the reservists out there protesting? Because they say the bagats is our [foreign language 00:20:30]. It’s our flak jacket. According to international law, you’re not supposed to bring something to international court when there is a decent court investigating and dealing with things at home, when the fact is that neither soldiers nor civilians… They’re end up paying a price either at home or abroad. And that leads to the violence that I’ve been a victim of. Not to mention Palestinians, when people know that they’re not going to pay any price, that they don’t have take any risk in carrying out human rights violations and even through violence. But again, I would like to see… I don’t want to see, don’t think it’s positive that the court is sort of flak jacket that helps people avoid paying any price for misdeeds.
It’s not that I’m looking to, I know single out Israel or make Israel a pariah state or anything. That’s my country. And most of the people in Israel are decent, and that’s not what I want. But if we want to actually fulfill what many Israelis say and want to believe, that we have the most moral army in the world. You don’t have the most moral army in the world. I mean, maybe a moral army is oxymoron. But even if that’s your aspiration, you cannot have the most moral army in the world if your message to soldiers is do what you want. And I believe that many Israelis really do want to have the most moral army in the world. That only is going to happen if you very, very, very carefully and strictly in a difficult situation where we don’t live in Denmark. You demand and you investigate and you hold our soldiers to the highest possible moral standard. And that’s not what’s happening today. And that is what has to happen if we really want to live up to even our own aspirations.
Marc Steiner: This is a combination. [inaudible 00:23:35] have questions in my mind as I was listening to you. I was thinking about a book… I think I forget the author. Years ago I read Between a Rock and a Hard Place about Israel. And that’s why I think this moment is, and so the two part question here is what keeps [inaudible 00:24:02] and people like you, staying in Israel to make this fight for a real democratic state and to end out the occupation and to build a different world in the face of the power of the right that you see, but you’re still there doing it. And what is it that gives the hope that it can change, that a new world really can be built with Palestinians and Israelis living side by side?
Rabbi Arik Ascherman: So the first thing that keeps me going is Shabbats, the Jewish tradition where you take a day off and in [inaudible 00:24:44] words, force yourself to be free. But it’s also what I just said. For all the injustice and evil that I’ve seen, and I’ll also admit that one of the most devastating things about this last election was generally because, even though there were always human rights violations, they were a little bit under the table because it wasn’t the national ethos. But [inaudible 00:25:11] campaign is, “If you vote for me, you know what you’re going to get.” And so we had 10% of Israelis who knew just what they were voting for. But nevertheless, I continue to believe in the basic goodness and decency of the vast majority of my fellow Israelis. And if I didn’t believe that, and I’ve been doing this for over 27 years-
Marc Steiner: Yes, you have.
Rabbi Arik Ascherman: I think I would’ve given up a long time ago if I still didn’t have that belief in the basic decency of my fellow Israelis. And you had mentioned that of course Passover is coming up, and Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, who mid 19th century rabbi, one of the founders of modern Orthodox, he first said that [foreign language 00:26:04], the abomination of Egypt was that they believed that might makes right. And I often think about the fact that we suffered as Jews for 2,000 years because we were powerless. Now, we have power and what several decades before Herzl says that the Torah is saying that we’re going to have a state someday. And when we do, even though the natural thing is to act to others as you were treated, we have to be different.
But the other thing he says is that the day after Seder night, we start counting the Omer. We count the days basically between Passover and Shavuot when we got to Mount Sinai and we received the 10 Commandments. And Herzl says, for most peoples, when you achieve independence, there’s nothing more. You’ve reached your aspirations. But one of the messages of that freedom isn’t enough, you have to get to Sinai and you count the days, says where everybody else stops counting, we begin. And so I remember that we’re still in a process. We’ve made it to the land of Israel, but we’re still on our way to Sinai. And it’s a matter of faith that it can be done. It can be done if you can maintain a faith in the basic goodness in the people that are around you, even when you’re so terribly, sometimes, critical of what they’re doing and disappointed in what they’re doing.
Marc Steiner: Well, I think it’s good that you leave us. It is Passover and leaving with a message of that kind of hope, given it’s a holiday of liberation, and that we can maybe one time very soon see Palestinians and Israelis, Arabs and Jews in the streets together in this kind of mass number saying, “No, there’s a new world.”
Rabbi Arik Ascherman: [foreign language 00:28:16] will. I sometimes think about what some days the Palestinian Haggadah will look like. The Palestinian Passover story, Sader story will look like, and where we’ll be. But yes, ultimately, we have to work for the day when we’re all going to sing at the shores of the sea, when we’re all going to be, in Martin Luther King’s words, free at last and free together. And at 63, having done this for over 27 years, and we’ve known each other for most of those 27 years, we also start reading the [inaudible 00:29:05] right after Passover, and we’re told [foreign language 00:29:07], you are not expected to do it all, but neither are you free to desist. And we’re also taught [foreign language 00:29:16], when nobody else is acting with basic human decency, you have to be that person. If I could re-edit it, I would just say it has to be the group of us because we have to do it together. To get to freedom together, we have to work for it together.
Marc Steiner: Arik Ascherman, thank you so much for the time. I know it’s limited today. I really appreciate you being with us. Look forward to many more conversations as we continue our series, Not In Our Name. Thank you for your work and thank you for your time.
Rabbi Arik Ascherman: Thank you. Be well.
Marc Steiner: I deeply appreciate it. And I hope you all enjoyed our conversation today with Rabbi Arik Ascherman. And I thank you all for joining us today. Let me know what you thought about what you heard. Write to me at [email protected]. I’ll get right back to you. And while you’re there, go to www.therealnews.com/support, become a monthly donor, become part of the future with us. So for David Hebden and Kayla Rivara and the crew here at The Real News, I’m Marc Steiner. Stay involved, keep listening and take care.