Olive groves, long a symbol of peace, have become the unlikely focus of a debate about morality in a time of war that has intensified in recent days in Israel.
It’s a clash that pits the little-known Rabbis for Human Rights — founded in 1988 to speak out for social justice, equality and humanity — against a dissident group of rabbis who argue that morality must be compromised in wartime.
At issue is the decision of the Israel Defense Forces to uproot olive groves they claim Palestinian gunmen have used as cover. The RHR is raising money to replant those very groves, citing a biblical injunction against such uprooting.
The debate, which is expected to become the hot-button issue at next week’s convention of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly in Washington, may serve as a test of the limits of support for the Palestinian cause at a time when Palestinian violence continues to rage in Israel. Half of the RHR’s 100 members are also members of the RA. Detractors insist the RHR’s policies “give aid and comfort to our enemies.”
It also comes at a time when 150 Israeli reserve soldiers signed a statement saying they would refuse to again serve in the territories because the “price of occupation is the loss of the IDF’s human character and the corruption of the entire Israeli society.” The solders said also that they had sensed how the orders they were given in the territories — including the razing of olive groves — destroyed “all the values we had absorbed while growing up in this country.”
Although there has been little discussion about Rabbis for Human Rights in the United States, the dissident rabbis have been waging an uphill battle against the group in Israel. They failed in November to convince the board of the Masorti movement (Israel’s Conservative movement) to encourage Conservative rabbis who are members of RHR to quit. Delegates at the RA convention will be asked to rescind their 1989 endorsement of RHR.
“The rabbis said we are a pluralistic movement and we should have our eyes open,” recalled Rabbi Avraham Feder, one of those who opposes RHR. “I was called a fascist and a McCarthyite.”
After that, the dissident rabbis decided to take the issue to the RA convention. During a fiery Sabbath-morning sermon last month in Jerusalem, and in a subsequent interview, Rabbi Avraham Feder of Jerusalem’s Conservative congregation, Moreshet Yisrael Yerushalayim, spelled out his objections to the group.
“Members of RHR attempt to break down barriers put up by Israel’s Defense Forces to prevent terrorists from coming into the country,” he said. “They are also raising money to replant olive trees cut down by the IDF because terrorists were hiding behind them to shoot [at Israelis]. And there is no accountability. There is evidence the group has raised money in the diaspora, but nobody is certain where the money is going. It could be going to the Palestinian Authority and to terrorists.”
Rabbi Feder pointed out that in a taped talk last year prior to the Durban conference on human rights, the HRH’s representative to the conference, Rabbi Jeremy Milgrom, “acknowledged that Israel is an apartheid society.”
“It was an infuriating talk,” Rabbi Feder said.
“These are acts which give aid and comfort to our enemies, clear and simple,” he added.
The dissident rabbis have attempted to apply pressure to four Conservative rabbis who are members of RHR and who also hold paid leadership positions in the Conservative movement. One of them, Rabbi Ehud Bandel, the founding director of RHR who sat on its executive board after being hired as president of the Masorti movement in September 1997, resigned from the executive board in November.
“I decided to resign for a lack of time,” Rabbi Bandel explained. “I can’t take responsibility for whatever RHR does today, [but] I support its platform.”
Rabbi Bandel noted that RHR “is the only organization in Israel where rabbis from all strains of Judaism work together, adding their religious voices and Jewish religious perspective to the sanctity of human life and protecting the human rights of Jews and Arabs alike in Israel and the territories.”
Asked about RHR’s attempts to raise funds to replant olive trees uprooted by the IDF for security reasons, Rabbi Bandel cited the biblical injunction in Deuteronomy against harming trees in time of war: “When in a war against a city, if you have to besiege it a long time in order to capture it, you must not destroy its trees, wielding the ax against them.”
“Sometimes,” Rabbi Bandel added, “uprooting an entire orchard is not just fighting against terror but collective punishment. And in some cases it is not the army but settlers who uproot the trees. … Uprooting trees can be a last resort. I’m not saying under no circumstances uproot the trees, but I have my doubts because it serves as collective punishment and does not stop terrorism.”
Rabbi Arik Ascherman, RHR’s director, responded to the claim that Rabbi Milgrom had last year termed Israel an apartheid state. In published comments, he insisted that Rabbi Milgrom “has been consistent and clear in publicly arguing that calling Israel a racist state, singling out Israel, etc., is counterproductive.” He wrote also that in the address in which Rabbi Milgrom allegedly made the comments, he actually argued that “calling Israel racist and apartheid was a mistake and eroded the relations between Muslims and Jews in South Africa and elsewhere.”
He insisted also that none of the group’s money has gone to the Palestinian Authority or to Arab terrorists.
A spokesman for Rabbis for Human Rights, David Forman, wrote a column in The Jerusalem Post in December in which he defended the group against its detractors.
“They [the detractors] have defied any pluralistic debate by labeling RHR members ‘traitors’ and ‘enemies of the Jewish people,’ ” he wrote. “Yet worse, they have resurrected the ghost of McCarthyism, demanding that no Conservative rabbi can be employed by its movement in Israel and be a member of RHR. Their claim is that RHR is a political organization designed to undermine Israel. It is of little interest to them that RHR has never taken a stance on the political situation in the territories.”
Regarding the uprooting of olive trees, Forman wrote: “Anyone with the slightest bit of environmental sensitivity knows that olive groves do not provide a hiding place of any worth for a would-be attacker.”
He added that RHR is supportive of not only Palestinian rights but of those of women, Ethiopians, Israeli Arabs, foreign workers, Bedouins and others. And Forman said it received funding from the Israeli government to set up workshops in Israeli schools based on its book, “Life, Liberty and Equality in the Jewish Tradition.”
In response, Rabbi Gershon Winer, one of the group’s critics, wrote that one aspect of RHR’s philosophy is that Israel was responsible for 16 months of Palestinian violence. He quoted the following statement RHR published in its official bulletin: “Disturbing evidence suggests that Palestinians took up arms only after Israeli forces were firing chest high.”
Rabbi Winer added that RHR offered “not one kind word about the people of Israel” or the “innocent Jewish victims, the dead and the dying men, women and children, blown up, widowed, orphaned, wounded and crippled by Arab assassins.”
Rabbi Feder said he welcomed the opportunity to discuss RHR at the RA convention in the hope of wooing colleagues to his view, which he admitted is in the minority in Israel.
“We feel we are in a situation of war and have to reconsider some of our utopian moral principles,” he argued. “Justice must be modified by crises.
“It really bothers us that so many people in our movement seem to sympathize with the activities of such a group because it can lead to disenchantment with the ongoing crisis Israel has to face in being subjected to terrorism from a ruthless enemy. We have to gird ourselves for war and we can’t afford to have naive utopian activities.”