In 2003, Rabbi Arik Ascherman, director of Rabbis for Human Rights, physically interposed himself between an Israeli police bulldozer and a Palestinian home being razed because the owners had not obtained a permit ot expand it. Considering that Palestinians cannot get such permits, Ascherman thought it unjust for Israel to essentially force Palestinians to live in abject misery with no hope of improving their lives or living conditions. Like Martin Luther King, he and his group feel a moral responsibility to oppose a nation’s unjust laws especially as they oppress the weakest among them.
Yesterday, an Israeli court made Rabbi Ascherman a criminal (Israeli court convicts rabbi of interfering with demolitions). It should be said that the prosecutor asked the judge to set aside the verdict and commute the sentence to performing community service so that Ascherman would not have a criminal record. If I were Ascherman, I wouldn’t allow the Israeli justice system the satisfaction of assuaging its conscience in this way. I’d say like King did in the Birmingham jail incident, I would force them to sentence me to prison. This no doubt would strengthen the point Ascherman is trying to make in the eyes of Israelis: that they should not stand idly by while Israel oppresses innocents who seek nothing more than making their families a bit more comfortable.
Ascherman’s response to the court was:
"For us, this trial really was about the people who have no voice here, the victims of home demolition. And that’s why we’re going immediately from the courthouse…to begin the rebuilding of one of these homes."
The prosecutor also revealed this interesting reasoning behind the necessity for Ascherman’s conviction:
In a reference to the planned evacuation this summer of 21 settlements in Gaza and four in the West Bank against stiff opposition from settlers, the prosecutor warned that "especially in these days" such protests could pose a danger.
"One can imagine what the situation would be here if we were to allow this kind of resistance," the prosecutor told the court.
It is preposterous for him to equate what Ascherman did to what settlers are doing in the face of dismantling their settlements. The Palestinians whose homes were demolished had lived in them for a long time, even generations, with the approval of the authorities. When they expanded their homes, Israel demolished their entire home (an extraordinarily disproportionate punishment). The settlers and their government have created these settlements in contravention of international law and against the wishes of the U.S. and much of the world’s governments. Many of these settlements do not even have Israeli government approval. In addition, each uprooted settler will receive $200,000 for losing their homes. What does the Daari family get for their trouble? Bubkis! You simply cannot equate these two situations. The prosecutor seeks again to assuage his conscience by saying we have to punish the rabbi or else the settlers will be able to get away with murder. It’s just not so.
The AP story puts the demolition into a very human context by describing the pain and suffering it has caused for the homeowners:
The foundation of one of these houses razed in April 2003 still stands, with crushed shoes and toys strewn about. On Tuesday, Ahmad Mussa Daari, the previous homeowner, watched as his two sons and Ascherman mixed cement for the cornerstone of what they hope will be a new house in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Issawiya.
Destruction of the homes left two large extended families homeless.
The families did not obtain permits to enlarge their houses, which human rights activists say is nearly impossible for Palestinians in Jerusalem.
Daari said he built the house a year before it was demolished to make room for his two sons and their new families. The seven-member Daari family now lives in a two-bedroom house.
Holding the hand of his 4-year-old son, Daari said he was "sad to hear the decision today, because one man helping another man should not be illegal."
Ascherman’s simple human act of lending a helping hand to another man in need represents the best of what Israeli-Palestinian relations should and could be.