"When rabbis from the Rabbis for Human Rights (RHR) organization and the Israeli Committee against House Demolitions join forces with Palestinian volunteers to rebuild a Palestinian house in Qatanna [north of East Jerusalem], the circle of Palestinians who believe in a peaceful life together is widened. It is certainly strengthened much more than through some meeting in Rhodes, Neve Ilan or Italy, where money, cocktails and pretensions are in abundance." Thus wrote Israeli journalist Amira Hass in Ha'aretz on September 14, 1998, comparing the contribution of Israeli-Palestinian human-rights activism to the endless talk about peace by diplomats, politicians and journalists.
RHR, the Israeli rabbinical voice for human rights, interfaith understanding and peace, is the only rabbis' organization comprised of Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist and Orthodox rabbis (these are different religious streams within Judaism -Ed.). It was founded in 1988 during the Intifada in response to what it saw as grave abuses of human rights by the Israeli military authorities in suppressing the uprising, even bearing in mind the danger to public order which the Intifada presented.

Against Indifference

The indifference of Israel's religious Jewish leadership and of religious citizens to these violations of human rights was a major cause of concern to the RHR organizers. It was felt that both the religious and the non-religious sectors of the public should be reminded that Judaism had another face, that such abuses were incompatible with the age-old Jewish tradition of humanness and moral responsibility, with the recognition that all human beings are created in God's image.
RHR has today a membership of some 90 ordained rabbis, men and women, plus some rabbinic students, all Israeli citizens. It has no affiliation with any political party. The main thrust of its work is to publicize human¬rights grievances and press for their redress. In the Palestinian sector, the struggle against house demolitions is one example, and others include preventing the eviction from their lands near Jerusalem of the Jahalin Bedouins, and protesting against curfews, the denial of medical facilities and the desecration of religious facilities. Israeli issues cover the rights of foreign workers, opposing proposed cuts in the health care system, improving the status of women and of Ethiopian immigrants, as well as legal, ecumenical and educational activities. RHR initiated work on the restoration of the neglected Muslim cemetery at the unrecognized village of Ein Hod, near the Jewish village of Ein Hod (near Haifa).

Interpreting Judaisrn

Judaism is an ancient religion that developed from generation to generation. While there are certain generally accepted concepts, the Halachic Oewish religious law) system is based on competing understandings, interpretations and extensions of these basic concepts. The Talmud, one of Judaism's most basic texts, is largely a compendium of competing opinions by various rabbis. Beyond the relatively small number of Orthodox Jews affiliated with RHR and the religious peace movements, there are many Orthodox people with whom we can dialogue in order to present our understanding of Judaism.
The Orthodox social-educational reality increasingly socializes its adherents into a xenophobic and hawkish outlook. Yet there are, without a doubt, many more religious Israelis with quiet sympathies towards issues raised by the human-rights and peace movements than those who are willing to be publicly identified with these positions. Not only do they experience social pressure not to speak up, but they are often uncomfortable with aspects of the lifestyle in these communities. Yeshayahu Leibowitz, the late, renowned religious professor who urged Israeli youth to refuse to serve in the occupied territories or in Lebanon, once commented: "How can I work with the kibbutz movement when I can't eat in their dining halls?"

Breaking Taboos

Orthodox rabbis sympathetic to RHR feel isolated within the Orthodox world and have come under tremendous pressure from the Chief Rabbinate "not to rock the boat." An Orthodox rabbi who wishes to join RHR must not only be prepared to take a stand on issues of universal human rights, but must be willing to break the taboo against associating with non-Orthodox rabbis. The Reform and Conservative movements tend to feel more comfortable in the human-rights movement, whether it is dealing with the rights of Palestinians, of Jews or of foreign workers.
In many countries in the Diaspora, it is practically taken for granted that the struggle for universal social justice is central to Judaism. This is much less the case in Israel. Most of RHR members come from English-speaking countries.
Thus/ in helping a West Bank family to save its land, a RHR rabbi argued that attempts to take over land to which the family had clear title violated the Torah prohibition against theft and mistreatment of the Other. A rabbi from the settlements argued that Judaism mandates the "redemption" of every dunum in the Land of Israel and that prohibition of mistreatment only apply to those who have converted to Judaism.
In one case, God is the universal God who cares for all humanity; in the other, God is. a particularistic God who controls the entire world, but cares primarily for the Jewish people. It has been the experience of RHR that, even as a minority, it poses a stimulating challenge to those who wish to present such a nationalistic Judaism as the only true Judaism. <