‘As a Rabbi, I Have to Raise My Voice’: The Jewish Values Guiding Rabbis for Human Rights

January 25, 2022

J Street’s “Our Israel” project spotlights the amazing Israeli groups who share our progressive vision for Israel, and who are helping build a society underpinned by the founding values of democracy, self-determination and equality which are enshrined in Israel’s Declaration of Independence.

A Palestinian family pluck olives from trees harvesting them whereupon he will extract from them olive oil during the annual harvest season, in Rafah, southern Gaza Strip, on October 04, 2020.

“A fundamental Jewish value is the notion that life is sacred, and life is the most important thing, and that it’s not just true for specific people, but it’s true for everyone because we all came from the same place. We are all created in the image of God,” Rabbi Noa Mazor tells J Street. Having previously served as the Head of the Religious Department for Rabbis for Human Rights, she now is an active board member. “It just doesn’t work in Judaism to think that our lives are more important than anyone else’s.”

These Jewish principles are a significant force driving the work of Rabbis for Human Rights. The Israeli organization works throughout Israel and the Occupied Territory to monitor human rights violations, to support social and economic justice, and to promote education and interfaith dialogue. The organization was founded over 30 years ago in response to the violation of Palestinian human rights taking place in the Occupied Territories and has since expanded to include a number of different initiatives throughout Israel and Palestine to advance human rights for all. 

Rabbis for Human Rights plays a unique role in engaging those in Israel concerned with giving voice to the Jewish tradition of human rights. “It’s not easy to find a way to influence and to be activists in Israel in the occupied territories,” says Rabbi Ruti Baidatz, a member of the group. “As a rabbi, I have to raise my voice. It has meaning to speak up. I represent more than just myself.”

Currently, there are approximately 130 members of the organization. They are rabbis, cantors, seminary students and others in positions of religious leadership. Additionally, the group has several hundred active volunteers who come from all parts of Israeli society and beyond Israel’s borders. Members are affiliated with different streams within the Jewish world – Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, Renewal, and Humanist.

Rabbis for Human Rights is not affiliated with any political party. When it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the organization does not promote one solution over another, but rather insists that whatever policy prevails be fully consistent with principles of human rights, dignity and justice. 

Rabbis for Human Rights was created in order to respond, with a Jewish voice, to the human rights abuses of the occupation. Throughout the years, they have come to be a far-reaching organization working in social justice and human rights education throughout Israel. Yet the issue of Israel’s control over the Palestinians, and the concomitant human rights abuses, makes it clear that the majority of the group’s focus must remain in the Occupied Territories.

In particular, a primary initiative of the organization is to stand alongside Palestinian shepherds and farmers who are subjected to settler violence as they herd their flocks or harvest their fields. Rabbis head into the field to accompany vulnerable Palestinian communities, who joyously welcome the olive harvest while also living in constant fear of attacks and harassment.

Despite these fears, Palestinians return each fall to secure the harvest, as nearly 100,000 families rely on the industry as their primary source of income. Yet Palestinians often face dozens of barriers to a successful olive harvesting season, largely due to the threat of settler violence. 

Volunteers work alongside harvesters

In the 2020 harvest season, 26 Palestinians were injured and over 1,700 trees were vandalized. Moreover, Palestinians discovered that approximately 1,870 trees had already been harvested on their land by people believed to be Israeli settlers. In 2021, the problem only worsened. By mid-October, there was rarely a day without settler violence, and nearly 8,000 trees had been vandalized or damaged.

It is in moments like these that Rabbis for Human Rights steps in. When settlers, the IDF or the Civil Administration show up, members are present to act as intermediaries between these groups and the Palestinians, Rabbi Baidatz explained. Often, Israeli agencies will state that the Palestinian farmers cannot be on the land, but then are unable to produce permits for removal when demanded by Rabbis for Human Rights volunteers.

Rabbi Baidatz explained that the goal of these trips is to protect the herders and farmers, allowing them to do their jobs while organization members stand by. While perhaps a simple task, it is a necessary result of the systems and structures that have left populations in the Occupied Territories stripped of their basic civil rights. Rabbi Baidatz added that too often, those at work are interrupted by settler violence, but that the presence of Israeli volunteers may prevent such attacks from occurring as frequently.   

In the spirit of Jewish tradition and the call to advance the dignity and protect the rights of all individuals, the work of Rabbis for Human Rights extends far beyond those it employs on the ground to mitigate settler violence in real-time. As a three-decade-old organization, they are constantly evolving and thinking about issues as they exist in Israel today – and challenges itself to think beyond just what was needed in the past. This adaptability allowed them to launch a campaign last year to get COVID-19 vaccines distributed equitably to all, including Palestinians in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Rabbi Mazor explained, “If there’s something that needs to be organized, or for Rabbis for Human Rights to be a part of, then that’s what we do.” 

While Rabbis for Human Rights adapts to the current moment, the core of its agenda has remained the same. As Rabbi Mazor put it, it is “to be a voice of Jewish tradition and Jewish thought. To be in the Jewish perspective to say it’s our responsibility to make sure that people have all the rights that they need, like every one of us, and that their lives shouldn’t be disturbed and influenced because of the occupation.”

The organization hopes to continue to bring human rights issues and the threats of settler violence to the public eye. Rabbi Baidatz recruits from her personal circles and social media networks to gain partners in the fight, but says it is not enough. While she does educational speaking at local high schools and Mechinot that will have her, she hopes that the views and work of Rabbis for Human Rights can gain more salience in Israeli media. Rabbi Mazor echoed these sentiments.

“If you are an extremist, then you get a larger stage and people are willing to hear your ideas all the time,” she says. “But if you sound so nice, and you don’t want to provoke anyone, and you just want to live in peace, people don’t want to hear you. So it sounds like the easiest thing to do, but it’s sometimes very complicated to just say; yes, this is a Jewish tradition and a real and valid belief.”

You can learn more about Rabbis for Human Rights on their Website, Twitter and Facebook.

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