Arik Ascherman

On Being Refused Service Because I Am a Human Rights Activist

How could a deeply religious man so blithely desecrate God’s Name and defame Judaism by saying that the God of all creation could possibly endorse discrimination against fellow human beings whom God created in God’s Image?”

Last Thursday I brought a carton of old and out of date video cassettes, mini cassettes for video cameras, floppy discs and all sorts of other antiques to somebody recommended to me to transfer them to a more usable format.  In some cases, the first task was simply to figure out what they contained.  The ultra-Orthodox man took a look at the first film clip, which included aggressive behavior from Itai Zar, the founder of the infamous Khavat Gilad outpost  He then looked at me, and asked what I did.  I explained that I was a human rights activist, working for the rights of all human beings, Jewish and non-Jewish, because all human beings are created in God’s Image.   No amount of recounting what I have done on behalf of Jews living in poverty, or any other argument helped.  I was harming the Jewish people.  He politely said that he was willing to pay me for the time I had wasted getting to him, but was not willing to work with my material.

Seeing as this man was not wildly shouting and refusing to listen, as so often happens, I chose to engage him. I said that I did not want to make him do something against his conscience, and we proceeded to talk Judaism, theology and halakha.  I also explained that, as somebody living not far from where terror attacks had taken place, I feel that I am protecting my children and all my fellow Israelis every time a Palestinian parent insists that their son who wants to be a terrorist meet us.  These parents tell me that we can teach their children who want to be terrorists when they grow up that not every Israeli comes with a gun to steal their land, cut t down their trees and/or demolish their home.

Nothing worked.  When I pointed out that in Genesis 1:27 not only Jews are created in God’s Image, he insisted that if I properly understood the kabbalah (Jewish mysticism) I would see things differently. While it is forbidden to shoot or attack a non-Jew, it is entirely permissible to discriminate against them. I cited how the medieval Jewish halakhic authority  HaMeiri overturned the discrimination against non-Jews in terms of the famous goring ox in Baba Kama 38a and many other cases of talmudic discrimination predicated on the fact that pagans did not observe the 7 Noahide commandments. (The Jewish version of natural law. Unlike most of the commandments, these laws are incumbent on non-Jews.) HaMeiri argues time and again, that according the Talmud’s own logic, these forms of discrimination should be overturned because the people of his time had adopted the “culture of religion.” The response I received was that no halakha is decided according to Ha Meiri.  The talmudic discrimination stands.

His parting comment to me was the wish that I stop harming the Jewish people.  I repeated that I believed I was contributing to the defense of my family and my people. My parting comment was the wish that his eyes be opened to God’s Image in every human being.

I left feeling grateful that we had been able to have a respectful combination.  However, I was dumbstruck by the enormity of the moral disaster that has befallen us as the Jewish people. How could a deeply religious man so blithely desecrate God’s Name and defame Judaism by saying that the God of all creation could possibly endorse discrimination against fellow human beings whom God created in God’s Image?

While it wasn’t my primary objection, last week’s Torah portion was V’Etkhanan.  I reminded this man that in V’Etkhanan Moses says that we should observe the mitzvot because, “that will be proof of your wisdom and discernment to other peoples, who on hearing of all these laws will day, “Surely, that great nation is a wise and discerning people.”(Deuteronomy 4:6) Many Israelis no longer care about what the outside world thinks, being convinced that the entire world is anti-Semitic.  However, surely a belief justifying discrimination in the name of Judaism doesn’t help matters much.

The moral disaster is that this is a form of idolatry causing real suffering for other human beings.  In last week’s parasha we also reread the Ten Commandments, including the prohibition against making any image of God.  Speaking on the topic of racism, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said:

“You shall not make yourself a graven image or any likeness of God.  The making and worshiping of images is considered an abomination…. There can be no man-made symbols of God.

And yet there is something in the world that the Bible does regard as a symbol of God.  It is not a temple or a tree, it is not a statue or a star.  The symbol of God is man, every man.” (Insecurity of Freedom p. 95)

As I have observed in the past, not too many people worship golden calves these days. It is cliché to talk about money and power as modern idolatry, even if true.  However, the greatest danger of idolatry today is that things that are in and of themselves good and holy blind us to God’s Image in our fellow human beings.  That is why, when I was a congregational rabbi I demanded that there be no flags in the sanctuary, despite the custom to have an Israeli flag and a U.S. or Canadian flag in most U.S. and Canadian congregations.  Precisely because the flag and HaTikvah can move me to tears, I know that they and what they represent can become idolatry.  The hilltop youth who attacked me, my friends and Palestinian shepherds in April were so blinded by the genuine holiness of the Land of Israel that they could no longer see God’s Image in the Palestinian shepherd.  And yes, as laudable as the dedication of my interlocutor’s dedication to them Jewish people (my people) is, it becomes idolatry when it justifies discrimination against non-Jews. Those non-Jews are created in God’s Image, not peoplehood.

This past Shabbat was the first of seven Shabbatot of consolation after Tisha B’Av.  May we be comforted by putting causeless hatred behind us, and by being rediscovering/renewing our ability to see and honor God’s Image in every human being.

About the Author
Rabbi Arik Ascherman is the founder and director of the Israeli human rights organization "Torat Tzedek-Torah of Justice." Previously, he led "Rabbis For Human Rights" for 21 years. Rabbi Ascherman is a sought after lecturer, has received numerous prizes for his human rights work and has been featured in several documentary films, including the 2010 "Israel vs Israel." He and "Torat Tzedek" received the Rabbi David J. Forman Memorial Fund's Human Rights Prize fore 5779. Rabbi Ascherman is recognized as a role model for faith based human rights activism.