Part 1. What was.

I joined Rabbis For Human Rights (then called "Rabbinic Human Rights Watch") very early in the piece back in 1988-9 when I was a rabbinical student at Machon Schechter (then a branch of JTS). My wife and I had been involved in Peace Now activities, dialogue with Palestinians in Beit Sachur and had been very active in Oz veShalom-Netivot Shalom (Religious Zionists for Peace). We had both of us served on the executive board of that organization. One of the exciting things I initiated with the help of Yochanan Flusser and my late friend Yaacov Rosenberg back in the early eighties was something called Sukkat Shalom. Many groups have since taken on the model of a sukkah of peace, though most now focus on internal peace between Jews rather than the broader vision we then were moved by. Since the second Intifada talking about peace has almost become taboo in Israeli society.

I remember the inspired poetry reading in Gan HaPamon back then of the legendary and then ill Abba Kovner (a comrade-in-arms of my late father Boris, whose Yahrzeit I  observed on the 21st of Adar). Kovner blessed us saying he hoped we would succeed in mobilizing many Jews here in Israel, "like the stars in the sky above us", hinting at the Biblical promise to the patriarchs. I also remember a RHR sukkat shalom event in what was to become " Rabin sqare" in which the late and great Shulamit Aloni participated. This was after the Oslo agreements had been signed and we thought we would bring the issues of continuing repression of Palestinians in the occupied territories into the heart of the metropolis. The ignorance of by-passers and by-standers regarding the situation on the ground was shocking. People asked what were we complaining about, "they already have their own state, don't they?"!

The initial group of what became Rabbis For Human Rights was interdenominational, including Orthodox (David Rosen, Max Warshavski and Isaac Neuman), Conservative (Ehud Bandel, Ben Hollander, Zvi Weinberg) and Reform rabbis (David Forman, Levi and Naama Kelman) and predominantly English-speaking.

David Forman, may his memory be blessed, was the initiator and leader of that band. He had marched with Martin Luther King in the heyday of the movement for civil liberty for blacks in the USA. He served here as an officer in the IDF, participating in the first Lebanon war. He would often talk about the moral dilemnas involved in fighting terrorism. Neverthless despite the complex reality of this region, unlike so many others who came on aliya in the late sixties and early seventies he did not leave his conscience behind because of his Zionism. For many years he wrote for the Jerusalem Post, often writing about the abuses and injustices to the Arab population both within the recognized State of Israel and in the occupied territories. He was not afraid to also point out the hypocrisy of the UN and other international critics of Israel while doing so.

David's careful balance of patriotism, a religious humanist vision of an Israel living up to the promises made in its Declaration of Independence to build a society based on the social and moral vision of the ancient Hebrew prophets and a willingness to be honest and critical about what was happening on the ground has always inspired me, as have the writings and personal examples of Jewish thinkers and activists such as Martin Buber and Abraham Joshua Heschel.

(to be continued)

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