Arik Ascherman Leaves Rabbis for Human Rights to Launch New NGO

‘Organizational differences’ cited as reason for his departure from organization after 21 years.

Rabbi Arik Ascherman, the president of Rabbis for Human Rights, at the Passover seder held at the Holot detention facility, April 15, 2016.
Eliyahu Hershkovitz

Rabbi Arik Ascherman, a well-known Israeli activist long identified with Rabbis for Human Rights, is splitting with the organization and setting up a new non-profit with a rather similar focus on challenging land confiscation in the occupied territories and advocating for Bedouin rights in Israel.

His decision to leave after more than two decades of involvement in RHR, a prominent Israeli civil society organization, was attributed to “organizational differences” by members of the board.

Ascherman’s new organization, which has yet to be officially launched, is called Haqal – United in the Defense of Human Rights (“Haqal” means “field” in Arabic and Aramaic and is the root of the word “agriculture” in Hebrew). Slated to become an interfaith organization, Haqal describes its mission as follows in its founding declaration: “We will work practically to prevent human rights violations, and to increase awareness and commitment to our human obligation to observe and defend human rights. With one foot in grass-roots organizing and the other among decision makers, we will use legal, educational and activist tools to implement our vision for Palestinians and Israelis, women and men, Jews, Christians and Muslims, and the disempowered classes.”

Last October, while trying to protect Palestinian farmers during the olive harvest season, Ascherman was physically attacked by a West Bank settler who tried to stab him. The scene, caught on video, went viral. 

Ascherman, who joined RHR in 1995 was appointed executive director three years later and held that position until 2010, when following another falling-out with the board, he was moved to the new position of president of the organization created especially for him. Following his departure from RHR, that position will no longer be filled.

In a letter dispatched to friends and supporters, the executive board of RHR said that as part of recent structural changes, Ascherman had been offered various alternative jobs in the organization. “We regret that Rabbi Ascherman decided not to accept the recommendations of the current committee and we respect his decision,” it said. The letter described Ascherman as a “central driving force” in RHR over the years.

Speaking with Haaretz, Ascherman, a Reform rabbi, said that after concluding that the proposed organizational changes would “limit my ability to fully lead and influence the organization,” he felt he had no choice but to resign. 

“Besides that,” he said, “21 years is a very long time – too long to be in any one organization.” Ascherman noted that when he took over the organization, it had an annual budget of under $30,000, only two part-time employees, and was focused exclusively on Palestinian human rights abuses. “Today, it is an organization with a budget of $1.5 million, more than 40 staff members, and it is active in other new areas such as advocating for asylum-seekers.”

His new organization will have two primary focuses at the outset, he said: preventing the takeover of Palestinian lands in the occupied territories and advocating for Bedouin villages not recognized by the Israeli authorities. Ultimately, Ascherman said, the organization also hopes to engage in promoting human rights among Jewish-Israelis.

Following him to the new non-profit are two former senior staff members at RHR: Adena Ben-Reuven, who served as grants director, and Quamar Mishirqi-Assad, who headed the organization’s legal department in the occupied territories. Mishirqi-Assad is to serve as co-director of the Haqal.

Haqal has just launched a fundraising drive, and Ascherman said he was “cautiously optimistic” it would reach its goals. “One of the things I’ve learned in my career is that when you take a leap of faith and do the right thing, support will come,” he said.