“My line of work involves lots of formalities, lots of coffee. But I’m showing Palestinians another face of Israelis beyond the army, maybe the only other one they see.”
Rabbi Yehiel Grenimann works for Rabbis for Human Rights (RHR) in the Department of Human Rights in the Occupied Territories. As head of the department, he oversees the annual olive harvest, where RHR is known for dispatching volunteers to act as human shields protecting the Palestinians from settler vandalism and assault. He is also involved in issues surrounding land rights, home demolitions, and the separation barrier. Beyond the territories, RHR is works across Israel in economic justice, human trafficking, access to education and health services, and rights for the stranger, the orphan, the widow, the Ethiopian, the single mother, the foreign worker.
RHR began in 1988 by David Forman, a reform rabbi who had marched with Martin Luther King and protested the Vietnam War. In the wake of the First Intifada, Forman joined with Conservative and Orthodox rabbis who felt the same need to fight for human rights not only in America, but also in Israel. They worried about the Israeli army using security as a justification for crossing moral lines.
Over twenty years later, the organization now claims 150 ordained rabbis and rabbinical students as members, branches in the UK and America, and full education, social justice, and legal departments. RHR runs educational seminars for schools, army groups, and politicians, interfaith projects, and a Human Rights Yeshiva, where students turn to traditional and modern Jewish texts to bear on questions of human rights.
It is an impressive organization, but meeting with Rabbi Grenimann raised several questions. Why Rabbis for Human Rights? Why not Jews for human rights or people for human rights? What are Jewish values, really? Jewish texts include all sorts of opposing arguments and values. When you can mine the texts according to your agenda, what does Jewish values really mean? Are Jewish values any different from human values? And why are only twelve out of the 150 affiliated rabbis orthodox? What does this say about Orthodox Judaism and maybe religious conservatism more broadly?
Rabbi Grenimann ended with a reminder, perhaps a case of preaching to the choir in a program called Tikkun Olam. “If Torah becomes an enclave for you and you’re a rabbi not expressing your opinion on morality, then you’re not doing your job. The Torah is about rights for human beings. Betselem elohim (in G-d’s image). All humans are equal before G-d. To me, that’s the reason that Jews are in the world. To be a light unto the nations. We must fight for these principles.”