Sharon Abraham-Weiss, executive director of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI), visited the American Jewish World offices last week. She heads the oldest and largest human rights organization in Israel. It’s the only group that deals with the entire spectrum of rights and civil liberties issues in both Israel and the Occupied Territories.
We had plenty to talk about.
As regular AJW readers know, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has worsened over recent months, with Israel going to war with Hamas for the third time in six years. The warfare this summer was triggered by an attack on the home front: three young yeshiva students — Eyal Yifrach, Naftali Fraenkel and Gilad Shaar — were abducted from a West Bank crossing.
Israel blamed Hamas, and launched a search for the boys across the West Bank, in which 400 Palestinians, including many Hamas leaders, were arrested. Five Palestinians were killed during protests against Israeli soldiers. On June 30, the bodies of the three yeshiva students were found in a field about 15 miles from the spot where they were kidnapped.
The other horrific event that should be mentioned in this abbreviated historical account is the revenge murder of a teenager from East Jerusalem. A group of deranged Israelis grabbed Muhammad Abu Khdeir, 16, threw him in a van and bludgeoned him. His body was found July 2, in the Jerusalem Forest; an autopsy found that he was still alive when his killers burned him. Riots erupted in East Jerusalem and in Arab towns around Israel.
Generally, there has been an upsurge in violence, including attacks by Jewish Israeli thugs on Arab Israelis. Although the hostilities between Israel and Hamas ended after 50 days, there has been no letup in rioting and violence in Jerusalem, including recent deadly vehicle attacks by Palestinians on civilians at two light rail stops. On Tuesday, five Israelis were killed and at several more wounded during morning prayers at Bnei Torah Kehillat Yaakov, in the Har Nof neighborhood of Jerusalem, by two terrorists. Three of the men killed held dual U.S. and Israeli citizenship, according to JTA. Police killed the two attackers, who reportedly were Arab Israelis from Jabel Mukaber in East Jerusalem.
Of course, this latest attack will further sour the mood among Israelis, which brings us back to Abraham-Weiss, who is very concerned with the mounting racism among Israeli Jews. She said that Israeli political leaders, with the exception of President Reuven “Ruvi” Rivlin, have not explicitly decried the tide of racism.
ACRI, which has a team working in East Jerusalem, “started getting more and more reports about [civil rights] violations and brutality by police,” in the predominantly Arab part of Israel’s capital, commented Abraham-Weiss. In August, ACRI sent a letter to Israeli Minister of Public Security Yitzhak Aharonovich, urging him to look into the multiple complaints of police brutality and unwarranted detentions.
“Today we wrote another letter to Aharonovich,” she added, regarding his statement, after the police shooting of Khir Hamdan, an Arab Israeli in the Galilee village of Kafr Kanna, that “terrorists who harm civilians shall be killed.” The letter from ACRI noted that Aharonovich’s statement contradicts Israeli law, which does not allow cops to act as “jury, judge and executioner… and is liable to lead to murder or manslaughter charges against police officers.”
Abraham-Weiss was scheduled to speak Nov. 10 at the Sabes JCC; but her talk was postponed when the Twin Cities was hit by the first major snowstorm of the season. She spoke the next evening on “Safeguarding Democracy and Civil Rights in Israel.”
Before becoming the head of ACRI, Abraham-Weiss worked for the group as a staff attorney. She also served as the Tel Aviv and Central Israel Region Commissioner of the Equal Opportunity Commission. A graduate of Tel Aviv University, she earned law and bachelor of science degrees from Hebrew University. And she holds a master of public administration degree from the Harvard Kennedy School, where she was a Wexner Fellow. Abraham-Weiss is married, and she and her husband, Yoav, have two young daughters.
Abraham-Weiss was accompanied to the AJW offices by Ben Murane, the New Israel Fund’s director of outreach for the western U.S. NIF funds a variety of progressive civic organizations in Israel, and has been in the crosshairs of right-wing Knesset members who have proposed various antidemocratic and discriminatory pieces of legislation.
In addition to its precedent-setting litigation before Israel’s Supreme Court, ACRI lobbies in the Knesset and does educational outreach to foster a culture of respect for human rights in Israel.
There is still a long way to go, she commented. The Israeli lawyer brought up the Or Commission report, which investigated the fatal shootings of 12 Arab Israelis during demonstrations in 2000. The report found that police officers used excessive force against protesters, and reprimanded individual officers. Abraham-Weiss expressed disappointment that the Or Commission recommendations, “a thick report,” have not been implemented by the Israeli police, in view of events that have taken place recently and during the summer.
When I brought up comments made by Las Vegas casino mogul Sheldon Adelson earlier this month, Abraham-Weiss wanted to see exactly what he had said. At the Israeli American Council’s inaugural conference, Adelson reportedly said, in regard to Israel: “I don’t think the Bible says anything about democracy. I think God didn’t say anything about democracy…. He didn’t talk about Israel remaining as a democratic state, otherwise Israel isn’t going to be a democratic state — so what?”
“Oh, my gosh,” Abraham-Weiss said, about the billionaire’s comment.
American Jews who wish the best for Israel should look into the varied work of ACRI and the New Israel Fund. While some wealthy American Jews weigh in against Israel being a democracy and granting equality to all of its citizens, the rest of us, the vast majority of us, should do what we can to oppose this kind of destructive meddling in Israel’s affairs. If Israel is going to survive and thrive, it has to end the military occupation of the West Bank, and become a more tolerant and pluralistic society. We can support those Israelis who are dedicated to this kind of vision.
— Mordecai Specktor / firstname.lastname@example.org
(American Jewish World, 11.21.14)