He is billed as the Rabbi who pricks the conscience of the state of Israel. Rabbi Arik Ascherman of Rabbis for Human Rights is a guest speaker at this year’s Feile an Phobail – West Belfast festival.
So far as we are aware he is the first Israeli ever to be invited to speak at the festival who describes himself as an Israeli patriot and Zionist and who regards his work as vital to safeguard the legitimacy, moral standing and security of the State of Israel.
Anyone remember back to 2005 when perhaps the last Israeli speaker graced an event at the West Belfast festival? Dr Shlomo Izre’el, professor of Semitic Languages at Tel Aviv University, was invited to deliver a lecture on “the Revival of Hebrew – a lesson for Irish?”
He was greeted with street protests, signed letters in the newspapers telling him to go home and disclaimers by the Festival organisers who claimed they had no idea regarding the content of the talk when they accepted the event in the festival programme. The fact that Dr Izre’el maintained that he was a critic of the Israeli government didn’t save him from being described as a colonialist oppressor who might as well have been talking about the revival of Afrikaans in apartheid South Africa, whose very invitation was a “desecration” of the Irish language activist in whose memory the lecture was to be given.
Rabbi Ascherman is best known for defending Palestinian human rights and being a trenchant critic of the Israeli government, but he is equally concerned to oppose any breach of human rights no matter where it takes place, a conviction he attributes to Jewish religious values. The guest of Trocaire, he is billed as the opponent of house demolitions, the confiscation of Palestinian land and the destruction of the olive groves. But Rabbi Ascherman is probably the first speaker at the festival ever who can also talk passionately as an Israeli about the human rights abuses against fellow Israelis caused by Hamas and Islamic Jihad firing thousands of missiles into Israeli towns, the human rights oppression imposed by Hamas and the Palestinian Authority against their own people, and why calls to impose boycotts on Israel are unhelpful and counterproductive – in the rabbi’s opinion, Boycotts strengthen intransigence and undermine his own position. Let’s hope Rabbi Ascherman gets a chance to speak on these subjects too and Trocaire at least takes heed of them.
Meanwhile, elsewhere at the festival, its business as usual as festival goers are being invited this year – as every year – to attend the annual Palestine day which is on the theme of “65 years of Israeli oppression, apartheid and war crimes”. As well as an opportunity to buy Palestinian flags, scarves and football shirts, this event boasts a lively and diverse panel consisting of far-left politician and pro Boycotter Jeremy Corbyn MP (last year it was George Galloway MP), leftist artist Robert Ballagh who supports a cultural boycott of Israel, and man of the left, academic Bill Rolston of the Ireland Palestine Solidarity Campaign – all of whom will be debating and discussing why everyone should Boycott Israel and – by implication – shun people like Rabbi Ascherman.
So in other words a Palestine day with the same old monolithic debate, flag waving and political posturing. We very much hope that this year’s invitation to Rabbi Ascherman pricks the conscience of Trocaire and the West Belfast Festival.