Israel goes out of its way to display its ugliest side to the world by tearing down Palestinian homes or allowing rapacious settlers to steal Palestinian land. - Yet there's also another Israel as well, one that I mightily admire. This is the democracy that tolerates a far greater range of opinions than America. It's a citadel of civil society. And, crazily, it's the place where some of the most courageous and effective voices on behalf of oppressed Palestinians belong to Israeli rabbis - like Arik Ascherman, the executive director of Rabbis for Human Rights.
Ascherman - 50, tall, lean and bearded with mournful eyes (if central casting ever needed a Prophet Jeremiah type, he'd be it) - grew up in Erie, Pa. He fell in love with Israel on a brief visit between high school and college and moved here in 1994. At Rabbis for Human Rights, he presides over 20 staff members and hundreds of volunteers who sometimes serve as human shields to protect Palestinians - even if that means getting arrested or beaten.
I watched the ugly side of Israel collide with its more noble version, as Ascherman and I visited a rural area in the northern West Bank where Jewish settlers have taken over land that Palestinian farmers say is theirs.
"If we try to enter our land, settlers will be waiting, and we will be beaten," said Muhammad Moqbel, a 71-year-old Palestinian from the village of Qaryout who pointed to fields that he said had been stolen by settlers. Last year, he said, he was hospitalized with a broken rib after settlers attacked while he was picking his own olives.
Rabbis for Human Rights has helped Palestinians recover some land through lawsuits in Israeli courts. And Ascherman and other Jewish activists escort such farmers to protect them. The settlers still attack, but soldiers are more likely to intervene when it is rabbis being clubbed.
As Moqbel and Ascherman were explaining all this to me, a settler vehicle came down to confront us. And then another. The settlers photographed us. We photographed them. I asked them if they would agree to be interviewed. They refused to respond to my questions.
"They're just trying to intimidate us," Ascherman said.
As was the case in the American civil rights movement, the activists here often become targets. Palestinian youths have stoned Ascherman's car, and he has been arrested and beaten up by security forces and settlers alike. (His car is almost as ancient as Jerusalem, and he has to lift the hood and fiddle with wires to get it started, which impedes fast getaways.)
Yet shared beatings also break down malevolent stereotypes of Jews among Palestinians.
Once, he says, he got a call that a 13-year-old Palestinian kid was being beaten by Israeli soldiers and rushed to the scene. Then he was himself tear-gassed, head-butted and arrested by the soldiers. The boy later recounted wonderingly that a tall Jewish stranger had run to his rescue and, in the process of being arrested, comforted him by saying: "Don't be afraid."
This "other Israel" extends far beyond Rabbis for Human Rights. The most cogent critiques of Israel's treatment of Palestinians invariably come from Israel's own human rights organizations. The most lucid unraveling of Israel's founding mythology comes from Israeli historians. The deepest critiques of Israel's historical claims come from Israeli archaeologists (one archaeological organization, Emek Shaveh, offers alternative historical tours so that visitors can get a fuller picture). This more noble Israel, refusing to retreat from its values even in times of fear and stress, is a model for the world.
In the Middle East, on all sides, the most religious people are sometimes the most hateful. By challenging religious extremism, Rabbis for Human Rights redeems not only Israeli values, but also Jewish ones.
Rabbis for Human Rights has had strong support from North American Jews, and some American children participate in the classic Zionist gesture - planting a tree for Israel - by sending money so that the rabbis can replant an olive tree for a Palestinian whose grove was uprooted by settlers.
Not everyone finds Ascherman inspiring. He gets death threats, and hard-line Israelis see him as a naive traitor.
He responds that he is struggling to uphold his religious and moral values. But he also argues that building bridges between Jews and Palestinians helps make Israel a safer place for his children.
"In the long run, we're going to live here together," he says, "or we're going to die here together."
"When we get the death threats and people say we're traitors and anti-Israel, I think, 'Who is really doing more for Israel's physical survival?'" he says. "'Those who demolish homes and uproot trees, or those who rebuild homes and replant trees?'"
© 2010 New York Times News Service