NGO Monitor briefly examined the activities of Rabbis for Human Rights in May 2003 noting that it was moving its emphasis from a pro-Palestinian agenda to a broader human rights focus. NGO Monitor now analyzes developments since then.
According to its website, Rabbis for Human Rights was "founded in 1988, in response to serious abuses of human rights by the Israeli military authorities in the suppression of the Intifada" and claims to be "the only organization in Israel today concerned specifically with giving voice to the Jewish tradition of human rights." Its membership "includes some ninety ordained rabbis, plus a number of rabbinic students" and claims to have "no affiliation with any political party or ideology. Its members are Israeli citizens."
RHR has received funding in the past from the Ford Foundation but it is unclear as to its current sources of funding, which, other than appeals for private donations, are not revealed on RHR’s website. Like many other NGOs, this absence of transparency is highly problematic.
RHR devotes much of its resources to issues relating to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, such as the demolition of Palestinian houses (which were illegally constructed in East Jerusalem without the necessary permits. See "The Global Epidemic of Illegal Building and Demolitions: Implications for Jerusalem", Justus Weiner) Protests led to the arrest and trial of RHR Executive Director Rabbi Arik Ascherman and two others charged with interfering with police in the execution of their duties while trying to prevent a bulldozer from demolishing a Palestinian house. In contrast to these actions, RHR claims to work "to prevent demolitions through education, lobbying, legal appeal, publicity, protest and, as a last resort, civil disobedience."
RHR also highlights its work "with a coalition of organizations that oppose the route of the Separation Barrier where it unnecessarily expropriates lands, cuts people off from their fields, and divides and surrounds villages." Despite stressing that "Israel has the right and the responsibility to meet the security needs of its citizens," RHR fails to provide political or security context to the complex situations it attempts to address. For example, RHR publishes photos from a "Separation Wall Tour" without providing any commentary or explanations. At the same time, by acknowledging that the separation barrier is necessary, and that some costs will be borne by the Palestinians, RHR distinguishes itself from most NGOs that simply condemn any Israeli self-defense as illegitimate. Furthermore, in other sections of the RHR website, there is explicit acknowledgement of the impact of Palestinian terror. In addition, this organization does not engage in the language of demonization that is characteristic of many other NGOs active in this area.
On the other hand, RHR has worked in cooperation with the extremist Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions, as well as including links on its website to other ideological NGOs, including Adalah, the Association of Forty, HaMoked, PHR-I, Al-Haq, Al-Mezan, PCHR, and MADRE. These NGOs are very active in the anti-Israel demonization campaign, and an association with them also colors RHR’s activities and impact.
But, reflecting its confused identity, and to its credit, RHR is also critical of efforts to delegitimize the Israeli state and its right to exist. Commenting prior to the 2001 Durban conference, RHR founding chairman David Forman states: "To imply that Zionism is racism is the height of folly" and "Those attending the UN conference on racism could serve us well if, instead of condemning us for actions that are less horrific than many nations of the world, and certainly far less condemnable than the governmental policies of the countries in our region, they came out with a statement that urged us to live up to the principles of Zionism and the values of Judaism – principles and values that call on us to be a "light unto the nations."" RHR has also actively opposed the policy of divestment adopted by the Presbyterian Church (USA) in July 2004 calling it "collective economic punishment and discrimination against Jews." In its links with radical NGOs such as ICAHD, MADRE, etc., RHR is acting inconsistently and against these important principles.
In addition, as noted, RHR is fundamentally different from other political NGOs in that it acknowledges and condemns Palestinian terror, and provides support to Israeli victims. RHR’s website includes a statement "empathizing with those families who have been decimated by Palestinian terrorism and with those families who have sent their sons, husbands, and fathers to combat it." RHR members called on "Palestinian human rights groups to condemn suicide bombings, and the continual murderous attacks on Israeli civilians — without qualification."
RHR also engages in broader activities, which include donating to needy Israeli families, protecting the rights of foreign and Israeli workers, and engaging in interfaith work. Additionally, unlike many other organizations claiming to promote Palestinian human rights, RHR has supported criticisms of the Palestinian Authority and particularly Yasser Arafat’s past violations of the human and civil rights of his own people.
However, RHR then fails to draw the logical and moral conclusion that Israel has the obligation to defend its citizens from such attacks. There is no basis for politicized allegations of an "official policy" of "human rights violations and forms of collective punishment" and no support is given for claims that "limitations placed on human rights workers by Israeli security forces limit our ability to provide our usual standards of documentation." The use of "human rights" rhetoric by anti-Israel extremists and activists, such as members of the ISM, is totally ignored in this political claim.
In summary, RHR is an example of a human rights organization that, while critical of Israeli government policies and prone to political statements that are out of the human rights sphere, refrains from engaging in the language of demonization. RHR, however, also works in coordination with and lends support to many of the most active anti-Israel NGOs, and focuses most of its resources on Palestinian issues, while failing to address many of the complex issues involved in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
13 March 2005 – Addendum: According to the New Israel Fund, Rabbis for Human Rights received $63,500 from NIF between 1991 and 2002 in various types of grants. In addition, RHR was granted $75,000 from NIF’s Ford Foundation fund in September 2004.