Human rights group breaks down barriers

Rabbi Brian Walt
From his West Tisbury office Rabbi Brian Walt works for justice around the world. Photos by Ralph Stewart

By Julian Wise - November 22, 2006

Tucked away in a wooded corner of West Tisbury sits the office of the North American chapter of Rabbis for Human Rights, an organization committed to fostering justice in the Middle East and beyond. Under the guidance of Rabbi Brian Walt and a small staff of volunteers and part-time employees, the organization has helped create an open, honest dialog throughout America on the need to balance Mid-East security with fundamental human values.

Rabbi Walt is a tall man with a warm, open face who speaks eloquently of his journey from Apartheid-era South Africa to Martha's Vineyard. He is optimistic and pragmatic when discussing his organization's work in Israel and the Palestinian Territories. He retains a firm conviction that genuine faith cannot be separated from humanitarian actions that alleviate human suffering.

Brian Walt of Rabbis for Human Rights
Brian Walt of Rabbis for Human Rights.

Rabbi Walt was born in Cape Town, South Africa, into a family that fostered the ethical and spiritual traditions of Judaism. As he grew older, he was disturbed by the parallels between the Jewish history of persecution and the racist treatment of blacks in South Africa. In his daily interactions he witnessed extreme disparities in the socioeconomic status between whites and blacks." It's different than anything you can imagine in the sense of the extremes of wealth and poverty," he says.

After high school he spent two years in Israel. When his father passed away he left South Africa for North America. He has resided in the United States for the past 32 years, settling initially in Philadelphia. As a religious leader he was deeply inspired by the teachings of the prophet Amos who spoke of the need to move religion beyond empty rituals to a genuine commitment to justice and charity.

"That means something to me. It's what I live to this day," Rabbi Walt says. "For me, the point of religion is to draw people closer to God and godly behavior. Without that, it's empty."

While in Philadelphia, Rabbi Walt founded a synagogue based on this prophetic vision of caring as expressed in the principle of Tikun Olam, repairing the world through service.

When he moved to Martha's Vineyard with his wife, Rabbi Caryn Broitman, he established the North American chapter of Rabbis For Human Rights in a converted garage on their West Tisbury property. The organization began in Israel in 1988 in response to the first Intifadah, when rabbis expressed concern over the Isreali government's tactics to counter the uprising. Since then, the organization has expanded its scope to include lobbying for economic justice within Israel, educational programs for the Israeli army, and protection of human rights within the Palestinian Territories.

One problem RHR addresses is the treatment of Palestinian farmers by Jewish Settlers. Some settlers have destroyed the trees of Palestinian farmers and prevented them from working their lands.

"Our position is clear, that a Palestinian farmer has the right to work his land and that right must be maintained by the Israeli army," he says.

RHR volunteers have worked with the Israeli army to replant uprooted trees and accompany Palestinian farmers to plant and harvest their crops.

A pressing issue for the organization is home demolition in Jerusalem. It is extremely difficult for Palestinians to receive a building permit in the city, which prompts many to construct unauthorized dwellings. These homes are frequently demolished by Israeli authorities. RHR actively works to prevent these demolitions. Last year Rabbi Walt helped rebuild a ruined West Bank home with his colleagues in RHR. Often he works from North America to seek legal injunctions against homes slated for destruction.

Much of his work in North America involves raising funds for the organization and bringing its mission into the consciousness of the American Jewish community. He is currently organizing the first North American rabbinic conference on Judaism and human rights this December.

Rabbi Walt retains strong ties to Israel and keeps frequent contact with his friends and colleagues there.

"Israel is a second home, a place I love and support, where Jewish life thrives. It's not a perfect place. It has its warts. Addressing the warts is very complicated and challenging for many Jews in the USA."

He sees his support for Palestinian homes as an extension of his Zionism because it expresses the highest ethical values of the cause. "For some in the Jewish community, this feels like a contradiction," he says. "Why would you care? I don't believe in 'my country, right or wrong.' I rejoice in Israel and I want the state of Israel to live up to the dream of Zionism with its prophetic heritage of justice, peace and human rights.

"It's not antithetical. If something is wrong in your community, fix it. Shame is not going to get you anywhere. It's not a useful emotion unless it's a prod to action, to preventing what's causing the shame."

Rabbi Walt reports that when he spends time in the Palestinian Territories he is struck by the commonality between Palestinians and Israelis.

"When you meet Palestinians face to face, you move beyond the label to a person who's in front of you, who's a human being just like you who wants peace and justice. I hear stories about how they have felt hurt or been hurt, yet I also hear from them how incredibly important it is to them that we are there helping them, because they really want to have peace and want to work out a way to live in coexistence with peace."

"Each side demonizes the other," he adds. "The work we do breaks down that divide."

In the future, Rabbi Walt hopes to raise the profile of the organization in America by broadening the dialog to encompass immigration, economic justice and sexual violence. He cites worrisome trends in the US policy at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay and the secret prisons run overseas by the CIA. "This is the first administration in US history that has legitimized torture or played with legislation by extending the definition of it," he notes.

Rabbi Walt has collaborated with his peers in RHR to create a workbook titled "A Rabbinic Resource on Jewish Values and the Issue of Torture" that outlines the organization's stance on coercive techniques. The project includes a letter to President Bush and Congress stating the organization's opposition to torture. Over 500 rabbis, cantors, and rabbinical students lent their signatures to this document.

A deep and abiding faith in the ethical tenets of Judaism fuels Rabbi Walt's endeavors. "I don't feel like it's an option not to continue this work," he says. "My love of Israel and my faith are my motivation, because what we are doing with our work is upholding a particular religious vision of Judaism. As far as I can understand, this is what I feel God calls me to hold up. I can't imagine giving up. It's my lifeblood."

Julian Wise is a frequent contributor to The Times, specializing in music, film, and the performing arts.