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A rabbi who campaigns for Palestinian rights

Avi Dabush is head of Rabbis for Human Rights. On the eve of his Australian speaking tour, he talks about the path to a future beyond the bloodshed of war.
Ben Lynfield
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avi dabush

Published: 28 March 2024

Last updated: 28 March 2024

The slogan on posters, news channels and phone apps that “together we will be victorious” implies that in today’s Israel, dissent is disloyalty.

But Avi Dabush, Executive Director of Rabbis for Human Rights (RHR), is not conforming. He and RHR are out on a limb in the charged aftermath of the October 7 Hamas massacre and at the height of the Gaza war. They are calling for an immediate ceasefire as a first step toward peace negotiations to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“I don’t see how more bloodshed and certainly killing of civilians will bring us to peace and reconciliation,” Dabush said last week during an interview with The Jewish Independent.

“The right thing is to give rights to the Palestinian people, stop human rights violations, struggle against Jewish terrorism in the West Bank, avoid harming civilians in Gaza and reach an agreement, at the moment a specific one to return the hostages and achieve a ceasefire, and [later] also a [full] agreement with the Palestinians.”

Dabush sees this as being reached with the Palestinian Authority but also having a regional dimension that involves Arab states.

Dabush is visiting Australia next month in a trip sponsored by the New Israel Fund, a key supporter of human rights and civil society organisations that includes Rabbis for Human Rights and a swathe of other groups it sees as fostering a more democratic and progressive Israel while working against occupation abuses in the West Bank.

RHR is an Israeli organisation, founded in 1988, that brings together about a hundred rabbis, cantors and seminary students under the ethos that all humans are created in God's image. Its members and activists come from all streams of Judaism.

Dabush has called for compassion towards Palestinians. That is not a way to gain popularity in Israel today.

But whether the 49-year-old activist, who is seen by some as a figure who could help reverse the collapse of the Israeli Left, proves to be a courageous visionary or fails to make a dent remains to be seen.

What is clear is that Dabush has his work cut out for him. But he also has the advantage of injecting new elements that have been sorely lacking to date in the Israeli Left: a clear peace goal, a desire to shape opinion rather than chase ratings, Middle Eastern Jewish ancestry, a life lived in Israel’s low-income periphery rather than north Tel Aviv, and a national religious family background and education that he eventually rejected.

Another factor that makes Dabush different-and highly relevant- is that he and his family narrowly escaped death in their home on Kibbutz Nirim, one of the targets of the Hamas massacre of October 7, the deadliest day in Israeli history that left the country horrified, traumatised, confused and anxious for retribution.

While government leaders stoked feelings of revenge among the public, Dabush has called for compassion towards Palestinian civilians and keeping them out of harm’s way.

That is not necessarily a way to gain popularity in Israel today. Even though Israel’s closest allies such as Joe Biden have criticised it for “indiscriminate” attacks, there have been few if any qualms voiced inside the country about what appear to be egregious abuses such as ordering civilians to evacuate to ostensibly safe areas and then causing their deaths by bombing them in their new locale, as was documented by the New York Times, or torching, at the encouragement of senior officers, of hundreds of houses belonging to civilians, as reported by Haaretz.

Rabbi Dabush at a meeting in the Knesset (courtesy)
Rabbi Dabush at a meeting in the Knesset (courtesy)

Regarding hunger in Gaza, the picture is no less disturbing. It seems that most of the Israeli public actually prefers that Gazans not be rescued from hunger or famine. Two-thirds of Israeli Jews are against providing food and humanitarian assistance to Gaza even if it is done by organisations not linked to Hamas or the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA)l, according to a poll released in February by the  Israel Democracy Institute.

Rabbis for Human Rights, by contrast, protested alongside the left-wing Zazim organisation in the Israeli port city of Ashdod on March 15, calling on Israel to enable aid immediately.

Dabush stressed in his interview with The Jewish Independent that a major motive for stopping the war is that it has hit civilians way too hard. “The total destruction, hunger and huge harm to civilians will only lead to more war” because of the anger and bitterness it creates, he argued.

“The principled position of me and the organisation is that war is a horrible thing,” he explained. “You can say it is necessary but it is terrible and it harms us also, not just others.”

While many Israelis know someone who was in the border communities on October 7, Dabush was himself there and barely survived Hamas’s attack on his kibbutz, Nirim. While Hamas fighters were entering homes and slaughtering or abducting his friends and neighbours, Dabush was in his house’s safe room with his family, clutching the door handle in a bid to save himself, his wife and children. 

It took the army eight hours to arrive and another day of fighting before it was safe to leave, he said. The family was evacuated to Eilat where they learned of the harrowing fates of more Nirim residents. Dabush took charge of seeking release of Nirim hostages, two of whom remain in captivity. He also oversaw an intensification of RHR’s work.

This has included protecting Palestinian herding communities from spiking settler violence, distributing food to Palestinians hard hit by economic downturn including a ban on the entry of day laborers to Israel, fighting successfully against electric company cutoffs of power to hard pressed Jewish and Arab households and stepping up educational outreach.

Recently, Dabush’s family and most Nirim residents moved to houses in Beersheba, hounded by the open question of whether, when and how many would revive Nirim. “Personally, as a father, I can’t bring my children back to Nirim if Hamas is again on the border. But I don’t see how the war at this moment advances this,” Dabush said.

Although much of Israel is still stuck in trauma, Dabush does not give that impression at all. “All in all, we are OK, broken but strong,” he said.

I’m not afraid of being in a minority.  Our purpose is not to swim with the current. It is to convey the right thing.

Unlike the government, which is planning on an open-ended security presence in Gaza and rules out Palestinian statehood, Dabush envisions the Palestinian Authority taking charge in Gaza, backed by Egypt and other Arab states and then diplomacy aimed at resolving the conflict.

“The equation is clear,” he says. “We want security. Israelis must get significant security and the Palestinians must get freedom and independence.”

“We have to abandon the concept of managing the conflict and strive for a real solution, as difficult and as complicated as that is,” he says.

Some would say Dabush’s timing is off, with Israelis more sceptical about peace than ever and Palestinians in the West Bank continuing to show support for Hamas’s attack, denying its atrocities in polls taken after the massacre, outraged over Israel’s devastation of Gaza and lacking confidence in the PA.

Small wonder that advocates of peace have become an endangered species. But Dabush is not deterred. “I’m not afraid of being in a minority.  Our purpose in this world is not to swim with the current. It is to convey the right thing.”

For now, at least, it is the Jewish supremacists who are setting the tone. Yonatan Yosef, a member of the Jerusalem city council and a key supporter of settling Jews in Palestinian neighbourhoods, has dismissed Dabush’s ideas, the New Israel Fund, Rabbis for Human Rights, and like-minded organisations as tantamount to abetting the enemy. “The New Israel Fund advances the interests of Arab states and the Palestinian Authority,” Yosef stressed.

“In any case, where there is a Jewish position and an Arab position, they almost automatically side with the Arab position. I suggest they raise money in the Arab countries whose positions they support, not Australia.”

Of Rabbis for Human Rights, Yosef said: “He who calls himself a rabbi cannot deny that in the Torah it says that all of the Land of Israel belongs to the nation of Israel. How can someone call himself a rabbi and deny the bible?”

By contrast Gaby Lasky, a left-wing lawyer and former member of the Knesset, said Dabush represents some much-needed hope for the country. “Israel is not even in post-trauma, it is still in trauma,” she said, and credits Dabush with helping to start discussion about what Israel should do to move forward.

“The voice that Avi and others represent is very important because it symbolises the idea and the hope that it can be better here despite all the difficulties.” Lasky said.

Avi Dabush will speak at New Israel Fund events in Sydney on April 2 and Melbourne on April 10. Tickets and details here.

About the author

Ben Lynfield

Ben Lynfield covered Israeli and Palestinian politics for The Independent and served as Middle Eastern affairs correspondent at the Jerusalem Post. He writes for publications in the region and has contributed to the Christian Science Monitor, Foreign Policy and the New Statesman.


  • Avatar of Wesley Parish

    Wesley Parish28 March at 09:45 am

    It’s worth reminding ourselves of a satirical comment of the PLO in one of their Beirut books, about Sammy Davis Jnr, Zionism’s claims about Jewish connection to the Land, and its bearing on Sammy Davis Jnr. If I can remember it correctly, it was along the lines of “an American entertainer, converting to Judaism, will, according to the Zionist argument (as espoused by one of the people in this article) suddenly find in himself an attachment to a land he has never seen”. So much for the claim that the Torah establishes that the Jewish people’s claim to the land is absolute. According to the Torah, that claim can be voided by unethical acts. And according to the Nevi’im, one King Saul had his sons killed en masse to avenge his slaughter of the Gibeonim, a people in a treaty relationship with the Hebrew tribal confederacy. It must be a paart of the Tenakh the far-right settlers don’t read.

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