Arik Ascherman

A Call To Civil Disobedience: Midwives, King and Heschel

Settler Threatens Me While I Am In My Car

Shavua Tov.

This Shabbat we read of the heroic refusal of the God-fearing midwives, who at great risk refused to obey Pharaoh’s orders to kill every first born male Israelite at birth. There is the well-known debate whether they themselves were Israelites or Egyptian midwives to the Israelites. This Torah portion was the reading when my trial opened in 2005 for standing in front of a bulldozer coming to demolish a Palestinian home built without the permit Israel makes almost impossible to obtain. As in 2005, we read this Torah portion symbolically just as we recall two towering examples of the opposition to injustice who were close friends, Martin Luther King Jr. and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel.

Wednesday was both the 50th yahrzeit of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel (18th of Tevet) and his Gregorian calendar birthday.  Heschel was one of the great rabbis of the 20th century and major philosopher, who was an early voice for Soviet Jewry, marched with King, opposed the Vietnam war, fought for the rights of the elderly and of children, and always reminded us to see wonder in the world and ask what God asks of us.  In  his last interview spoke of how he had come to realize that it wasn’t enough to write books and wrote in “The Last Days of Maimonides” of how the great scholar began to dedicate most of his time to serving the needs of others, “This is Maimonides’ last metamorphosis: from metaphysics to medicine, form contemplation to practice, from speculation to the imitation of God… Preoccupation with the concrete man and the effort to aid him in his suffering is now the form of religious devotion…Contemplation of God and service toman  are combined and become one.” (If Heschel were to be writing today, he would write in a more gender sensitive language.)

Unlike 2005, King’s birthday doesn’t occur this year during the same Jewish week, but we will celebrate on Sunday.

It would be incredible hubris to compare ourselves to King or Heschel or the midwives, but in 2005 I felt that I had received a sign that we do have the ability and obligation to stand on their shoulders.  We must learn from them, carry out in deeds what we learn, and continue in our own small way to move forward on the path that they show us.

Today in Israel we need to recommit to civil disobedience when all else fails. It shouldn’t be an arbitrary action of first resort, but we cannot stand idly by as our already questionable democracy is further dismantled and as groups composed of real human beings that have been persecuted for many years are further harmed.

My first arrest was back around 1984 in front of the Soviet consulate in New York.  I have already mentioned being on trial for an act of civil disobedience. I have also been arrested for being in an empty house we broke into and made into a home for Israeli Jews in need of public housing.  My engagement in civil disobedience isn’t starting with the new Israel government, and it isn’t random anarchy.  Rather, as we learned from King, Ghandi and others, non-violently challenging unjust laws by breaking them, asking to be put on trial and being willing to pay the price is an essential tool of democracy.  It is also a way to get around the gatekeepers in the press, and especially among the police. There are also things I don’t do, such as blocking streets. What if an ambulance needs to get through?

Way before the current government Torat Tzedek and I have been documenting hundreds of cases in which the police and army didn’t show up when settlers and their flocks wreak havoc on lands Israel acknowledges as belonging to Palestinians. We have dealt with many cases in which complaints are closed, or just never investigated.  Yesterday I was in court, as the house arrest conditions were relaxed for the one of some 20 who attacked and injured us on November 12th 2021. There will be no trial because of a plea bargain. Yet again the gatekeepers prevented a public trial that might get some attention and cause some to wake up.  If we can’t get around the gatekeepers when we are attacked, or when Palestinians file complaints because of violence, vandalism, and/or trespassing, all that is left is get around the gatekeepers and have our day in court as the accused.

Civil disobedience carrys no promise of success . I didn’t stop the policy of home demolitions either by standing on trial, or when we launched a High Court appeal demanding that planning and zoning authority in Palestinian communities be returned to Palestinian hands. We did help focus world wide attention and pressure on the issue, as we did when the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions rebuilt demolished homes. For a period of time, the number of demolitions plummeted.

When the midwives refused to carry out Pharoh’s orders, he had the babies thrown into the Nile.

For the past three days the landowners of Ramoun have plowed and planted over 1000 dunam of land for which they have title and deed.  The settlers tending the cows and sheep from the illegal even according to Israel outpost set up nearby by Neria Ben Pazi in 2019 were not going to take lightly this uppity act on lands they have been accustomed to grazing their flocks on.  Having already pushed the Bedouin off large tracts of land belonging to Taibe, and having started to push them off Ramoun’s lands, they were furious. They brought their animals close, raced around on horses, hissed at me “Why are you here,” and physically attacked me several times. For a change a decent army officer asked the army’s liaison unit for maps on the first day, and asked that the settlers move off the newly plowed areas.  The police refused to come the first and second day, but came on the third. A decent officer also asked for identification of the suspects, and asked them to move away.  In both cases I told the officers that, compared to other officers I have dealt with, their trying to do their job was a breath of fresh air.

On both days the settlers and their flocks caused more problems after the officers left. We photographed them today as well.

So, here is the civil disobedience question.  We have no precedents of security forces keeping flocks off Palestinian lands, even though a senior advisor to outgoing Police Minister Bar-Lev was committed to making that happen. It would probably take months, if ever, to take other actions that would force them to do their job.  That means that, even if Itamar Ben Gvir were to do teshuvah (repent, return to God, and change his ways) and order that investigations be properly carried out, and even were there to be pleasantly surprising but unlikely results, in all likelihood everything that was planted will have been eaten before any action is taken.

Let’s say that we and  the landowners, after having filed official police complaints, see the flocks eating what has been planted.  We call the police and army. Either they don’t show up at all, or don’t remove the flocks from the planted private fields.  We see the wheat disappearing before our eyes. What should we do?  Is it illegal for us to take steps to chase the flocks away, as we did on an almost daily basis on Taibe’s lands two years ago?  I would welcome to be put on trial to find out. Would it be illegal to spread something non-harmful that would taste bad to the animals?  What other non-violent actions could we take that might land us in in court?

Our commentators tell us that the God fearing midwives did more than just not kill the male children. Rashi quotes Sotah 11b to say that they provided food. Ibn Ezra argues that the unnecessary extra words in the Torah’s description of their acts indicates that they worked with all their strength to save the children.  Rabbi Shimshon Rafael Hirsch writes, “ English translation. Not only did the midwives not do as the king commanded, but they did their best to keep the babies alive. All the kings efforts led to the opposite results. For now the midwives, being self-righteous women, have been forced to do everything possible, to use all the art of their craft, and to pour out their hearts in prayer to Gd, that no fallen child will be born, and no child with any defect will come into the world. They had to do this, in order to remove any suspicion that by doing the kings word, they did some thing, or refrained from doing anything, in a way that endangered the life of the newborn.

The Torah goes on to tell us that God was pleased, and rewarded the midwives.

We aren’t looking for any reward other than creating a better Israel living up to our highest Jewish and human values. I do hope that we will act in ways that are pleasing God.

About the Author
Rabbi Arik Ascherman is the founder and director of the Israeli human rights organization "Torat Tzedek-Torah of Justice." Previously, he led "Rabbis For Human Rights" for 21 years. Rabbi Ascherman is a sought after lecturer, has received numerous prizes for his human rights work and has been featured in several documentary films, including the 2010 "Israel vs Israel." He and "Torat Tzedek" received the Rabbi David J. Forman Memorial Fund's Human Rights Prize fore 5779. Rabbi Ascherman is recognized as a role model for faith based human rights activism.
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