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A longstanding promise to end administrative home demolitions

Hoping the High Court will end Israel's discriminatory building and zoning plans in Palestinian villages

Monday morning April 28th the Israeli High Court will hear a petition submitted by Rabbis For Human Rights and partners to return planning authority in Area C to Palestinian hands. In my heart will be the owners of the hundreds of homes I have watched being demolished, all of the children looking for a favorite toy in the rubble, and all of the families destroyed along with their homes.

We read in the Haggadah on seder night, “Blessed is God Who Keeps God’s Promise to Israel.” As it is written in the Torah, “And God heard their moaning, and God remembered God’s Covenant with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob. God looked upon the Israelites, and God took notice.” (Exodus 2:24-25)

One of the explanations for the four cups of wine we drink during the seder is that they represent four of God’s promises in Exodus, “I will take you out,” “I will deliver you,” “I will redeem you,” and “I will take you to be My people.” (Exodus 6: 6-7).

Some would say that God’s promises were truly fulfilled when we left Egypt. Others would say that the promises were fulfilled when the Israelites crossed the sea, an event we mark on the seventh day of Passover beginning this Sunday night. There are those who say that Elijah’s cup is at the table because when Elijah comes he will answer all of the difficult unsolved questions, such as what to do about God’s fifth promise, “I will bring you into the Land.” Now that we have returned to the Land of Israel, there are those who actually drink a fifth cup.

However, the fact is that the holiday of Shavuot, celebrated 50 days after Seder night, is also called Atzeret Pesakh, the Conclusion of Passover, because God didn’t simply liberate us for liberation’s sake. The anniversary of the Revelation at Mt. Sinai is the true conclusion of Passover because we were liberated for a purpose – to accept the yoke of the commandments at Sinai.

Many commentators through the ages have asked why we would need to bless God for keeping God’s promises. Would we expect anything less of God? Perhaps the Haggadah is reminding us mortals what we learned as children, “Promises are meant to be kept.” Most of us consciously or unconsciously live our lives trying to keep promises that we made out loud or in our hearts, either to ourselves or to others. Perhaps we are all judged on what we decide to promise, and to whom.

I sometimes wonder whether we remember the promise we promised to ourselves to establish Israel as a country based on “Freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel,” that would guarantee “Total social and political equality, regardless of religion, race or gender.” (Israel’s Declaration of Independence.)

One of the longest as of yet unfulfilled debts of honor I have is to the victims of Israel’s home demolition policy in the Occupied Territories (And increasingly, in the Negev.) This has nothing to do with either security or “law and order.” Israel stopped punitive demolitions of the homes of terrorists when the army realized that the hatred engendered was creating terror, not inhibiting it. People say, “Well I can’t build wherever I want. Why should Palestnians?” The difference is that in 1972 Israel cancelled the local planning committees that gave Palestinians some say in determining what their communities should look like. Today, army planning committees, on which Palestinians have no representation, either leave in place outdated plans from the British Mandatory period, or create new plans that draw lines around the already build up areas and say, “That is where you are permitted to build.” You can’t make people into criminals by giving them no fair chance to build legally, and then call it “Law and order” when you come to demolish the homes that are “Illegal” because people needing homes had no choice but to build without a permit.

In recent years the issue of home demolitions in the Occupied Territories has been less in the news. However, back in 2004, even as I was on trial for blocking bulldozers that had come to demolish homes that were “illegal” because intentionally discriminatory building and zoning plans made it almost impossible to get building permits, we realized that blocking bulldozers or having our lawyers defend individual homes was not enough to stop demolitions. In what may be a Guinness Book of World Records for the longest amount of time preparing an Israeli High Court case, ten years ago Netta Shiff-Amar (Founding director of RHR’s OT Legal Deparment) and I began work on the appeal about to be heard on Monday.

In the ensuing years we actually did submit an administrative appeal to stop demolitions in East Jerusalem. But the residents of Isawia opted to withdraw the petition. The Municipality told them that they would allow several additional homes slated for demolition “only” to be sealed if the petition was withdrawn. If not, the homes would be put at the top of the demolition list.

Just as God didn’t forget, I hope that we have kept the faith, haven’t forgotten, and won’t forget. For the last ten years, we continued to work behind the scenes towards the day we could look in the eyes of all those who we helplessly stood with as security forces surrounded their homes and the bulldozers arrived. On the walls of our conference room one can find pictures drawn by children whose homes had been demolished. We remember the families literally sitting on suitcases waiting for the bulldozers. We remember all the times we ran to get around security forces shooting tear gas at us, and helping families dismantle doors, shutters and anything else that could be saved. I always say that I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy to be present when a child comes home from school and discovers rubble where his/her home had stood that morning. Every time I hear a pneumatic drill I have flashbacks.

Two of the founding rabbis of RHR, Rabbis Rabbi Ben Hollander z”l and Max Warschawski z”l were there when the Shawamre home was demolished for the first time in 1998. Rabbi Hollander said that watching the home being demolished was one of the worst days of his life (and helping to rebuild one of the best). Rabbi Warschawski’s daughters frantically tried to move him as the bullets flew around the elderly former partisan fighter in France and former Chief Rabbi of Strausburg. He wouldn’t budge, and simply said “This is where I need to be.” Over the years the RHR board has had many serious debates about civil disobedience. At one such meeting Rabbi David Forman z”l said that “In general, civil disobedience requires prior authorization. However, the policy of administrative home demolitions is so evil that no prior authorization should be required.”

We have seen all too often how the bulldozers didn’t just demolish a physical structure. They demolished a family. We remember all of the top students whose grades plummeted, the older children who would wet their beds because they were too afraid to leave them in the middle of the night, the marital tensions and the families ripped apart. We remember the pain of parents whose children no longer had faith in them because they hadn’t been able to protect their children. We remember the child who asked his parents whether he would be able to save his bicycle and computer if the bulldozers came again. Yes, more than anything else we remember the children.

In many ways the matter is not in our hands, but in the hands of High Court Justices Rubenstein, Fogelman and Solberg. It isn’t really so surprising that in the Torah there are places where it isn’t clear whether the word “Elohim” is referring to God (As it usually does), or “judges.” A judge’s power to determine fates is enormous.

The Israeli High Court under Chief Justice Grunis is much more reluctant to intervene than his predecessors. Will the judges believe that thousands of families being turned into criminals for the crime of wanting a home indicates that something isn’t working right (If the goal is to allow people to live in dignity), and that hundreds of homes demolished a year is a humanitarian tragedy that lies within the Court’s mandate? What weight will they give to the fact that we have created one system for granting permits in settlements and another for denying them to the Palestinians next door? (In Jewish religious terminology that is a form of unfairness known as eifah v’eifah.)

If, as most objective legal experts believe, the Palestinians as an occupied people are a protected population, Israel shouldn’t be interfering in any way with non-defense related civil issues such as planning and zoning. (Click here for the expert legal opinion of Professor Marco Sossoli, and click here for additional background information and the text of our appeal)  Do the judges believe that, even if the Israeli government maintains that the Fourth Geneva doesn’t apply in the Occupied Territories, there is a limit to how much the military government is permitted to embitter the lives of Palestinians? Do they believe that we have minimal obligations towards them?

The Talmud says that the seder begins with denigration and ends with praise. (Pesakhim 116a). This is usually understood as the references at the outset to the fact that our ancestors were idolaters. However, just as the midrash teaches that God is in exile when the Jewish people are in exile, my rabbi and teacher Dr. Larry Hoffman teaches that the Haggadah is very influenced by the Greek symposium, in which participants would begin by denigrating their gods and end by praising them. If this seems to be bringing us to a problematic place theologically, let us remember that the rabbis spoke a great deal of how the actions of the Jewish people individually or collectively reflected on God, causing either Khilul HaShem, the desecration of God’s Name, or Kiddush HaShem, the sanctification of God’s Name. In Deuteronomy we are taught that when we observe God’s commandments other peoples will recognize our wisdom and our God. (Deuteronomy 4:6-7). Demolishing homes and families because building plans were manipulated to prevent people from having a fair chance to build legally disgraces the State of Israel and therefore desecrates the Name of the God of Israel.

Just as we bless God for calculating and bringing our slavery to an end, we now have an opportunity to put an end to discriminatory planning that leads to demolitions. That would be worthy of praise.

For those of us who stood and blocked and demonstrated, shouted, and even stopped demolitions for a time, we might have a chance to say, “We remembered; we brought this to an end; we kept our promise.” May it be God’s Will that, on this Holiday of Freedom, freedom’s spirit will find its way to every home and every place, from the darkest dungeon to the highest courthouse. May we move from disgrace to praiseworthiness.



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.