Arik Ascherman
Arik Ascherman

A Vicious Attack, A Housing Victory, and Becoming Worthy of Our Name Israel

I am so proud and moved to announce that 1000 Israeli families who were in danger of being evicted from public housing are sleeping more peacefully tonight, as a result of the work of Torat Tzedek, HaMa’abarah, the public Housing Forum we are a part of, and the some of those 1000 families standing in solidarity with each other. As of November 2nd families in Sheikh Jarrakh are not sleeping so soundly.

And yes, I will write something about last Friday’s vicious attack by a horde of masked settlers. More important than our injuries, we successfully changed the dynamic and ensured that the farmers of Tzurif farmed their lands underneath the Bat Ayin settlement for the first time in two years.

Ultimately, we must determine whether we are worthy of the name “Israel,” the name Jacob receives in this week Torah portion, VaYiskhlakh.  Those who have been reading me over the years know that my understanding is that Jacob doesn’t wrestle with an angel the night before reuniting with his brother Esau after 20 years. Nor do I accept the character assassination of Esau, and the interpretation of Rashi and others that Jacob wrestled with a minister of Esau seeking to kill him.  Jacob wrestles with himself, and the character assassination that projects everything evil onto Esau.  Before he can reconcile with his Esau on the following day, he has to take responsibility for his past actions and those parts of himself he would rather deny. He acknowledges that it was he who cheated and took advantage of his brother. After that wrestling, Jacob’s name is changed to Israel, “for you have wrestled with God and humans, and proven yourself worthy.” (Genesis 32:29).

Since August, Torat Tzedek/HaMa’abarah member MIcha Rachman, HaMa’abarah clinic director Etti Hen and I have barricaded ourselves in the homes of three different families on the dates that those families were slated to be evicted from their public housing homes. We did so together with other families in the same predicament standing in solidarity with each other. In each case the eviction was postponed, partially or entirely because of our actions, combined with the intense lobbying and media efforts conducted by the Public Housing Forum of which we are a part.

Last week our efforts brought about a dramatic breakthrough at a Forum orchestrated meeting of the Knesset’s Economics Committee. Facing growing opposition to the eviction policy, and after being forced to cancel the eviction from the most recent home we were barricaded in because Economics Committee chairperson MK Michael Biton and MK Na’ameh Lazimi threatened to absent themselves from the budget votes, Housing Minister Zeev Elkin announced that he was refreezing evictions from public housing until a committee thoroughly reviews public housing eligibility criteria and eviction policy.   

While it was clear that Minister Elkin and his Ministry Director Aviad Friedman were wrestling with their fellow Knesset members and other minister’s as well as with a critical press and with us, I wonder whether they were wrestling with their conscience.  Human beings are not all good or all evil, any more that was Jacob/Israel. It is rarely true that, as some of our rabbis have tried to portray, one represents the Yetzer haTov (good inclination), while the other the Yetzer HaRa (evil inclination, or perhaps actually our also essential id). I try not to see those whose actions I oppose in such stark terms. I also believe in our ability to change, as does Jacob/Israel. So, I will leave myself a spot of hope and optimism. I am not naïve, but will wait to see if there is some truth to their lofty words of concern for public housing that they have expressed. Time will tell whether they are capable of understanding why evicting impoverished families, many of whom were living in public housing legally until eligibility criteria were changed, was terribly wrong, even if it was done for the sake of other families.

I am part of a subcommittee of the Forum that worked this week on our position paper on those eligibility criteria.. As far as I am concerned, there is no rocket science here. A family should be eligible if housing costs on the open market are a disproportionate percentage of either their income or expenses.  All other criteria, such as three children under the age of 18, should be eliminated.

We know that there will be wrestling with the neo liberal lobby on the Ministry’s criteria committee. They will fight us tooth and nail, and evictions could be reinstated. The sun has not yet risen as for Yaakov/Israel, and we must continue to wrestle. AND, it is OK to pause a moment, savor even a small success, and remember that it isn’t such a small matter for the families that were slated to be evicted in the coming weeks.

It would not be right to celebrate the fact that families in public housing are sleeping a bit more soundly tonight, without remembering that families in Sheikh Jarrakh and Silwan are not.  On November 2nd, neither the Palestinian residents of Sheikh Jarrakh nor those trying to evict them accepted the compromise suggested by a Supreme Court desperately not wanting to rule after Sheikh Jarrakh became a household name around the world.  Last week I invited Muhammed Sabbagh to join me in speaking to young Israeli gap year students. On the way we spoke about how tense and scared the families now were, waiting to hear how the Supreme Court will rule.  He told me how difficult it had been to decide whether or not to accept the compromise that might have allowed the families, and one of their children, and in some cases one grandchild to avoid eviction. They would be considered protected tenants, at the price of recognizing Jewish ownership of their homes. Recall that a lawyer for the families made a similar deal back in the 1980’s, allegedly without the knowledge of many of his clients. Rather than protecting the families, it allowed the Nahalat Shimon settler organization to use alleged violations of protected tenant status to begin evicting families.

The Sumarin family in Silwan is also awaiting a High Court decision, and the Jerusalem Municipality is renewing the efforts we helped stop in 2005 to wipe out Silwan’s Bustan neighborhood.

Currently international concern is protecting Sheikh Jarrakh families, but international concern can be fickle.  I ho  that one day these Palestinian families can also sleep soundly.

So, let’s cut to the chase. Last Friday two volunteers and I were attacked by a horde of stone throwing and club wielding settlers. Pictures below.

As you know, we have been working since our inception to stop the chipping away of the Morar High Court decision clarifying the obligations of Israeli security forces towards Palestinian farmers, and wish to institutionalize the protection of shepherds as well. That includes both on the ground protection of farmers and shepherds, and working with authorities to make sure that the State does not oppress them, and hopefully actually  protects them.

It is in this context that we were called upon to protect the families of Tzurif whom we have been working with over the past year. Without our intervention there would likely have been either even more settler violence, or gross violations of the Morar decision.

On November 5th an Israeli volunteer and a Palestinian were slightly injured, as a band of Israeli hooligans sought to prevent farmers from Tzurif from harvesting for the first time in two years. An Israeli and a Palestinian car were damaged. Torat Tzedek members Yoav Silbert and Micha Rachman tried to harvest, as others of us tried to run interference. The soldiers who showed up didn’t shoot tear gas at the Palestinians to back the settlers, as often happens. Although the Morar decision explicitly forbids Israelis forces from closing areas to Palestinians “for their own good” after they have been attacked (unless there truly is no alternative.), the officers persuaded the farmers to come back another day.  They were furious when I tried to explain to the farmers that they could do so, but that they had alternatives. One officer said, “they agreed,” while the deputy brigade commander opined that they were trying to keep the peace, while I was sticking to principle.  I called the Legal Advisor’s office on the spot. Although on the officers had also made it clear that a closure order was on the way, they innocently told the officer from the Advisor’s office, “We didn’t force them to leave.”

We returned this past Friday.  The army was there. To their credit, their presence during the week had prevented further olive theft.  They disbursed a number of settlers, but then informed us that we had no permission to harvest.  Another gross violation of the Morar decision. We continued to work, as I was on the phone with an officer from the Legal Advisor’s office. We succeeded in establishing our right to continue.  The farmers explained that the poor condition of the olives was a result of two years of neglect.  However, this did not entirely mute their joy and almost disbelief at being back on their land. They wanted to know if they would be able to come back to plow, and I assured them we would fight for year round access. I had a long talk with a reserve officer who was genuinely interested in hearing what I had to day, but also said that this harvest and our presence seemed to him to be an intentional provocation. I asked him if he honestly thought that the army would have reversed itself and allowed the harvest, had we not been present.  However, around 11:45, the army left. The farmers started glancing nervously up the hill, as masked settlers gathered. I spoke to the army several times over half an hour, telling them that we were about to be attacked. Each time they assured me that the army was “on the way.”  The masked horde descended on us, as somebody with an automatic weapon whom we believe was the army paid settlement security officer watched and did nothing.

The army and police arrived after two of our volunteers had been evacuated with injuries, and I sent a picture to an army officer of the blood streaming down my face. The police managed to apprehend only three of some twenty attackers. The officer who had been continuously assuring me that the army was on the way, presented me with a thirty day closure order.

In a refreshing contrast to our experience with the Binyamin police station, the Etzion station is either taking this case very seriously, or putting on a fantastic show. They have called us in again time after time all week along to obtain more testimony, pictures and video, and other materials.  Although I continue to remind them that there were some twenty attackers, one adult remains in custody, and two minors are under house arrest. They have one of the attack weapons, and I saw a picture of the man with automatic weapon on their desk.  Maybe this time there will be a message that there is a price to be paid for violence.

The media in Israel and abroad has been awash with this and other stories of settler violence, just as they were after the Simkhat Torah pogrom. We have been interviewed, and there will be yet another Knesset discussion on Monday, at which our most seriously injured volunteer will speak.  While the attention is certainly an opportunity, the challenge is making it clear that this is not just a story of violent settlers.  It is a story of how the State sometimes passively and sometimes actively enables violent settlers to further the shared goals of dispossessing Palestinians. Along with allowing settler violence to continue unchecked, doing little to prevent the spread of settler outposts serving as the vanguard for taking over Palestinian land, and demolishing or confiscating Palestinian homes, part of their strategy is to kill and bury the Morar High Court decision.

I continue to reflect on my conversation with the reserve officer, and his feeling that we were creating a provocation by helping people stand up for their rights.  Did our conversation change his view in any way? What about the attack?  Just as many of our rabbis carried out character assassination of Esau that is nowhere to be found in the Torah itself, we human beings project onto others negative stereotypes in order to justify our actions towards them.  We do it towards Palestinians. While they have a little more knowledge of who we actually are than we do of them, they also heap projections on us.  They can use their projections to justify terror and violence. We can project our stereotypes making them all violent terrorists to justify harnessing the overwhelmingly superior power of the State to oppress and dispossess.

Human beings in general, and Israelis in particular view any admission of wrongdoing as fatal weakness. Were we to wrestle with ourselves, we might understand that acknowledging the wrongs towards Palestinians that we have justified to ourselves through the image we have created of them is not weakness. It could lead towards reconciliation, as it does for Yaacov/Israel. At the very least, it would make us worthy of our progenitor’s name that we bear.

Shabbat Shalom

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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