Arik Ascherman

A Yom HaAtzmaut Plea To God And Ourselves Given Events In Gaza And The West Bank

This was post was intended on Monday, but as is recounted at the end just before my plea, emergency events in the field intervened.

At the Har Herzl military cemetery on Monday there was a group of yeshiva boys singing Jewish soul music after the Yom HaZikaron (Memorial Day) ceremony ended. Among them, they sang Yonatan Raziel’s modern Israeli popular rendition of Jacob’s prayer the day before he will reunite with his brother Esau, and is greatly frightened when he hears that Esau is coming to meet him with 400 warriors.

“…I am unworthy of all of the kindness and all the truth that You have so steadfastly shown Your servant; with my staff alone I crossed this Jordan and now I have become two camps.  Deliver me, I pray from the hand of my brother….”  (Genesis 32:11-12) The song repeats “Deliver me, deliver me, deliver me.”

This plaintive cry to God reflects much of our national mood since October 7th.  Many proudly recount the amazing acts of heroism and self-sacrifice, but are also shaken to the core. We frequently cite that on the 7th the largest number of Jews were murdered in one day since the Holocaust.  We founded this country vowing “never again,” but where was our vaunted army as Israelis were slaughtered, raped and take hostage?  Why did it take so long for them to arrive? After seven months, how is it that Hamas is still fighting, Israeli towns are evacuated, and rockets continue to fall on the south and on the north?

There has been tremendous debate between those who found nothing to celebrate on either  Purim or Passover or Yom HaAtzmaut, and those who argue that to not celebrate is a victory for Hamas.

But just before Jacob’s prayer, we are told “וַיִּירָ֧א יַעֲקֹ֛ב מְאֹ֖ד וַיֵּ֣צֶר ל֑וֹ – Jacob was greatly frightened and distressed” (Genesis 32:8)  Rashi quotes the midrash, “He was frightened lest he be killed, and he was distressed that he might have to kill others.”

In Israel today our almost universal anger is for some mixed with great fear for our future, even while others around the word cannot fathom how with our ferocious military power we could honestly be afraid.

All too few of us are distressed that we are killing others.

All too few of us are shaken to their core at the thought of killing, as was Jacob.

Most of those who do feel qualms sooth themselves through justifications, many of which have some element of truth. They mourn  the suffering that Hamas has brought upon their own people and citing our right to self-defense. We quote statistics about proportionality and compare the percentage of civilians we have killed to other conflicts. What would the U.S. do if they were attacked as we were? We note that Hamas is carrying out the war crime of embedding itself in a civilian population, and places weapons in homes, schools and hospitals. We cite the warnings we have given to civilians, and that we have offered civilians the chance to flee.  We argue that anybody who chose not to flee is most likely a terrorist. Even if not, those who choose to remain responsible for their own fate. We cite the polls showing the levels of support for Hamas, and conclude that all Palestinians are Hamas terrorists deserving what they get. “Purity of arms” is passe. More of our soldiers would die if we don’t bomb enough. While there are all too many Israelis who simply believe that we are privileged by God and our history of oppression and that utter ruthlessness against all Gazans is justified in the name of sacred survival and destiny, there are also many Israelis who could not live with themselves without these justifications.

Again, there is a great deal of truth in many of these justifications. I am horrified by those who glorify or justify Hamas.  While back in college I read Franz Fanon and his legitimization of violence as colonial induced resistance, I don’t think I ever accepted that, bu I certainly am not there today.  All the evils we have perpetrated against Palestinians do not justify Palestinian violence. It is not self defense, but revenge/ Rather than defend, they siply elicit more Israeli violence.

But neither to the evils Palestinians have perpetrated against us justify our violence or ongoing occupation. They go way beyond what can be called self defense and they too elicit more Palestinian violence. Although there is a dangerously thin line between explanation and justification, our sages taught us “The sword comes into the world because of justice delayed, justice denied and the improper teaching of Torah.” (Pirkei Avot 5)  I reject the narrative that we Jews are simply colonialists. We are a people who have exercised our right of return. Yes, Yom HaAtzmaut (Israeli Independence Day) is a holiday. The fact that after 2000 years we again have the ability to defend ourselves and some control over our own destiny as a people is truly something to celebrate. While I do not believe that we have more rights than do Palestinians, neither do I believe that we have fewer.   Those who so argue are exercising a double standard.

But, while there is simply no denying that there is a hard core of Hamas ideologues who will never recognize equal collective rights for Jews as a people, they are in many ways a mirror image of Jews who will never  recognize equal collective rights for Palestinians as a people.

Our oppression of Palestinians does not justify the massacre on October 7th, nor the rockets on Israeli civilian targets before and after, but we must learn from our sages that our acts of oppression drive many Palestinians who are not committed to violently throwing us into the sea into the hands of those who are.

Returning to those justifications, the truth is that none of them, true or not,  erase the fact that our bombs have killed thousands of children or that we have resisted the actions necessary to stop the spread of disease and starvation level hunger.  According to the midrash, Jacob was distressed at the thought of killing even if he had no choice and was justified in doing so.

Although we absolutely have a right to defend ourselves and to ensure that our citizens can return to their homes,  I don’t believe that there is the conflict that many see between doing what we have a right to do in the name of our security and our obligation not taking innocent lives. In the Talmud the example is given of somebody who wants to immerse in the mikvah (ritual purifying body of water) because he has become impure by touching a dead lizard. But the mikvah is of no use because he continues to hold the dead lizard in his hands. (Ta’anit 16a). Even were we to kill every member of Hamas, we will not achieve the peace and security we deserve as long as we continue the Occupation and continue to oppress Palestinians. Something worse will arise.

But even if I am wrong, and even if we could somehow achieve the peace and security we deserve through the ruthless use of force, we must have red lines.  There are actions that must not be taken even in the name of our security. We have alternatives. This is not a situation in which ruthless force is the only means to ensure our survival. And even if it were, the midrash teaches us that we should be agonizing over this in a way that we are not. Were we, we would find the alternatives.

I desperately want to believe that we are not intentionally using starvation as a weapon, or intentionally trying to cause many civilian deaths. I am grateful that the world has forced us to let in more food and is applying at least some up until now inadequate pressure to perhaps induce us to at least slightly moderate our attacks on civilians in Rafiakh.  But, even to the extent that we can maintain a level of uncertainty because there is not at this point conclusive proof that the level of death and hunger has been intentional, we should all be distressed to our very core at what our hands have wrought.  And, even if we can maintain some level of doubt regarding intentionality regarding the number of civilian deaths and the hunger, I see no way of maintaining that possibility of doubt regarding the horrific evidence emerging regarding the treatment of prisoners in detention facilities leading to prisoners losing limbs because of the way they were shackled.

We included in the Torat Tzedek Haggadah supplements for Passover this year a translation of S. Yizhar’s 1988 essay in which he argues that there are certain things we simply cannot do just because we are Jews, even if others do and it is possible to argue that this is simply the way of the world. Some will feel uncomfortable because when Yizhar says there are things that others do that the Jew cannot he is asserting Jewish moral superiority.  I can live with that because my Jewish particularism is not about privilege, but about holding ourselves to a higher standard:

“The debate today is not about the Territories, although it is about the Territories; And it is not about security, although it is about security; And it is not about peace, although it is about peace.

The fierce debate today is about the Jew.  Are there are things in this world that a Jew is forbidden to do. Are there are things that everyone in the world does and the Jew will not do. Things that everyone can do and do without restriction, and all kinds of prohibitions that others can either trample or not trample; – but the Jew cannot trample. Because s/he is a Jew.”

Because being Jewish is not an empty word. It entails restrictions and prohibitions. There are things that distinguish us from others, not necessarily things that give us pleasure or make life easier, or comfortable, or simple – but quite the opposite: things that make life harder, and limit comfort and reduce ease and complicate the simple.

Such as, everything that concerns a persecuted minority, such as, everything that concerns injustice and evil. Such as, everything concerning the use or restraining our use of force. Such as, the one little ewe lamb (The prophet Nathan’s parable when rebuking King David after he has Uriah killed in battle in order to hide that David had committed adulatory and impregnated Uriah’s wife -Second Samuel 12: 1-8). Such as, have you murdered and also inherited. (Elijah’s rebuke to King Ahab after he frames and puts to death Naboth in order to steal his vineyard (- First Kings 21:1-19) And such as, justice shall you pursue.(Deuteronomy 16:20)

Because if all these are just funny demands, and a Jew is allowed everything like a non-Jew, as long as it is in his/her power to do so, then the ground is cut out from underneath our feet -something great, basic, and primary, something lacking a simple definition, but something that like the ground: without it, everything collapses.

To exist, to survive, not to be destroyed – yes, of course. No question.

But in the struggle for existence, even in the struggle for existence – there are things that a Jew is forbidden to do and that a Jew cannot do. By virtue of being Jewish. Even when it’s hard.

Such as, to inherit what is not his/hers.

Such as, ignoring the tears of the oppressed.

Such as, to expel his/her neighbors.

Such as, oppressing others what is a way that s/he would hate to be oppressed.

(Published in the Israeli newspaper “Devar” on January 29th, 1988)

Perhaps it was Jacob’s dual distress that led later that fateful night to his ability to wrestle with his own wrongdoings towards his brother. If one of the answers the midrash provides as to who was the mysterious being Jacob wrestled with that night is that he was wrestling with an agent of Esau, I believe that he was wrestling with that part of himself that he had sought to project onto Esau in order to absolve himself for his responsibility for creating Esau’s murderous fury that forced him to flee for twenty years. In the morning  he was then able to meet a brother eager for reconciliation. Jacob names the place where he wrestled “Peniel,” the place where he saw God’s Face (Genesis 32:31). When he and Esau hug he says “to see your face is like seeing the Face of God.: (Genesis 33:10).

I do not naively believe in a “kumbaya” world, and agree with S. Yizhar that we must ensure our survival. We cannot beat our swords into plowshares until we live in a world in which our current enemies do the same.  But I also know that for over a hundred years the prevailing theory from Ben Gurion’s Mapai to Netanyahu’s Likud has been that Arabs only understand force and we will achieve peace through force has failed miserably. We must not become self-critical to the point that we cease to believe in ourselves and fail to recognize the tremendous good within us as Jews and as Israelis. But we must learn from Jacob to wrestle with those parts of ourselves we would prefer to project onto others in order to bring about a new dawn heralding a better reality for all.

I wish I could end on this positive note. But, I must add a reality check – a reminder of the ongoing oppression of Palestinians living under occupation:

On Monday evening I received another jolting reminder of the oppression we need not just to take responsibility for, but to end.  I was well into and intended to complete these Yom HaAtzmaut (Israeli Independence Day) thoughts. However just as I was going to take a break to attend one of the increasingly popular transition ceremonies between Yom YaZikaron and Yom HaAtzmaut, and then Yesh Gvul’s annual alternative torch lighting ceremony, I received a call to come quickly to Eyn Samia.

After State backed settler violence caused the Eyn Samia shepherding community to flee a year ago, and after months of settlers and flocks from “Micha’s Farm” regularly breaking down fences and entering and devastating vineyards and Zaater fields and other crops owned by Kufr Maleq farmers, the settlers have in recent weeks begun to harass two brothers who live there.  A few weeks ago settlers beat and threatened them not to be in touch with us after earlier in the day I had prevented a settler from stealing water for his flock.

The very fact that they chose to call on Monday indicated how dire the situation was, although it turns out that luckily the brothers and their families and flocks were not there when a large number of settlers arrived, apparently stole a car, water tank and four tons of feed, and caused additional damage. When we arrived two people in uniform had blocked the access road with a civilian car. They were probably members of a nearby settler security detail who had been given guns and uniforms, were told that they were now doing reserve duty and now were the cats guarding the milk with impunity. We were told leave, but later saw three vehicles leaving. One may have been the stolen van.  We then were able to go in and document.

Not content with the damage inflicted in the evening, tents that had been there the previous night were gone when we returned in the morning. People in uniform who again were in all likelihood local settlers, although perhaps not because they were in an army vehicle, ordered us out.  The officer then accused me of having tried to run him over.  He can add that to the charge sheet when I stand trial on May 23rd because two settlers in uniform, one of whom himself has been suspected of many violent activities, accused me of attacking them on the access road to Wadi A Seeq two days before the residents were violently expelled on October 12th.

The brothers are currently not planning on returning. Thankfully they have homes in Kufr Maleq  Tomorrow we will try to salvage some of their property and arrange for a lawyer to accompany their police complaint, but we may very well additional damage inflicted after we were kicked out this morning.

While not a full blown community, these brothers can be added to the list of 18 shepherding communities that during this war have been expelled or have fled their homes because of State backed settler, and the three expelled between last May and August. As reported in previous emails, Torat Tzedek is one of the organizations currently engaged in legal work designed to ensure the protections that will allow communities to safely return home.

And in light of all of this, a centerpiece of my personal prayer is to ask for God’s Intervention in history.  I am of course not the first to do so. Jews and others when suffering have often asked why God does not intervene. After the destruction of our Temples that once stood in Jerusalem, our answer was “because of our sins.” It was our idolatry, bloodshed, and sexual crimes that caused the destruction of the First Temple, and causeless hatred that led to the destruction of the Second. We brought the enemy upon us because of what we had done to each other, and to God.

Few have dared to say this about the Holocaust. We simply have tried to wrestle with what God allowed others to do to us.

But now, it is not just a matter of what others are doing to us. It is a matter of what we are doing to others. If there is one source that I have cited more than any other over the years, it is the understanding of Rabbi Shimshon Rafael Hirsch in his Torah commentary that the Torah warns us that when we will thank God have a state we will not abuse the power we will then have over others as the Egyptians abused the absolute power they had over us.

And even if I were to believe  (as I have already indicated that I don’t) that we have no other way to achieve peace, security and survival other than to do to others what we are doing, I would still ask God with all of the fear and trembling that I as a mortal must have in questioning any of God’s actions, how it can be that God has allowed a situation in which this is our only way to ensure survival.  For many years I have asked (and again I am far from the first) what is so important about free will that God has granted us the free will that we have so often used to act evilly towards fellow human beings and the planet.  If the best answer I can come up with is that it is intrinsically important that we human beings repair and sanctify the world on our own, I ask of what comfort that is to those who have been trampled throughout history.

And so today in my prayers I say to God, “I know that you expected us to achieve tikun olam on our own, but we have failed miserably.”

We  need God to impose a sort of Organian treaty (Star Trek: First Season, Episode 26-An Errand of Mercy) not allowing us to fight each other any more.

We beseech God in our daily prayers that “Our eyes should behold God’s return to Zion in rakhamim – mercy. I add, “mercy for all.” Our sages said that God visited the plagues on the Egyptians out of rakhamim to us. My prayer is for universal rakhamim – that God return to Zion inspiring all human beings to act with rakhamim and khessed (lovingkindness) towards each other.  And, if this is not to be accomplished by inspiring us to rise to the heights that we are capable of, then my plea is that God impose mutual and universal rakhamim and khessed upon all humanity.

Kein yehi ratzon-May it be God’s Will, and ours.

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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