Arik Ascherman

Contested truth, concrete olives

The message of peace in this week's Torah portion goes unnoticed among the violent settlers of Adei Ad and Havat Gilad

Last Wednesday, My colleague and I were on our way to the Nablus region when we received a telephone to divert quickly to Mreyer. The Israeli DCO, the District Coordination Office of the IDF in the West Bank, had informed the mayor of the village that they discovered 130 of the village’s olive trees had been cut down approximately 100 meters from the Adei Ad outpost. (Just one of the many acts of theft and tree destruction we have discovered this olive harvest season.) Adei Ad is a fierce competitor with the Havat Gilad outpost regarding who is responsible year after year for the most violence and destruction. Last year the regional brigade commander told us, “It’s a pity, but after all of the poisonings and uprootings of trees over the years, there is nothing left to harvest or defend next to Adei Ad.”

It turns out that there was something left to destroy.

I felt sick to my stomach when I saw an entire olive grove destroyed at the foot of Adei Ad. It was a “hilul Hashem” (a desecration of God’s Name) — there are no other words for it. This week we read in the Torah of the dove with an olive branch in her mouth, an image that became a symbol of peace. Here the olive branches were felled, on the ground.

“The earth became corrupt before God; the earth was filled with lawless violence.” (Genesis 6:11).

While it is true that God promises never again to destroy the earth by flood, God never promises that human beings will not wreak destruction. When the first farmers from Mreyer hurried to the scene in the morning, an Israeli came down from Adei Ad and began taking pictures. Settler news agencies were soon spreading the libel that the Palestinians had destroyed trees owned by Jewish settlers. I can only note that it was the Israeli army that informed the Palestinians about their trees, and allowed the Palestinian farmers to collect the branches and try to salvage the olives. The Palestinians also report that the army made it clear to the settlers just what they thought about settler claims to these trees.

Sadly, the false version even appeared in a big news portal, as “claims” from settlers to what happened – although the factual evidence clearly implied otherwise. From past experience, I know that when we don’t succeed in debunking the lies, they come back to haunt us years later. I have no doubt that this incident will become part of the settlers’ mythology and consciousness.

The author surveys the damage to olive groves outside the Palestinian village of Mreyer (photo credit: courtesy)
The author surveys the damage to olive groves outside the Palestinian village of Mreyer (photo credit: courtesy)

We eventually continued northward, to meet a new DCO officer, who was supervising the harvest of farmers from Farata in their olive grove next to the Havat Gilad outpost.

There there was just one little problem: The Palestinians had discovered — and not for the first time — that all their olives had been stolen. Havat Gilad wasn’t conceding to Adei Ad in the battle of the violent outposts.

For some time now one of the principle (and not so young) Palestinian land owners has been forced to work as a day laborer. After years of theft, tree burning and uprooting to make way for more and more prefab settler homes, he can no longer make a living off his land. The settlers claim that this is “disputed land,” and that there is an “agreement” that they will harvest on alternate years. I sat next to the founder of Havat Gilad in 2004 when the army’s Civil Administration told both of us that this was Palestinian land.

Seeing as there was no point in keeping our original meeting place, I suggested that we meet at the gas station at the entrance to the Kedumim settlement. A burly man with a big kippah sat next to us and surreptitiously began recording our conversation. I asked him to contribute his thoughts on how we might enforce the law and High Court rulings, and prevent the theft of olives, destruction of trees, and further desecration of God’s Name. He and a friend preferred to take our picture and to shout, asking why an army officer would be meeting with us.

Another settler arrived toward the end. He also recognized us and began to shout. However, after the DCO officer left, he accepted my invitation to sit and talk. We didn’t agree about much. However, he did hear from me that we also condemned the murders of the Fogel family from the Itamar settlement; why we reject the idea that the murderers gathered intelligence during the harvest or that the entire extended family should be punished.

I also explained how our work actually makes a major contribution to the security of Israelis.

We heard from him that he is not opposed to Palestinians harvesting their olives if that won’t lead to murders.

We won’t cease protecting Palestinian human rights and our own humanity. He won’t stop being who he is. However, neither High Court decisions nor any facts coming from a source somebody doesn’t trust will change their inner truth. (I think we do a better job than the most radical settlers of honoring court decisions, but we also disagree with the court fairly often.) It is not easy even to agree on the facts regarding Mreyer’s olive grove or many other contested issues. For there to be even a minuscule chance of agreeing on anything, we have no choice but to have direct contact with those who rely on the sources spreading these lies. In the process, we must also listen to things that challenge some of our truths.

We also read this week about the Tower of Babel. Since the tower, we don’t all speak the same language. However, the midrash teaches us that the true sin of the builders was that the tower was more important than human beings. I maintain faith that one day we will again at least all agree on the sanctity of the human being that flows from the one god who created us all.

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.