Arik Ascherman

Humanity Needs Days Of Judgement Motivated by Mercy: Rosh HaShana 5783

Israeli Attackers Injure Me and Two Additional Activists on November 12th 2021. Credit: Shai Kendler

Thank you to those of you who contacted me out of concern three weeks ago, after seeing the Haaretz article with a picture of blood streaming down my face. Some of you who don’t read Hebrew managed to receive Haaretz in Hebrew through your social media, and didn’t realize that the picture was from November 2021. You may recall that three of us were attacked by settlers while harvesting olives with farmers from Tzurif. After convincing the army’s Civil Administration that according to the Morar High Court decision Palestinians had every right to harvest their olives without needing to coordinate in advance, the soldiers who had tried to stop us from harvesting left us to our fate. They “were on their way back” for the forty minutes between our first call as we saw the settlers gathering and preparing to attack, and the moment that the attack began. The article, that you can read here in English if you have access to Haaretz, outlines how the police only apprehended one suspect, and were working towards a plea bargain moderating the one indictment. Unfortunately, the op-ed we published shortly afterwards is only in Hebrew. (But, today we have translation programs.)

The police, from their point of view, say the fact that they are seeking two years imprisonment for a young first time offender is actually a harsh sentence. In a sense the police are correct, given that it is almost unprecedented that an Israeli Jew is sentenced. It is unlikely that this young man would have been caught or indicted or sentenced if the victims had been Palestinian.

I have been thinking a great deal lately about why I told the court that I was not seeking the incarceration of the young man who attacked me in 2015, and in this case feel that there needed to be a public trial culminating in a sentence including incarceration. Maybe I have changed. Maybe I have been influenced by the two additional activists who were also injured. As Netta Ben-Porat says in the Haaretz article, she has been in pain and under psychological care ever since. However, my change has a lot to do with the changes in Israeli society between 2015 and today.

I have also been thinking about Rosh HaShana as Yom HaDin (the day of judgement).

When speaking to the court at the sentencing hearing after the 2015 attack, I cited the pioneer sociologist Emile Durkheim’s three possible goals of punishment: 1. Retribution. 2. Protecting Society. 3. Rehabilitation. Others would add “restoration.” I made it clear that I was not interested in retribution, and I most wanted rehabilitation. However, steps had to be taken to protect society, such as preventing him from being drafted into the army. I was influenced by the fact that I knew that my attacker was undergoing violence therapy, and that his family had left the Occupied Territories. Later, I actually met with him through a restorative justice program.

This time, the three of us have again made it clear at every opportunity that we do not seek revenge. However, while it is not by any means new that settlers are almost never prosecuted, the situation has greatly worsened since 2015.

Durkheim saw punishment as a reaffirmation of a society’s collective conscience. The question is what is our collective ethos today? How has it changed, and what in fact do we aspire to? As I wrote in another Hebrew op-ed when settlers descended from Givat Ronen to injure, torch a car and burn olive trees during a January tree planting with Burin farmers, the fact that there was no sufficient effort at prosecution in November and in countless additional events that didn’t make any news because the victims were Palestinian sends a clear message that there is no price to be paid for violence. Likewise, the hundreds of incidents that Torat Tzedek has documented in which settlers pay no price for bringing their flocks to wreak havoc in Palestinian fields, vineyards and olive groves just on the lands of Taibe, Dir Jarir and Ramoun, sends the clear message that these actions can continue.

The damage to deterrence is therefore twofold. There is no price being paid, and there is no clear societal message of disapproval.

The current state of affairs does not give an encouraging picture of our collective consciousness. We are not fulfilling the aspiration we express in our High Holy Days prayers to be an “augudah ekhat l’asot ritzonkha b’levav shalem.” a united collective wholeheartedly dedicated to carrying out God’s Will – at least not God’s Will as I understand it. While it may be better than nothing when public figures express shock and outrage over such attacks, and say what we want to hear in conferences, in the Knesset or in the UN, Durkheim teaches us that law and punishment reflect our actual collective consciousness and are essential to preserving that collective consciousness. We can debate whether or not there is a silent majority who still seek to be just, and why they don’t assert themselves. I continue to believe that there is such a majority, and haven’t given up on my fellow Israelis. However, when I pray “M’orer y’shaynim u’makpitz nirdamim” in the Nishamat Kol Khai prayer I know that the silent majority needs to wake up or be woken up. Those dedicated to dispossession and displacement are not sleeping. Until those who act violently pay a price for their actions, there is no deterrence and no real indication that our collective consciousness abhors the harming of any human being. There is no honoring of God’s Image in both Jews and non-Jews.

It is in that context that we felt that a public trial was an essential measure to protect Palestinian society and human rights defenders against the rising onslaught of unchecked settler violence. Some of us also felt a great need to have an opportunity to tell our story in court. We felt that both the failure of the police to apprehend additional suspects, and the fact that somebody had been caught and was paying a price for his actions needed to be put in the public spotlight. That could have been an important, if far from sufficient step both to wake people up, and to make those planning the next violent act to think twice.

Unfortunately, the plea bargain was accepted by the court. There will be no trial.

As the olive harvest is about to begin, our working assumption is that we will be facing another tide of violence. Possibly worse than in previous years.

The slander and hate directed at human rights defenders, not to mention Palestinians, also rises unchecked. A few months ago the rightwing media outlet “Olam Katan” published an article giving the impression that I am a violent person harassing sweet young settlers. They refused to take it down, or even to give details about the murky stories included in the article that would have given me a chance to respond. The vilification has reached a level that I don’t recall in the past. We must at least try to expose it and stop it. It is time to take a stand.

There was another example last week when the Israeli media irresponsibly spread the settler version of a supposed lynch of a settler by a mob of Palestinians in the South Hebron Hills. In fact, a group of settlers attacked. A masked settler who attacked with an iron bar was also injured, and I wish him speedy recovery. However, the Palestinian who defended himself when attacked on his own land, spent a week imprisoned with two broken arms. He was accused of attempted murder, while the attackers roamed free. Finally, against police objections, he was released because of a 23 minute video clip covering the incident from beginning to end that was filmed by Israeli activists. The clip was handed over to the police and eventually covered in the press. Some of those activists have subsequently received restraining orders to keep them out of the area. While not new, this is but one example of a growing pattern of setters attacking, and then saying they were attacked. The Israeli activists who filmed and exposed the truth have been vilified and threatened. Needless to say, without that video, this Palestinian whom I have known for over 20 years, would still be imprisoned. Likely he would have been convicted. It seems that the Israeli army, perhaps thwarted from framing him, has subsequently even further stepped up their incursions into the village.  It isn’t hard to guess why those restraining orders have been issued.

There are those who want to do what they can to ensure that there won’t be a Yom HaDin.

When I was young, Rosh HaShana was celebrated joyously, despite reciting “On Rosh HaShana it is written (the fate of every human soul for the coming year), and on Yom Kippur it is sealed. Yom Kippur was the ominous day of judgement. It was only much later that I came to understand that, particularly in the Ashkenazi tradition, Rosh HaShana is not entirely joyous. It is also “Yom HaDin,” the day of judgement/ It is also a day of fear and trembling as the period of soul searching and attempt to return to our true and highest selves that began a month earlier is approaching the moment when the gates close at the conclusion Yom Kippur (Some say until Hoshana Raba). By Yom Kippur afternoon, our fast frees our souls to soar, and we believe that our prayers have been heard.

Already on Rosh HaShana, we beseech God to cease to judge us while “sitting” on the throne of din (strict judgement), and “move” to the throne of rakhamim (mercy and compassion). But there needs to be balance. In a well known midrash in Bereshit Rabbah we are taught that the world, whose birthday we celebrate on Rosh HaShana, had to be created with the proper mix of the two. The example is given of a earthly ruler who had delicate cups. If s/he put only hot water in them, s/he feared they would expand and burst. If s/he put only cold water in them, they would contract and shatter. S/he needed to mix the hot and the cold water, as God and we need to balance din and rakhamim

While I think of protecting human rights as rakhamim and khessed (Loving kindness). Like rakhamim, often seen as a counterbalance to din), much of our work entails din. While we can aspire and work for a world in which wrongdoings are righted and conflicts are solved through talking with each other and coming to understandings between people and groups, when that does not happen there must be din that brings about tzedek. People must be protected through the enforcement of just laws.

We need din motivated by khessed and rakhamim, but both Judaism and Durkheim teach us that we human beings need Yom HaDin. Today those who use violence as a tool of dispossession and displacement believe that they will be praised in God’s Yom HaDin, and that they will never face an earthly Yom HaDin

We are also taught that true teshuvah (answering God’s call, turning and returning to our highest selves) requires acknowledging our wrongdoings, expressing regret, making amends as much as possible, changing, and committing not to repeat the same action. Maimonides teaches that the true test of teshuvah is when a person has the opportunity to commit the same wrongdoing, and refrains from doing so. While I don’t know what has happened since, the young man who attacked me in 2015 demonstrated in words and deeds that he regretted his actions and didn’t intend to repeat them. I have no knowledge of any such regret on the part of our November attacker, although he will no doubt express remorse at the sentencing hearing. In fact, Netta recalls that he waited for her outside the courthouse after a session in May, and began to take pictures of her. I truly hope that this young man will get his life back on track. I still desire his rehabilitation. I focus my thoughts on those who are oppressing either Jews or non-Jews when I pray “May a new light shine upon Zion.” I literally picture their faces and voices in my mind. I pray that God’s Light will enable them, and all of us to recognize and honor God’s Image in every human being.  However, our attacker’s lack of any remorse that we are aware of is yet another reason why in this case, I will also ask for a stiff punishment when there will be a sentencing hearing.

The teshuvah that needs to take place is not just the teshuvah of our attacker. Societal teshuva is required for the message that we send to him and so many others that their actions range somewhere from acceptable, to not of sufficient concern to require punishment, to laudable. We all need Yom HaDin to help us return to our own values in deeds, as well as in the words of our mouth and the meditations of our hearts.

One additional thought about din. Many of you know that a central goal of Torat Tzedek for some time has been to add a human rights lawyer to our staff. We have been inching closer towards that goal. At this point we may have sufficient funds to hire outside lawyers for a few crucial cases, but have not yet reached our goal. This has become urgent because we have nearly exhausted other strategies to restore the impact of the Morar High Court decision governing the obligations of Israeli security forces towards Palestinian farmers, and our efforts to protect the groves and vineyards and fields of Taibe, Dir Jarir, and Ramoun. Many Palestinians will lose hope if we cannot take additional steps.

As I have written in the past, when we recite in the U”Netaneh Tokef prayer on Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur, that teshuvah, tefilah (prayer/judging ourselves), and tzedakah (not just charity, but justice) avert the stern decree, we are to understand that answering God’s call, and introspection and soul searching, must be followed up by actions to right wrongs as much as possible.

As we concluded in our recent Haaretz, op-ed, we human rights defenders will continue to be on the ground standing with Palestinians, including during the upcoming olive harvest. However, as important as acting as human shields and the occasional media spotlight are, they aren’t sufficient. While we must continuously seek to influence the collective consciousness through dialogue, there must also be din. Many have never believed that justice is possible for Palestinians through the Israeli legal system, and there is something inherently problematic that Palestinians need to come with their hands out asking for justice in Israeli courts. They cannot go to courts of their peers, and international courts have no teeth. Others say that, even if justice was once possible, it isn’t today. Some of the most dedicated human rights lawyers have largely come to the conclusion that work through the Israeli system has become practically pointless. A number of Israeli human rights organizations believe it to be a waste of time to be in touch with Israeli authorities. We in Torat Tzedek are not there yet. Based on conversations and interactions with the legal system, I identify with Archimedes. With the right lever, the right fulcrum, the right lawyer(s) and the right creative strategy, worlds can be moved. We certainly intend to try.

On the birthday of the world, let us renew our commitment to moving and repairing our world to bring it closer to the world as God intended it. May our khessed and rakhamim inspire us to wisely and justly enforce din reinvigorating a collective consciousness that honors God’s Image in every human being.

Shana Tova: For a Sweet New Year as full of Human Rights as the Pomegranate is Full of Seeds.

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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