Arik Ascherman

I Could Have Died When My Car Was Sabatoged, But I Also Taught Torah: Va’Era

Although shabbat is coming soon, I started this dvar Torah watching settler cows in planted Palestinian fields (again).

In “God Wrestling,” Rabbi Arthur Waskow contrasts the eventual resolution of sibling conflicts in Genesis with the apparent need for a deadly uncompromising break with Pharaoh. Every year, as I read the plagues, and God’s explanations that the show of power is a necessary lesson for both Pharaoh and for the Israelites, as well as punishment, I uneasily wonder whether there could have been another way. Ultimately, I am a human being, and can’t pretend to fully understand God’s Will. I read of the troops stationed in capitols across the U.S., and the plans of those who believe the election was stolen as inauguration day approaches, and I see a country barreling towards a dramatic break.

This was a difficult week here in Israel for me.  As I already wrote, almost every day settler cows enter private land I helped Palestinians plant in order to eat what we planted.  On Tuesday, the police we had alerted arrived, and the young herder moved his flock away.  The officer refused to approach the herder, and identify him. This makes any future legal action much more difficult. “After the officer left, the settler slowly brought the flock back.  The police and the army refused to come back, and we tried shooing the herd away.

In the process, I made the mistake of a new recruit. I left my car at a considerable distance from where we ended up, with only the roof visible.  That mistake could have cost me my life, and that of a fellow activist. Somebody, almost certainly from the same illegal outpost as the cows came from, loosened the nuts bolting two of my wheels the axel.  Palestinians are afraid to be where we were, and there isn’t anybody else who would have come to that field well off the main road.  When we started moving, we immediately could hear and feel that something was wrong, but several searches underneath the car and hood revealed nothing.  As I started moving again, two wheels almost fell off.  The nuts and what they were attached to were stripped or gone.  I don’t like thinking about what could have happened, had the wheels fallen off when we had been travelling on a main road.

Some of the settlers who passed by offered help, and some cursed us. Some offered help until they understood we were human rights activists, and then cursed us.  One young man spat on me.  The army had to guard us, until somebody came to repair the car.

We were back the following day with a larger group, and were more successful shooing the cows.  However, one of the settlers gave one of our activists a nasty knock on the head with a thick wooden pole.  We had already called the police and the army again about the cows, but called again.

When the police finally showed up, they made it clear they had no interest in cows or in the head of our volunteer.  They wanted to take us all to the station for violating the Covid closure rules. The fact that we had an explicit written permit to guard agriculture and shepherds was also of no interest.  The usual procedure is not to go to the station, but to hand out the fine on the spot, or send it in the mail. Am I just paranoid in thinking they wanted us out of there?  I made it clear that I would go as soon as the police took care of the cows.  The officer leading the group again made it clear that they would do no such thing. He said I was arrested, and that he could use force to move me, which he did. He clamped handcuffs tightly, and dragged me in a very painful manner. My hands are still numb two days later.

Those who sabotaged my car, and the police thought the way of force was the right way to solve a problem. I wrote a facebook message to those who participated in the sabotage, rejoiced and spat:

To those who rejoiced at the sabotage of my car that could have ended in a fatal accident, cursed and spit: “Guard your souls.” Is this the way to handle our disagreements? Do we want to end up with an invasion of the Knesset or the High Court?

To the youth who openly acknowledged that you plowed some of the private Palestinian land, it is so sad that adults have recruited you and sent you to do evil, and to engage in theft. As I explained to you last night, when you came on your horses to take a look at us trying to fix my car, Rashi teaches that the argument between the shepherds of Lot and the shepherds of Abraham (still Avram) at the time was that the shepherds of Lot thought it was permissible to steal from non Jews because God gave us this land. Avram’s shepherds said that theft from non Jews is theft. Are we the descendants of Abraham, or of Lot.

Thanks to all who offered help, and expressed concern and support. What we really need is more volunteers! Both to you, and to those who are making love of the Land into idolatry because your love of the land blinds you to the Image of God in non-Jews, I say, “We will see you in the field.”


But something else happened Wednesday night, after I finally came home after long hours in the police station.  There is a group of young settlers who often call me. Usually they want to make fun of me, asking about their dog who wants a bar mitzvah, and the like. Sometimes, I answer humorously, and sometimes I try to talk to them seriously. But, I don’t simply screen them or report them. This week they asked me to teach Torah to them. I taught some of the same texts I have taught here about God’s Image, how we are to treat non-Jews in the Land of Israel, power relations, and how the holiness of the Land of Israel can blind us to the Image of God in non-Jews. At the end, I thanked them, saying how I was deeply moved by the opportunity, and that our deep disagreements can’t keep us from talking. I have friends who believe that there must be a total and clear break with settlers. I know those who say there must be a clear and total rejection of all Trump supporters. I do not buy settler products or conduct social visits to settlements, but will not pass up an opportunity to teach Torah and talk frankly about why I think settlers are sinning.  Before talking with settlers involved in oppressing Palestinians I am working with, I need their permission.

I will continue to feel uneasy about the plagues. Acknowledging that there may be situations in which the only way of achieving justice is by a clear and total break, I will continue to pray and work for a world in which we solve our conflicts not through plagues, punishment and conflict, but as siblings in a human family.


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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