Arik Ascherman

I was Sued, Interrogated and Demonstrated Against, But Recall Miriam and Aaron

Im Tirtzu Demonstrates Outside My Home
Im Tirtzu Demonstrates Outside My Home

In Israel we read this week Khukat. Please click here for my dvar Torah from last week on Korakh, being read this week abroad. Next week, we are reunited, as there is a double portion abroad!

I have little more to say right now about the Sumarin family, after several divrei Torah, except that this is the fateful week. This Tuesday, what may be their last chance appeal is to be heard against the Jewish National Fund’s thirty year campaign to evict them from their East Jerusalem home. Please pray for justice and decency and humanity for this family. If you are here in Israel, please join us outside the courthouse.

These last two weeks have been a crazy one for me.  Im Tirtzu demonstrated outside my house They cut off their live feed when some of my neighbors started defending me. I didn’t even know that they were demonstrating because my partner and son collaborated by playing loud and awful music, supposedly for her to listen to while washing dishes.  I only discovered they had been there because other friends started sending messages of support, and my son admitted the ruse. It was the eve or our wedding anniversary. I guess that is partnership.  They were afraid of what might happened if I went out to engage them, as I probably would have peacefully tried to do. The issue was the misplaced patriotism of Im Tirtzu. Israeli District Judge Raphael Yaakobi rejected Im Tirzu’s libel suit in 2013 because he ruled that there are similarities between Im Tirtzu and facism.   They have been targeting me and Torat Tzedek field coordinator Guy Hirschfeld because we sometimes take pictures of soldiers, and this is “shaming.” There is obviously no “shaming” if they haven’t done anything wrong. Somebody understands that an objective observer would think that something was wrong. In addition to the fact that we believe that the Jewish people should know what their children are doing, and so should the world, we are often in contact with the army’s legal advisor for the Occupied Territories. We need documentation. Let’s be honest. If there is an incident that isn’t documented, who is going to be believed?

But, the bottom line is that to tell our children that anything they do is OK, is awful for our children.  If we aspire to having “the most moral army in the world,” that can only happen if we hold our children to the absolute highest standards. “We don’t want or need to know” just doesn’t work. Just as I respectfully engage soldiers in the field, I want others to engage my children, or inform me when there is a cause for concern.  Thankfully, I have rarely discovered that my children have done something I disapproved of, and even more rarely that it happened without me knowing it. When that has happened I felt embarrassed for not being sufficiently aware of what my children were up to, and upset with those who had been enablers, neither reproving them, nor informing me.

Just this week there was an incident that started out badly, and ended surprisingly well (temporarily).  Soldiers expelled Bedouin shepherds without even one of the questionable temporary orders that we have challenged with the army’s legal advisor. One soldier, for no reason, head butted Guy.  However, we then engaged in a long and respectful conversation with the officer in charge. In the end, there were apologies, we blocked the Facebook live footage showing the incident, and the officer indicated that he would inform his superiors that he would no longer expel shepherds without at least a “semi proper” written order.  We took bets how long before that officer would be replaced by an officer more compliant with the wishes of the local settler.

He lasted one more day.

Last week, officers who wanted to zealously go even beyond what they had been told to do were not content with having ordered a shepherd into Area A, the part of the Occupied Territories under full Palestinian control. Our military has no authority or authorization to enter Area A, except in very particular situations, such as hot pursuit of a suspected terrorist.  If there had been any real concern, they could have detained the shepherd at the outset. However, they allowed him to leave for Area A, and then watched him over the border for a half hour or so. Hmm, doesn’t seem like hot pursuit.  When we prepared to leave, the soldiers incredibly entered Area A, and began to harass the young shepherd.  We contacted their commander, who informed us that the soldiers must not have known where the border was, and he would clarify. Hmmm, doesn’t seem like they had an order for some other extenuating reason.  The soldiers told the shepherd to come back with them into Area C, presumably because there they would have the authority to arrest or detain him. He began to plead to be allowed to run after his escaping flock.  After repeatedly telling the soldiers they had no authority in Area A, I finally led the shepherd away, and sent him to his flock.  The soldiers were furious.

Who thinks the soldiers were arrested or disciplined for being in Area A? Who thinks that I was detained, and had to show up for a police interrogation the next day??

Last week I was also notified that I am being sued for libel.  The outposts next to the Palestinian villages of Turmos Aya and Mreyer are some of the most violent in the Occupied Territories. A few months ago I was trying to document where settlers were clearing Palestinian land, and a wild haired man came after me with a pick axe. As I escaped, another threw a good sized rock at my car window from point blank range.  I need to compliment the producer of the window, that incredibly did not crack or shatter.  I have witnessed in this area mini-pogroms against Palestinians, massive tree destruction, numerous attempts to take over more land the State recognizes as Palestinian, and settler attacks on soldiers. (Im Tirtzu should demonstrate against that.)

I arrived after being told that settlers were interfering with the work of Palestinians on their own land.  According to the report in the settler supportive website, “HaKol HaYehudi,” one settler threw himself in front of a Palestinian tractor.  Guess who was arrested?? I was shown a picture of the civilian security officer for one of the nearby settlements on location, and told that he had been involved. For obvious reasons, I will spare the details, although I intend to expose everything in court.  I posted, making it clear that this was what I was told (by people I know to be reliable), and also published his denial. Many readers know that I am not a vindictive person, and asked that the young man who attacked me with a knife in 2015 be rehabilitated.  But, it looks like I am going to be granted the opportunity to throw a spotlight on what happens in this region. Again, the world, and particularly my fellow Israeli Jews, need to know.

So some of you are probably scratching your heads, and asking how this is connected to the Torah portion. The scholar of ancient rabbinic midrash, Joseph Heinemann, argued that much of midrashic literature was originally oral. To keep the attention of the audience, a rabbi would start with a quote seemingly totally unrelated to the verse to be expounded upon. They were kept guessing how he would make the connection.

In this week’s Torah portion, we flash forward 38 years, and find the Israelites on the border of the Promised Land. Miriam dies, and then Moses and Aaron commit the sin of hitting a rock to extract water, rather than speaking to it.  They too are told they will not enter the Land of Israel. Aaron dies at the end of the portion, while Moses will die in the final verses of the Torah.

This week is an opportunity to lift up Aaron and Miriam, so often in the shadow of Moses, and ask what we have to learn from their lives.  I have related in the past that, when I pray the first of the benedictions of the Amidah prayer, I reflect not just on Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and even just on our patriarchs and matriarchs, but on what I have received from all the generations between Abraham and Sarah, and my parents.  (One of the reasons I am often one of the last to conclude the silent rendition of this prayer.  In the second benediction, my kavanah (mindful reflection) is on the essence of that transmission.  When I meditate on Miriam, I think of women’s leadership and of her role in ensuring our future by being an agent of Moses’ rescue and wellbeing.  Even one of the midrashic explanations of why she was punished for speaking against Moses was that she was rebuking him for thinking that he must totally separate himself from his wife, and remain celibate, because of his relationship with God. She was standing up for Tzipporah.  When I reflect on Aaron, I reflect on what our tradition teaches us about Aaron as peacemaker.

Were that we would all learn from Miriam to be the agents ensuring the survival and wellbeing of others.  Agents of life, just as we are told that it was because of the merit of Miriam that a mobile spring of life sustaining water travelled with the Israelites through the desert. That is why the Israelites clamor for water immediately after Miriam’s death.  The rabbis maintain that the well still exists, and report seeing it in various locations.  First and foremost, we must look deep inside ourselves.

The Midrash notes that ALL the people mourned for Aaron, while the word “all” is missing after the death of Moses. This is attributed to Aaron’s role as beloved peacemaker. Sometimes leaders cannot be accommodating, or please everybody.  While some say that this is because the mob had already murdered Miriam’s husband for not acceding to their demands, Aaron’s accommodation of the people by creating the golden calf, certainly was not a stellar moment.  Yet, we are told that he had an incredible ability to solve conflicts, and get people to speak with each other. The classic story is that when two people were so angry with each other that they refused to speak, he would tell each one that the other desperately wanted to make amends. They would come looking for each other, and hug.

Learning from our ancestors and teachers, we are taught in the second benediction to be as Godlike as humanly possible, by sustaining life with loving kindness – keeping faith with those who have gone before us by being healers and agents of freedom-wells from which salvation flows.

When people called to say how awful it must have been to have people demonstrating outside my house, I thanked them. I also said that I wanted to keep things in perspective. I do not have the troubles of the Sumarins, of the Israelis living in poverty and falling even deeper into a hole because of the Corona crisis, Palestinian shepherds and farmers, the “unrecognized” Israeli Bedouin villages in the Negev, African asylum seekers, or any of the others that we in Torat Tzedek-Torah of Justice try to defend.

We must draw on the Miriam’s well within us, and share those life sustaining waters with those in need.  We must be the peacemakers, disciples of Aaron who help people discover the love and respect they can have for each other.  We sometimes must lovingly rebuke, teach, inspire and even risk punishment or opprobrium, in order to stand up for others.  By following the tradition of Aaron, we helped that officer who was quickly replaced find the well within himself, and it will continue to sustain life.

Keyn Yehi Ratzon. May it Be God’s Will

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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