Rummaging through my filing cabinet this morning, I came across a yellowed clip from the Jerusalem Post, dated May 15, 1992. “Saving Terrorist Ruled a Mitzva,” the headline reads. The article, by Judy Siegel, described how then-Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Avraham Shapira had ruled that Bella Freund, a 40-year-old Haredi mother-of-eight, had acted correctly according to halacha (Jewish law) when she used her own body to protect 21-year-old Adnan al-Afandi from being beaten and shot dead by a mob of merchants from the Mahane Yehuda market in Jerusalem.
Al-Afandi, a Palestinian from Dehaishe refugee camp near Bethlehem, had just stabbed 13-year-old Yaniv Shahar in the back and 18-year-old Dan Rothkovitch in the arm and back. Both victims suffered superficial wounds and were released within hours from the hospital, the Post reported. Given the circumstances, Freund’s actions were extraordinary. She was waiting with her two daughters when she saw a crowd of men running after someone. “I was swept along with them. I didn’t know who they were running after or why,” she told The Jerusalem Post. “But they called out ‘terrorist,’ and some of the men had pulled out pistols and were about to shoot. I could see that he was no longer armed.”
“I really didn’t have time to think,” she continued, “but I knew that if I didn’t cover him they would lynch him.” She lay on top of al-Afandi as the mob kicked her and punched her in the ribs, until police arrived and arrested al-Afandi. Freund later explained that as the daughter of Holocaust survivors, she hated violence and felt she had to take a stand. The terrorist certainly deserved to be punished, she said, but by the justice system. Shapira concurred: he stated that “from the moment [a terrorist] is apprehended and there is no danger he can harm anyone, it is forbidden to do anything to hurt him.”
Freund’s exemplary courage deserves to be remembered this Shabbat, as we read Parshat Shoftim, in which the celebrated words, “Justice, justice shall you pursue,” (צדק, צדק, תרדף) appear in the third verse of the Torah portion (Deuteronomy 16: 20.) The Torah commands us to appoint “judges and overseers” to “judge the people with just judgment,” and continues, according to Robert Alter’s admirable translation, with the words, “you shall recognize no face and no bribe shall you take, for a bribe blinds the eyes of the wise and perverts the words of the innocent.”
“Justice, justice shall you pursue,” is a popular phrase these days, popping up in (of all places) a plaque presented by the Orthodox Union in June 2018 to U.S. Attorney-General Jeff Sessions, the man whose cruel and inhuman policy of separating parents and children seeking asylum at the U.S. border is the very definition of injustice. (Despite a court order by U.S. District Judge Dana Sabraw directing the Trump administration to reunite families by July 26, 2018, 559 migrant children remain separated from their families, as of this writing. Some parents were deported without their children.)
I have wondered why the Torah uses the word “pursue” to stress the importance of justice. Why not, “justice, justice, shall you do?” Perhaps because justice is sometimes elusive: to defend and protect it means to stand up and chase it, as Bella Freund did. It’s much easier, most of the time, to sit back and find an excuse not to pursue it: Others will take care of it; I’m tired; I’m afraid of speaking out; people will condemn me; I’m just one person; “it’s the law” even when, as in the case of Jeff Sessions’ family separation policy, it manifestly is not. As the band HaDag Nahash asked in Bella Bellissima, their ode to Bella Freund, “Where did she get the strength to lie there, without moving, without fear? I ask myself, what would I have done in her place? […] 20 minutes she took all those kicks. Her kids watched and didn’t stop crying.”
So in honor of Bella Freund and in honor of this week’s Torah portion, I would like to give a shout-out to some of those who pursue justice in the face of hatred and violence, and to those who defend it by standing up to lawmakers who act unjustly. The list is not comprehensive, but includes individuals and groups whom I have followed this year:
People like Eric Yellin, a resident of Sderot and founder of Other Voice, a group of citizens from the Israeli communities bordering the Gaza border, who spoke out last week saying that, “we believe it is possible to live in peace with our neighbors [in Gaza]. Life there is unbearable, and without resolving the crisis in Gaza, our lives will continue to be a living hell.”
The Hotline for Refugees and Asylum Seekers in Israel, which fights for the human rights of migrants in Israel, even amid renewed reports that Israel plans to deport asylum seekers back to Eritrea, a one-man dictatorship with forced, indefinite military service, a form of slave labor. (No country in the world except for Sudan forcefully deports refugees to Eritrea at this time.)
Ghadir Hani, a social activist from the Arab town of Hura, near Be’er Sheva, who ran a campaign suggesting that her Jewish friends add their name in Arabic to their social media profiles, in protest of Israel’s new Nation-State Law, which downgraded Arabic from an official language to one with “special status.”
The women of Women Wage Peace, who spent 70 days this summer at the Mother’s Tent outside the Knesset, speaking up for a peace agreement with the Palestinians as an alternative to further bloodshed.
Esti Shushan and Estee Rieder Indursky, two Haredi women activists in Israel who are fighting for the right to be elected to office within their Ultra-Orthodox political parties, which prohibit women from holding an officially elected public role.
Rabbi Aryeh Cohen, the Rabbi in Residence for Southern California for Bend the Arc: Jewish Action, which this summer organized and co-sponsored five immigration actions, including a nonviolent direct action protesting Jeff Sessions’ “zero tolerance” policy. On June 14, 2018, the group marched in Los Angeles to oppose the “cruel, inhumane and illegal separation of children from their parents/legal guardians along the border with Mexico, at other ports of entry into the U.S. and in our communities.”
Rabbi Daniel Landes, the former director of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem, who spoke out last year against those rabbis who justified the March 24, 2016 live execution, by IDF soldier Elor Azaria, of Abdel Fattah al-Sharif, a prone and incapacitated Palestinian who had just stabbed an Israeli soldier in Hebron. A video released by human rights group B’Tselem, showed Azaria shooting Sharif in the head without any apparent provocation. Azaria’s release from prison on May 8, 2018, after serving a mere nine-sentence, was greeted with delight by Education Minister Naftali Bennett, who tweeted a picture of Azaria with his family with the words, “Elor, it’s so good to have you home.”
Politicians like Bennett ignore Jewish law, since, as Rabbi Landes wrote in Haaretz, “after the terrorist act has finished and the perpetrator contained, to harm him is itself murder.” He explained that, “no matter how detestable the terrorist’s intent, and no matter our rage, we are not allowed to take his life, and become through that act, murderers ourselves. The Halakha on this is absolute.” Rabbi Landes adds, “Nowhere does it state in the Bible, “Unity, unity, thou shalt pursue,” but it does command and implore us, “Justice, justice, thou shalt pursue.”