Masai To Tisha B’Av: Journey To Journey

With Noaf and Issa Tzuf

Shavua Tov. I am thinking about the 42 stages of the journey from Egpyt to the border of the Land of Israel documented in the Torah portion we read yesterday, the annual Tisha B’Av pilgrimage Torat Tzedek, ATL and I will conduct next Sunday to communities that have experienced khurban (destruction) or are in imminent danger, and events of the last week that caused me to pause and reflect on some of the stages of my life’s journey.  This blog entery is even more personal than usual.

Yesterday we read Parashat Masai, the final chapters of the Book of Numbers. “Masai” means “journeys.” The portion opens “These were the journeys of the Israelites” (Numbers 33:1) Almost all of the commentators wonder why Moses finds it so important to list the 42 stations of the travels of our ancestors from Egypt to the Promised Land.  Some come up with answers, while others conclude that it is a mystery.  Malbin believes that God the doctor was purifying our souls.  Sforno teaches that it is about the unknown. “One of the most vexing aspects of all these journeys was that the new objective had never been announced beforehand so that the people were always in the dark about what the next day would bring. In spite of all these uncertainties, they never refused to follow the cloud and break camp at a moment’s notice when required. “ Ramban writes that not only the reason for the specific stages was unknown, but the reason for writing them down is simply an unrevealed mystery, “Thus the writing down [the stages of] the journeyings was a commandment of God, either for the reasons mentioned above or for some other reasons, [for] a purpose the secret of which has not been revealed to us.”

Our reading of the Torah continues in a never-ending cycle, without us entering the Land.  We only enter in the Book of Joshua. And, even though we entered the Land then, and have reestablished our independence in the Land today, I have often said here and elsewhere that we are in the Land, but still on the way to Sinai.  We are still on a journey to the moment in which we create a society based on the ideals that Sinai represents.

The Tisha B’Av journey that I organize every year is a case in point.  Those of you in Israel are invited to contact us about joining in person, and anybody can follow our journey on Facebook live. We chant chapters from the Book of Lamentations traditionally read on Tisha B’Av when we arrive at the ruins of destroyed Palestinian communities, and other appropriate readings in communities in danger of khurban (destruction). Sometimes, we also visit Jewish families in danger of being evicted from public housing.  We have not arrived at Sinai when we become the perpetrators of khurban. More details at the end of this blog entry as to where we will visit this year.

I had cause last week to reflect on some of the stages in my life’s journey.

It was very moving on Wednesday to see my dear friends Noaf and Issa Tzuf from Hares. After working closely together during the years of the second intifada, my journey has taken me elsewhere. I don’t see them very often, but was in their village on Wednesday for a demonstration called because of recent threats of settler expansion. One of the locations targeted for a new outpost by the “Nahala” movement is nearby. Being in Hares in precisely the location where we had stood 21 years ago caused me to ask some tough questions about whether anything has changed, and the efficacy of our efforts.

Noaf and Issa are heroes of the history of non-violent Israeli-Palestinian resistance to the Occupation. Together with Noaf, I organized the first major Israeli-Palestinian activity of the second intifada. More on that later. Noaf went on to help create Ta’ayush and almost single-handedly enabled many additional Israeli organizations such as Rabbis For Human Rights and Physicians for Human Rights to continue their human rights work in those difficult times.

Noaf spent 13 years in Israeli prisons because of membership in a terrorist organization, but was released in the context of the Oslo accords because he didn’t have blood on his hands. Those years in prison gave him time to think, and he came out committed to non-violence. I remember him physically grabbing the arm of somebody about to throw a stone.

I also remember the day that Noaf says was the greatest test to his belief in non-violence – the day that Issa took the bullet that left him wheelchair-bound with paralyzed legs. Soldiers invaded the village, and Issa left his house to bring the children inside. The officer kicked him because he thought that Issa was “faking” and didn’t allow an ambulance to get to him. Noaf says that at that moment there was nothing he wanted to do more than to take up a weapon and exact revenge. However, he realized that violence would not help his brother or the Palestinian cause. Until this day, Issa runs a peace center.

Noaf and I embraced when we saw each other, and we walked together to Issa’s home after the demonstration. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to also visit Shimlawi, another Hares resident who often watched my back in those days, as I watched his.  The problem was that the border police who had come to contain the demonstration continued their presence at the entrance of Hares long after the demonstration was over until I needed to leave. My car was outside of where they were blocking the entrance, It would have been complicated to get to Shimlawi’s house.

And that drive home a painful point. During the first months of the second intifada the army blocked the exits from villages, in order to strangle Palestinians financially by preventing them from going in or out. Roads were also blocked, meaning that a 20-minute journey to a hospital in the case of a medical emergency could now take hours. Believing that Israel needed to defend herself against terror, but that laying siege to villages and lengthening emergency travel could not be justified in the name of defense, we engaged in some of the most radical activities I was ever involved in. We physically removed the mounds of dirt serving as roadblocks with our bare hands or simple tools.

However, that first activity in November 2000 was to march together to Hares’ olive groves underneath the houses that the Revava settlement placed there, and then complained about Palestinian farmers coming to pick the olives from their remaining trees. We succeeded in breaking the siege that day, and the soldiers eventually allowed us to harvest. Our activity was even covered by CNN.

Wednesday was deja vu. The border police tried to lock us in the village exactly where the army tried to block us in November 2000, and on several additional occasions during the second intifada. This elicited in me the dismal feeling that nothing had changed in almost 22 years. In those days the army would tell us we hadn’t obtained permission to demonstrate just before charging into us (as if somewhere there is an office where Palestinians can obtain permission to protest.) Again on Wednesday the border police entered the village and then said we were the ones who had to move back. Somehow, our very presence was illegitimate.

And today, it seems like the settlers are winning.

We successfully fought for those olive trees for many years. However, whenever farmers wanted to plant new trees the Revava settlers made good on their promises shouted to us that they would uproot them. Even when on one occasion the army caught them in the act, it did no good. When we met with the army and demanded protection for the trees, the army told us they had no ability to tell the settler guards receiving salaries from the army and sitting in a guard tower overlooking the grove, that they must prevent settlers from trespassing and uprooting.

Now, many of the original trees are also gone. They have been replaced by new rows of settler houses. The farmer Abu Said is no longer in this world, but I have the clip of him telling CNN that he had lovingly taken care of those trees almost like children, and now they took care of him. They are no longer there to take care of his remaining family.

Were our efforts worth it? Could we have been more effective?

Before Hares we visited the new location of the half of Ras Al Tin’s families that abandoned their home of at least 20 years (some say 30) because of army-backed settler violence. I particularly remember the night when settlers set up the outpost that terrorizes Ras Al Tin both because I was hit in the head by a stone the settlers threw at me, and because I lost a watch, the last gift I received from my late mother.

On that night as well, the security forces did nothing to prevent the establishment of a new outpost.  We were the problem.

Ras Al Tin will be a station on our Tisha B’Av pilgrimage.

After Hares I went with a family from Kufr Dik to see where for two days settlers had been sleeping in the family’s agricultural shack and preventing family members from accessing their lands and harvesting their figs. The family told me that every time they tried to approach, they were threatened with dogs. Sure enough, two young settlers came out with dogs. One eventually covered his face and threatened to throw a stone.

The week before last Israeli security forces had explicit orders to immediately dismantle the announced in advance attempts by the Nachala movement to create new outposts illegal even according to Israel.  However, those orders forged by Israeli and international attention to this publicized insurrection have apparently expired. Last Wednesday was told that forces would come this week to see what the situation was, and decide how to respond…  In the end, the landowner apparently tried again to return to his land on Friday. I don’t know just what happened, except that the landowner was arrested or detained.  The security forces that didn’t respond to the calls of the Palestinians or mine, came running when the settlers called and said they had been attacked.  However, the settlers have now left.  It seems that is what it takes.  The owner was released with an order to stay off his land, but the rest of the family are now able to go back to their figs waiting to be picked.

As I traveled from one site of dispossession to the next, a young yeshiva student and settlement supporter who frequently calls me called to request a dvar Torah. Having already written yestrday’s haftarah the previous week, I was ready. Jeremiah teaches that truth, law and justice were the answer to the impending disaster. In the Bible, law and justice are often coupled as synonyms. Not in our world. I told the young man that we could probably agree that they should be synonymous, but not on the definition of justice. He confirmed this at the end of our conversation. Jeremiah gives us an indication of what justice is when he writes that when we return to God in truth, law and justice we will be a blessing to the nations (or, many traditional commentators say that the nations will be inspired to be like us). While I expressed the prayer that God’s Mercy would soon return to the Land of Israel and inspire us to be merciful ourselves (based on our morning prayers), and that we would all merit to act out of truth, law and justice in a way that would be a blessing to all,  he wished that God would soon help us take over the Greater Land of Israel, Lebanon and a bunch of other countries. That sounds to me more like being a curse to other nations and indicates how much Torah we need to teach if we are going to get to Sinai.

The yeshiva student’s vision is arguably supported by Masai’s command, “When you cross the Jordan into the land of Canaan, you shall dispossess all the inhabitants of the land.” (Numbers 33:51-52). However, as I reminded last week, our Talmudic sages viewed this command as specific to nations that they said no longer existed. In Masai, shortly after we are told to dispossess the nations, we are taught that the cities of refugees will not be just for “bnei yisrael” (Israelites). The Torah also specifies the “ger” and the “toshav.”  Even if we accept the interpretation that the “ger” is a convert to Judaism, and not the non-Jew living among us, the “toshav” in this context is a non-Jewish resident. The fact that three categories are specified clearly indicates that all are included. The Torah recognizes that non-Jews will legitimately be living among us, and must be afforded equal protection.

While so many find in the Torah a justification for dispossession in our day, my work over the last 27 years has been to prevent dispossession. The Torah I have sought to teach, and the God I believe in is not about harming fellow human beings.

Again, we certainly cannot say that we have succeeded, or done enough.  The religious justification for dispossession is not new. However, along with the expansion of settlements and the dispossession of Palestinians, the dark religious vision has only become more entrenched over these past 27 years. There is increasing religious support for violent action to make the vision a reality, this dangerous understanding of Torah has expanded from the Orthodox to the Ultra-Orthodox world.

Friendships spanning 21 years are sweet, meaningful and sustaining. Noaf, Issa, Shimlawi and I, did a great deal together. And, to go back to an even earlier stage in my life, at my college graduation in 1981, President Derek Bok read the poem “Ithaka” and told us that it is not the destination that is important, but rather the journey.   I don’t think that I agree. Perhaps Ithaka is not important, but Sinai is.   Our destination is important because there are lives in the balance.

So, taking a hard and honest look is important.  I can say that, despite the depressing déjà vu on Wednesday, I can look back and say that we sometimes made and make a difference. While the November 2000 olive harvest was a one-time event, it was in 2002 that Noaf and I began the harvest cooperation that continues until this day. That cooperation also led to the 2006 High Court victory that has been partially compromised, but continues to ensure that many farmers get to previously inaccessible lands.

Although some of Abu Said’s trees are gone, on Wednesday I gazed at now grown trees we planted in 2001 next to where this week we were again being pushed by the border police. In the ground underneath those trees is a time capsule we buried back in 2001 with pictures drawn by Hares’ children.  Along with the pictures they wrote about their yet to be fulfilled dreams for peace. Those children are now adults. Their dream is deferred, but we must keep it alive.  It was in evidence on Wednesday in the peaceful intergenerational resistance to the settlers and the border police pushing some of us to the ground and throwing stun grenades. It was alive in the words of Torah I tried to teach to the border police. While many were clearly not interested, perhaps the words resonated in the hearts of one or two of them.  The dream manifest itself when I saw Noaf, and we embraced.

The period we worked most closely together was an important stage in my journey, but there have been many others, and many dear allies. Surely I have worked in at least 42 villages, not to mention the many Jewish communities and neighborhoods inside Israel, and struggles abroad.  To slightly play with Joni Mitchel’s words she sang at the Newport Folk Festival last Sunday at age 78, and fighting back from a brain anuerism, there will God willing be many more stages in my journey. Collectively, we will get closer to Sinai..

We must look back and draw the appropriate lessons from our journeys. However, we cannot rest, or spend too much time sitting at home telling stories about past struggles, or take too much pride in what we have accomplished or give into despair because of what we haven’t accomplished.

We still have work to do. Lots of work.

This year’s pilgrimage will include:

  1. The Sumreen family in Silwan, East Jerusalem.  For over 30 years they have been battling an unholy alliance betweent the Keren Kayemet-Jewish National Fund and the Elad settlers dedicated to “Judaizing” Silwan.  The KKL-JNF got their property declared abandoned, although it never was.   They are waiting for the Israeli Supreme Court to rule on their appeal of lower court decisions reversing previous decisions keeping them in their home. If they lose this appeal, their remaining legal options will be limited, and international concern may become their last hope.
  2. Ras Al Tin. Just a few weeks ago half of this Bedouin community abandoned their homes of at least 20 years because of army backed settler violence.  Some of the remaining families continue to be violently harrassed, and at least two families have been told by the Civil Administration that they must abandon their newer homes by September 1st. No such order has been issued for the  recently established outpost that terrorizes them.
  3. Taibe junction Familes who lived here for 40 years have left because of settler intimidation. The adjacent lands of Dir Jarir are a dismal landscape of depratated vineyards, orchards and fields, littered with broken down gates and fences.
  4. Al Araqib.  At last count, this Negev Bedouin village has been demolished 104 times, even as they fight in court to prove their land ownership.
  5. Um Al Hiran. The rubble of the homes demolished in that terrible day of January 18th,  2017, and from the “self demolitions” that took place a month earlier. The community is now betwixt and between their partially demolished community and the partially build community they are being forced into in the Hura township.
  6. Masafer Yatta. Does the recent High Court ruling alowing the expulsion of people from their homes by denying the documented historical roots of the South Hebron Hills cave communities, and the court’s statement that international law is not binding, spell the end of the over 20 year struggle to stave off khurban?
  7. We will maintain our tradition of breaking the fast in Susya, another targeted Masafer Yatta community that is only standing because of international concern.


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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