Mishpatim: Declarations Must Be Backed By Deeds

Sheep run over by Israelis from Omer's Farm

Last week we read the Ten Commandments, which in Hebrew are called the Aseret  HaDibrot. The Ten Utterances. With all the violations of the Ten Commandments I experienced last week just in my limited world, I added to my Shabbat prayers the fervent hope that the Ten Commanded Utterances become the Ten Realities. That is part of the message of this week’s Torah portion, Mishpatim. God translates the lofty ideas embodied in the Ten Commanded Utterances into much more specific and concrete commandments. Whether we are talking about the lofty statements from ministers and other public officials against settler violence, the declarations about the need to fight poverty and support public housing, or pronouncements on any of the other issues that we human rights defenders work on, I truly appreciate them. However, “Lo hamidrash ha’ikar, ele hama’aseh,” actions speak louder than words. I always ask, “Will the statements this time be backed with actions?”

I have written before, and write again: So many of the crimes in our world begin with the sin of coveting. In the Occupied Territories there are those who steal what they covet, often through bearing false witness, and even murder (or attacks that could easily have ended in murder). Needless to say, those who act in this way also violate the first Commanded Utterance, “I am Adonai your God,” because they make what they covet more holy than “the other,” thereby justifying harming human beings created in God’s Image.

In some cases the crimes of condemning Israelis and others around the world to live in poverty also stem from coveting.

Mishpatim details how the prohibition against coveting is to be carried out in terms of how we relate to the non-Jews living among us, the widow, the orphan, and others whom our society has weakened (Exodus 22:20-21). We learn how to define murder (Exodus 21:12-14, 18-21), laws of theft (Exodus 22:6-11), and even commandments at the level of: “When a person lets his/her livestock loose to graze on another’s land, and so allows a field or a vineyard to be grazed bare, s/he must make restitution for the impairment of that field or vineyard.”  “When a fire is started and spreads to thorns, so that stacked, standing or growing grain is consumed, s/he who started the fire must make restitution.” (Exodus 22:4-5)

The Jerusalem Municipality evicted the Salhiyeh family in the early morning hours a week ago Wednesday, immediately demolished their home, and then petitioned the court to cancel the family’s pending appeal as moot. Of course, the Municipality could still return the expropriated land, and compensate them for the home. The family’s lawyer claims that there was no demolition order. The Salhiyeh’s land was expropriated while other empty lots were available, and cynically a yeshiva is being built in this Palestinian neighborhood on land designated for educational purposes. The home was immediately demolished, even while the case was in court, apparently without a permit to demolish and now the Municipality is asking that the court case be canceled because it is moot. The Jewish State apparently lied and bore false witness to take this land they coveted from non-Jews. “You shall not subvert the rights of your needy in their disputes.”(Exodus 23:6)  You shall not oppress the non-Jew living among you, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt.”(Exodus 23:9)

Removing Items From the Salhiyeh family’s plant nursery demolished several days before their home.

“When a person lets his/her livestock loose to graze on another’s land”?  I see settler flocks almost every day in the fields, vineyards and olive groves of Taibe and Dir Jarir recognized by Israel as Palestinian owned. Today I saw settler cows on the lands for which shepherds from Samra have title and deed.

Settler flock from Ma’aleh Ahuvia outpost in Dir Jarir olive grove

Last Thursday I watched Israelis from “Omer’s Farm” plow their pickup into Palestinian flocks. I couldn’t believe my eyes as I saw the truck back up over a sheep.  The veterinarian said that there was no way of saving the sheep not so much because of the skull and leg injuries, but because her jaw was broken and she couldn’t eat. There were no pickup trucks when the Torah was written. We are told about the obligation to pay five times for the stolen ox or sheep (Exodus 21:35). “When a person’s ox injures his/her neighbor’s ox and it dies, they shall sell the live ox and divide its price; they shall also divide the dead animal.” Exodus 21:35. Should we sell the pickup, and divide the price?

Veterinarian’s report after examining sheep run over by Israelis who came from Omer’s Farm

Better publicized was the attack by the Jewish terrorists that descended from the illegal even according to Israel Givat Ronen outpost, sending people to the hospital and torching a car. For a change, I was not one of those attacked last Friday by the Israelis who descended from Givat Ronen outpost to attack the Israelis and Palestinians planting trees together in Burin. However, I had a strong sense of “Deja-vu” from November 12th. I won’t repeat the story of how we were attacked. Only that we supplied excellent pictures and videos to the police. Despite the fact that many were masked, we had pictures showing faces. The police only managed to arrest one minor who was released to house arrest, and an adult who will stand trial.  The adult is one of the two who actually hit us. The others “only” threw stones from further afar, and chased after the Palestinian farmers, who this time were not injured. They had been the previous week. After the single indictment was handed down, the police told us that the matter was out of their hands, and they were no longer investigating. One day when I was giving testimony in the station, I saw on the desk one of our pictures of a man who had stood above with an automatic weapon. We suspect that he is the Bat Ayin security guard. He didn’t attack us, but we saw him transporting some of the attackers in his car. The police investigator said that “we are looking for him.” We haven’t heard whether or not they identified him, whether or not he is the security guard, etc. Maybe we should be thankful that at least one person is standing trial. That is rare.

I wouldn’t be surprised to discover that some of the brutal attackers from Givat Ronen on Friday were the same terrorists who attacked us in November. We know that there is a lawless gang that travels from place to place. And, the message to all of those we photographed, but were never caught, is that there is no price for their actions. I wonder whether the attack would have occurred in Burin, had the full force of the law been brought to bear against those who carried out the pogrom in Mufagara on Simkhat Torah, those who attacked us, or against those who carried out the long list of additional attacks against human rights defenders, and primarily against Palestinians. When I was attacked by a young masked settler in 2015, I told the court that I was not interested in revenge, and sought the rehabilitation of my attacker. However, I also said that society must be protected. When there is no price paid for violent actions, there is no protection.

To all those now screaming that the demolition orders handed out in Givat Ronen are “disproportional collective punishment aimed at the ‘young settlements,’” let me remind you that all those living in an unauthorized outpost are committing a collective crime even according to Israeli law that allows settlements considered illegal according to the Fourth Geneva Convention, to which Israel is a party. Let me also remind you that there was a quick decline of the 2005 wave of violence after then PM Ariel Sharon said that he would evacuate outposts if violence continued near them. There have been countless violent incidents since Givat Ronen was founded, carried out by Israelis who descended from the outpost. There were many cases that I contacted the security forces in real time because Israelis were attacking Palestinians, and/or torching trees and fields. Remember, “When a fire is started and spreads to thorns, so that stacked, standing or growing grain is consumed, s/he who started the fire must make restitution.”?  In reality, there has been no restitution. All too often the army arrived, only to shoot tear gas at the Palestinians seeking to extinguish the flames and save their fields. Adopting Ariel Sharon’s approach, either Givat Ronen would have been evacuated long ago, or the settlers of Givat Ronen would have long ago ensured that “the Land was quiet.”

Burin lands set on fire by Israelis who descended from the Givat Ronen outpost. Credit: Zakaria Sadeh

There has also been much talk about “provocations” by “anarchists” and “radical leftists.” I always ask who among our accusers actually knows the definition of “anarchist.” I understand that concern for the rights of non-Jews is sadly considered “radical.” Again, I must repeat myself. Pharaoh thought that Moses and Aaron were “provocateurs” for giving the happy Israelite slaves uppity ideas about freedom and rights. There are in fact situations in which Palestinians prefer to attempt to farm their lands quietly, without us. There are situations in which the army protects Palestinian farmers, but demands that we not be present because our presence angers settlers more than that of the Palestinians themselves.

What does it say about us, if protecting Palestinians is considered a “provocation?” I believe that most Israelis are better than that.

There are also situations in which the security forces do not fulfill their obligation according to the Morar High Court decision to protect Palestinian farmers. They generally guard during the olive harvest, but not during the rest of the year.  Although the High Court explicitly forbade it, they may respond to threatening Israelis by closing the area to Palestinians “for their own good.” This happened just this week, when we returned to Burin’s lands. When the security forces don’t provide protection, Pirkei Avot teaches, “Where nobody is acting with basic human decency, you must try to be the one who does.” I would say “the ones who do.”

It is simply a fact that there are places where Palestinians fear to go without us.  Anybody who thinks that the Jewish terrorists would not have attacked if the Palestinians would go alone to their lands in Burin or Tzurif, just don’t know what has happened in these places in recent years.

As sad as it is that protecting Palestinians is considered by some as a provocation, I would be willing to agree not to be present, were I certain that the State would protect Palestinians all year round, bring the full force of the law to bear on Jewish terrorists, and evacuate those outposts that they do not succeed in any other way from serving as bases for violence, vandalism and settler flocks ravaging Palestinian lands. We have enough other work to do fighting poverty among Israelis, ending discrimination against Israel’s Bedouin citizens in the Negev, defending asylum seekers, and countless other tasks.

Parashat Mishpatim demands that we translate declarations into deeds. May we all learn to translate our lofty words into concrete actions that honor and protect God’s Image in the non-Jew, the orphan, the widow, and every human being.

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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