Arik Ascherman
Arik Ascherman

Nitzavim, Rosh HaShanah, and Palestinians Picnicking in a Settler Picnic Spot

Picnicking in Omer's Picnic Spot

Many have commented how appropriate it is that we always read “Nitzavim” on the Shabbat before Rosh HaShanah.  The Torah portion begins, “You stand this day, all of you,”(Deuteronomy 29:9), as we all stand before God during the High Holy Days.  We are told that the way God wishes us to act is not beyond our comprehension, and that we have a choice between “life and death, blessing and curse.” (30:19). The words “You stand this day” demand of us that we decide where we stand, and act in accordance.  Who do we stand with, and by? To paraphrase Ben E. King, God is beseeching us, “Stand by Me.”  If it seems trite, or almost blasphemous to think that God needs us to stand by God, Rabbi Shimon Bar Yokhai teaches in the Midrash:

It is written [in Exodus]: “This is my God and I will glorify God” [Ex. 15:2]. This means: “When I acknowledge God, God is glorified, but when I do not acknowledge God, God is glorified only in name.” -It is written [in Deuteronomy]: “Because I proclaim the name of the Lord, [ascribe greatness to our God].” [Deut. 32:3] [This means,] when I call God’s name, God is great, but when I don’t… [it is as if God is not great]. -It is written [in Isaiah], “You are my witnesses, said the Lord… and I am God” [Isaiah 43:10]. This means: “When you are My witnesses, I am God, but when you are not My witnesses, it is as if I am not God.” -It is written [in Psalms], “Unto You I lift up my eyes, O You, my enthroned One in the heavens” [Ps. 123:1]. This means: “If it weren’t for me, it is as if You would not be sitting in the heavens.” [Sifre Devarim 34:6; Pesikta de Rav Kahane 12:6]

We shouldn’t forget the “it is as if” in this midrash.  God exists and is great with or without us. In the words of “Adon Olam,” God reigned before anything was created, and will reign after all has ceased to be. 

Neither should we forget the importance of our acknowledging, proclaiming and witnessing. In short, we have the privilege and responsibility to stand with God. As we pray in our High Holy Days Amidah prayer, we ask that all that God has created will bow before God and form an “agudah akhat,” a united allegiance to wholeheartedly carry out God’s Will. 

Because God is found in every human being, we must universally stand with our fellow human beings in order to stand with God.  When we stand with our fellow human beings, we are also fulfilling our obligation to be as Godlike as humanly possible.  In our Torah portion for the first day of Rosh HaShanah we read that when God saves Ishmael from dying of thirst, God’s angel says that God has heard Ishmael’s cry “basher hu sham,” where he is. (Genesis 21:17). Likewise, in our final haftarah reading on Yom Kippur, God explains to Jonah the deep care God has for the non-Jewish residents of Ninveh.

Who have we stood with and by in the past year? Who do we resolve to stand with and by in the coming year?   Can we fight for others, as does Abraham, but also stand up for our own children, as Abraham seemingly fails to stand for either Ishmael or Isaac?  

Standing with God by standing with our fellow human beings is the essence of human rights work, but it can and must be a basic component of how each of us live our lives, each in our own way and each in our own circumstances.  

A few snippets from this past week:

For the past few weeks we have been asking Housing Minister Elkin, Ministry Director Friedman and Amidar to stand with the frightened public housing tenants who are in danger of eviction because they have reversed our previous government’s policy, and reinstated evictions.  In a facebook dialogue with some of us, Friedman indicated that on Thursday evening we would hear what he had to say about public housing. On the one hand, it is a success of ours that the Minister and his director have been repeatedly addressing the issue.  In fact, many lofty commitments were made. However, there was nothing about evictions, except that the Ministry was working to fix up the public housing apartments that tenants had “left.” 

The Ministry claims that it is evicting families for the sake of the many needy families on the waiting list for public housing. Are their situations in life in which we can’t stand with all human beings in because of some human beings are oppressing others? Are there other situations in which we can’t stand with all human beings in need because the needs of some clash with the needs of others?  Of course, but not in this case. Rather than expanding the plans to increase the apartment stock (the government does have plans for an insufficient increase), or evicting various groups and organizations that were given public housing apartments contrary to regulations, the Ministry wishes to leave one poor family homeless, in order to give their home to another family.  

A little later Thursday evening MK Michael Biton announced he had “convinced” Minister Elkin not to evict any more families until after the upcoming month of Jewish holidays. He didn’t mention that this is policy every year. As I wrote to Director Friedman, the psychological toll of living with packed suitcases and waiting for the day to come is almost as devastating as the eviction itself.  I have all too much experience standing with Palestinians who didn’t know when the bulldozers would arrive to demolish their home, and standing with both Jewish and Palestinian families knowing that they could be evicted at any moment. Now, in addition to seeking to return to God, praying and acting justly (teshuvah, tefilaha v’tzedakah) in order to avert a severe/evil decree (the U’Netaneh Tokef prayer), families with evictions hanging over their heads will spend the holidays in fear and trembling in expectation of the Ministry’s severe and evil decree awaiting them after the holidays.   

Last night we in the Ma’abarah (the Jerusalem public housing collective that Torat Tzedek sponsors) held a zoom meeting with some of those families. We didn’t want to plan a campaign for them, but rather with them.  During Sukkot we will stand with these families, camping out in front of Minister Elkin’s home. When we live in a sukkah for a week, we know we have a home to return to. 

Standing with those with the threat of eviction hanging over them, I will feel that I am standing with God.  My prayer as we concluded our meeting was for a year without evictions.

The critical question is not only where stand in theory, but what we do in practice.  For the last few weeks we have been lobbying members of the KKL JNF Directorate, who nevertheless passed a resolution allocating funds to open some 17,000 old files in search of forgotten properties they own. The center and even the few Directorate members on the left saw this decision as  fiduciary responsibility and good governance. They have sworn to us that they will do everything in their power to prevent our nightmare scenario of massive dispossession and eviction of non-Jews on both sides of the 1967 border when the KKL JNF discovers that they own their homes and lands.  If this were “merely” reclaiming lands that the KKL JNF had legitimately purchased way back when, I suppose this would be at some level unfortunate, but legitimate. There would still be the glaring eifa v’eifa because Israeli law allows Jews to reclaim properties, but the Absentee Property Law often prevents Palestinians from doing so. However, it is also the case that some or many of the properties that the KKL JNF will now seek to register, will be  considered theirs not because they legitimately bought them from their former owners, but because that same Absentee Property law and other ruses were used to take the properties from them.  

Likud supporters were very clear where, and with who they stood and who they were standing with. After the vote, they released a statementb making it clear that this could be a mechanism for taking land from non-Jews and giving it to Jews.

The jury is still out for those who indicated in their words that they don’t want this resolution to lead to dispossession, but voted for it. In practice they contributed to creating a situation fraught with potential for abuse, long after they are no longer on the Directorate.  Will they succeed in practice to act in accordance to where they say they stand.

And, what about us?  Those on the KKL-JNF Directorate that claimed there was no way to stop this decision said that what can stop abuses is concern about the damage to the KKL-JNF’s image if they create more Sheikh Jarakhs and Sumarin families. You need to show where and with whom you stand.

Finally, I promised to telll you about Palestinians picnicing in a settler picnic spot. You can decide whether it is on theme with the rest of this dvar Torah, but it brings a smile to my lips. We need more smiles in the new year. . 

Omer Atidyah has long caused fear and trembling among the Palestinians with the bad fortune of living near his illegal even according to Israel outpost in the southern Jordan Valley. Soon after arriving, he drew his red lines, and made it clear that Palestinians crossed them at their peril. Our intervention standing with local shepherds has enabled some of them to access the grazing areas they desperately need.  Omer constantly seeks to expand his already vast agriculture, and is now expanding through building memorials to fallen soldiers from various units. 

A few weeks ago we called the police when he started preparing another large area, and the police forced him to stop.  However, on Wednesday I was asked to race down to the Jordan valley because he was at it again. With the help of young people who told us that they were at the outpost for the coming year as a gap year between high spchool and the army, Omer had fenced in a large area, put up signs warning that the fence was electrified, and started to lay irrigation hoses.  This time the police said they had come, but “hadn’t seen anything.” When I arrived, I told them that it was happening in front of me.  They said they were on their way back, but never arrived. The army’s liaison unit said they were “looking into it.”

In one of the boldest and most creative actions I have witnessed in quite a while, the Palestinians leasing the land from the Waqf (Muslim religious trust) decided to have a picnic in Omer’s picnic area next to where he is now expanding further! We didn’t know what to expect when we were asked to attend. I simply. couldn’t believe my eyes  when a truck with tables and chairs drove up and several vans with some 30 Israelis and Palestinians arrived! We proceeded to make ourselves at home in the picnic area that is allegedly on Waqf land.  

Soldiers arrived in a civilian vehicle.We knew where they stood, and  suspect that Omer sent them, perhaps circumventing their officers.  The officer growled and tried to make us leave immediately, but then called in to get a closure order cooked up. To his credit, he invited us to make ourselves at home until he got his order. I tried to explain the history of Omer’s Farm, and that that the Palestinian’s had organized this picnic to force the issue, after several days of being ignored. 

When the police arrived, they called in to the liaison unit that doesn’t seem to have done much clarifying after I spoke to them two days previously.   The unit still didn’t show up, and the police eventually left. However, we think the liaison unit may now take this more serioupsly. A little over three hours after we arrived, a 12 hour closure order arrived.  The closed area included Omer’s outpost. When I asked whether the settlers were allowed in the closed area, the relatively decent soldier who made it clear that he was acting on the orders he had received scowled. At one level I regret that we didn’t all get arrested, rather than leaving. However, a golden rule is not to disempower the people we are trying to help by making decision for them. It was the Palestinian’s call, and they decided that we would move to the village they were building on safe lands just outside the area designated on the map attached to the order.

The soldiers could have behaved much worse, but it really did seem to us they were standing with Omer.  We, on the other hand, stood with those watching their land being taken, but refusing to be helpless.

Coming back to Nitzavim, I don’t think that it is beyond our comprehension that Housing. Minister Elkin, Director of the Housing Ministry Friedman and the  Public Housing Company Amidar should be standing with those in need of public housing. Solutions how to do this, without harming those in need in order to help others in need, are not “off in the heavans” or “on the other side of the ocean.” (Deuteronomy 30: 12, 13) It should be in our hearts that we need to stand with Palestinians who are being dispossessed.  

In the coming year, and beyond, may we be an agudah akhat bearing witness to God  and glorifying God by reflect God’s compassion and care for human beings, and for the world God created. May we stand by God, by standing by those in need. If we do so, it will be a good and sweet year, as full of human rights as the pomegranate is full of seeds.

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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