On Torah, Catching Settlers in Palestinian Fields, and Destroying Palestinian Trees

What can the Torah teach about the connection between the settler shepherd I caught last Sunday grazing his flock in a Palestinian field, and settlers destroying Palestinian trees the previous day (Shabbat), as soldiers watched and waited for the police? Desecrating God’s Name and the Torah? That’s obvious. Attempting to take over land? Preventing Palestinians from making a living, until they “voluntarily” leave? All true. But there are a few additional points: My first association on Sunday was not from this week’s Torah portion (that I will get to), but Deuteronomy 22:1-3: “You shall not see your brother’s/sister’s ox or sheep lost, and ignore it. You must return them to your brother/sister. If s/he doesn’t live close to you, and you don’t know who they belong to, take them home until your brother/sister comes to claim them, and you can return them. You shall do the same for his/her donkey or his/her clothes, or anything else your brother/sister loses, and you find. You must not ignore. You shall not see your brother’s/sister’s donkey or ox fallen along the way, and ignore them. You must help him/her raise them up. ”

The security team of the Rimonim settlement sees everything that happens in the adjacent Palestinian fields. They came to investigate on Sunday when we caught red handed a settler who called himself “Shimon” from the nearby Ma’aleh Shlomo outpost, who was grazing his sheep on lands Israeli authorities also acknowledge are private Palestinian lands.  He claimed that he had an agreement with a Palestinian allowing him to do so..  However, in December we had helped a Palestinian shepherd who rents those lands from the Palestinian owner to sow grain for his flocks.  He estimates he lost NIS 30,000 from settlers grazing their flocks in the field.

Settler sheep in Palestinian field
Settler flock.  When Shimon saw us coming, he moved his flock from the planted area.



On a previous occasion the head security officer told me he knew the Palestinian and hoped that justice would be done. However, when I asked that he pick up the telephone when his team sees Israelis grazing their flocks in the field, he said they can’t intervene. When we want to speak to the Palestinian that Shimon says he has an agreement with, and who works in Rimonim, they couldn’t be of help… The police have been telling us for months that they need the landowners to lodge a complaint, but the landowners don’t want to get involved either… So, the shepherd simply watched helplessly, as the settlers came back every few days.

From Rimonim we continued to Turmos Aya. On Shabbat, 25 Israelis dressed in white (It is important to honor Shabbat) came and began destroying Palestinian trees. The Palestinians summoned the security forces, who arrested one settler. Kudos, no? The Palestinians report that, until the police arrived, the army stood by and watched the settlers continue to destroy trees. As what happened to the rest of those desecrating God’s Name, the Torah and Shabbat??

One of Many Destroyed Trees

John Stuart Mill (Not Burke) wrote

“Bad men need nothing more to compass their ends, than that good men should look on and do nothing.”  This is why the Torah taught us long ago, “You must not turn away.”

It is also one of the reasons that an “enlightened occupation” is short lived at best.  It is human nature to look on and do nothing when “your own” are the perpetrators. I heard one item on Israeli radio that mentioned the recent waves of destruction of both Jewish and Palestinian trees. That was an exception. Most of the discourse only talks about the losses one’s own “side” has suffered. I don’t believe that it is proper to conflate the terrible destruction being caused by the burning kites, destruction of settler trees and vines on land that in many cases isn’t theirs, destruction and damage to Jewish owned fields and groves inside Israel, government destruction of  Bedouin crops in the Negev, and settler destruction of Palestinian vines and fields. However, the fact that this post was about what I personally dealt with on Sunday shouldn’t be taken to mean that I don’t care about, and don’t ever write about, any of the other forms of destruction.

So, what about this week’s Torah portion?  The midrash tells us that Korakh was terribly clever, and would sometimes manage to get Moses tongue tied with his legalistic gymnastics designed to lead us to a place that turned the Torah on its head.  I have already mentioned that the police said that they would do nothing if the landowners didn’t lodge a complaint.  They didn’t bother to mention that a renter could also lodge a complaint if he demonstrated that he had a right to use the property.  One officer angrily told me several months ago that we were inciting the Palestinians by saying they had a right to call the police and ask for relief.  They successfully twisted the law to undermine the intent of the law.

Being Shabbat observant, I wasn’t present, and I don’t know why the soldiers stood by in Turmos Aya. I can guess.  No matter how many times human rights organizations point out that soldiers have policing authority in such situations, and no matter how many military legal advisors and senior officers agree send out letters agreeing, most soldiers truly believe or disingenuously maintain that they do not.  As one senior commander would always tell me, “We are the ISRAEL Defense Forces.  I will protect non-Israelis if I am forced to, but it isn’t my job.”  Again, a false legalistic formulation is used to turn what ought to be the law on its head.  If it isn’t enough that we are occupiers, we don’t even fulfil our responsibilities as the ruling authority.

On this Shabbat, may we remember not to turn away, and not to twist the law, until the law no longer protects those who need its protection.

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 is recognized as a role model for faith based human rights activism.
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