Arik Ascherman

Passover, public housing, Kariyut & Holot

In many ways the Kedushah  is the height of Jewish prayer.  Based on the visions of Isaiah (Chapter 6) and Ezekiel (opening chapters, with a quote from 3:12), we join the chorus of all creation in recognizing God’s Presence and Sovereignty throughout the universe. But, what struck me on the first day of Passover was that strangely, even as we proclaim God’s Omnipresence, we say that the angels ask each other, “Where is the place of God’s Glory?” For the angels, this is undoubtedly a rhetorical question, and it is immediately answered.  However, it occurred to me that for us of flesh and blood, the question isn’t so rhetorical.

Given the fact that my daughter has just finished reading Elie Wiesel’s, Night, I free associated with one of the most powerful scene’s in the book, as Wiesel watches a child die a lingering, painful death,  “Behind me, I heard the same man asking: ‘For God’s sake, where is God?’ And from within me, I heard a voice answer: ‘Where is He? This is where—hanging here from this gallows …’

This may sound like sacrilege, only excusable in an extreme and unique circumstance such as the Holocaust.  However, the Torah actually commands that when somebody is put to death (the rabbis later on essentially made it impossible to carry out capital punishment), that the body not remain exposed hanging in public overnight because that is a “klalat Elohim,” translated in the new JPS Tanakh as an “affront to God,” but in the 1917 edition as a “reproach unto God.”

Back to Passover, our sages established the principle in the mishnah that the Haggadah begins in degradation and ends in praise. Rav and Shmuel then debate whether the degradation is idolatry or slavery.  My teacher, Rabbi Dr. Larry Hoffman, taught us that it is not only the Jewish people who are in degradation at the outset of the Haggadah, but that God is in a state of degradation when God’s people are in a state of degradation.

And, back to the kedushah, the problem can be that we create klalat Elohim, or khilul haShem (degradation of God’s Name), we degrade ourselves. One way of degrading ourselves is not recognizing where God’s Glory is truly located. Because God is everywhere, God can also be found in the stones of the Temple Mount/Haram Al-Sharif, in clods of earth in the Occupied Territories/Judah and Samaria, in the halls of the Knesset and the other symbols of restored Jewish sovereignty like our laboratories, universities and high-tech startups.

However, if God is to be found first and foremost in every human soul, we need to ask whether God is in a state of praise or degradation in our employment and public housing offices? Who is dwelling in the dust in the hundred times destroyed El-Araqib?  Who is threatened in Susya and Live Fire Zone 918, in Umm Al Hiran and Atir? Who is imprisoned in Holot? Can there be any holiness in stolen lands, and is God glorified when the excuse for the theft is God’s promise to the Jewish people?

JNF bulldozers working on land near Bedouin Umm al Hiran. Send a letter to stop the demolition:
JNF bulldozers working on land near Bedouin Umm al Hiran. Send a letter to stop the demolition:

Moving from degradation to praise can be a process. In some ways our successes point out our weaknesses, and how much further we still have to go. Yet, on this khag/haj, this pilgrimage holiday on which our ancestors once traveled from afar to ascend the Temple Mount, we are reminded that “A journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step.”

Three examples:

On March 16th the Knesset passed the “Public Housing Transparency Law,” that RHR, as a part of the Public Housing Forum, has been fighting to pass for many years. I began to understand the need for transparency on my visits to Beit Shean back in 2010.  I learned that public housing tenants were being evicted because of debts that the public housing corporations couldn’t explain, when pressed. People didn’t know why one family’s home was being renovated, while another’s wasn’t.  They didn’t know the decisions that had been made about them, sometimes found out retroactively about rent increases, and had to fight to access their personal files. Required changes to the law will — without a doubt — greatly improve the situation of public housing tenants. It is incredible that the Members of Knesset who fought with us for this spanned the political spectrum. Yet, as RHR lawyer and author of the bill Becky Cohen-Keshet wrote for the Israeli media and social commentary outlet [Hebrew], HaOketz, “The public housing transparency law testifies to a moral collapse.  How can it be that we need to ground in law that would seem to be obvious — a State institution can’t not give an accounting to those who receive services from them, and demand payments when it isn’t clear why the money is owed.” How can it be that such an elementary idea met with such resistance?  Becky concludes,  “This points to a moral crisis in the establishment that has forgotten the principle that every human being is created in God’s Image.  Instead, the tenants were treated as ‘those in need of charity,’ who therefore must be content with whatever is given to them, through beneficence and not because they had any right. In the worst cases, they were simply transparent.”

On April 11th, RHR achieved an important milestone in a seven year struggle to return to Palestinians from Kariyut the lands taken over by a settler from Shilo. (And, our non-legal efforts to help the farmers to hold on to their lands began considerably before that.) One of the tactics adapted by the settler movement to counter the few successful tools we have to return land taken over by settlers is to appeal determinations by the army’s own Legal Advisor in the Occupied Territories that the land in question is private Palestinian land.   In this case, the Legal Advisor’s office gave only lukewarm backing for their own ruling when the case went to court. The settler cynically invoked the antiquated Ottoman law, itself cynically implemented by Israel to further the dispossession of Palestinians. He claimed that the Legal Advisor had no authority to have him removed because he had been working the land continuously for over ten years.  The judge ruled that the confused, contradictory and unsubstantiated testimony of the settler didn’t prove  he had worked the land continuously. She also pointed out that the settler had essentially admitted to taking over the land without checking who it belonged to.  She gave credence to Kariyut’s claim that their ability to access or defend their lands had been severely curtailed because of settler guns and army roadblocks.

As significant a success as this is, experience tells us we may still have a further struggle to get the army to enforce the ruling. Furthermore, the ruling still leaves in place the Ottomon law mandating that, if settlers do manage to work Palestinian land continuously for ten years, they can’t be evicted.  We still need to deal with one judge who often dismisses cases because, although Israel recognizes a piece of land as Palestinian owned, the Palestinains can’t prove which specific Palestinian owns it. He essentially says, “Because it isn’t clear whether it belongs to Musa or Muhammad, we will let Moshe hold on to it.” And, as Quamar Mishirqi-Assad, the head of RHR’s Occupied Territories Legal Department, was quoted  in Israel’s most popular online news outlet [Hebrew], Walla:

It is outrageous that a Palestinian farmer must struggle in court seven years in order to evict a settler that used his power to invade the farmer’s land.  It is outrageous that for all those years the farmers needed to gaze on their stolen ancestral lands and suffer both financial and spiritual damages, because the settler didn’t need to present one iota of evidence in order to receive interim court backing allowing him to have use of this land not belonging to him. In this case there is some consolation because justice was done in the end, assuming that this time the military commander will carry out his duty towards the land owners.  Many Palestinians are not so lucky, and the dispossession enterprise continues to take over their lands.”

On Seder night, with family and friends I carried out the command to retell the Passover story to my children. At the Holot “open” detention facility for African asylum seekers a week earlier, the words of Exodus spoke to me.  An interviewer afterwards asked me why a rabbinic organization would carry out a seder with asylum seekers. In my opinion, we can’t recite “kol dikhfin,” “Let all who are hungry come and eat,” at our seder, if we do nothing the next day to end the malnutrition imposed on asylum seekers who have fled for their lives from their homes, and suffered murder, rape, torture and kidnapping for ransom in the Sinai, only to find themselves imprisoned by the people whose own history should sensitize themselves to the suffering of others:

And there were days of darkness in Sudan, and in Eritrea, and in many places. And there was great fear in Africa.  And men, women and children fled for their lives.  And they became refugees and asylum seekers. They who had money travelled by air and by sea. And the poor travelled many days by foot, until they reached Egypt.  But, they found no rest in Egypt, for there too, their lives were in danger. They said, ‘The people of Israel have known great suffering and days of darkness. They will know the soul of the stranger. Surely there we will find refuge and rest.’ From Egypt they travelled to Sinai.  There, many were slaughtered by evildoers, with Amalek in their souls, who took from behind the weary and the exhausted. They kidnapped and raped, and demanded ransom. And the asylum seekers travelled from Sinai to the Promised Land, and were filled with great joy when they arrived.

But, a new order had arisen in Israel. The people remembered only their own pain. They did not know the soul of the stranger. The ministers said to their people, ‘There are numerous and mighty peoples who seek asylum among us. Let us deal wisely with them, lest they overwhelm us and there will be no Jewish State in the Land.’  And, they closed their borders, and the forbade them to work, and they concentrated them in poverty stricken neighborhoods, and pitted weakened newcomers against weakened citizens. And they made their lives bitter with difficult labor on the black market. Yet, the asylum seekers still seemed great and mighty in the eyes of the Children of Israel, who feared them with a great fear.

And they jailed them in detention facilities, in Kitziot, and in Saharonim, and in Holot. Still, the asylum seekers did not leave ‘of their own free will.’ And the leaders of the Children of Israel said, ‘It is too good for you here, and there is plenty of food.  And they commanded the prison guards, saying, ‘Do not provide the asylum seekers with the same calories as before, and don’t allow them to bring in their own food.” But, the asylum seekers were resourceful, and they built for themselves booths to gather food and eat it outside the prison.  But, the authorities rose up in the middle of the night, and destroyed the booths.  And the asylum seekers woke in the morning and sighed a great cry, and cried out in anguish.  But the Children of Israel did not hear, and did not wish to hear. But, God heard. (From the RHR Holot Haggadah)

Freedom seder at Holot with African asylum seekers, April 15 2016
Freedom seder at Holot with African asylum seekers, April 15 2016. More photos

Here, there is not even a partial success to comfort us. We can hope that our High Court that twice struck down Israel’s detention policies before sadly allowing Holot, will force the government to at least allow the detainees to bring food inside the facility.

Our tradition teaches that we crossed the sea on the seventh day of Passover. We do not recite the full Hallel, the psalms of joy we recite on the previous days of the holiday because our joy at redemption is reduced because fellow human beings created in God’s Image were drowned.  We know that neither we nor God will be fully redeemed from degradation as long as others suffer, some at our hands. We pray for the day that redemption will come for all creation, without others paying a price for our well-being. We leave the sea for the journey to Mt. Sinai, counting the days and thankful for every step along the way. We try to remember that God’s Glory can be found in the way of life God taught us at Sinai, and recommit to bringing about the day when God’s Glory will be manifest in an Israel and in a world living according to those values.

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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