On Wednesday, after several postponements, two of the three of us who were injured on November 12, 2021 finally had an opportunity to make our case regarding the sentencing of the one of the many who attacked us that day who was actually apprehended and indicted. In the end he admitted to his actions in a plea bargain. Below is a reconstruction of what I said to the judge and to our attacker (along with a few things I forgot to mention in court).
This week’s Torah portion, Emor, ends with the famous lex talionis, “an eye for an eye…” The fact that our sages understood this as referring to compensation, and not literally taking an eye for an eye, is relevant to the questions I was asking myself as to what was the appropriate sentence to ask for. Why did I ask for a harsh sentence, although at the sentencing hearing for the man who attacked me with a knife in 2015 I said I was more intererested in his rehabiliation and the protection of society than harsh punishment? Our portion also deals with the ritual purity and wholeness that must be maintained by the priests, who also served as judges. Neither the Torah or the haftarah deal with the moral qualities required for the hereditary priesthood, but we should be asking what is it that we expect of judges today. In fact, I spoke to the judge directly about what I expected of him morally.
This Shabbat afternoon we read the 4th chapter of Pirkei Avot, including 4:7-8:
Rabbi Ishmael his son said: he who refrains himself from judgment, rids himself of enmity, robbery and false swearing; But he whose heart is presumptuous in giving a judicial decision, is foolish, wicked and arrogant.
He used to say: judge not alone, for none may judge alone save one. And say not “accept my view”, for they are free but not you.
We need judges who are not afraid to deal with enmity, robbery, false swearing or violence. It was one judge who alone who presided at the hearing and is now responsible for determining the sentence of our attacker. I hope that he is aware that he is not God, and I said to him that I hopes that he judges in a way that will allow him to look himself in the mirror and know that he did what he could when he hears of the next attack (the next attack that makes it into the news).
“Good morning. My name is Rabbi Arik Ascherman. I have been leading Israeli universal human rights organizations for almost 28 years – my beard was red when I started. Currently I am the executive director of “Torat Tzedek.” On principle we fight for the human rights of Israel’s Jewish and non-Jewish citizens, as well as those who are under Israel’s control. Not all members of Torat Tzedek are religious, but for me our work stems from the fact that every human being is created in God’s Image.
I have been attacked many times, including by a knife wielding settler in 2015. I am lucky to be here today. Perhaps I have become inured to attacks and injuries, but I fall apart listening to Neta’s words, and feel somewhat guilty because I was responsible for our activities that day.
(At this point I was asked to relate what happened in 2015): That was also an olive harvest. At the end of the day we saw settlers come and begin to steal olives. I was directing the police how to arrive and then saw that fire had been lit in olive groves in the next wadi over. I and a second person went up to investigate, and I was then attacked by a settler I hadn’t noticed.
(Returning to the November 2021 attack) We had been in touch for over a year with the landowners from Tzurif, who had fought a legal battle for several years because they were being prevented from accessing their lands. They eventually won, but were still prevented by the presence of hilltop youth living between the Bat Ayin settlement and their olive groves. The previous week, we had attempted to accompany them to harvest their olives, but faced violence. For the entire week I was in touch with an officer from the office of the legal advisor to the army’s Civil Administration in the Occupied Territories. He agreed that we and the Palestinians had a right to harvest according to the legal decision they had won, and the Morar High Court decision stipulating that Palestinians must be allowed to access all of their lands and protected when doing so. He agreed to be available to me on Friday.
Sure enough, soldiers attempted to say that we could not harvest. I was on the phone with the officer from the Legal Advisor’s office and a DCO officer, and it was finally confirmed that we had the right to harvest. But, the soldiers left shortly thereafter. More and more young settlers began to gather. A man with an automatic rifle looking like a security officer stood above and orchestrated everything, even moving some of the settlers around in his car. I was on the phone with the DCO officer 30-45 minutes before the attack began. He kept saying that the army was on its way back. Perhaps I should have decided to retreat (decided along with the Palestinian landowners). However, I had been told that the army would soon arrive.
The attack began. Some twenty of them began to descend, throwing stones at us. Although we supplied excellent photographs to the police, and not all had their faces covered, the one standing before us who has admitted his guilt was the only one caught and indicted. We understand that there may also be proceedings against a minor.
As Netta described, the person standing before us and one other attacked her and Gil. I drew close to photograph and help. The person standing before us turned from Netta and Gil and hit me over the head with his big stick with a nail in it, causing blood to pour down my face. I couldn’t really worry about myself because I was responsible. I made sure that Netta and Gil, both injured more seriously than I, were taken to the Tzurif clinic. We finished the harvest, and I then went still bleeding to file a complaint at the Etzion police station. I then continued to Jerusalem to seek medical attention.
As you know, we had wanted there to be a trial instead of a plea bargain, but that is behind us now.
I want to share with you the same questions I am asking myself regarding sentencing. After the 2015 attack some of my friends were angry with me because at the court hearing about punishment I argued that I wasn’t interested in my attacker rotting in jail. I wanted society protected and I wanted steps taken to rehabilitate him.
(Turning to the man who has admitted guilt) For you also I hope that you will repent, rehabilitate yourself, and become a decent contributing member of society. (Turning back to the judge) It is tragic when a young man that should have so many opportunities in front of him destroys his life in this way.
However, unlike 2015, this time I am asking you to hand down the most severe punishment that the law allows.
Why the difference?
Firstly, the young man who attacked me in 2015 was genuinely repentant. He apologized. He underwent therapy for his violent tendencies (We did later here that so had this man). He and his family left the Occupied Territories, realizing that the environment was bad for him…
Even if this man says in a few minutes that he is sorry because he needs to, you have already heard from Netta how on several occasions he waylaid her outside the courthouse. I saw him refuse move out of the way and to let her pass, arguing with the guards and his mother that the restraining order you issued hadn’t yet gone into effect. Regret must be shown in deeds, not words (Lo hamidrash haikar, ele hama’ashe). Nothing in his actions has reflected even a drop of regret.
Secondly, while it was already true in 2015 that almost no Jew was ever brought to justice for violence against human rights defenders, not to mention Palestinians, and my attacker also got a ridiculously light sentence until the prosecution successfully appealed, the situation is now much much worse. We who take the risk to engage in the basic human act of protecting Palestinian farmers and shepherds are constantly endangering ourselves because experience teaches those who act violently towards us that there is almost no chance that they will pay a price for their actions. Because the hilltop youth move around, it is very possible that those who attacked us were involved in the attack on activists and burning a car several months later in Burin. They may have been among those who broke the ribs and caused head injuries to a 70 year old woman this last October.
And these are the attacks on Jews that make the news. Just yesterday we caught settlers and their flock trespassing on the private lands of Dir Jarir. Landowners were attacked two days earlier in the same spot. Three were injured and a car damaged. We have hundreds of documented incidents in which this kind of trespassing and destruction of fields, vineyards and olive groves has taken place, and the police and army have done nothing. Complaints filed make no difference. Earlier in the week several Palestinians had to be evacuated by ambulance after being attacked in Ein Sukkot…….
I am waiting to hear whether the Palestinians want to file a complaint. There are three reasons we frequently hear why they may not:
- Fear that the State will exercise its power to take revenge on Palestinians who dare to lift up their heads and complain.
- Fear that settlers whom they must live next to will take revenge. Palestinians are often threatened what will happen to them if they complain.
- The feeling, based on past experience, that filing complaints is a waste of time. Complaints are almost always closed, if they are ever even investigating.
We Israelis are more immune from being punished for complaining. However, I sometimes also hear from Israelis that complaining is a waste of time.
If you want to be able to look yourself in the mirror next time that you hear about an attack…If you want to be able to say to yourself ‘I did what I could”…..You must hand down the stiffest sentence the law allows. One harsh sentence alone won’t stop the violence, but it is something…You can set an example. You can perhaps give some courage to the next judge, and maybe that will begin a chain reaction. Nothing will change until those who act violently against either Jews or Palestinians know that there is a price to be paid.
I have already alluded to the possible motivations for punishment outlined by the early sociologist Emile Durkheim: Revenge, protecting society and rehabilitation. (Again turning to the man who attacked us). Again, I am not seeking revenge, and I truly hope that you will repent and rehabilitate yourself. (Turning back), but society must be protected.
Durkheim also taught that a society’s system of law enforcement and punishment reflect the values of that society. A minor slap on the wrist punishment sends the message that our society either supports or doesn’t really care too much about this kind of violence.
That is why you must hand down the stiffest sentence that the law allows. You must make it clear that these actions are not the values of our society.