The Dvar Torah I Couldn’t Write, My Father’s Yahrzeit, and Yom HaAtzmaut

פורסם על ידי ‏‎Arik Ascherman‎‏ ב- יום חמישי, 2 במאי 2019

I couldn’t write a dvar Torah for Parashat Kedoshim (Leviticus 19-20) on Friday because I was arrested for fulfilling several of the Torah portion’s central commands, and Shabbat was starting by the time I got home. (Because Torah readings in Israel and the Diaspora are out of sync at the moment, those of you living abroad will only read Kedoshim this coming Shabbat.) This Friday, my d’Var Torah was one of deeds, not words. As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said of his experience marching in Selma, “I felt as if my feet were praying.” I think that was what I was trying to express as I sang again and again during the long hours of detention, “Harey ani mekabel ali et mitzvat haBoreh, “V’ahavta l’re’ekha k’mokha-I take upon myself the commandment of the Creator ‘You shall love the one who is essentially like you as yourself.'” (Leviticus 19:18) We usually translate the verse, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” but this is not the true meaning. Because we are all essentially like one another because we are all created in God’s Image, this is really a command about how we are to treat all humanity. Rabbi Akiva said this is a “klal gadol,” a central principle of the Torah. Is it only coincidence that Kedoshim almost always is read either the Shabbat before or after Yom HaAtzmaut-Israeli Independence Day?

For many years, Israel has sought to expel the unique Palestinian population of the South Hebron Hills. Some 200 years ago, they moved into the area, built up the city of Yatta, and the cave communities that dot the landscape. My involvement began in 1999, when Israel expelled 700 men, women and children from the simple caves they called home, apparently to serve the plans of then Prime Minister Ehud Barak to create a Palestinian free zone from the nearby 1967 border including the South Hebron Hills settlements and Kiryat Arba. The plight of the cave dwellers aroused the sympathy of a vast number of Israelis in a way that is hard to imagine today. In March 2000, Israel’s High Court sent them home with a temporary restraining order. The government’s strategy then became to make life so difficult for them, that they would leave “of their own accord.” In recent years the government has also returned to attempts to win eviction in court.

The villagers of “Bir El Eid” only returned temporarily in 2000, and were soon forced out again by settler intimidation. Bir El Eid is sandwiched between the unauthorized outposts of “Mitzpeh Yair’ and “Khavat Talya” (whose residents also gave themselves the name “Lucifer’s Farm.”) My former organization, “Rabbis For Human Rights” won their right to return home in 2009. However, the actual return was delayed by several months until the army agreed to an additional essential condition – that the residents would have use of their access road. The settlers of Mitzpeh Yair had taken over part of the old dirt Palestinian road and paved it. The army said that, even though Mitzpeh Yair was illegal according to Israel, and had taken over the road, Palestinian use would endanger the security of the settlers. Finally, we won the right to use the road—until my birthday. The staff of Rabbis for Human Rights had organized a surprise party for me, but we received a call with a not so nice surprise. Without notifying anybody, the army had cancelled the permit to use the road, and had been holding up a parent taking his child to school in Yatta. After several more weeks, the army gave us and the Court written assurances that Palestinians could use the road.

The road has been more or less open since then, and there have been no security problems for Mitzpeh Yair. On the other hand, a few years ago that same Palestinian parent was beaten within an inch of his life one day. The residents of Bir El Eid continue to suffer from many forms of harassment, vandalism, intimidation and violence.

Bir El Eid’s access road has become increasingly difficult to use, especially after rain damage from this last winter. It is also a critical road for the village of Jinbah. Logically, the right to use a road is meaningless if the road can’t be maintained. However, it is almost impossible for Palestinians to get a permit to fix a road. Back in 1971, Israel abolished Palestinian planning committees, and gave all planning authority over to the army. The local Palestinian councils, in conjunction with a visiting delegation of the “Jewish Center for Non-Violence” and other Palestinians, Israeli and international groups and individuals, decided to repair the road on Friday.

After watching for several hours, the army arrested some of us. As with oppressive regimes throughout history, the army will claim that this was done “legally.” Indeed, the army’s actions were “legal” according to laws and regulations the government and the Knesset that Palestinians can’t vote for have created and imposed on them. Often, the army’s “legal” actions are in violation of international law. Even when not, they are legal according to international treaties that never took into account the possibility of an over 50 year occupation denying Palestinians in Area C any say in the laws that govern almost every aspect of their lives. As a rabbi and as a human being, I ultimately don’t just ask what is “legal.” I ask what is “just” and “fair.”

The laws we unilaterally impose on Palestinians are unjust and unfair, no matter who is “responsible” for the fact that there is no peace.

Some will want to make this a political question, rather than one of human rights, in order to avoid responsibility. No matter who is or will be sovereign in this area, human beings have to have the right to live safely on their land. The fact that it appears that Israel will be sovereign here in the near future only increases our responsibility to respect the human rights of the Palestinian residents.

Others will focus on the violence used by the security forces moving us on Friday, and the fact that two journalists were arrested. Yes, there was violence and the commanding officer told me personally that he had the authority to arrest journalists. However, these were just symptoms of the problem. The soldiers were my fellow Israelis, not my enemy. As I told one soldier who said that I hated him, and that I thought he was a Nazi, if I felt that way about him, I wouldn’t waste my time talking to him. My long conversation with this soldier, and the possibility that I broke down some of his stereotypes and caused him to rethink some of his opinions, was just as important as the solidarity we expressed with oppressed Palestinians. Both were manifestations of “V’ahavta l’re’ekha kmokha.” In the two verses leading up to V’Ahavta, we commanded not to hate our kinsperson and to reprove him/her when necessary so that we will not commit the sin of hating.

Parashat Kedoshim begins, “You shall be holy because I, Adonai your God, am holy.” (Leviticus 19:1) The portion goes on to list ritual and interpersonal commandments defining holiness, many of them demanding that we treat our fellow human beings justly and decently. I asked the soldiers and police officers whether there was kedusha (holiness) in preventing Palestinians from repairing a road that could be a matter of life and death in a medical emergency, and that the army had promised to keep open. I also asked them whether they had any idea how badly their actions damaged Israel’s reputation abroad. Many like to say that we damage Israel’s reputation. If there was nothing wrong with their actions, our publicizing them would not damage Israel’s reputation. Nobody who is objective will see kedushah in their actions. I suggested to the soldier I spent the most time talking to that, after I left, he ask his commander to explain to him what was the security threat in what we were doing. I explained to him that, as somebody who has had bombs go off not far from my home, I know that the job of our army is essential, AND that breaking down Palestinian stereotypes of Israelis by working together for justice also protects both my family and his.

Finally, today is my father’s yahrzeit. He taught us that nine out of ten decisions we make are irrelevant the by next day. The art of living is identifying the one decision that counts, taking responsibility, and doing our best to make the right choice. Moral questions were often the one decision that counted for my father. He deeply pondered every ethical dilemma, and unsparingly demanded of himself that he do the right thing. On the eve of Yom HaAtzmaut, with a new flare-up on the Gaza border taking a terrible toll on civilians on both sides, an ongoing Occupation, and so many Israelis living in poverty, we arguably have many more than one in ten critical ethical choices to make. That is what independence is all about. However, the question of whether we are building a country exemplifying the kedusha God demands of us is not only answered by how we deal with our biggest and most public dilemmas. For those of us who stood with our fellow human beings on Friday, it was clear that, even if there are many possible formulas for ending the Occupation, we cannot ethically be occupiers. For those who want to continue unilaterally imposing our laws on Palestinians, or say “We want to end the Occupation, but there is no partner,” you even more than we must understand that the test of our kedusha or lack of it is also taking place on an isolated road far from the public eye. Why is it that we use the power we craved for 2,000 years to prevent the residents of Bir El Eid from having a decent and safe access road? Isn’t it true that our actual motivation is to get them to “voluntarily” abandon their lands?

Is that kedusha?

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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