Arik Ascherman

The Most Difficult Independence Day Thoughts I Have Ever Written

I do my best to offer a positive message on Israeli Independence Day. But this year, as Independence Day draws to a close, I must tell it like it is.  While there are here and there points of light where we are making limited progress, the broader picture is that almost every state body that once was a potential avenue for improving human rights has either been turned or is passing the buck.

There is a concept in Judaism that sometimes we must harm somebody not only to protect others, but to save the soul of a person about to commit a horrible crime.  I don’t believe in harming people, and this idea has been used to justify murder. Some conveniently forget that the Talmud teaches that a person is himself a murderer if s/he kills somebody, even to save a life, when there was another way to save that life.

Furthermore, when people accuse us of harming the Jewish people and the state whose independence I still celebrated today, I reply “Oy to us if defending fellow human beings created in God’s Image and our highest Jewish values is considered harmful to Israel or the Jewish people.” Continuing to believe in the basic goodness of our fellow Israelis, we must continue to do whatever we can to fight from within for the soul of our people, our country, and Judaism.

This fight from within is in the best interests of the State and the Jewish people. The “harm” is to the ethnocentric and neo liberal visions of those who have exclusively appropriated for themselves the right to define what constitutes those best interests.  Yes, I also argue that our vision is in Israel’s best interests. However, I don’t purport to be the exclusive arbitrator.  Furthermore, I don’t believe it is all about Israel and the Jewish people.  It is about all humanity, and our planet as well. Some deride us by saying that we are doing an end run around Israeli democracy by asking for outside pressure.  The truth is that the majority has no right to “democratically” trample the human rights of minorities. And, where is the “democracy” when Israel’s internal majority legislates the oppression of disenfranchised Palestinians who cannot vote for or participate in the institutions that unilaterally impose their will on them? Israel doesn’t seem to believe in “No taxation without representation.”

While I would not advocate for measures that threaten Israel’s physical survival, we are at a point where we must be saved from ourselves.  When I weigh the harm to Israel’s image when we request international pressure, against the harm we are causing to so many, protecting fellow human beings clearly wins the day.

I don’t have any hope that there might be international pressure on behalf of Israelis living in poverty. However, I my thoughts this Independence Day included .the latest alarming development in our struggle for public housing. It appears that the committee finally set up to reexamine eligibility requirements is violating its mandate. Rather than examining eligibility, it is asking how to prioritize among those already eligibile. When the Public Housing Forum of which we are a part appeared before the committee last week, the question the committee members wanted to focus on was, “Given that we don’t have enough public housing for all, do we give first to the disabled, single parents, or Holocaust survivors.” Click here for an article on the plight of Holocaust survivors waiting for public housing. We had hoped that the talk of building, acquiring or repairing housing for the expected influx of Ukrainians could be parlayed into including the housing needs of those already here.  However, it now seems that the declared grandiose plans were only talk.

There is a growing list of human rights abuses in the Occupied Territories being backed by courts, the army and police, and other State institutions. This list requires international intervention. Here are a few:

Close to midnight, without notifying the lawyers and with most of the country shut down today as well because of Israeli Independence day, a settler judge issued a High Court ruling greenlighting the largest population transfer since the 1970s.  An Independence Day present to over 1,000 residents of the hamlets of the South Hebron Hills. While Torat Tzedek has been less involved in the issue of the Live Fire Zone 918 because other organizations are ably working there, I practically lived down there until we successfully reversed the evictions of 1999 and 2001.  The words written by seven of Israel’s top authors and poets in January 2000 ring just as true today. Only, today it is harder to convince ourselves that we can awaken the conscience of our leaders, I don’t know how many Israelis still pay attention to what poets and authors say, and we have Judge Mintz, instead of Judge Dalia Dorner, who angrily rebuked the army, and sent the South Hebron Hills cave dwellers home in March 2000.

The people who can now be expelled from their simple caves and homes are my longtime friends. This cannot be allowed to happen. There is little choice but to ask the international community to stop this injustice.

On the first day of the ‘Id Il Fitr holiday on Monday, the residents of Aqaba also received a holiday gift. Two homes received 96-hour demolition orders, and a demolition order for a road was placed under a rock. Another 25 are also believed to be in danger.    Different area, but similar story. The village is located in a live-fire zone. A 2008 success in court has prevented demolitions and allowed the village to flourish. But in November the army changed the rules, and again homes are in danger.   International concern is now Aqaba’s best hope.

On June 29th the Sumarin family in East Jerusalem’s Silwan neighborhood will have a Supreme Court hearing seeking to stymie the unholy alliance of the Elad settler organization and the Keren Kayemet-Jewish National Fund to evict them from their home.  Here we have a bit of hope because the Supreme Court hasn’t rejected their petition out of hand, but only a bit. If these last legal options do not stop this injustice, the international community will be the last resort.

Torat Tzedek has been working to restore the honoring of the 2006 Morar High Court decision regarding the obligation of Israeli security forces towards Palestinian farmers. We have been working with local councils to submit restoration plans for depredated lands that would require army protection allowing farmers access to their lands during the entire year, as is their right according to the Morar decision.

However, in April we had to put aside a response to a letter from the office of the Legal Advisor for the Civil Administration of the army in the Occupied Territories passing the buck. We realized that even as we were trying to expand army protection for farmers as Morar requires, the army was moving in the opposite direction.  The minimum that the Civil Administration has done since 2006 has been to organize protection for farmers during the olive harvest and the plowing season. However, village after village contacted us to tell us that they needed to complete plowing by the end of April, and either they hadn’t received protection dates, or they had been canceled because of the security situation. Torat Tzedek banged on every door possible, began speaking with the international community, and wheels began to slowly turn.  Several villages received one or two days. Nobody finished.  Others have been given promises, even as I received an angry call from a Civil Administration officer complaining about the pressure we were applying. He actually had the audacity to say that the system was working. We offered to bring volunteers to attempt to protect the farmers in lieu of the army. In most cases they were afraid.

On Tuesday the desperation of the farmers of Turmos Aya overcame their fear.  With guarantees Torat Tzedek obtained from the Legal Advisor’s office that the army would not prevent them from plowing as they did on March 8th, and with additional guarantees that there would be coverage if tractors were confiscated or damaged, and with our presence, they decided to work on their lands further away from the settlers.  Nevertheless, the army and a settler security guard showed up. On the phone with the Legal Advisor’s office all morning, the threats to shut down the plowing entirely weren’t carried out. However, they were only allowed to plow in “Area B,” and not in “Area C,” and told that the liaison office would coordinate additional days later on.  There was a full day’s work in Area B, so in one sense this was a success. However, not even the Legal Advisor’s office was able or willing to uphold the law. The farmers were not required to ask for permission or coordination to plow any of these lands, even according to Occupation law. Not Torat Tzedek’s definition of victory.

In the midst of all of this, we received a desperate call because a shepherd from Kufr Malek had apparently been attacked, and many of his sheep and his donkey were missing after he fled.  If you understand Hebrew or Arabic, click here to hear the shepherd tell his story. Soldiers who had arrived maintained that there had been no attack, and a police officer who arrived later in the day seemed to believe the settler version of events.  The next day we received a video and pictures that seem to show settlers loading the donkey onto a pickup, and another video showing a brother of the shepherd imploring the army to help after his car’s window was shattered by rocks. The soldiers simply drove away.

I returned home on Tuesday exhausted and dehydrated, but more significantly dealing with another reminder of the thread running through all of the examples I have provided. While it would be wrong to “let Israeli authorities and institutions off the hook,” by abandoning efforts to demand that they carry out their obligations according to international law, Israeli law and my% understanding of Jewish values, they can be counted on less and less. There are points of light and possibility.  Here and there some movement in the right direction.  But those points of light are flickering, and they need to be backed by increased international concern.

On this Independence Day, my difficult message is therefore that the task of the international community is going to be more and more important.  Some will consider that “harm.” I consider that to be justice.

Click here for a Word version of Torat Tzedek’s “Misheberakh” prayer in Hebrew, transliteration and English for the spiritual healing of Israel and the Jewish people.

Click here for a slightly revised Word version of the Prayer for the State of Israel in Hebrew and English that I wrote for Rabbis for Human Rights in 1998, along with Rabbis Jeremy Milgrom and Levi Weiman-Kelman.

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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