The Police Apologized to Me This Week: Parashat Behar

For many, the agrarian society described in Parashat Behar seems distant and foreign.  However, many of my days are spent accompanying and protecting farmers and shepherds whose lifestyles haven’t changed all that much.

I work with simple folk, struggling and toiling to make a living.  Their lives are made all the more difficult because of the Occupation. Those whose goal is that Palestinians will no longer pick their olives or graze their sheep in the Land of Israel often succeed in harnessing the power of the State to further their ends. Always looming is the threat of dispossession.

Thank God, I also meet soldiers and police officers and average Israelis who see their job as being to protect those whose “misfortune” is that they are not Jewish.  These decent people sustain me, even when the limitations imposed upon them by their uniforms and the law of the Occupation prevent them from fully doing what I believe is just.

I have written in the past that one of the methods of dispossession is for settlers to bring their sheep onto private cultivated Palestinian land, allowing them to cause thousands of shekels of losses. Often, just the fact that we show up, causes the shepherds of the settler flock to quickly move out of cultivated areas.  We also often call the police and army.

Police speaking with Jewish shepherd suspected of trespassing on private cultivated Palestinian land.

Sometimes officers come quickly, and do just what they need to do. They ID the trespasser and instruct the Palestinians to come to the police station to lodge a proper complaint.  If the land owner chooses to do so, the fact that the police have identified the suspect and are witnesses to what transpired.

Sometimes the police outright refuse to come, providing a variety of excuses.  In other cases, the settler flock is long gone before the police show up. There are occasions when the officers who arrive seem more upset with us for having dragged them out than they are concerned with the suspected crimes. Once, I was berated by a police officer for giving false hope to the Bedouin who had planted the land being trespassed on.

This week the police apologized for an incident that occurred on March 18th, and said that they would discipline the officer involved.  I had been called by a local shepherd who had sighted the settler flock from the Ma’aleh Shlomo unauthorized outpost near the Rimonim settlement on private cultivated Palestinian land.   I first called the police at 10:47 am. Numerous calls and several hours later, at 1:14 pm, a desk officer at the Benyamin police station created a three way call with a field officer, supposedly trying to get to me.  After he thought that I was off the line, he said to the desk officer, “You don’t know who that is?  He’s the biggest anarchist in Judea and Samaria.”  The desk officer responded that I still had a right to report incidents.  The field officer responded that I could report as much as I want, the settler car had left the area (not the flock), and that we had to come in to the station.  The impression was that his goal was simply to avoid dealing with the crimes being committed.

The police should be complimented for acknowledging the severity of what happened. However, what is even more serious is that this officer’s attitude reflects the attitude of many towards human rights defenders.  What kind of a society are we if those of us who try to honor God’s image in every human being and defend the weak and the powerless are considered “enemies of the people?”

I am sure that at his disciplinary hearing, the office will claim that because the car had left the area there was no point in arriving (2.5 hours after my first call).   It is also true that, if we believe in freedom of thought and conscience, we can’t dictate the attitudes of police officers. We can demand that they separate between their personal opinions, and their job.  If their conscience does not allow them to perform their duty, they need to resign, or at least formally request to be relieved of the task they are not willing to perform.

The point is that the officer’s words were a sort of canary in the coal mine.  I hope they sere as a wakeup call regarding the huge educational and moral crisis engulfing us.

Rashi famously asks why our Torah portion stresses that the laws of the sabbatical year and the jubilee were given to Moses on Mount Sinai.    Both Ibn Ezra and Ramban refer to “t’nai haretz,”  There are some mitzvoth that we are told directly that the Land will spit us out if we do not obey them.  The importance of these mitzvoth to our ability to live in the Land of Israel is emphasized by repeating that they were given on Mt. Sinai.

The portion does not deal directly with trespassing, and it allows preferential treatment to fellow Jews.  But it also teaches us that the Land is ultimately God’s, not just another commodity to be bought and sold. It instruct us of the need to ensure that all can live in dignity on the Land, and enjoy food security. The image it paints in my head is of people respecting the Land and those living on it, and creating a world of harmony and balance.  In such a world, the basic needs of all are met, and nobody is allowed to fall too low for ever.

We may not live in that world yet, but I wish that we would honor and respect those working to make that world a reality.

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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