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Arik Ascherman
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This Purim, skip or whisper the verses of slaughter. End the Had Gadya cycle

Now is the time we are called to distinguish between good and evil, even as we seethe with anger and pain
Huwara Pogrom

I hope that these words will be read by some who after Sunday’s pogrom are asking questions you usually don’t ask. You are the people positioned to give the unspeakable some redemptive meaning.

We haven’t yet celebrated Purim, or even Shabbat Zakhor, but we are in a “Had Gadya” moment. Elan Ganeles is murdered after hundreds of settlers carry out a murderous pogrom in revenge for the murder of Jews carried out in revenge for the killing and injuring of the young and elderly in Nablus as our army sought to arrest Lion’s Den terrorists…….. Settlers returned to Huwara on Monday and almost every day we document non-fatal attacks on Palestinians and their property throughout the Occupied Territories, not to mention State sanctioned demolitions and the cries of incitement by our Finance Minister and others to raze Huwara to the ground. I could go back further and further in time, and who knows what else will happen before this is published?

Had Gadya.

But, not to slight Purim, only once a year are we commanded to get drunk to the point that we can no longer distinguish between Mordekhai and Haman, between good and evil. And today many rabbis, realizing the potential danger of inebriation even on one day, give caution against this commandment.

Now is the time we are called to distinguish between good and evil, even as we seethe with anger and pain over the murders of Elan and Hallel and Yagel. I hope we are also mourning Sameh Aqtash and praying for the speedy recovery of all those stabbed and shot and otherwise wounded in the pogrom. We must recognize and speak the truth plainly. The truth is that the deadly logic of Had Gadya makes us act like Amalek. We must not legitimate evil because of our righteous victimhood or by falsely and foolishly thinking that it serves deterrence. The truth is that we are overwhelmingly more powerful than the Palestinian and enjoy the support of the most powerful country in the world (although the current government is weakening that support). The truth is that our overwhelming power gives us the ability and responsibility to take significant unilateral actions to break the Had Gadya cycle. The question is whether we have the will.

We didn’t have the will on Sunday. Listen to this Hebrew recording of my phone call with the Shomron Brigade command center at 11:00 pm, hours after the pogrom began. Senior army officials have already admitted that they simply failed. However, in this recording, the soldier who answers me simply says “We are trying, but we can’t do anything.” I told her, “You wouldn’t say that if Palestinians were attacking a Jewish community. We had the power to stop the pogrom, but we didn’t use it. We are willing to use excessive force against Palestinians when lives and property are not at risk, but not use even a fraction of that force against Jewish pogromists when people are in mortal danger, sheep are being slaughtered, and property is going up in flames.

Words are not enough. They must be backed by deeds. But words and how we speak or abuse them can lead to both good deeds and evil deeds. Certainly since Baruch Goldstein massacred Palestinians on Purim, we ought to be aware of how the words we read in the Book of Esther can support the mentality that motivated those who carried out this year’s pogrom. For many years I have supported the custom of Rabbi Amy Eilberg to read the verses in Megillat Esther in which we slaughter our enemies in a whisper, just as we whisper the curses in Ki Tavo in Deuteronomy. In light of the pogrom perhaps those non-halakhic communities that read the entire Megillah should consider skipping these verses altogether.

Are there any Orthodox rabbis willing to issue a “hora’at ha’sha’ah,” a temporary emergency decree calling on halakhic communities not to read these verses?

On Shabbat Zakhor, if we read the traditional readings regarding the eternal war against Amalek read on the Shabbat before Purim, we should at least frame them as did Rabbi Shimshon Rafael Hirsch. Hirsch teaches that we are commanded to fight against Amalekite tendencies that can even exist within us:

“Blot out the memory of Amalek
Not Amalek, but the memory and fame and glory of Amalek. This endangers the moral future of humanity. As long as the history books will glorify military heroes…as long as people will want to emulate them.

Don’t Forget:
Don’t forget a thing if the day will come when you will want to be like Amalek, and like Amalek you won’t want to remember your obligations or to know God, but will look for the opportunity in small or big matters to exploit your advantage to harm other human beings.

Don’t forget this when the day will come, and you will want to rid yourself of your role and mission as the Jewish people that you accepted among humanity. Don’t envy the laurels of those that the world of foolishness gives to those who are happy when they sacrifice the happiness of other human beings. Remember the tear drenched land that cultivated those laurels.

Don’t forget this when the day will come when you will adopt the uncouthness and violence of Amalek. Stand tall and preserve your humanity and the value of justice you learned from your God. They are the future. In the end, humaneness and justice will prevail over uncouthness and violence. You were sent to herald and bring this future closer through your fate and your example—this victory and this future.”

Could there be a call on this Shabbat Zakhor to remember who we are supposed to be, and on Purim that the time has come to put an end to Had Gadya? I know that Sunday’s events are causing soul searching for some within the right wing, pro-Occupation and national religious camps, as well as among those who say they wish to end the Occupation but that there is nobody to talk to and every unsavory act we take there is necessary for security. They may have not entirely changed their views, but are asking “what have we come to?” Will this be fleeting, or could it be expanded to pull us back from the brink?

Returning to the theme of recognizing truth even on Purim, our overwhelming power means that we have the ability to almost unilaterally end the Had Gadya cycle in the short, intermediate and long terms. We cannot hide behind claims that Jewish terror is less murderous, or that speaking of how Jewish violence and the dispossession of Palestinians fans Palestinian violence is justifying and encouraging Palestinian violence. Doing the right thing is not displaying weakness. Continuous engagement in the question of who started the violence is counterproductive, and “it takes two to tango.” Our actions do lead to Palestinian violence.

In the short term, The deadly logic of Had Gadya is that what was done to us justifies what we do to others. Our power gives us the ability and responsibility to break the cycle. Stopping those seeking to attack us, yes. Revenge attacks in the name of deterrence, no. While it would be naïve to think that our unilaterally opting out of Had Gadya will immediately end all Palestinian violence, it is even more dangerously naïve to think that playing the game enhances our security. The history of our conflict does not back that up.

In the intermediate term, we have the power to unilaterally cease displacing and dispossessing Palestinians. We can cancel decisions to legalize outposts and authorize building. We can return to Palestinians the authority to plan their communities, or at least authorize their building plans. Until we do so we could cease to demolish homes built without almost impossible to obtain permits. We could prevent settler flocks from depredating Palestinian fields, groves and vineyards. We could put the same amount of effort into arresting and prosecuting Jews who use violence against Palestinians as we invest when Palestinians attack Jews. None of these actions in any way harm our security. In fact, reducing the hate they induce would reduce violence directed against us.

In the long term, simply ceasing to extract an eye for an eye or even stopping the most egregious acts of injustice is not enough to break the cycle of violence. We must end the Occupation. The disengagement from Gaza teaches us that unilateral action can create a dangerous vacuum. One reason for the failure of the Oslo accords is that they were not accompanied by the required short and intermediate-term actions. However, our power enables us to take steps to unilaterally break through the mutual belief on both sides that only their side wants peace, and the other side does not. We saw how Israeli public opinion changed almost overnight when Sadat came to Jerusalem. We could accomplish something similar by implementing the required short and intermediate-term actions, combined with declaring our willingness to immediately open discussions based on the Saudi/Arab League plan, granting full democratic rights to all living between the Jordan and the sea, confederation or any one of a number of other possibilities ending our rule over Palestinians. There would be an initial spike in violence instigated by those on both sides who fear peace and believe that ongoing conflict serves their interests. If we would stay the course, the sane majority desperately wanting a better future would win the day.

I cannot ignore the fact that the current government is not interested in anything I have written here, even with the indications that many of those who voted for the coalition parties might be. I therefore particularly turn to those who are asking questions after the pogrom that you are not used to asking. Let us make Shabbat Zakhor and Purim an opportunity to widen the circle. Let it be said that this was the moment that the Jewish people returned to their true selves.

Shabbat Shalom and Purim Sameach

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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