Yosef Zohar
The Institute for Safety in the Criminal Justice System

To read Emmanuel Levinas in the dark

“Human responsibility is the one that gives meaning to freedom

Twenty years ago, on the morning of Sunday, March 2, 2003 , while I was feeding my baby daughter, policemen entered my house and arrested me on suspicion of having murdered my father Moshe Zohar who had died about a year earlier after an heroic battle with Lou Gehrig’s disease, ALS.

The police searched the house and took documents and computers. My wife Rachel prepared a bag with clothes for me and I pushed in a book by Emmanuel Levinas into it that I couldn’t read due to being busy as CFO of a start-up company and the father of three young daughters. I thought I would have some time to read until they got off me.

When my father died in April 2002, I approached his neighbor and asked him, “Dov, just as you took my father to say Kaddish after my grandparents passed away, now please take me.” At dawn I arrived at the synagogue and found out that they study the daily page before the prayer. I remembered that at the time, surprisingly, it was of great interest to my father, a son of pioneers and founders of Kfar Sirkin village. But he was told that it is forbidden for mourners, due to the pleasure in learning.

I was intrigued, what is this study that delights to the point of prohibition. At that year the book ‘Nine Talmudic Readings’ by the Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas was published and at the first opportunity I bought a copy in the hope that the book would open foe me a window to this world.

In the detention cell in Abu-Kabir I took the book out of the bag and started reading it. Ramazi turned to me, “Zohar, what are you reading?” Ramazi did not wait, he took the book from me and began to take an interest in it. “Talmud is interesting” he said. Riyad, a Muslim from Jaffa, joined the conversation and said, “There is a lot of life wisdom in the Talmud.” I was moved and responded, “Look what I just read, Levinas says that when a person looks into himself, he discovers that he is actually what he is in relation to his environment, his family members, his friends and acquaintances. This is whole what a person is about!”

Then they opened up to me and a heart to heart conversation began about removing “masks” and about the important of respect and they even shared with me of what led to their arrest. As Levinas wrote, “The divine is revealed, if one can express it that way, at the intersections where human beings meet“.

I was so excited that I decided on the spot of recording the conversation so as not to forget. I found on the cell floor a page of court minutes and on the back I wrote down the exchange. This writing led a daily recording of my events in a kind of diary. In 2018, the diary was published as a book called” The Seventh Beggar,” which I hope will be translated in the future.

At the Herzliya police station, I asked one of the researchers, “How do you blame me, the one who fought for his father’s life and got him an experimental drug?” The researcher answered, “It’s all for appearances.”

In honor of The Jew Emmanuel Levinas . Greetings,

Arrestee Yosef Zohar, from the Investigations Division, Herzliya, Israel Police, is writing to you.

I’m not a religious person, I’m free from observing mitzvot. Is a Jew free from observing mitzvot really is free?

It’s been a few months that your book is next to my bed in my house (Nine Talmudic Readings)

However, it has been a miracle for about a week since my arrest that your book opened in my heart and mind.

During the investigation I perceive that I understand the saying I found in your book:

The appearance is at the heart of the truth’, and I say this to the researcher, he warns

Me that this statement is dangerous and that I should be warned, I tell him that despite all their efforts

To get to the truth, what they see is an appearance.

In the evening, the head of the investigation team entered the interrogation room, threw papers on the table and shouted at me, “These are the list of calls from the line of your father’s house on the night of his murder. There is no phone call going to your house.” I was shocked. Something from reality does not exist!

I insisted, “It was the phone call that woke me up and I immediately drove to my father’s house. My father’s caretaker called after midnight, my wife answered, woke me up and handed me the phone. I heard the caretaker say, “Something happened to Dad, come quickly.” I threw the phone away, my wife helped me get organized and I left as fast as I could. When I arrived at my father’s house, an intensive care van was waiting outside, and inside a doctor had already determined his natural death.”

After long hours of interrogation, I was transferred to the Ramat Hasharon station, where I volunteered in the Civil Guard during high school. So that I wouldn’t kill myself, they took the laces, belt and necklace from me and put me in the cell.

In the cell, a young man who looked like a petty criminal sat on an iron bed. He asked me what I was arrested for. I answered suspicion of murder. He got scared, he grabbed his head in his hands and shouted, “Oh my God, Who did they put me in with?”

Detention cell In the evening, after the adrenaline in the blood has been absorbed, I browse the book

again. I got to the summary page of your biography and find out that you have left us

In 1995 at the age of 90. With all my heart I wanted to send you these

words and now I wonder what the address is and who to refer to and I understand now

At the time of writing these lines the following day, the address is Hamakom

And Hamakom is also an object of appeal. What a wonderful meaning, thank you.

I also learned from the summary of your biography, that in 1930 at the age of 24,

You received a PhD for the work: Intuition in Husserl’s Phenomenology.

I read at the bottom of the page that phenomenology = the logic of phenomena and that

The Talmud is an example of the application of the phenomenological method in approaching a phenomenon

Or to a text without preconceived notions and only by developing logical tools.

It’s wonderful to me, it’s been a few days that I’ve been arguing against them (the researchers) because they are

Captives of the thesis with which they set out and that any fact or evidence in any case,

Strengthen and do not refute it.

When a person dies in his home, the police come to the house. The caretaker said that my father got into trouble, he then tried to revive him, pressed the emergency button and called me, and I said that I received his call and flew to my father’s house. A year later, the investigators accidentally missed the phone call and concluded that the caretaker and I were telling the same lie and this was a sign that we were making up versions because we were partners in crime.

About two weeks after my arrest, the investigators found the “missing call”. If there is a phone call then we spoke the truth and there is an alibi, I was indeed at home. It could be expected that after the discovery of the phone call, the police and the prosecutor’s office would examine whether the therapist was tempted to give a false confession, to re-examine the concept, and above all to replace the investigative team that was terribly negligent.

But that was not done. I was not informed, nor my lawyers and the arresting judge. Instead, the investigative team began “renovating” the caretaker’s version. To plant in his mind a new incriminating version it took them several days of undocumented investigations that we learned about their existence from the caretaker’s arrest document.

The prosecution objected to our request to receive the document, but Judge George Kara, who has since been appointed to the Supreme Court, asked for the original and this is the photocopy. Comparing the data from the caretaker’s arrest document with his interrogation videos, it appears that in at least four cases the caretaker was taken out from his cell to interrogations that were undocumented.

After three months of arrest Abu Kabir, Supreme Court Judge Eliyahu Matsa, rest in peace, decided in an unusual step for the seriousness of the charges against me, to release me to house arrest.

This is how I sealed Abu Kabir’s diary:

The news of my expected release to house arrest makes wings here and abroad. I managed to

Send a message and I was told that the support web-site has almost fall down. Nice. I am excited by the responses

of the friends here. I get support reactions straight from the heart, but more interesting than that is the repeated reaction

“Your case gives us hope.”

How important is faith in the system?

how important is hope to a person who has been wronged.

Supreme Court From the height of his place in Jerusalem appear again as the Sanhedrin, a great Knesset, and I feel that I am a part of

something much bigger than me. I try to digest the meaning and approach again

to Emanuel Levinas’ interpretation of the verse from the Song of Songs ,“Thy navel is like a round goblet, wherein no mingled wine is wanting; thy belly is like a heap of wheat set about with lilies.”

According to Levinas, the importance of

A Sanhedrin so great, that it is considered the navel of the world, connected as the navel to the mother, to a higher power, and fed from it.

Hope and faith are what prevents anarchy, because if there is no institution of justice to turn to, violent prevails.

During the years of the trial, I began to research how it is possible in the State of Israel to accuse a person of a murder that did not happen and what can be done to prevent the recurrence of such cases? This led to my joining a voluntary activity to amend the law in order to reduce the probative status of admission, and to a series of studies and a doctorate  which was titled Criminal Law in the Shadow of Bargaining.

It took almost five years until, in November 2007, I was fully acquitted, unanimously.

How do you continue to live on the earth that betrayed you, that accused and unjustly persecuted you?

Emmanuel Levinas’ answer is surprising, “Everyone is responsible for everything and everyone and towards everyone before everyone – and I am (responsible) before everyone else.” I, who was rescued from a false conviction, am responsible before everyone else that such cases will not happen again. In January 2008, two months after the acquittal, I went up to Mount Scopus for the first time to lecture to law students in the Hebrew University. Since then, almost every semester I am lecturing about my case at law schools across the country.

Levinas ,who foresaw the comings in the thirties of the last century, and developed this aspect of his philosophy after the war, explains, “To be responsible for everything and everyone, means to be responsible in spite of yourself” (‘Nine Talmudic Readings’, p. 140), since “human responsibility is what gives freedom meaning.” Levinas attributes this to the role of Judaism, “Only the persecuted is responsible for everyone, including his persecutors.” (Ibid)

A lesser known and no less important aspect of Levinas’s ethical philosophy was emphasized at the conference to mark the twentieth anniversary of his death, “Truth and Justice in Israel” held in 2015 at the Tel Aviv Cinematheque, and led by Joel and David Hansel (Levinas’ grandson) and with my participation. The conference was dedicated to the fight for the reduction of the probative status of confession in the criminal law which has been going on for many years in Israel and which directly concerns the claim for social justice.

Yosef Zohar at  Tel Aviv Cinematheque, 12.14.2015. In the background the picture of Emmanuel Levinas with President Ephraim Katzir. Photographed by Dudu Bachar

In 1990, at the age of 84, Levinas said in an interview with Bernard Henry Levy , a section of which was screened at the conference, “The state exists to support this institution (the law). In the name of my responsibility to others, I am obligated to the human race. Prophet Micah says, “It hath been told thee, O man, what is good, and what the LORD doth require of thee: only to do justly, and to love charity, and to walk humbly with thy God.” The meaning of charity here is love, the love of love. The contrast here is between those who want a state for the sake of justice and those who want justice to ensure the existence of the state.”

If I correctly understand him, Levinas offers a perceptual reversal regarding the relationship between the law and the state, and especially the state of Israel. ‘Peace’ courts were named so to indicate their purpose; to ensure the peace of the country (British Kingdom). Thomas Hobbes’s state is created when man’s wolfish nature is restrained. On the other hand, according to Levinas, the role of the state is to ensure the peace of justice (law).

Levinas does not see the state as a purpose in itself, but as a mean to achieve social justice. As Hansel explained, “Charity is designed to provide the poor with their needs, something that the free economy never allows them to achieve. This is the Jewish definition of social justice. In other words, the purpose of Charity is to eradicate poverty, nothing less and nothing more.

In the book ‘Nine Talmudic Readings’ (p. 83) Levinas writes as a prophet, “This is a special land. It resembles the sky. It is a land that vomits its inhabitants, when they are not righteous. There is no other land like it. The willingness to accept a land under these conditions is what gives a right to this land.”

That is, it is not the law that protects the Israeli state. The state’s guardians of “charity and justice is the one who protects her.

As for me, this is why I set out on this path. If an indictment could be filed against me for a murder that did not happen, anyone can be arrested in Israel and any indictment can be filed against him. True, I was unanimously acquitted. But how close was I to confessing to a murder that didn’t happen? I do not know. What is clear is that if I hadn’t stood up to the pressures and stuck to the truth, I wouldn’t be here today to tell you  about it. The irony is, as I also told the judges, is that my father’s character in his life kept me. In the most difficult moments, I remembered that my father used to tell me, “not to be afraid of fear”, and I said to myself that if my father during his illness did not give up fighting for his life, I have no right to despair. And this is one of the lessons I learned – it is always possible to find the strength within us to endure. Especially when we realize that people depend on us, and the way we cope reflects on them as well.

I have personally experienced many flaws in the legal system in Israel that I believe must be corrected. At the same time, my heart goes out to the protesters that fear from the possibility of abuse of the legal reform. Wonderful people who care about the country, as the Arabic phrase says, “brothers born not from my mother’s womb”, including childhood friends, school and work friends and even my eldest daughter, her boyfriend and their friends.

From this perspective I call all the participants in the negotiations at the President’s House to reach a broad and genuine agreement as possible, since as I sealed Abu-Kabir’s diary, Hope and faith are what prevents anarchybecause if there is no institution of justice to turn to, violent prevails.”

About the Author
Researcher and Lecturer, Department of Criminology at Western Galilee College. Managing director, The Institute for Safety in the Criminal Justice System. Research Fellow, Judicial Conflict Resolution (JCR) project at the Faculty of Law, Bar Ilan University.
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