We Can Be Zionists Without Acting Like Simeon and Levi — Parashat VaYekhi

No, I can’t let this go. (No pun intended).  Last week, for Parashat VaYigash, I wrote about why I spent a night under arrest in order to be able to successfully challenge the automatic 15 day restraining order the police wanted to impose on me, that would have kept me from Torat Tzedek-The Torah of Justice’s work to protect Palestinian Bedouin shepherds from settler violence.

Well, I got what I asked for. The rain eagerly awaited by farmers and shepherds (although not with the intensity of the last few days.) shortened our number of field days. Nevertheless, Monday and Tuesday were exhausting, and I was beaten by one of the settlers on Tuesday.

The settlers and their supporters in “Im Tirtzu” see it differently.  Im Tirtzu posted a huge blaring headline in Hebrew, “Anarchists injures a horse owned by a Jew.” The text reads, “Outrageous! Arik Ascherman, along with the anarchist Guy Hirschfeld were seen yesterday attacking the horse of a Jewish settler. This is not the first time that they have attacked the horses, and injured them.  The settlers have lodged a complaint with the police.  (Needless to say, so have we. A.A.) We hope that those who are merciless towards animals will be punished soon, and soon banned from Judea and Samaria. Where are all the animal rights organizations? Maybe you can help us?”

Below I have translated the reply that I made to their post, and am also sending to as many of the tens of those who shared and left angry comments, some of them containing incitement against us.

In this week’s Torah portion, “VaYakhi,” Jacob blesses his children just before his death. Some of the “blessings” seem more like curses.  Of Simeon and Levi, who slaughtered the entire extended family of Skhem, after he rapes or seduces their sister Dina, he says, “Simeon and Levi area pair; Their weapons are tools of lawlessness.  Let not my soul be amongst them.  May I not be associated with them.  For when they are angry they kill people, and for pleasure they maim oxen.  Cursed be their anger, for it is fierce and their wrath is relentless….” (Genesis 49:5-7).

Jacob’s revulsion regarding the violent actions of Simeon and Levi is clear.  Rashi and others note that the reason that the literal translation of Jacob’s words is that they killed a “ish, (“person” in the singular).  This refers to fact that human life was so meaningless to them that killing many was like killing one.  Today we use the euphemism “collateral damage,” and speak of “collective punishment.”  The term “Dayiyeh doctrine “ comes from statements by then Northern Front Commander, and eventual Chief of Staff General Gadi Eizenkot who said that we would use disproportionate power whenever a shot was fired against us.  Others, including the current Defense Minister Naftali Bennet have echoed this.

Soforno’s commentary on this verse makes it clear that those who act with excessive violence are not fit for leadership, “Seeing their older brother had been demoted, they would have been in line to have the honor due to a firstborn transferred to the brother next in seniority. However, they did not rate such special honor because people who make use of weaponry in their day to day activities are not suitable material for wielding political and military power. Hence neither one of them will be accorded the status taken away from Reuven. (compare Proverbs 29,4 where Solomon describes a king’s primary characteristic as being במשפט יעמד ארץ, “seeing to it that the rule of law and justice prevails on earth.”) Shimon and Levi had disqualified themselves from claiming such a distinction….
כלי חמס מכרותיהם, ‘instruments of violence are their stock-in-trade.’”

According to Rabeinu Bakhya, violence was a matter of first recourse for Simeon and Levi in the matter of Dina, because the use of violence was how they lived on a daily basis, “According to the plain meaning of the verse Yaakov wanted to state that when these two brothers attacked the people of Shechem they were both of one mind that only violence was the solution to the problem of releasing Dinah which confronted them. When Yaakov uses the termמכרותיהם, the meaning is similar to סעודותיהם, that which is “their meal,” i.e. what provides them with סעד, support, sustenance. The word מכרה is related to כרה, i.e. a meal (compare Kings II 6,23). What Yaakov meant was that these brothers use the tools of violence to live and sustain themselves. Yaakov implied that when the brothers Shimon and Levi killed the male inhabitants of Skhem they killed people who personally had not done any harm to them, but on the contrary, had made a covenant with them. Yaakov therefore felt the need to apologize and to make clear that he had not been a party to their scheme. This is why he stressed בסודם אל תבא נפשי, “may my soul not enter their conspiracy.”

The reference to maiming animals has been more difficult for commentators. Many say this is a reference to Simeon and Levi’s  role in selling Joseph The ox appears on the flags of Joseph’s children, Efraim and Menashe, and Joseph is referred to as an ox in Moses’ blessings to the tribes. Jacob’s blessing of Joseph may refer to a wild ass, or a grape vine. The Torah doesn’t indicate that Simeon and Levi were more involved than the other brothers, but some say it was they who had originally suggested to kill him.  The commentator, Radak sees this verse as a reference to Skhem’s father, Khamor (“Khamor” in Hebrew is “donkey”) Others stick to the plain meaning of the text.

It seems to me that the violent ways of Simeon and Levi towards human beings also find an outlet in cruelty towards animals. Their stock in trade knows no boundaries.

In the Occupied Territories, violence has become stock in trade for some settlers, Palestinians and soldiers, although not all. Others do not participate, but encourage, or look the other way.  Up until the last few months, the settlers of the “Malakehi HaShalom” unauthorized outpost had been very aggressive and harassed the Bedouin shepherds, but did not employ physical violence, and  very rarely actively expelled flocks.  This has changed, perhaps because the army has made it clear that, even though the area that both the settler flock and the Bedouin flocks graze in is a live fire zone, the army does not want to be chasing after sheep and goats if there is no planned military exercise, and if there is no friction between the groups.  Apparently, the settlers have decided to provide that friction. Like Simeon and Levi, who acted out of seemingly righteous anger, they believe that the ends justify the means.  Rather than seeing that our grabbing of the horses is a last recourse act to defend the helpless, they no doubt see the fact that the settler Elkhanan Lerner beat us, and probably hurt the horse more than we did, as justified because we were holding on to the horse. (Or, as Elkhanan says in the Im Tirtzu post, trying to steal the horse.)

We have other, more positive role models in this week’s parasha. After story after story of sibling rivalry in Genesis, Jacob blesses Joseph’s two children together. We know of no conflict between them, and bless our male children to this day that they be like Ephraim and Menashe.  Joseph acts tenderly and forgivingly towards his brothers.  The other brothers are convinced he will exact vengeance after Jacob’s death. The very thought that they would suspect this brings tears to Joseph’s eyes.  It is not that he is willing to forget everything and not defend himself. He tests his brothers when they first come seeking to procure food. However, he says that he will not play God, and prefers to believe that everything that happened was part of God’s Plan.

Rather than finding ourselves in the company of Simeon and Levi, and acting like them, may we be disciples of Jacob and Joseph.

Shabbat Shalom

This is the translation of my reply to the accusations that we were practicing cruelty to animals:

In the hope that there are people who follow Im Tirtzu for whom facts, truth, and differing understanding of morality are important, and who will not discount everything I write because I am Satan for you, I will try to lay out the facts.  I will begin from the end—If the settlers of “Malakhei HaShalom” and the troubled youth they take care of would stop harming the Bedouin flocks, they wouldn’t see us there.  As we read on the Shabbat before Tisha B’Av:  “Wash yourselves clean; Put your evil doings Away from My sight. Cease to do evil; Learn to do good. Devote yourselves to justice; Aid the wronged. Uphold the rights of the orphan; Defend the cause of the widow. ‘Come, let us reach an understanding, —says Adonai. Be your sins like crimson, They can turn snow-white; Be they red as dyed wool, They can become like fleece.’ If, then, you agree and give heed, You will eat the good things of the earth;” (Isaiah 1:16-19).

I don’t think we are the ones who injured the horse, but you can’t injure and attack, and then complain when others seek to defend against your attacks.

  1. The Bedouin of Eyn Rashash once lived in the Negev inside Israel. In Eyn Rashash, they tell us that they lived more or less in harmony with the army for over thirty years, until the settlers of the unauthorized outpost “Malakhei HaShalom” arrived.  Ever since, the settlers have embittered their lives, and have attempted to prevent the Bedouin from accessing the same lands they grazed their flocks on for all those years.
  2. On an almost daily basis, Elkhanan Lerner and the troubled youth he takes in try to expel the Bedouin shepherds and their flocks. For a long time they limited themselves to threats. Today, they bring all-terrain vehicles and horses, and blast loud music. In this week’s Torah portion, our patriarch Yaakov curses Simeon and Levi’s violence towards other human beings, and their cruelty to animals, ““Simeon and Levi area pair; Their weapons are tools of lawlessness. Let not my soul be amongst them.  May I not be associated with them.  For when they are angry they kill people, and for pleasure they maim oxen.  Cursed be their anger, for it is fierce and their wrath is relentless….” (Genesis 49:5-7).” Sometimes we manage to stand between the attackers and the flocks, and prevent them from scaring and chasing off the flocks.  When we don’t succeed, they act cruelly towards the animals. When the flocks flee in panic, there is danger that pregnant goats will spontaneously abort.  Watch this clip from January 6th. The flock begins to flee at 1:00, and is in full fledged panic by 1:40.  Sometimes the all-terrain vehicles or the horses literally charge into the flock.
  3. I hope that the headline “A horse belonging to a Jew” doesn’t indicate that there is no problem if a Jew acts cruelly to an animal belonging to a non-Jew.  Already in the middle ages, HaMeiri clarified in his commentary to the Talmud, “Beit HaBekhira,” that we should not differentiate between harming an animal owned by a Jew or a non-Jew.
  4. All we wish to do is to prevent abuse of the weak. The shepherds tell us that before we arrived, the settlers simply needed to watch them from above, and the Bedouin would stay home. Grabbing the horse’s reins is a matter of last resort that we take when the army and police don’t show up, when the attackers don’t answer our demands that they leave the shepherds and flocks alone, and after trying to stand between.  We grab the reins as gently as possible, and attempt to calm the horse. We always tell the rider that we will let him go if he promises to leave the flocks alone.  But, it is our Jewish duty to intervene at that point, “In a place where nobody is acting with basic human decency, you must strive to be that person” (Pirkei Avot 2:5) It is also our responsibility according to Israel’s “Do not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor” law in the penal code for not preventing a crime (a/33 1939, clause 262), “If one knows that somebody is planning to commit a crime, and doesn’t take reasonable steps to prevent the crime, or the completion of the crime, his/her sentence is two year’s imprisonment.”
  5. On Tuesday we called the police and the army at the very first moment that we heard that Elkhanan was on his way towards us in his all terain vehicle. Unfortunately, they arrived only after the incident ended.  One of the youth arrived on a horse, and he also had a boom box to play loud music. Despite our calls that he leave the flock alone, and our attempts to stand between, he succeeded in frightening them and causing them to flee.  A second flock came back, and the rider was again trying to charge and act cruelly toward the animals.  With no other way to stop this, I grabbed the reins.  The horse was not troubled, and was quite calm.  If he was injured,  perhaps it happened the previous day when the horse fell.  Watch minute 2:05 of this clip. There is another shot of the flock fleeing at 2:40 There were two horses that day, so I don’t know for certain that it is the same horse. However, you can see how the head of the horse jerks up, as the rider pulls the reins and tries not to fall.Perhaps the horse was injured when the rider tried all sorts of movements to free himself.  Perhaps it occurred when Elkhanan beat us, tried to pull me backwards, and then chopped at me and the reins in order to force me to let go.  Here are two separate clips showing this.  Watch the movements of the horse’s head when Elkhanan pulls me. Clip 1.  Clip 2.
  6. Incidentally, Elkhanan was convicted of aggravated assault in 2003. He moved to the Yitzhar settlement, where we was a youth counselor. In the hearing about sentencing after his conviction, character witnesses said that he saw this work as a way of making amends for his past  He has proudly told me that he gives youth at risk a good home and a profession. It is true that he sometimes is the adult restraining the youth.  However, he also allows them to express violence towards Palestinians, and recruits them to do very wrong and probably unlawful activities.
  7. “Im Tirtzu” sees itself as followers of Theodore Herzl. I don’t think that abusing people, preventing them from making a livelihood or cruelty to animals were part of Herzl’s vision. For those of you who have kept reading until now, do you believe that Zionism requires or justifies such actions? Do you believe that anything is legitimate in order to redeem the Land of Israel? Is everything permitted towards non-Jews?  I believe that Herzl and many of the other shapers of the Zionist idea wished to be a “Light Unto the Nations,” in the way we act towards non-Jews. We can be Zionists, and honor the Image of God in every human being.
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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