Arik Ascherman

What I Am Atoning For, And How

Since the beginning of the month of Elul, we have been in a time of soul-searching, saying forgiveness and asking for forgiveness from those we hurt. Many times we know how to point an accusing finger against others, but in Elul and during the Ten Days of Repentance, we are required to ask the question, “Where was I wrong, and need to improve.”

It is very easy to point the finger when we speak of efforts to expel Palestinians in the occupied territories, and this is nothing new. Over the years, settlers have been plotting to dispossess and expel Palestinians with direct and/or indirect state backing. Already in February 2021, Ze’ev Hever (Zambish), a veteran settler strategist convicted of acts of terrorism, said at a conference of the settler organization Amanathat he heads that the best way to seize and hold on to Palestinian land is shepherding outposts because each outpost controls a thousand dunam. The truth is that we know outposts that take over thousands of dunams with the help of their herds.

But, as careful as we are to say that the policy of dispossession and expulsion is the policy of successive Israeli governments and not just the current government, in a recent meeting with veteran human rights defenders, we all said that we do not remember any time that the situation was this bad. As can be seen in a Torat Zedek document, in 2023 the settlers are succeeding in advancing a plan to “cleanse” the area between Upper Alon Road and Route 90 in the Jordan Valley of all Palestinian presence.

Since the end of May, three Palestinian herding communities have fled their homes along Route 458 (Alon Road), where they have lived for decades. Other communities are at risk.

In fact, the herding communities suffer three blows: a. the violence and threats exerted by the settlers. b. The economic blow.  The violence and threats prevent access to grazing land, while settler herds invade and eat the grain on the lands the shepherds sowed for their flocks.  Shepherds are forced to buy two to three times more fodder than they used to.  At the same time, the price of a ton of food for their flocks increased from NIS 1,000 to NIS 1,400-2,000 per ton because of the Russia-Ukraine war.  c. State pressure through demolition orders, allocation of land to settlers, closure of land to Palestinians, non-arrival of security forces or even standing idly by when settlers attack Palestinians, failure to deal with complaints filed with the police, and more.  Perhaps the straw that broke the camel’s back for the community of Ein Samia was when a police officer decided that a Bedouin flock was stolen, and invited the settlers to load 37sheep onto trucks and take them away.  Members of the Ein Samia community said that for years they managed to resist the pressure and violence of the settlers and also managed to cope with the economic losses. But, they were unable to stand up to the power of the state.

Most of the families from the al-Baka community fled on 11-12 July 2023. The last family left on 1 September 2023.  At the end of June, a new outpost was established on the community’s access road. The Bedouin couldn’t go out at night, and during the day the settlers blocked the road with their flock or vehicles.

The house closest to the outpost in al-Bakacaught fire at 6:30 A.M. on Friday, 7 July 2023, and the community asked us to stay with them for two nights. We did it. On Sunday morning, I mentioned that they had only asked for two days and said that we couldn’t continue every night, but that we should be notified if there were problems and that I would come whenever possible.

I asked if that was OK, they said yes

On Monday, they started unpacking and packing.

Not long ago, I asked Abu Eid whether they would have stayed in their homes in the al-Baqa’ encampment if we had provided 24/7 presence. He said yes. Later, when he saw how upset it had been for me, he said he wasn’tsure they would have stayed.I can’t escape the feeling that if we had been with them in their difficult hour, they might not been been forced to abandon their homes.

The community in Qabun fled their homes shortly thereafter.  In Qabun, too, there were deliberations about what we were capable of doing, although there the great challenge was that the residents were so afraid of the settlers’ threats of revenge if they saw us together with the community, that they rejected offers of a protective presence until after it was too late.

Thank God today we are in a different place. We have a large group of human rights defenders and we are maintaining a presence in communities like Rashash and Wadi Seeq, which are currently in the crosshairs. At the beginning of July, when the Al Baqa community dealt with the new outpost, there was not the number of activists we have today. At the time, I gave in to the consideration that we were not able to do what we do now.

I asked Abu ‘Eid for forgiveness and promised that we would continue to do what we could to evacuate the outpost and allow the community to return. True forgiveness requires correction,

We must do everything to allow the community to return to the homes where they lived for decades.  Unlike most of the new outposts that created in 2023, the Civil Administration did “evacuate” the outpost that turned life in Al Baka into hell twice – on June 29th 2023 before the community fled, and on July 18th  2023, when only two families remained and before the last family left on September 1st 2023.  But each time, the settlers rebuilt the outpost within a few hours.  Everyone can decide for him/herself whether Bezalel Smotrich’s Civil Administration really intended to evacuate, or whether it was a charade from the start, like the “evacuations” in previous governments that lasted a few hours longer or even a few days, until the settlers rebuilt, with public crowdfunding campaigns.

Maimonides teaches that true repentance is when a person has the opportunity to commit the same offense, and s/he does not commit it.

Although not everyone believed at first that it was possible to accomplish the mission of providing a protective presence as we do today in communities at risk, I felt personal responsibility for the fact that I woke up too late to save the communities of Ein Samia, Al Baqa and Qaboun, and after a few families fled from other communities. I said to my fellow activists that “we can’t” is not in my lexicon. We must truly make the unreasonable and disproportionate effort required to keep more communities from fleeing. If we nevertheless fail, we will at least be able to look ourselves in the mirror and say that we truly did everything possible.  The fact is  that there was still one family in Al Baqa when we started organizing a presence to protect the communities, but our presence could not prevent the family’s departure. I certainly have no illusions about the forces that we are up against, or about the chances of success. Clearly being present in communities is just a finger in the dike to buy time, in order to find a real solution. But my commitment when reciting selikhot penitential prayers this year has been that together with fellow human rights defenders, we will not repeat the same offense of “we are not capable.”

Having asked Abu Eid for forgiveness, on Yom Kippur I will have to ask forgiveness from the One in Whose Oneness we are all one. If we fail to save communities, “We tried” will not be a great excuse when standing before the Creator of the universe. However, I hope that even if we do  not succeed in saving the communities that are in the crosshairs, with the aim of erasing the presence of herding communities between Alon Road in Binyamin and Route 90 in the Jordan Valley, I will at least say to my credit and to our credit that we did really, really everything that was possible for us to do. 

We need the help of everyone who understands the magnitude of this injustice to join us, and help us to live up to our obligation.

Gmar Khatima Tova

Link to Annual Torat Tzedek Viduis (Confessions) in Hebrew

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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