Arik Ascherman

When To Talk, And When To Walk

Last Friday afternoon, way too late for a blog entry, I was looking for something new I hadn’t already written about for VaYeshev. It is patently clear that Jacob’s favoritism towards Joseph causes envy, anger and hate. We can talk about how best to deal with our anger when we are discriminated against, but then and now, discrimination and inequality lead to hate and strife. I certainly have written about that before. However, what caught my eye was Genesis 37:4, “they (Joseph’s brothers) hated him so that they could not speak with him in a friendly and peaceable manner.”

Both Rashi and Rabbi Shimshon Rafael Hirsch have fascinating commentaries extremely pertinent to the question of how Israelis and Palestinians (or other groups and individuals in conflict) speak to each other, or don’t. Rashi faults the brothers but also gives them credit for not dissembling: “from what is stated to their discredit we may infer something to their credit: they did not speak one thing with their mouth having another thing quite different in their hearts.” (Based on Genesis Rabbah 84:9).

Rabbi Shimshon Rafael Hirsch has two alternative takes on the inability of the brothers to speak in a friendly and peaceable manner with Joseph. The first is that they simply did not know how to speak in a way that would bring about peace. They didn’t have the tools to put things on the table and work them out. However, his second interpretation is that they were infuriated because Joseph tried to banter with them as if nothing was wrong:

“They couldn’t stand his friendly talk. Where there is friendship, everything flows. When there are tense relationships people can find fault with everything, and find it particularly objectionable when the second party tries to speak in a friendly manner.”

When I read these commentaries, one of the first things that popped into my mind was today’s “normalization” debate, the objection of many Palestinians against holding events with Israelis that create the illusion that everything is normal, when everything really isn’t. Although I am not going to address the incident he discusses, it also occurred to me later in the evening that these fascinating commentaries of Rashi and Rabbi Shimshon Rafael Hirsch were pertinent to the buzz that has been created since Yossi Klein Halevi wrote in his TOI blog about a walkout from a dialogue between him and Muhammad Darawshe.  I also thought about words versus deeds.

I am in favor of talking with those with whom I have serious disagreement, and even with those who I think are acting evilly. I don’t hide my opinions and feelings, although I try to be civil, and also understand that I don’t have a monopoly on truth.

More importantly, I believe that people can change. I am therefore obligated to do what I can to facilitate that change. I always remember that a week earlier Jacob/Israel came to terms with himself before reconciling with Esau. At the end of Genesis he will bless Joseph’s children together, having learned from the enmity he created between Joseph and his brothers. Judah, who come up with the idea of selling Joseph into slavery, will offer himself in order to save Benjamin.

I also recall my college days when I was an anti-apartheid activist and we protested a talk by Alan Paton at Harvard because in our eyes his anti-apartheid Liberal Party was not taking the positions that we believed were necessary to end apartheid. Ultimately, history proved that we were right. At the time, I argued within our group that we should not protest the fact that he was speaking. We should protest his opinions outside, enter the hall to hear him, and ask tough questions.

Our tradition teaches that we have an obligation to engage others in order to help them change. AND, we are taught that we must not insist on trying to change others when we are the wrong person to do so, and our attempt will only make things worse.

Are there people whom it is justified not to talk to, or even forbidden? Are there those whose deeds have put them beyond the pale, or whom talking to breaks a taboo that has a social or political value? That is essentially the Palestinian argument against “normalization?” Both Rashi and Hirsch criticize not talking to others, but stress the right and wrong ways to talk.

On the other hand, before we become too self-righteous regarding those who choose not to engage, let us remember that our Jewish tradition has its own version of cancel culture. The sanctions of “nidui” and the more extreme “kherem” include the prohibition of speaking with or being in the presence of a person who is essentially excommunicated and banned or a variety of offenses ranging from heresy, to challenging rabbinic authority, to breaking solidarity with the Jewish people, to owning a savage dog. You can see the full list in the Mishna Torah Hilkhot Talmud Torah 6:14.

It is important to stress that our sages were extremely wary of using this extreme punishment. The Talmud recounts the tragic consequences both for Rabbi Eliezer and for others, after they placed a kherem on Rabbi Eliezer. However, there are examples from Talmudic times until today of people being placed in kherem. In 2006 a kherem was placed on the members of Neturei Karta who participated in an Iranian Holocaust conference. They asserted that the Holocaust absolutely took place, but argued that the Zionists had collaborated with the Nazis. I am not convinced that either kherem or bans on normalization make for a better world. However, I understand the counter argument that sometimes even talking can undermine a society, or a national struggle for liberation.

In many parts of the Jewish world we have written or unwritten guidelines regarding whom it is permissible to sit or speak with.  In Israel, the hue and cry that we have an Arab party in the government coalition comes to mind. In the U.S., I think of the Hillel guidelines about who can be invited to speak in a Hillel sponsored event, and the endless battles over who should be admitted into the Council of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations.

While I know that there are many Palestinians who will not speak with any Israeli, I also know many who distinguish between Israelis and settlers. There is a smaller number of Palestinians who will speak with settlers as well.

Also among Israeli human rights defenders there is a sometimes strident debate between those who will speak with settlers, and those who believe it is absolutely forbidden to do so in almost all circumstances. I won’t visit a settlement socially, but will come to debate or teach Torah, and will meet settlers elsewhere. Sometimes I get mocking phone calls from young settlers, and occasionally think I recognize the voices of some of the many settlers that have physically attacked me. Sometimes I joke back with them. Sometimes, I try to speak to their souls. Every once in a while, I feel that some of them are listening. In one case, some of them actually asked me to give them a Torah lesson, which because of COVID I did by phone.

I don’t think it is helpful to categorically refuse to speak to settlers, any more than I think that God approved when a group from the same Neturei Karta who had some of their members placed in kherem recently stopped speaking to me when they discovered that I am a Reform rabbi. We were helping Palestinians harvest their olives where farmers had been attacked by settlers a few days earlier, when surprisingly and surrealistically a few Neturei Karta members showed up. There is a first time for just about anything.

I do have red lines. Regarding the settlers that are directly involved in oppressing Palestinians I am working to defend, it would be a betrayal to talk to them without the permission of our Palestinian partners. Just think how it would feel to a Palestinian to watch me going to visit the person that has threatened him/her, blocked his/her access to grazing or agricultural land, brought his/her flock to eat what s/he planted, and/or physically attacked him/her.

Recently two volunteers went to meet with a settler who is particularly feared by all the Palestinians in the area. They all have stories of his past violent actions. In discussions, I found it difficult to explain to the volunteers what the problem was.

Finally I wrote: “For a Palestinian, the question of whether to talk with settlers is often compared to the question of whether to speak with a thief who is in your living room. He is not only in the process of stealing your possessions, but wants to throw you out and take over your home.. Arguably you should speak with him. The thief might be convinced to leave a few items, or be less violent. Maybe she or he will agree to allow you to stay in your apartment. It should also be totally understandable if you argue that there can be no negotiation that agrees to the thief taking anything. She or he must simply leave the apartment.

Do I have the right to negotiate with the thief in the name of the homeowner? In a deep and honest conversation, the thief might explain why she/he doesn’t see him/herself as a thief, but as somebody who is taking back what is really his/hers. Again, I might be able to persuade the thief not to steal everything. However, it should be obvious that I can’t conduct that negotiation in the name of the homeowner without his/her permission.”

There have been cases in which I have received permission, and others in which I have not. Getting back to Rabbi Hirsch, I certainly am not going to exchange pleasantries, and ignore the huge elephant in the room.

But, one might argue, the Palestinians don’t really know what is in their best interest. I really have their best interest at heart, and I know better than they do what will help them. Maybe I say that I am not really an outside third party. As somebody who lives here and therefore has “skin in the game,” I have the right to negotiate. Maybe I say, as many Israelis seem to think, that this is really an internal Israeli Jewish problem that needs to be worked out between Israeli Jews holding different opinions. I hope it is obvious just how paternalistic and ethnocentric these responses are. Even if our intentions are good, we too are acting with an occupiers mentality when we appropriate for ourselves the authority to make decisions about the future of Palestinians as an internal Israeli Jewish discussion, or negotiate in their name. We are maintaining the same hierarchical relationship between the occupied and the occupier.

I am also reminded of the story recounted by Donald Woods, the biographer of the South African activist Stephen Biko murdered by the South African police in 1977. Biko says to Woods that he is a great guy, but that at the end of their conversation Woods will go home, while he will stay in Soweto.

Whether it be Israelis in need of public housing, or Palestinians, I can express an opinion. However, my partnership with those whom I am trying to help must be one in which I do my best to empower those who will most directly live the results to make the decisions.

Finally, “lo ha’midrash ha’eekar, ele ha’ma’aseh.” Actions speak louder than words. For those who are unwilling or unable to take a stand, dialogue is certainly a worthwhile activity. However, I much prefer “the dialogue of the olive groves,” the conversations that take place when those who are not professional dialoguers stand shoulder to shoulder with Palestinians in order to protect them from settler or army violence. It should be obvious that our words, and certainly our criticisms, are heard much differently when we have been willing to put our bodies on the line and stand up to our own government on their behalf.

Often, we don’t need to say a word. So many times Palestinian parents have insisted that their young children meet us, saying that their ten year old son wants to grow up to be a terrorist because of the violence, theft, demolitions and humiliation they have experienced in their short lives. They want their children to know that not every Israeli Jew acts this way. There are also those of us who are willing to stand with them and for them. These parents have no obligation to do this. It is not something we ask for, or set as a condition for defending their human rights.

There is absolutely a time and a place and a necessity for genuine conversation between people and groups who have deep disagreement, and may even feel endangered by the opinions and actions of those they are speaking with. All things being equal, it is better to talk than to excommunicate. It is not easy when we feel that we are talking about existential survival issues, and not just a minor disagreement. In the Israeli reality, I feel that the opinions and actions of some of those I oppose can lead to my fellow Israelis being killed. I believe they are defying God’s Will. Others feel the same way about me. Nevertheless, because the stakes are so high, we must engage in the democratic process of debating, arguing, listening and attempting to persuade. Otherwise, our society is in danger.

Rashi and Hirsch teach us that true dialogue cannot sweep matters under the rug. We cannot fiat a false unity, and I am in any case not interested in an ethnocentric unity that leaves others out in the cold. Our dialogue must be based on an honest discussion about what divides us. While I would keep them to a minimum, red lines to dialogue can be legitimate. At least they must be respected and understood, even as we seek to further minimize them. Our words are more likely to be heard when our actions demonstrate their sincerity.

Wishing all much Chanukah light.

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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