Arik Ascherman

When Will the Messiah Come – A Cry For Our Beloved Country

African asylum seeker dragged off by the authorities during the break-up of their protest camp on the Egyptian border

I started writing this post on June 30th, and put it aside on Tuesday when we received the devastating news about Naftali Frankel z”l, Eyal Yifrach z”l and Gilad Shaar z”l.

However,  I do want to tell about my experiences from June 29th, while they are still relatively fresh in my memory. I know that they may seem to pale in light of the murder of the three young Israelis, the murder of 16 year old Mohammed Abu Khdeir z”l, and Israelis (Including RHR staff and rabbis) in bomb shelters. I don’t know how many Gazans even have access to bomb shelters, and the threat of a ground war in Gaza seems imminent. Gangs of Jewish thugs have been beating Arabs and destroying Arab property on the streets of Jerusalem, while Palestinians on both sides of the Green Line are throwing stones, Molotov cocktails and confronting security forces.  Our leaders have strongly condemned individuals taking the law into their own hands, but openly say that the state must take revenge.  The murders have served as an excuse for at least four new settlement outposts. (RHR is representing the Palestinian land owners in two of those cases).

In the face of all this, how important is it that in El-Araqib the residents are bravely holding out and holding on to their lands under the burning sun during Ramadan, that asylum seekers were loaded onto busses and sent back to prison, or that I was pepper sprayed simply for taking pictures?

We are living in a whirlpool of multiple tragedies, and I believe that they are related.

The common denominator is spiritual myopia.

As I tried to engage and stir the consciences of the grey uniformed police and immigration officials dragging crying and pleading asylum seekers onto busses in order to re-imprison them, I felt that I could almost read their minds.  Some were smiling at what they were doing. Many were grim. One expressed a bit of compassion towards the hapless asylum seekers.  As I spoke of Pharaoh’s army chasing after the Israelites to return them to Egypt and reminded them of the Torah’s command not to do to others what was done to us, I was sure that they were thinking about Naftali, Gilad and Eyal. The African asylum seekers they were ruthlessly and sometimes violently loading onto busses had nothing to do with the kidnappings, but I was sure that thoughts of the three were fueling rage against all non-Jews.  I heard them saying to themselves, “Thank God we are no longer at the mercy of the Egyptians and all who have oppressed us throughout the centuries.  We have the guns now.  Never again.” If the kidnapping/murders undermined that sense of control, here was their chance to convince themselves anew.

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WATCH: Click photo above for a video from the break-up up the protest camp at Nitzana (Facebook account required for viewing)

Israeli and Palestinian histories of oppression leave us all with a blinding sense of privilege and exceptionalism. We are no more able to see God’s Image in the “Other” than Balaam was able to see the angel with the drawn sword in last week’s Torah portion. The prohibitions against theft don’t apply to us when we use overwhelming state power to steal the lands of El-Araqib or West Bank Palestinians because the world owes us, Arabs have 21 countries, we need that land and it was promised to us. I have no doubt that the murderers of Naftali, Gilad and Eyal feel that their powerlessness and total inability to stop  to stop institutionalized state opression of the Palestinians justified their deeds.

It is of course true that with Israel’s overwhelming military and economic power comes greater responsibility.  We call the shots, and have an ability the Palestinians do not have to end the Occupation.  However, that no more gives the Palestinians the right to murder or fire rockets on civilians than our fight for a homeland gives us the right to employ state terrorism.

These days I have taken to reminding people of the words of Hillel the Elder when he sees a skull floating in the water:

“He [Hillel] further saw a skull floating on the water. He said to it: ‘Because you drowned you were drowned, and in the end those who drowned you will be drowned.” (Pirkei Avot 2:7)

We are cautioned not to spend our time speculating when the Messiah will come, but it occurs to me that s/he will arrive when we who make up humanity overcome our collective spiritual myopia. In a well-known Talmudic midrash, Elijah tells Rabbi Yehoshua Ben Levi that he can find the Messiah concealed as a bandaged beggar at the gates of Rome. As long as Rabbi Yehoshua is preoccupied only with the suffering of the Jewish people requiring the redemption of the Messiah, he won’t even see him/her. Rabbi Yehoshua has to be able to recognize the Messiah in a broken and wretched body among non-Jews.

As long as Rabbi Yehoshua is preoccupied only with the suffering of the Jewish people requiring the redemption of the Messiah, he won’t even see him/her.

In an Israeli TV debate on home demolitions last week [Hebrew], Bayit Yehudi MK Yoni Chetboun said that Hassan Nasrallah was listening to me remind viewers that in 2005 the Israeli army decided that these demolitions caused more terror than they stopped, was identifying this as weakness and therefore planning the next kidnapping. We were speaking on the 3rd of Tammuz, my 25th wedding anniversary. Twenty-five years ago, the 3rd of Tammuz was also the day my brothers and I were almost on a bus forced over an incline by a terrorist a few hours before my wedding. Some of my Israeli-Arab friends were afraid to come to Jerusalem because of what had happened, and I had to work hard to convince them. In the end we were all strengthened and comforted by the fact that, despite the tragedy, Ashkenazic, Sephardic and Ethiopian Jews from around the world, both religous and secular, and Arabs as well as Jews, had all come together.

The Nasrallahs of this world and our own Jewish extremists feed on hatred and conflict. They depend on our myopia. They have no answer when confronted with boundary crossing solidarity based on our common humanity.

Rabbi Yehoshua eventually complains to Elijah that the Messiah had promised to come the day they met, but didn’t.  Elijah explains to Rabbi Yehoshua that the Messiah had actually said that s/he would come if we listened to God’s Voice.

Listening means doing. The Messiah will come when we don’t just issue pro forma condemnations of heinous acts. We will need to be well beyond making a political football out of tragedy, as when the NGO Monitor issued a report on what human rights NGOs and left wing political organizations were saying about the kidnappings of the yeshiva students.  We will need to be able to feel almost as much pain when something happens to  the “Other” as when it happens to “One of our own.” We will need to be able to feel the same horror and commitment to put an end to evil.

We are neither powerless nor voiceless if we are willing to put our bodies on the line – If, in addition to sighs and prayers, we are able to act.

We must serve as partners of the One Who is the Pokeakh Ivrim, Who opens the eyes of the spiritually blind.


The Sheikh sits alone – The Begin/Prawer bill is frozen, but the Begin/Prawer plan is being implemented as you read this.

My afternoon started with Sheikh Sayakh. He sat alone fasting under the scorching sun in the desolation known as El-Araqib, where once there was a thriving, albeit “Unrecognized” Israeli Bedouin village.  A few women were in the one remaining structure. Here I and others were beaten and arrested without warning on June 12th, although I was where the police had permitted me to be. Four years and some 70 demolitions after the first big demolition of El-Araqib in 2010, the state has lost patience. That day the state violated the long standing status quo and demolished all but one of the structures inside the Araqib cemetery perimeter. Apparently the government is still committed to the map attached to the frozen Begin/Prawer bill determining that there can be no Bedouin communities southwest of the Lehavim junction, where El-Araqib had existed long before Israel was founded.

Wishing the Sheikh “Ramadan Kareem” sounded rather empty. With a bitter laugh I congratulated him on the fact that the bit of shade fabric repeatedly torn down by the police was now temporarily stretched between the trees – until the next police visit. The Sheikh and I discussed plans to bring a large number of Israeli Jews to sleep for a night or two in El-Araqib, possibly a “Layla Levan” with music and presentations, if we came up with a budget.  I left Sheikh Sayakh to go to the weekly Sunday afternoon vigil at the Lehavim junction. He remained, fearing that if all the men left, El Araqib would be declared abandoned and closed off.  I can’t get out of my head the image of Sheikh Sayakh sitting alone on the now barren land.

Sheikh Sayakh A-Turi, of El Araqib

The government speaks about improving the lives of the Bedouin, but moves ahead without legislation in planning new Jewish communities, sometimes where Bedouin communities are currently located. Likewise, they feel no need to wait for the end of two current court cases regarding ownership of El-Araqib lands.  The High Court has ordered that, although they will need to explain why they are only now challenging the 1953 expropriation of their lands, the residents have the right to their day in court that the government opposed.  In the case of Nuri El-Ukbi regarding land claims based on the traditional Bedouin land ownership system the pre-state Zionist movement recognized but the state does not, the High Court requested mediation. The state refused.  Why negotiate or wait for either the courts or the Knesset?

El-Araqib exemplifies the situation throughout the Negev. The Begin/Prawer bill may be frozen, but the Begin/Prawer/Shamir plan is being implemented on the ground. 

Residents of El Araqib look on as the authorities demolish their village
Residents of El Araqib look on during the recent demolition

(Postscript. Last week the Israel Lands Authority plowed over much of the lands not previously forested over by the JNF.


“You shall not oppress the resident alien living among you, for you know the feelings of the resident alien, having yourselves been gerim in the land of Egypt.” (Exodus 23:9)

As the Bedouin vigil drew to a close, I casually told Haia Noach of the Negev Coexistence Forum that I was going to head down to the Egyptian border.  We didn’t know what we were getting into, or that the police had determined that, after asylum seekers had been AWOL for 48 hours outside of the Holot “open” detention facility, they had the authority to force them back. I had simply wanted to assess how RHR could support the hundreds of African asylum seekers who the previous Friday had said “Enough is enough,” and simply walked out of Holot, where they have been imprisoned in ever worsening conditions.  Because Israel is determined not to grant refugee status, little has been done in Holot to evaluate and process their claims. In an act of desperation, these refugees from unspeakable horrors in Eritrea and Sudan, some victims of kidnappings and torture in the Sinai desert and/or less than hospitable treatment in Egypt itself, nevertheless said that maybe they would be better off returning to Egypt.

I frankly can’t  imagine the level of desperation and disillusionment with Israel that would lead to a desire to return to Egypt. The irony deepens. Although Israeli has built a fence to keep asylum seekers from arriving from Egypt, the border was now declared a closed military area, and Israel forbade them to leave. In the Torah, Pharaoh initially expresses fear that the Israelites will grow to be too many and endanger the Egyptians. Four hundred years later, a different Pharaoh doesn’t want to let them go.

“And the children of Sudan and Eritrea encamped in the Nitzana forest, next to the hothouses of Kadesh Barnea. The ministers and police officials consulted among themselves, “What is this that we have done, allowing the children of Sudan and Eritrea to flee from our jails? Is it not written that they must sign in three times a day? If the do not return within 48 hours, we will pursue them.  So, the ministers and officials sent handpicked officers from the Yoav Police Unit, and Immigration….”

But, there was no pillar of smoke or fire to protect the children of Sudan and Eritrea.

Haia and I are fairly hardened activists, but both of us were shaken to our very core at what we saw.  I simply started to cry, not believing that the country that I love and believe in had come to this.  Haia wrote:

This evening was one of my worst days in life.  This evening I saw men hunters.  This evening I saw men hunters in action, their salaries paid by  us  This evening I saw men hunters who their fathers or  grandparents might have numbers tattooed on their arms.  This evening I saw the ordinary men we meet in the  supermarket or market behaving brutally and viciously.  This evening I saw tens of immigration policemen and  policemen from ‘Yoav’ unit hunting their prey and maybe    enjoying it.  This evening I witnessed the ebb to where the Israeli society      has fallen, maybe the lowest point ever.  This evening I saw the buds of fascism when youngsters and  also older people, probably from the area of ‘Holot’ act as  hooligans, grabbing phones, and later on I also heard about a  car window smashed and tires slashed of cars belonging to the  few activists who came to support the refugees. This evening I saw people from the area who came to watch  the horrible show as if it was a a TV reality show.  This evening I saw the ugliness and dehumanization of the  Israeli society.  This evening I saw that even people with no rights who are  being humiliated and trampled can fight back.  This evening I also saw hundreds of refugees standing up with  dignity for their rights. This evening I saw an amazing  leadership of the refugees, holding on to their poor belongings  and precious blanket, bringing together around them a force  of hundreds of people. I wish I wasn’t a witness to all this.  Where can we take the disgrace, the shame? 

(Translated from Hebrew by Rachel B.P)

As I wrote above, I tried to engage the security forces.  Most of them simply stared straight ahead. Some told me to shut up. A woman from Immigration was openly laughing as she filmed me.

While I wasn’t every place at every moment, the leaders of the asylum seekers were amazing in their ability to keep order.  I didn’t see one single asylum seeker raise a hand against their oppressors.  (Some threw dust in the air or threw their belongings on the ground in front of them.) It was made clear that they didn’t want us to endanger ourselves either.

On at least three separate occasions I witnessed police and/or immigration officials beating, kicking or choke holding.  In none of those cases did they obey the law and identify themselves when I asked. Absolute power corrupts absolutely.


Civilians showed up, angered at the fact that other Israelis might have the audacity to support the asylum seekers.  As I ran from place to place, taking pictures and demanding that the officers cease using excessive force, two civilians stopped me. They started pushing me around and trying to trip me up, demanding that I leave. In some ways I found them even more depressing than the police and immigration officials, who at some level were “just doing their job.” What have we wrought that Jews feel compelled to come and physically attack other Jews for showing solidarity with these hapless people?

I escaped, but the two caught up with me again later on.  One stole my cellphone, but I grabbed his arm and called the police for assistance.  After I recovered the phone, one officer and I simply talked past each other. He asked me why I was taking pictures.  I asked him to do something about the vigilantes who had stolen my cellphone.  He asked me why I was taking pictures.  I asked….

Another officer then sprayed me with pepper spray, simply to stop me from taking pictures.  I stumbled around for a few minutes and asked fellow activists for water, but then on principle resumed taking pictures. I asked who was the “macho man” who had surreptitiously sprayed me without warning or reason.

The fear and desperation and pleas not to be returned to prison by refugees being dragged or carried to the busses subsided into poignant resignation etched on tired faces. Towards the end, UN representatives showed up. The remaining asylum seekers angrily asked them to do their job and protect them.

Dazed and depressed and feeling as if our hearts had been ripped out, we slowly made our way back to my car.  I asked Haia to drive, as my eyes and skin were still burning. Waiting for additional activists, I heard loud shattering sounds and asked Haia to turn on the headlights.  I suspected that I was hearing the sound of vigilantes smashing windshields. (Later on, we found out that I was right.  They also slashed tires and attacked at least one woman activist.) I neglected to pay sufficient attention to what was happening behind me.  Three vigilantes caught me by surprise and asked if I had taken their picture.  Again they grabbed my cell phone, and it was crushed as I grabbed it back.  Of course, it didn’t help them as I had been constantly sending off pictures and video to our media staff, and the memory card wasn’t damaged.  They ran off when Haia rushed from the car and screamed at them at the top of her lungs.

The Messiah waits broken bodied somewhere among the imprisoned asylum seekers, on barren plowed over Bedouin lands, in the mourning tents of grieving Jewish and Arab families, and in the homes of Israeli and Palestinian civilians under fire.  S/he is not to be found among the man hunters or the vigilantes or those throwing Molotov cocktails, even if s/he understands them.  S/he too awaits for the One Who must open the eyes of the spiritually blind. The One Who opens the eyes of the blind hears our sighs and prayers, but waits for us to learn from Nakhson Ben Aminadav, and take the first steps to help ourselves…

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.