Arik Ascherman

Who Will Stop The Knife Aimed at Khan Al Akhmar-And Our Hearts

On Rosh HaShanah we read the story of “the binding of Isaac.”  At the critical moment, just before Abraham plunges the knife and sacrifices his son, a messenger (angel) of God calls from heaven, “Abraham! ABRAHAM!… Do not raise your hand against the boy, or do him any harm. ” (Genesis 22:11-12)

 A few days ago the Israeli High Court permitted (Explicitly didn’t require) the State to sacrifice Khan Al Akhmar.  The knife is poised over the heads of men, women and children. Like Abraham, there are among us those so filled with holy fervor and so convinced that a voice calls them to serve a higher purpose, that they are willing to carry out the most awful and unimaginable deeds.

We won’t slaughter the residents of Khan Al Akhmar, but we will slaughter their community. We want to expel them from their homes, as Hagar and Ishmael are expelled in another section of our Rosh HaShanah Torah reading.  God saves Hagar and Ishmael, as God saves Isaac.  According to an ancient midrash, the angels are shocked that God intends to save Ishmael.  They remind God of all the trouble the children of Ishmael will cause the children of Isaac.  God knows that know future is inevitable.  There is no inevitable destiny of conflict between the children of Ishmael and the children of Isaac. God says, “b’asher hu sham,” “Right now in front of me is an innocent child.”

Who will stay the knife in the hands of the State?  Who will stand by the many innocent Palestinians who seem about to be expelled from their homes in Khan Al Akhmar, Susya and many additional communities in the Jordan Valley, as well as in Umm al Hiran and Al Araqib and other “unrecognized” communities inside Israel proper?

This past year the Israeli author and poet Haim Guri z”l died.  In his famous poem about the binding of Isaac, “Inheritance,” he writes:

Isaac, as the story goes, was not
sacrificed.  He lived for many years, saw
what pleasure had to offer, until his
eyesight dimmed.

But he bequeathed that hour to his
offspring.  They are born with a knife in
their hearts.

(Translation: My teacher T. Carmi z”l)

I once had the honor to bring Haim Guri to to the South Hebron Hills.  This poet known as the voice of the Palmakh generation (militia of the War of Independence) wrote that the army that expels villagers in this way is not acting according to the values that he and generations of soldiers were taught. (This is not to say that previous generations did not do many questionable deeds, particularly in the heat of conflict. Some Guri justified. Some he condemned. But, Guri believed that these sorts of expulsions took injustice to a new level.)

I would say that the knife that is posed to slaughter Khan Al Akhmar and many additional communities, along with the Knesset that passed the “Nationality Bill” and the government that is acting so cruelly to African asylum seekers, will also pierce our hearts.  It will bleed the hope from every Jew (and every human being) that still struggles to believe in the generations old dream (my dream and our dream) embodied in our Declaration of Independence, of a just and ethical Israel living according to our highest Jewish values, and in peace with our neighbors.  It will further cripple, if not kill that dream.

Just last year my “Rosh HaShanah Thoughts” were my words in front of a U.S. Congressional briefing standing next to 15 year old Aysar from Susya the day before Rosh HaShana. I do my best not to repeat myself too blatantly, although I know that the older I get, the more I do.   At the very least, I try to cover my tracks and not comment on the same verses just one year later. However, the Israeli High Court decision this Wednesday to allow (not require) the demolition of Khan Al Akhmar, brings me back to “U’Netana Tokef,” that pivotal moment in the High Holy Days liturgy I quoted to Congress.

“On Rosh HaShannah it is written, and on Yom Kippur it is sealed:  Who shall live and who shall die….” To “Who by fire and who by water…” I added, “Who by bulldozer, and who at gunpoint?”  Communities also live and die.  I asked whether the “court” playing God in DC would let this community live, and whether Aysar would continue to have a home.

This year we must also be asking whether our determination to fight these injustices will live or die.

“But t’shuvah (answering God’s call, turning and returning to our highest selves), tefillah (prayer/looking in the mirror that is God and judging whether we are acting according to God’s Image within us), and tzedakah  (doing justly/correcting the impact of our misdeeds) avert the severity of the decree.”

For this entire year, with the help of the international community, we staved off the severe decrees in Susya and Khan Al Akhmar.  Heading into the new year, our earthly Israeli court left open the possibility that our government could do t’shuvah.  They are not required to demolish. The Court even offered the hope that, given the fact that for some strange reason  the residents neither want to be move next to a garbage dump, nor dumped next to a waste water purification plant, the State would continue to work with the residents to find an agreed upon solution.

It is true that the Court was unwilling to grant more time for processes that could save the community, and essentially gave their seal of approval to the demolitions in the name of the law.  The judges quoted from decisions to evacuate settlements, and declared that the law must be applied equally. They mentioned, but gave no weight to the fact that there are no West Bank or Gazan judges who participated in their decision abandoning them to a Palestinian free government, in the name of equally applying laws that the Knesset Khan Al Akhmar residents can’t vote for unilaterally impose on them.

The judges didn’t wait for the results of another High Court Appeal seeking to prove that Khan al Akhmar is on private Palestinian land.  If there are Palestinian owners, they could again ask the army planning committee to consider a master plan, as unlikely as it is that the all Jewish committee that almost never approves Palestinian building plans would do anything different regarding Khan Al Akhmar.  .

Nevertheless, the judges did take care to mention the fact that the State has committed to “only” demolishing Khan Al Akhmar, but not expelling the residents.  The also wrote that there is nothing preventing them from continuing to try to get a master plan approved. If we were to enable the residents to survive in Khan Al Akhmar after the expulsions, they might get to the point that they could try these options.

We can’t give in to despair.  “There is much work to be done… and the Master of the house is pressing.” (Pirkei Avot)  This is the moment we must “Form one collective body to whole heartedly carry out Your Will” (High Holy Days amidah prayer). This is the moment we must raise the mirror that is God in front of our fellow Jews, having faith that our fellow Jews aspire to being a just people.  If we can find a way to get them to look non-defensively in the mirror, they won’t see what they thought or want to see.

We certainly aren’t treating these people as we would want to be treated, were the situation to be reversed.

It won’t add to our popularity, but we, and those of you living abroad, need to ask your governments to go to another level in demanding that that our country won’t sacrifice communities either inside Israel or in the Occupied Territories. Words are not enough.  I don’t like calling for pressure on my country. With entire communities in the balance, I don’t see a choice.  It goes without saying that as long as Palestinians can’s vote for the Knesset, and there is no Bill of Rights preventing the majority from trampling the rights of minorities inside Israel, nobody can accuse of us of undermining or doing an end run around democratic decisions.

The knife is poised, and ready to plunge.  Who will be God’s messenger, if not us?

Wishing all a happy New Year as filled with human rights as a pomegranate is filled with seeds.

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.