Shammai Engelmayer
Shammai Engelmayer

Without justice, there can be no Zionist  dream

On Monday morning, January 11, Israeli police barged into a home in Modi’in and began tearing it apart in search of the marijuana stash they knew was there, because they knew the family, children included, were dealing the weed to the children of Modi’in.

The illicit drug, the police also knew, was home grown, having been nurtured in the garden behind the home.

Only, there was no marijuana growing in the garden, and no evidence that any ever grew there. There was no stash found in the house, not even a recreational one. There was no paraphernalia of any kind in the home, either, that could be used to produce product for any use.

In their ransacking of the home, the police also seized all electronic devices, because they knew these contained evidence of drug trafficking. The family members volunteered the lock codes even before being asked, because they knew they had nothing to hide.

All this should have told the police they were in the wrong house. Instead, the lack of any evidence of any kind only made them more aggressive. They dragged the father and one of his children, a 14-year-old girl, to the police station, where they were interrogated for most of that day. The father was denied the right to an attorney; the 14-year-old girl was denied the right to have a parent present during questioning.

At one point, the father was told he had raised “a whore” and “two drug dealers,” and that his youngest son would be removed from the home to protect him from being infected by the evil within.

Thus began a nightmare that continues even now, weeks later.

“What happened to us, as I found out, is not uncommon in this country,” the father blogged last week.

“Upon realizing that there was not even a crumb of anything illicit, no paraphernalia even for recreational use, and no evidence to substantiate their theory,” the father wrote, “they proceeded to detain me and my young daughter and brought us to the station for interrogation….Upon entering the car, they told me not to speak to my daughter and slapped me when I ignored those instructions. As stoic as she was, she is still 14 and will forever be my baby; I will always ignore those orders, especially when I see her teary-eyed and scared.”

For the next 12 hours, the 14-year-old and her father were kept apart. He was moved from one room to another, his legs and arms shackled.

As the day progressed, things went from very bad to much worse. “My wife was at the station with our oldest daughter trying to get the lead investigator to speak with the attorney she had hired that morning,” the father wrote. “The arresting officer shoved my daughter [who is in the army] to the ground, grabbed her phone, and hung up on the attorney.”

“No one was safe that day,” he wrote.

Eventually, the father was placed in the home of his wife’s cousin, and placed under house arrest, “with strict penalties for communicating with anyone via telephone or email. I was not…allowed to go to work, not allowed to discuss this with anyone aside from my attorney, and not allowed to see how my wife and four children were doing.”

As to what led to this nightmare, it apparently grew out of a year-long grudge held by a teenager against the 14-year-old daughter and her older brother. When he was arrested by police on drug charges and asked to name names, he saw this as an opportunity to get even.

“Had the officers done even a little police work before barging into our home and destroying our lives, they would have realized the ridiculousness of their accusations…,” the father wrote.

“We live in a country where security is first and foremost, and most of the laws governing police conduct revolve around that. Our trust in those who are supposed to protect and serve has been shattered, and when that happens, everything changes. Everything has changed.

“My lawyer summed it up in the saddest statement I have heard since moving here. In a conversation earlier this week he had said we have a good case against the police and I responded that I am not looking for money; I want justice. He dryly replied that I am in the wrong country for that. ‘In Israel, there is no such thing as justice.’

“There is so much wrong with this country, and yet throughout the past 10 years we believed we were here to help change those things and contribute to the building of a great nation; without justice, though, it doesn’t matter; without a system meant to protect its citizens from abuse by authorities, there is no foundation on which to build a great nation.”

(The Times of Israel has more on this story.)

The Torah says as much. “Justice, justice shall you pursue, that you may thrive and occupy the land that the Lord your God is giving to you,” it tells us in Deuteronomy 16:20. Without “justice,” there can be no living in the land.

The word “justice” in the verse, tzedek, is an interesting one because it is an unexpected one, and defining it is a bit difficult. Tzedek has multiple meanings, including righteousness, justice, truth, honest (as in honest weights and measures), purity, and sincerity. From tzedek we also derive such meanings as kindness, virtue, and piety.

Then there is the word with which we are all so familiar — tzedakah. It means righteousness, purity, equity, and to be liberal with. Tzedakah is a purifying act in which we should engage liberally, because it is righteous and equitable.

Righteousness, justice, truth, purity, sincerity, honesty, liberality — these are a lot of definitions from which to choose. Which one best fits “tzedek, tzedek shall you pursue”?

To answer that, we must look at the phrase again. We are dealing with three words when all we need are two: “Pursue tzedek.” Adding an extra tzedek is the Torah’s way of telling us that tzedek in a legal context must include all of its definitions. Justice that is not righteous, equitable, kind, virtuous, pure, and pious is not tzedek.

I know this family well, because it is my family. The father is my son, the mother is my daughter-in-law, and the children are my grandchildren. They are traumatized, disillusioned, and just plain scared.

They have a right — they are tzodek — to be. Their Zionist dream has been shattered. “Tzedek, tzedek shall you pursue, that you may thrive and occupy the land that the Lord your God is giving to you.”

Without tzedek, there can be no Zionist dream.

About the Author
Shammai Engelmayer is rabbi emeritus of Congregation Beth Israel of the Palisades. He hosts adult Jewish education classes twice each week on Zoom, and his weekly “Keep the Faith” podcast may be heard on Apple Podcasts, iHeart Radio, and Stitcher, among other sites. Information on his classes and podcast is available at
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