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Yom Kippur thoughts on recent conviction of my attacker on appeal

I have met him and I see the good in him, but I welcome this decision

It is now permitted to reveal that the state prosecutor succeeded in its appeal, and a conviction has now been added to the sentence of the young man who attacked me with a knife in 2015, while other Israelis stole Palestinian olives and set a second olive grove on fire. The judges noted that, in addition to the attack itself, the lawyer representing the young man (Itamar Ben-Gvir and others) incited against me in the press. As much as I want my attacker to get his life back on track, and believe that he can, this conviction is extremely important.

Within the framework of a “restorative justice” program, I recently met my attacker face to face. I met a pleasant young man who deeply wishes to contribute to society.  I heard, and want to believe, that he is working very hard to learn from his mistakes, and not repeat them.  Maimonides teaches that the true mark of repentance is when we have the opportunity to repeat the same wrongdoing we committed in the past, and don’t. As I argued during the original sentencing hearing, I truly want him to have the opportunity to rehabilitate himself, and believe it is society’s responsibility to help him.  (In contrast to those in the settlement he grew up that I suspect helped put ideas in his head. He was also traumatized when one of his best friends was murdered in a terror attack.)

I welcome the conviction because it is an important message. Statistics show that if I were Palestinian, there is almost no chance that there would have been an arrest, let alone a conviction.  I hope that the conviction will be a warning to the next potential attacker, and will spur the law enforcement authorities to do what they are capable of.

Perhaps it is not coincidental that the court’s ruling became public between Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur.  The timing brings up thoughts about the difference between forgiving and rehabilitating one who has done harm, and tolerance for harmful and violent acts. I am meditating on the sin and the sinner, what we do with our own feelings after we have been wronged, the possibility of teshuvah (returning to our truest and highest selves), and the task of working towards a better world (Tikun Olam).

A few days ago a question arose on a rabbis’ list serve regarding what to say to a person who had been seriously offended by somebody else, who apparently didn’t know he had caused offence, and therefore hadn’t asked for forgiveness.  The injured party asked his rabbi whether he should nevertheless forgive.  I answered that, while there are detailed halakhot (Jewish laws) regarding the obligation to ask forgiveness and to forgive, and even how many times one is required to ask, if the injured party doesn’t pardon (3), it is less clear to me what halakha says when the offending party has not asked for forgiveness. I acknowledged that I didn’t know the person who had been hurt, the nature of the offense, or what would truly be best for him.  Nevertheless, I counseled that the rabbi might want to explore with the congregant what holding on to anger and hurt was doing to his soul.  At the outset of Yom Kippur, just before Kol Nidre, we pray “I grant total forgiveness to all who have sinned against me….nobody should be punished on my account…”  This spiritual exercise is for the sake of our souls more than for the wellbeing of the person we wish not to be punished.

During my 23 years of human rights work (currently as director of “Torat Tzedek-Torah of Justice.) I have experienced many grievous injuries to fellow human beings that arouse anger, embarrassment and great pain-of Israelis living in poverty, Palestinians, Israel’s Bedouin citizens, asylum seekers, and more.  People have also harmed me physically, with words, and through other means.

On the one hand I couldn’t continue to do what I do if I didn’t feel that these terrible acts scream to the heavens, and if unwillingness to accept such wrongdoing wasn’t a “fire burning in my bones.”  We learn in the Mekhilta of Rabbi Ishmael (BaKhodesh:8) that harming a human being diminishes the Image of God in the word, because every human being is created in God’s Image. As the judges wrote, there are things that it is forbidden to tolerate.

On the other hand, I would have burned out long ago if I held and accumulated in my heart anger directed at all the human rights violators I have encountered, or all those who have harmed me. The legal back and forth regarding my attacker also included the argument that he had not at his own initiative asked for my forgiveness, or try to compensate me. However, I forgave him a long time ago-for the sake of my own spiritual well being.  More recently, in the framework of the restorative justice meeting, he did ask for forgiveness and expressed regret.

I am sometimes asked, “Why do you hate the wealthy/settlers/Jews/the State/yourself?  I am reminded of what many of our parents told us, “I don’t hate you.  I hate what you did.”  We don’t need to, and shouldn’t hate the sinner.  But we must hate and oppose sin.

The truth is that I couldn’t continue to do what I do if I didn’t believe that my fellow Israelis are basically good and decent people, seeking to be just.  Studies we have done indicate that they prioritize their security and their own wellbeing (As do most human beings), but bare no ill will towards Palestinians, or anybody else.

As our government rushes to destroy Khan Al Akhmar, Susya, and even the villages of Israeli Bedouin citizens, I know that most of the citizens that support these steps do so because they don’t have all of the facts.  When they are exposed to just the facts, without opinion mixed in, most Israeli Jews support fair, just and humanitarian treatment of the “other.” Of course, I wish that they would do more to act on their beliefs, in order advance justice, human rights and the vision of our Declaration of Independence. However, I learned from my late mother z”l that there is a better chance of getting people to do good when we see the good in them.

We learn about the good within us from the Hebrew word “teshuvah.” While usually translated as “repentance,” it actually means an answer.  We answer the Divine call of conscience that we all too often ignore, or put up defense mechanisms to discount.  We then make an effort to turn.  “Teshuvah” also means to return.  We return to our truest and highest selves.  Our word for “sin” is “khet.It is an archery term. We tried to hit the mark, but missed.  A central message of the High Holy Days is not just the obligation to change, but that we have the ability to change.  God doesn’t demand that we do something we aren’t capable of doing.  My attacker also has the ability to change.

We are a people that has suffered so many slings and arrows over 2,000 years. We are divided into ethnic groups and classes, who feel that they have been injured by each other.  We have unilaterally imposed harmful laws and arrangements on another people.  Sunday’s terrorist murder was another reminder that they can hurt us as well. What do we do with all of the accumulated hurt lodged in our hearts and weighing down our souls? We must never be tolerant of harming fellow human beings. But, if we want to successfully repair and sanctify the world, we must preserve our souls and be able to see the good around us.

That is why I must regretfully welcome the conviction of my attacker, even as I see the good within him and want to help him actualize it.  That is why I will uncompromisingly try to prevent human rights violations, but try my best not to hate the violators.

God, in this season of forgiveness, may we strengthen our spiritual ability to return to the good that is within us as individuals and as a society.

G’mar Khatima Tova — May The Final Seal Be For the Good.

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 is recognized as a role model for faith based human rights activism.
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