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I Owe My Life to My Attacker

October 30, 2015

by Rabbi Arik Ascherman

Rabbi Arik Ascherman, the founder of Rabbis for Human Rights (RHR) in Israel and a very courageous activist on behalf of Israeli-Palestinian peace, was recently attacked by a masked settler while investigating the destruction of fruit trees on the West Bank. The following is his account of the event. Donations can be made to RHI by clicking here.

Buttons_KnifeAttack1IT SOUNDS STRANGE. How can I say anything positive about a knife-wielding, violent, and hate-filled young man who has turned the sanctity of the Land of Israel into idolatry? When one looks at this awful video of the attack filmed from afar by Rabbis For Human Rights’ field coordinator Zakariah Sadeh on October 23rd, one sees that he could have easily murdered me. He was on top of me, my back was exposed, and the knife was in his hand. One can see him almost plunge the knife several times, but he doesn’t.

At the moment of truth, he wasn’t a killer — at least not of a fellow Jew. Perhaps he was afraid of the cameras, but he could have easily smashed the journalist’s camera, and didn’t know he was also being filmed from afar. Perhaps his intent all along was “just” to bloody me up a bit with rocks and kicks in order to scare me, and make sure that I didn’t come back. Maybe, as we read in this week’s Torah portion, he heard a voice crying, “Don’t raise your hand against...” (Genesis 22:12). I would like to think that he had a moment of teshuvah, a moment in which he heard and heeded God’s call to turn from his intended course of action and return to his higher self.

The problems started after a Palestinian harvest day underneath the outposts of the Itamar settlement had ended. Since RHR, the Association For Civil Rights in Israel and five Palestinian local councils won a 2006 Israeli High Court victory, the Israeli security forces must ensure that Palestinian farmers can safely access their agricultural lands all year round. After the farmers left the area, Israelis began stealing olives and burning trees. Security forces arrived where the theft was taking place, but weren’t answering when the fire broke out.

I went up the hill with the initial thought of putting the fire out. Quickly realizing that this would be too dangerous, I wanted to get a better position to document from afar this wanton destruction of fruit trees forbidden in the Torah. Focused on the fire and the two Israelis still far above me, I was surprised by an additional Israeli who suddenly appeared close by and ran toward me. He began throwing rocks that struck me, and then drew his knife. I tried to keep my face towards my enraged attacker while backing down the steep hill. At one point he ran towards a journalist who had followed me up. I chased after him and he turned to me again, kicking and causing me to lose my balance. I had tried up to that point not to engage my attacker in any way, but now I had no choice but to grab his leg when he kicked. Soon he was on top of me, with his knife hand free.

I would like to think that this moment in which my attacker was an instant away from becoming a murderer caused him to ask himself how he came to be on a hilltop in the Occupied Territories, so angry that the Israeli army had protected Palestinian farmers harvesting their olives that he was driven to lash out. I would like to think that he has spoken with his fellow “hilltop youth,” explaining why he has had a change of heart, and that his teshuvah will have ripple effects reaching the communities that mentor and encourage them, those who look the other way or “understand” them, and all those who have turned our shared belief in the sacredness of the Land of Israel into idolatry by raising it above all other values.

If he did ask himself what brought him to that moment, what was his answer? Was it hatred of non-Jews? An enjoyment of the exercise of power and control? Fear? Rage because of Palestinian terror? A desire for “action?” A sense of Jewish privilege? Did he recall that the traditional Yom Kippur confession of the sin of tzarut ayin, our resentfulness towards the good fortune of others? The Talmudic sages decry those who wish to prevent others from benefiting even if they themselves will suffer no loss (zeh neheneh v’zeh lo khaser). The only loss I can imagine is the loss of the dream of driving non-Jews out of the Biblical Land of Israel by dispossessing them and denying them the ability to support themselves from their olive trees.

I believe there is an additional element. We founded the State of Israel correctly vowing “never again.” We must always have the power to ensure that Jews would never again be helplessly slaughtered and persecuted, as we had been for 2,000 years because we had been stateless and homeless. There are still those who would “throw us into the sea” if they could, and we are not yet in a messianic age in which the Jewish people can survive without power. The day after I was attacked, I recited the traditional blessing in synagogue for having survived great danger, and then took my turn standing guard as we have been doing since the latest round of Palestinians murdering Israelis. However, in the course of the years since Israel was founded, that vow has morphed. We have forgotten that long before “never again,” God commanded us, “never, ever.” We should never, even once, do to others what was done to us (Exodus 23:9). We have moved from using our power to guarantee our survival and well being to exploiting our power to take from others what we desire. The Midrash teaches us not to delude ourselves. The hand that strikes the non-Jew will eventually strike the Jew as well. The violence unleashed against me is the inevitable outcome of the civilian and state violence directed at Palestinians on an almost daily basis. And, “The sword comes into the world because of justice denied and justice delayed” (Pirkei Avot). Our sages didn’t justify the sword, but understood that our unjust actions bring it upon us.

IT WOULD BE EASY to pin all of the blame on hilltop youth, and the settler communities that created them. (Only a small percentage of settlers behave this way.) Many of the hilltop youth look at their parents who founded the settlements as weak compromisers. But, the settlement community and their pockets of support within the wider Israeli population are the hothouse that has cultivated the golem sh’kamal yotzro, the Frankenstein’s Monster that has turned on its creator. However, all of Israeli society has to engage in khesbon nefesh, soul searching. Too often even Israelis who oppose settlements act towards the lawless and violent culture that has sprung up among the settler community with equanimity, with resignation, with a polite “Isn’t it terrible?” or the feeling that extremists must be appeased in order to hold Israeli society together. I actually give the army credit for fulfilling their court ordered obligations to allow and protect the harvest in the midst of violence emanating from all sides. However, they believe that they must appease and give in to settler violence to do so. They have postponed the harvest near the most violent settlements. Our 2006 High Court ruling allows the army to limit the entry of Palestinians to their lands to agreed upon dates only when there is no other way to protect settlers. They are to designate those areas before the harvest begins. The ruling explicitly forbids closing lands to Palestinians when Israelis threaten them “for their own good,” unless there is absolutely no other way to prevent bloodshed. Yet, that is what has been happening.

Part of me says that in these tense times we should be more concerned about a bigger blow-up than insisting on every word of a court ruling. However, giving in to this kind of violence whets the appetites of those who successfully wield violence to get what they want. If the army would announce that they were evacuating a settlement because of Palestinian threats, even many of those opposed to settlements would be up in arms because that would encourage more violence.

I also need to do some khesbon nefesh. Over the last few days many have praised me for my courage and conviction, but nobody has lauded my common sense. I do think that we need to find ways of actively opposing both citizen and state violence against Palestinians. Our volunteers know that they may at times need to be human shields. However, I wouldn’t like to see others take my example of intentionally putting themselves in harms way for the sake of trees alone.

We Israelis have short attention spans. There is no guarantee that there will be any lessons learned or any kheshbon nefesh. However if even a few of the hilltop youth and their supporters wake up and recognize that they are committing idolatry and an abuse of power, if a few senior army officers realize that there can must be zero tolerance of Israeli and Palestinian violence alike, than maybe my near murder will have been worth it. In the meantime, I and our staff and volunteers are back in the olive groves.

Rabbi Arik Ascherman is the founder of Rabbis for Human Rights.