A Letter from Jerusalem

Rabbi Arthur Waskow 1/26/01

Dear Chevra,

I am writing from Jerusalem.

Phyllis (Berman) and I came here for an international meeting of spiritual teachers from Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, and Hindu traditions.

Separately from that meeting, Phyllis and I asked Rabbi Arik Ascherman of Rabbis for Human Rights, to shepherd us in meeting with Palestinians on the West Bank from two towns (one of them Hares, a village of 3,000 which lives almost surrounded by Israeli settlers/ settlements). Both places suffered sieges during the last several months.

(Rabbis for Human Rights is at least ten years old — the ONLY group of Israeli rabbis that includes Orthodox, Reform, Conservative, & Reconstructionist rabbis.)

By "sieges" I mean real sieges, not feeling beseiged or even being occasionally shot at. That is, all roads closed by the Israeli army and settlers (actual road blocks) — in one of these towns, Hares, for two straight months. Sick people prevented from going to hospital. Students prevented from continuing their college educations in other Palestinian cities. Schoolteachers from other Palestinian cities prevented for those months from coming to teach. Purchases of food from outside prevented. (People ate by baking the flour they had stored before, with the olive oil they had stored before.) 1500 olive trees uprooted or cut down by the army & settlers.

These olive trees are not decorative. They are the life-support of the village. Some of the trees were hundreds of years old, having produced for this village oil and olives for all that time. Each one of them, as a villager explained, paid the cost of year after year of schooling for a child. Or the cost of a room built for a growing child. Or a dowry for a girl about to be married.

In short, these trees are the family bank accounts. They also beloved members of the families of the village. Many are now gone.

The Israelis came in the night to cut down the trees while the villagers were asleep, and could not go to the groves because they were blocked by the army. Afterwards, the Army said Palestinians were using the trees to throw rocks onto the road which had been built to service the Israeli settlements nearby.

Rabbi Ascherman said this was probably accurate. for some of the trees. But some, cut by settlers, were so distant from the road that no stones could be thrown or shots aimed from them. And note that the cut-down trees will be affecting the community for decades to come. And note that the road are there in the first place purely for the convenience and safety of the settlers.

This village has been under Israeli occupation for 33 years. Its people have paid taxes all that time. But they said never once had the Israelis paved their streets, brought in new electric lines, or built new sewers. The visible evidence bore them out.

Across the roads, within two kilometers, were spanking new "suburbs" of houses, advanced electric wiring, water pipes (drawing on water under the Palestinian land), in some of the settlements a swimming pool. (The Palestinian village runs out of cooking water every summer, when there is no rain to collect. The settlers' swimming pools are full.)

In the second town, we had to approach in a roundabout way because the regular road was closed yesterday — adding about 30 minutes to the trip, for us unimportant but if you are trying to get to work or a hospital and meet four or five such road blocks along the way, VERY important.

We met a young father who had his leg blown off by an Israeli missile that hit his private house when the Israelis were firing at Fatah offices in every West Bank city and town. He was asleep in his bedroom, His house is more than a kilometer from the Fatah office.

That he was not lying was manifest to Rabbi Ascherman, who came the next day and saw the blackened bedroom and shreds of flesh stuck to the walls. The Palestinian father spent months in Saudi Arabia having his wounds treated and serious internal-organ damage partly (though only partly) repaired, yet still very troublesome.

He had been a computer worker for the settlement nearby. Many of the villagers had been independent farmers until the Israeli settlements were carved out of their farms and they were forced to get jobs in the settlements. They said the relationship is one of master and slave, not free workers. (If they organized a union and tried to picket their bosses, imagine the result!)

Israeli owned factories are located on nearby hills. These factories were denied licenses inside Israel because they were likely to pollute the soil and rivers. Here they were not blocked by the Israeli authorities. They pour polluted water from the factories, filled with noxious chemicals, into the streams nearby. The villagers say the cancer rate has risen.

The Israeli authorities have offered no apology, let alone recompense, to this father for the maiming of his body or the loss of his income or the traumatization of his children on the night an Israeli missile was fired into his house.

Rabbis for Human Rights did raise money to help somewhat to pay for part of his medical treatment, and also money to replace a few of the olive trees.

Some have used the word "atrocities" when referring to attacks on Israelis by Palestinians. They are quite right — there have certainly been such atrocities. There have also been atrocities — about ten times as many deaths, about 200 times as many serious permanently disabling injuries — inflicted by Israeli soldiers and settlers upon Palestinians.

It might be an important spiritual discipline for those of EITHER people who talk of atrocities to be sure to describe in every such occasion the atrocities visited by EACH people upon the other. Perhaps with some numerical weight representing the real balance of atrocities in the field.

Not, God forbid, to spark some "competition" in regard to counting atrocities but to remind ourselves that BOTH peoples are made up of human beings, BOTH are suffering, and that indeed one of the peoples is suffering even worse than the other.

While we were here, the Israeli press reported a study by B'Tselem (an Israeli human-rights organization) of cases in which Israeli civilians have killed Palestinians on the West bank.

The B'Tselem report said —
"This incident is one of dozens in which Israeli civilians killed Palestinians in the Occupied Territories. B'Tselem conducts a comparative study of all these cases, which paints a disturbing picture: many cases are never even investigated by the Police; others that are investigated, the State's Attorney's Office decides not to file indictments; the few cases that do reach the courts end in acquittal or in light sentences. In those isolated incidents where a serious sentence is imposed, the President commuted the sentence."

If I were to apply the principle of "Justice, justice shall you pursue," the only workable approach I could imagine would be that the Israeli settlers would be given an honorable and compassionate choice: move back to Israel, or become citizens of a new Palestinian state, living under Palestinian law without any special protection by the Israeli army, just as Israeli citizens live under Israeli law without any special protection by any Palestinian army or the army of any Arab state.

This would have the added benefit of returning the Israeli Army to its core task of defending Israel. (The Army officials just this week complained that occupation duty is depriving them of training time for possible defense of the country against military attack.)

It would also have the benefit of making almost all Israeli settlers and soldiers unavailable for becoming objects of the kinds of attacks that have been committed against some of them by some Palestinian attackers. (Almost all the Israeli deaths of the last three months have been in the occupied territories, not by terrorist attacks inside Israel.)

If I were to apply the rule in Devarim (Deuteronomy 20:19) of "Even if you are at war with a city, DO NOT CUT DOWN ITS TREES!" — well, what indeed would I do?

And where might I decide to plant trees on Tu B'Shvat?

Arik told us that in these months, fewer than 50 Israeli Jews and hardly any Diaspora Jews had made such visits to towns that are or have been under siege. Partly this was because the Palestinians have said they are fed up with useless "dialogue" and visits that serve only to "normalize" this state of affairs and to make the Israeli or overseas Jews feel they have been nice. So one Palestinian response has been to meet only with Israelis who are taking serious action to protect human rights or to end the occupation.

But partly, Arik said, the absence of Jews is because very few Israeli or American Jews are willing to confront their own pictures of reality by visiting these villages or meeting such Palestinians as human beings.

With blessing of emet, tzedek, & shalom —
Truth, justice, and peace —
for as the Rabbis said, these three are really one —


RHR has now agreed to gather money to replant olive trees for Hares and to provide other essential support while the trees regrow.

We encourage you to send money to RHR for this purpose. It can be sent directly, or if you would like to be able to claim a US tax deduction, thru the New Israel Fund with a special earmark for RHR's use.

IN EITHER CASE, PLEASE EMAIL RHR TO LET THEM KNOW TO EXPECT YOUR CONTRIBUTION. That will help them know how much money they can advance to buy trees and other necessities, even before the funds actually reach them.

Where to send your contribution is below.

"Even if you are at war with a city . . . you must not destroy its trees."
(Deut 20: 19-20.)

Shalom, Arthur

Rabbis For Human Right
Yitzchak Elchanan 2,
Jerusalem Israel 92141
Tel. 972 2 563-7731
Fax: 972 2 566-2815
Mobile: 972 50 607034
Website: www.rhr.israel.net


New Israel Fund
1101 14th Street NW
6th Floor
Washington, DC 20005
Attn: Sarah Greene
Earmark check: Rabbis for Human Right

I am appending a letter sent out by Rabbi Arik Ascherman of RHR on November 20, 2000:

I must confess that I had butterflies in my stomach last Wednesday night as I thought about the potential dangers of our [RHR] trip to Hares on Thursday. However they disappeared as the day unfolded. This was the first time that most of us had been so deep in the Territories since the new intifada began.

The pioneer in this effort has been Netta Golan who has been living in Hares in order to observe, report and try to reduce the violence. She has been saying for weeks that Palestinians would welcome our presence, but it was the first time that I felt that I had a clear invitation from Palestinians to come. Up until now we were turned away because of both political and security considerations.

Netta's work has not been without risk. Last week settlers (some of whom were recognized by villagers) fired shots into the village as the army watched. A bullet whizzed by Netta's head. Picking up a loudspeaker, she noted that not a stone had been thrown, asked why the settlers were firing, and informed them that they were writing down license plate numbers. At that point the army dispersed the settlers.

Wednesday night settlers came but stood silently.

Thursday with the army present, they stoned Palestinian cars, shined a bright light into the village, and several shots were fired. This is a part of the daily reality in Hares and locations throughout the Territories. The only difference here was that here there was a watchful eye.

Last week we read parashat Vayera in synagogue, including the story of the binding of Isaac. When we were out there I reflected on the famous speech by Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel at the March on Washington during the Vietnam era (already cited by Arthur Waskow in conjunction with the current crisis). Heschel recalled how the story of the binding of Isaac had so terribly frightened him as a child. He cried out to his father, asking what if the angel had come late and not prevented Abraham from sacrificing Isaac. His father calmed him, explaining that angels never come late. At that point, Heschel raised his eyes and looked out at the thousands who had gathered and warned them that an angel is never late, but we human beings can be.

Perhaps we arrived in Hares two months late. Perhaps we arrived years too late. Why? Perhaps because we were afraid. Perhaps because at some level some of us were angry or confused. Perhaps we hadn't come because Palestinians had told us not to come. Perhaps we have been groping for a proper response to the situation.

However, last week we made a clear statement that we of the Israeli human rights and peace forces had not disappeared. We said to Palestinians, Israelis and ourselves that wherever Palestinians ask us to be part of a NON-VIOLENT struggle for human rights and justice, we will be there.

Some, such as a number of the settlers I spoke with, view even a basic humanitarian act such as helping Palestinians harvest olives and avoid economic ruin as a direct attack on the settlers. However, I continue to hope that we will find the formula to help people understand that this is not a zero sum game.

Opening our hearts to Palestinians does not make us enemies of the Jewish people. We still have much to do in order to help people overcome their defenses, feel for others and accept responsibility for their actions.

What was also amazing was the desire of many of those with whom we spoke to avoid violence. They felt that the army and settlers were purposely trying to provoke a violent response. On Friday, many of our participants were amazed by the way in which the leadership with whom we were working restrained those who wanted to throw stones when the army prevented us from opening up the blocked entrance to the village. One of the images that stands out for me was our conversations with the soldiers manning a checkpoint preventing people from coming in or out of the village. They expressed little sympathy for the plight of the residents and the severe effects of the closure. I asked if they had any space in their hearts which could feel what Palestinians were feeling. Some of them indicated they did. Others wanted to avoid the question.

Throughout the entire discussion and as we walked away one soldier was looking through the scope of his gun mounted on the roof of their jeep. He seemed to be grimly but almost playfully picking out potential targets, his finger carelessly (perhaps nervously?) close to the trigger. The next day the army commandeered the roof of one of the houses in Hares, injuring children when they used the position to throw sound grenades.

One person related to me how he went up on the roof to speak with the soldiers. He asked how they could shoot at children. He explained that they were working against those who were trying to calm the village. He told them that he too had been hot headed once, perhaps more than they were now. However, he advised them that when they were 40 or 50 they, like the American soldiers who served in Vietnam, would be greatly troubled by what they had done.

He related that they looked like they wanted to disappear into a hole.

Perhaps this Palestinian managed to do what we haven't yet succeeded in doing, breaking through the built up defenses these soldiers. Today (Monday) the soldiers left the roof.

It was clear to me that what we saw Thursday and Friday was not so different from what was happening in many villages. The difference was that we were there to see it. Our presence also changed dynamics. For example, both the army and settlers have prevented residents from getting to their olive trees scant meters from the settlement of Revava.

On both days the army eventually stood guard as we picked olives and went from saying that the area was closed to saying that they were opening it for us to telling ACRI lawyer Netta Amar that there was no restriction and that residents merely had to coordinate with them. Later a resident was detained for violating the closure order, but our presence helped to free him relatively quickly. On the other hand, settlers viewed our very presence as an attack on them. It is hard to know where to begin in Hares, the needs are so many. The sick can't get to medical treatment, school is disrupted, olive trees have been uprooted, burned and cut down, food is scarce and settlers threaten the village nightly. We are contributing the funds for replacing uprooted trees which RHR raised this past year in honor of Isaac and Rita Newman's 50th anniversary.

Last week we only picked the olives off a few trees. (Many of which have subsequently been cut down, presumably by settlers.) Hundreds await. However, our presence was seen as an act of protection, solidarity and protest.

I wish that we were able to do what we did today in spots all through the Territories. I hope that the coverage will begin to break the monotony of the daily press listings of everywhere that Palestinians opened fire on Israelis. We in RHR have attempted to convey our condemnation of Palestinian violence to the highest levels possible. However, it is high time that Israelis realize that there is a whole world of daily oppression going on which we are responsible for even though most of us don't have any clue that it is taking place.


Arik Ascherman