From Cain to Abraham

Rabbi Arik Ascherman
Dear Friends,

I am enclosing an essay that Rabbi Arik Ascherman, director of Rabbis for Human Rights in Israel, recently wrote about their experience helping Palestinians whose olive groves had been attacked by settlers. (In a separate post I will send an activity report and overview of their upcoming activities.)

He asks: "Please write to Defense Minister Benyamin Ben Eliezer (Fax 972 2 6535958, and Internal Security Minister Uzi Landau (Fax 972 2 5811832, polite letters with copies to RHR/Israel and RHR/ North America (see the addresses below) urging them to insure that security forces enforce the law for all by protecting Palestinians and their trees during the harvest season."

Please note that there is now a sister organization, RHR/North America, to RHR/ Israel. It is supporting the Israeli work and also doing such work here as creating a brochure of resources — biblical and rabbinic texts, model sermons, etc. — that was widely used by rabbis here during the High Holy Days this past month, to urge support for Palestinian as well as Israeli human rights.

Please also note that RHR/ Israel is working on economic human rights FOR ISRAELIS AND FOR FOREIGN WORKERS (which on the basis of Torah, as well as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, they feel are mitzvot, sacred obligations of society to protect). This now involves the Israeli government budget, which is reducing protections for the old, for children, for the sick, and for the hungry and homeless.

The concerns for Palestinians', Israelis', and foreigners' human rights are deeply connected. The ongoing war has badly damaged the Israeli economy as well as shattering the Palestinian economy. And Israeli subsidies to the West-Bank/ Gaza settlements and the enormous expenses of sending troops to protect the widely scattered settlements is money that the government cannot spend on meeting human needs inside Israel.

If you want to send a tax-deductible donation to RHR/Israel or RHR/North America, either can be sent to/ through RHR/NA. (See addresses below.)

Here is Rabbi Ascherman's essay. Please share it with any others you wish.

With blessings of shalom, Arthur

From Cain to Abraham

Rabbi Arik Ascherman

Every year I read the story of Cain and Abel and am amazed at the chutzpa of Cain in complaining to God after murdering his brother, "My punishment is too great too bear!....anyone who meets me may kill me!"(Genesis 4:13-14). It reminds me of the joke about the person who murders his parents and then asks the court for mercy because he is an orphan. My initial reaction is always that Cain deserves whatever happens to him. God, however, sees things differently. Some sources indicate that Cain repented of his deed.

Whether or not this is the case, God provides Cain with a mark of protection. Two wrongs will not make a right. The difference between how God reacts and how we humans react perhaps explains the failure of Israeli security forces to do anything to protect Palestinian farmers and Palestinian olive trees.

On Wednesday October 3rd, RHR called for an emergency olive tree harvest in Yassuf for the following day. Activists from ICAHD, Ta'ayush, Peace Now and others cleared their schedules when they heard that for the previous three days settlers from Kfar Tapuakh had been stealing the olives from village trees, while security forces did very little to stop them. On Tuesday, an English volunteer was shot at. The police didn't do much about that either.

Repeated phone calls from myself, other activists and even MK's did very little. At various points on Wednesday a DCO official, an army unit and police patrols showed up. The police told me that the situation was under control, but the settlers worked on.

The clincher was hearing that some of our friends were asking where we were. Palestinians who had taken risks within their society to continue working non-violently with Israelis saw the settlers harvesting with impunity and were questioning whether there was any point to our work together. Friends stand together.

The day began rather uneventfully. Unlike the previous days, no settlers had been seen in the olive groves. A police unit rushed in as they saw activists and reporters threading their way through the familiar mounds of dirt barricading the village. They had no order closing the area and we explained that we had been invited by the villagers.

Rumors flew about the village that settlers or soldiers were coming, as we made our way through the villages in the direction of the fields. Our hosts pointed out to us the lay of the land — the network of settlements and new outposts surrounding this village of 2,000. We passed through the elaborate irrigation system for family plots near the village which had been expanded during the intifada. Some told us that these small patches of vegetables and fruit trees had become their primary source of food. In different times these cool pathways shaded by overarching trees could be a tourist attraction.

We began to see a number of soldiers approaching us as we neared the olive trees. However, they initially did just what they were supposed to do — they watched over us as the villagers spread out plastic sheeting beneath the trees and we got to work. (We saw a few trees with many olives lying scattered on the ground.

I understood that these were some of the trees which settlers had harvested, but the villagers were more intent on exploiting this one time chance to harvest their olives than to giving us a tour.)

As we worked, more and more armed settlers gathered. They screamed at the soldiers — calling them traitors, not worthy to be called Jews, etc. "Why were you defending the "shahidim?" (Arabic term for martyrs applied to all those who have been killed by Israeli forces and also to suicide bombers.) After a while the security forces began to worry that the situation was getting out of control. They called for backup. Then they simply gave in.

The police commander demanded that we abandon the first row of trees and promised us that we could continue further in. We were taken aback. We were being threatened for doing no more than harvesting olives on Palestinian owned land. However, the police had decided that it was easier to move peaceful and unarmed Palestinians and Israeli activists than hysterical settlers with guns and dogs. Angie Zelter saw at that point the two settlers who had fired on her two days earlier. She requested that the police identify the two men (At the police station they had refused to take her in to the settlement to identify her attackers and were only willing to show pictures.)

The commander refused, saying that she could call him the next day. I repeatedly explained to the police that we were only there because the police hadn't done their job on the preceding days, but the security forces were determined to continue this dangerous course of appeasement. I don't know whether they understood just how much their actions were inflaming the situation. The message to the law breakers was that they could get away with anything and to Palestinians that there was no point in trying to resolve conflicts by appealing to the authorities.

Just as we began moving back an army commander arrived and announced that the deal was off. The entire area up to the village itself was now a closed military area (For us — not the settlers) and there would be no more harvest that day. Villagers could coordinate another day.

Certain that the trees would be attacked that night, I asked for assurances that security forces would protect the trees. I was told point blank that they would not, "We can't be responsible for every single tree."

A police vehicle with flashing lights accompanied us to make sure that we were really leaving. Our driver told us that he had been attacked by armed settlers in our absence, who had tried to block off his escape route and let the air out of his tires.

Why can't the police do their job and defend Palestinians peacefully harvesting their fields? Why can't they do their job and keep settlers out of Palestinian olive groves? We have seen examples where a commander holds the radical notion that his job is to uphold the law for Israelis and Palestinians alike. Even in the context of occupation, it makes a world of difference. Why isn't this the norm?

In some cases one sided enforcement is a matter of policy, in other cases it is the path of least resistance, and sometimes it is an automatic siding with one's fellow Jews. It also occurs to me that, just as my natural reaction would be to say that Cain deserved anything that happened to him, Palestinians are seen as all terrorists, potential terrorists or supporters of terrorists, and therefore they deserve whatever happens to them.

Last year Israel's Channel 2 filmed me as I spoke with one of the Kfar Tapuakh residents whose goats were eating Palestinian olive trees. He said outright that the Palestinians were a nation of murderers and that therefore their lives and property were forfeit.

This man, who I saw screaming at us and the police this year as well, lost his daughter and son in law in a terror attack. He is undoubtedly in a great amount of pain and I wouldn't want to stand in his shoes. However, our security forces ought to separate between their personal feelings and their job. They don't.

The idea of the collective guilt of all Palestinians and whoever is concerned about them has permeated our entire society. Our security forces are no exception. On the day of the terror attack in Tel Aviv I was in Harres village in the same region and warned three international volunteers that the security forces would be on edge. Sure enough, they were detained minutes later when they walked up the road to investigate as the police were firing at alleged stone throwers at the edge of the village.

I was detained as well when I approached to make sure that they were OK. At the Ariel police station an argument broke out among the officers as two officers were particularly furious that the women were given tea and cookies. "Who will give tea and cookies to those murdered in Tel Aviv?," they asked.

The reason I always make a point of explaining how those of us working in the field knew a year and a half before the intifada that human rights violations were leading average Palestinians to lose faith in the peace process and that Israelis were shooting for a day and a half before the first Palestinian shot was fired is that so many Israeli who acknowledge that we are violating human rights excuse our actions by saying, "They started it. They planned it. They must accept the consequences."

We human rights activists are not always clean in this matter either. On the way back from Yassuf the soldiers at the checkpoint crossing the Green Line asked us if we could take two young women in long dresses to Jerusalem. We said yes, but many were looking at each other, "Are we going to give a ride to settlers?" They didn't have to worry. The two women (who took care to point out that they weren't settlers.) heard that we were dropping people off at the Kufr Kassem gas station and hurriedly descended from the bus.

We read the story of Noah this week and of Abraham and Sarah in the weeks to come. The midrash says that the difference between Noah who built the ark as God requested but didn't try to save others, and Abraham who argues with God on behalf of possible innocents who will die in the destruction of Sodom and Gemorrah, can be compared to the child who walks holding a parent's hand and the child who can also walk ahead.

If we are all to survive in this Land, we must truly become worthy of our heritage as the children of Abraham. That heritage is more than this land which we fight over. It is also the spiritual and moral heritage of one who was willing to put his personal feelings and "He deserves it" aside, and remind God that even God must deal justly with all — friends and foes, enemies and strangers.

Rabbi Arik Ascherman
Rabbis For Human Rights/ Israel
Tel. 972 2 563-7731
Fax. 972 2 566-2815
Mobile 972 50607034

Rabbis for Human Rights/ North America
Rabbi Brian Walt, executive director
4101 Freeland Avenue
Philadelphia, PA 19128

The Shalom Center is a division of ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal, but these thoughts do not necessarily reflect those of ALEPH as a whole.



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