This is part of Marc H. Ellis’s “Exile and the Prophetic” feature for Mondoweiss. To read the entire series visit the archive page.
As the killing continues in Jerusalem, Hebron and other parts of the West Bank, the viral video of Rabbi Arik Ascherman’s encounter with a Jewish settler in the West Bank continues to circulate on the web. Yesterday, Ascherman penned an Op-Ed for Haaretz reflecting on his experience. As a dramatic recounting, the read is worthwhile. However, his analysis of the situation in Israel-Palestine is wanting.
Ascherman recalls the attack in vivid language. Obviously shaken after being confronted with his mortality, Ascherman says he will continue with his mission. Respect is due Ascherman for his steadfastness. Still, as a public figure, Ascherman’s narrative of commitment and survival is open to analysis. What, in fact, is his mission? This “mission” moves well beyond Ascherman himself. In fact, Ascherman’s understandings are in consort with progressive Zionism everywhere.
After reading his account, it seems that Rabbi Ascherman is in a state of Biblical and state-power denial. Because of this denial, Ascherman doesn’t seem to understand what placed him in danger in the first place. The result is that he doesn’t realize what needs to occur for him and others, including millions of Palestinians, to be put out of harm’s way.
Is Ascherman confused, naive, in denial, withholding part of what he knows or trying to keep his Zionist world together? Is the dream of Israel the American-born and educated Ascherman embraced collapsing? Has Ascherman’s dream of Israel become a nightmare not only for Palestinians but for him? Or was Israel always a nightmare in the making that Ascherman didn’t and doesn’t understand?
By way of Ascherman, these questions are joined. Is progressive Zionism confused, naive, in denial, withholding part of what it knows or trying to keep their Zionist world together? Has progressive Zionism’s dream of Israel become a nightmare not only for Palestinians but for progressive Zionists? Or was Israel always a nightmare in the making that progressive Zionists didn’t and doesn’t understand?
Ascherman begins recounting his encounter:
How can I say anything positive about a knife-wielding young man who has turned the sanctity of the Land of Israel into idolatry? When looking at the awful video of the attack, it’s clear that he could have easily murdered me. He was on top of me, my back was exposed, and the knife was in his hand. He almost plunges the knife several times, but doesn’t.
At the moment of truth, he wasn’t a killer – at least not of a fellow Jew. Perhaps his intent was “just” to bloody me up a bit. Maybe, as we read in Genesis 22:12, he heard a voice crying, “Don’t raise your hand against…” I would like to think that he had a moment of teshuvah, heeding God’s call to turn from his intended course of action and return to his higher self.
The violence started after a Palestinian harvest day below the outposts of the Itamar settlement had ended. Since we won a 2006 Israeli High Court victory, Israeli security forces must ensure that Palestinian farmers safely access their agricultural lands. After the farmers left, Israelis began stealing olives and burning trees. We called the security forces who pursued the thieves, but didn’t notice when the fire broke out. I wanted to get a better position to document from afar this wanton destruction that is forbidden in the Torah, but was surprised by an additional Israeli. He kicked, threw rocks, and drew his knife. When he threatened a journalist who had followed me, I protected him. Soon he was on top of me, with his knife hand free.
Here Ascherman moves back and forth in history, between the Bible, Israel’s projection and protection of settlements in the West Bank and Israel’s High Court order to protect, in some small measure, what is left – for now – of Palestinian land and farming rights. Ascherman’s unfolding narrative has a certain, though questionable logic. First, Ascherman believes that his attacker’s decision to spare his life might have been moved by the Biblical admonition not to kill a fellow Jew. This admonition doesn’t cover Palestinians. But, then, the Israeli High Court has ordered the Israeli army to protect Palestinians against marauding Jewish settlers who, in their settlements, are protected by the Israeli armed forces. Ascherman wants to protect what’s left of Palestinian land. He appeals to the double-edged Bible and the Israeli army. Missing is Palestinian agency. Do Palestinians have rights outside of Jewish interpretations of the Bible, Israeli settlement policies, the Israeli army and Israel’s High Court? Or are Palestinians wards of the Israeli state and Jewish protectors like Ascherman?
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 hope he has spoken with his fellow “hilltop youth,” explaining his change of heart. Perhaps his teshuvah will have ripple effects reaching the communities that cultivate extremism, 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 the traditional Yom Kippur confession of the sin of tzarut ayin, our resentfulness towards the good fortune of others? The Talmud decries those who wish to prevent others from benefitting even if they themselves will suffer no loss. His only loss was the dream of driving non-Jews out of the Biblical Land of Israel by dispossessing them and denying them the ability to support themselves.
We founded Israel correctly vowing “never again.” We must have the power to ensure that Jews will never again be helplessly slaughtered and persecuted, as we had been for 2,000 years of statelessness. There are still those who would “throw us into the sea” if they could. 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 outside the building as we have been doing since the latest round of Palestinians murdering Israelis.
Ascherman continues on the Biblical theme, pertaining to Jews. This may be why he survived. On the settlers’ anger toward Palestinians, Ascherman again invokes the Biblical interpretations of many, including progressive rabbis like himself: Palestinians as strangers and as real and/or potential enemies of Israel’s return to the land. Ascherman attempts to think with the settler. Was the settler angry because Palestinians still reside in the land? “His only loss was the dream of driving non-Jews out of the Biblical Land of Israel by dispossessing them and denying them the ability to support themselves.” This is a telling sentence. Is Ascherman suggesting that the settler would be justified and on the right side of Jewish religiosity if he accepted his “loss” and allow Palestinians the limited right to support themselves on the land that was Biblically given to Jews?
Ascherman’s following paragraph continues in this vein. As earlier when he thinks the settler might be in a rage because of “Palestinian terror,” here Ascherman calls on the Jewish history of powerlessness and the necessity of “Never Again” Jewish power. After all, according to Ascherman, the Palestinian dream of eliminating Jews from Palestine remains. That is why after reciting the blessing for his own survival, Ascherman stands guard at the synagogue door, the “latest round of Palestinians murdering Israelis,” foremost in his mind.
After recounting his survival and the right of Israel to survive, Ascherman turns a critical eye to that survival:
However, our vow has morphed. We have forgotten that long before “never again,” God commanded us, “never, ever.” We should never, even once, oppress others as we were oppressed (Exodus 23:9). We now exploit our power to take from others. The Midrash teaches us that the hand that strikes the non-Jew will eventually strike the Jew as well. The violence against me is the inevitable outcome of the civilian and state violence directed at Palestinians on a daily basis. “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 injustice bring it upon us.
We could pin all the blame on the handful of settlers who are extremely violent and the larger settlement community that fosters them and turns a blind eye. However, all of Israeli society has to engage in soul-searching. Too often even Israelis who oppose settlements act towards the lawless and violent culture that has sprung up with equanimity, resignation, a polite “Isn’t it terrible,” or the feeling that extremists must be appeased in order to hold Israeli society together. State-sponsored oppression of Palestinians, support of settlements and lack of prosecution encourages extremism. The army deserves credit for protecting Palestinian farmers in the midst of the current violence. However, they believe they must appease extremists to do so. They postpone harvests near the most violent settlements. The High Court explicitly forbids closing lands to Palestinians “for their own good” when Israelis threaten them, unless there is no other way to prevent bloodshed. Yet, that is what has been happening.
Ascherman criticizes what is occurring within Israel. However, notice the morphing Ascherman discerns. Again the Bible is in play, which grants an a priori claim to Jews and views Palestinians as strangers in the land. Ascherman seems to accept this sensibility. Jewish Israelis are then called to protect the Palestinian strangers, which, according to Ascherman, Israel’s High Court and military are doing the best they can do within the context of “extremist” Jewish settlers. Yet for Palestinians the problem is the settlement enterprise itself. The “protection” offered the Palestinians who farm the land that is left is the least of it.
Ascherman does mention the overall enterprise -“State-sponsored oppression of Palestinians, support of settlements and lack of prosecution encourages extremism.” He does criticize Israelis who are against settlements for their apathy – “…all of Israeli society has to engage in soul-searching. Too often even Israelis who oppose settlements act towards the lawless and violent culture that has sprung up with equanimity, resignation, a polite ‘Isn’t it terrible,’ or the feeling that extremists must be appeased in order to hold Israeli society together.” Even here, though, the thrust of Ascherman’s critique is that the settlements are here to stay.
The leading edge, what Ascherman sees as extremism, must be confronted. Ascherman’s narrative is effectively limited to his confrontation with that extremism rather than the system that denies Palestinians their right to full political equality.
Ascherman ends his story where it began, focusing on extremism:
Perhaps in these tense times we should be more concerned about escalation than insisting on every word of a court ruling. However, giving in to violence whets the appetites of those who successfully extort through violence. If the state announced they that it was evacuating settlements because of Palestinian threats, even many opposed to settlements would cry out because that would encourage more violence.
If a few settler extremists and their supporters wake up and recognize that they are committing idolatry and abusing their power, or a few Israeli leaders realize that there must be zero tolerance of Israeli and Palestinian violence alike, then maybe my near murder will have been worth it. In the meantime, I and our staff and volunteers are in the olive groves.
Rabbi Ascherman and his colleagues, Rabbis for Human Rights, will remain “protecting” Palestinians. So they should. They will continue to depend for this protection on an Israeli state that systematically has and continues to dispossess Palestinians. The end result of this for Palestinians is clear.
Progressive Zionist “protection” narratives are caught in a Zionism or Israel nostalgia. The cutting edge of the settler movement, the “extremists,” are the latest result of previous settler “extremists” who imagined, then built, the state of Israel on a “Never Again” Jewish ideology that fused the Bible and Jewish state power. Whether originally out of a perceived Jewish need or not, Zionism and the state of Israel has dispossessed millions of Palestinians and ghettoized those remaining in the land.
Beyond protection, those who continue to insist on Israel’s end to the occupation itself, are also caught up in this nostalgia. Anyone who looks at the history of the state of Israel and the facts on the ground knows that only “protection” is left. Zionism/Israel nostalgia limits Palestinian rights to a category that is unrecognized in International Law or in a Jewishness applied anywhere in the world outside of Palestine.
Anyone who believes that the latest round of dispossession is the fundamental issue or is scandalized by it, without admitting and addressing the root causes of ongoing Palestinian dispossession, needs a refresher course on Israeli and Palestinian history. Willingly or unwillingly equating Israeli and Palestinian “terror” is a serious error of judgment. It avoids the real reason for the escalating violence Rabbi Ascherman encountered at risk to his life.
For progressive Jews everywhere, it is way past time to wake up. Nostalgia for what was or wasn’t in terms of Zionism and Israel isn’t protecting Palestinian, or Jewish life for that matter. The matter of Zionism and Israel as innocent and redemptive is over.