On Bir Hadaj and Kibbutz Revavim, 11,000 Rockets on Israel and Dead Children in Gaza
Jacob, Esau and Our Task at This Hour as Rabbis For Human Rights
Rabbi Arik Ascherman
Let me go from the minor to the major.
Yesterday, just a few hours before Israel began it's operation in Gaza, a delegation of RHR rabbis visited in Bir Hadaj and Kibbutz Revavim. Bir Hadaj is the Bedouin village where on Monday police fired tear gas into the village's elementary school, sending some 29 children to the hospital for tear gas inhalation. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dAJmkXwqRNY. Hadaj has suffered large numbers of home demolitions over recent months. Although it is a recognized village, its master building and zoning plan has been frozen, meaning that it is impossible to get a permit to build legally. About a month ago, police were injured when forces came to demolish homes, and today's confrontation started because they were intending to distribute new demolition orders.
Our immediate sympathies were with Bir El-Hadaj. The head of RHR's education department, Rabbi Nava Hefetz, knows the principle of the school well as a man who educates for peace and coexistence. RHR also teaches in the Negev pre-army academy that volunteers in the school. As part of the Recognition Forum, we have been asking ourselves what we can do to end the wave of Bedouin home demolitions throughout the Negev.
However, we also visited the adjacent kibbutz, Revavim. As I was reading through the comments to a picture Physicians For Human Rights posted of the collection of tear gas canisters and stun grenades collected from the school courtyard, one respondent posted a link to a right wing website reporting of a massive arson attack which took place on the same day in Revavim and the fact that the kibbutz regularly suffers from theft of calves. While I am automatically suspicious of a source like this, I was able to confirm that the report was more or less accurate. It was clear to me that, if we really believe that every human being is created in God's Image, we couldn't make a solidarity visit to Bir El-Hadaj, without a solidarity visit to Kibbutz Revavim.
In Bir El-Hadaj we were gratified to learn of the efforts by the school's staff and volunteers from the Negev Academy both to help the children deal with their trauma, and to understand that the police who stood just outside the gate of the school and fired round after round of tear gas did not represent all Jews. In some classes they asked the children to free associate with the word "Jew." I wouldn't want to repeat some of what came up, but the fact that the Academy volunteers were there clearly helped the children understand that reality was more complex.
On Kibbutz Revavim the large bales of hay were still smoldering. We understood that they had sustained well over a million shekels worth of damage and loss. While they believe that those who regularly steal their calves are a group of professionals from further away, they think that the individuals who raced by on ATVs, threw Molotov cocktails at the bales and seriously damaged their irrigation system came from Bir El-Hadaj. We were told by the kibbutz secretary that most kibbutz members realized that they were also victims of the government policy to demolish homes and discriminate against their neighbors. However, others had much more anger regarding Bir Hadaj. One member of the secretariat bitterly pointed out that it was only the settler media outlet "Arutz 7" that bothered to report on the arson. (I told him that I had seen a report on another right wing website.)
So, what does this have to do with the tragedy unfolding in Gaza? Most of us have biases burned into our hard drives. If our sympathies lie with the Palestinians, we see Zionist aggression and charred Palestinian babies. If our sympathies lie with Israel, we see terrified Israeli children with 15 seconds to run to a bomb shelter every time the siren sounds (According to one source, some 11,000 rockets in the last 4 years.) For all too many of us, our sympathies are all encompassing and exclusive. We see only Palestinian children or Israeli children.
This is not just a matter of spiritual blindness, although it is certainly that. When some Israelis rage against our government without a word about our fellow Israelis suffering from rocket attacks year after year, most Israelis see them as out of touch at best, and possibly self hating. I wonder what conclusion is being drawn on Kibbutz Regavim about the fact that only settler websites are concerned with their situation. When others of us go on and on about Sderot without a word about the death and destruction our overwhelmingly superior power wreaks in Gaza, it may play well at home, but we confirm for many that we are jingoistic purveyors of exclusive Jewish privilege.
Some of you no doubt see what I have written as simply a sappy attempt to be "even handed" and "balanced." I agree that evenhandedness seems a bit outrageous when we Israelis have so much more power. In the words of Revavim's secretary I heard the words of our sages in Pirke Avot, "The sword comes into the world because of the suppression of justice and the perversion of justice, and those who misinterpret the Torah." (Pirke Avot 5:11, in other versions 5:8) Our rabbis were not justifying or excusing violence. They saw violence as a curse. They expected human beings to resist the impulse to do evil, but understood that in the real world the Bedouin who see their homes unfairly demolished and schoolchildren tear gassed will lash out at their neighbors in their comfortable homes. Gazans who can import or smuggle in just about anything, but can't afford many of the goods on their well stocked shelves because restrictions on exports leave them without income, will continue to support terror against their oppressors. Israelis under rocket fire while the world is silent will feel justified in doing whatever is necessary to stop those rockets, even when civilians are also killed.
Our message can not be to ignore the rockets on our fellow Israelis. However, when we hear "There would be no attacks on Gaza if their would be no rockets on the Western Negev, we must both join the demand that the rockets stop and remind our fellow Israelis that we can best help ourselves if we stop using our overwhelming power to make life miserable for most Gazans. With our greater power comes greater responsibility.
Our task as rabbis and Israeli human rights activists must be first and foremost to hold our own government to the most basic principle in international law and in the Jewish tradition: We have a right and responsibility to defend ourselves, but we can not harm civilians, even in the name of self defense. As I have taught in the past, Tractate Sanhedrin 74 teaches this principle and the principle of minimum necessary force. Somebody who kills a pursuer to prevent him/her from killing when s/he could have stopped him/her by other means is seen as a murderer. The Talmudic sage Raba teaches that we can kill the person coming to kill us, but can not kill an innocent third person even to save our own life.
My subjective observation at this point is that Israel is doing a better job this time of not harming civilians, but better isn't good enough. "One who destroys a single life, it as if one as destroyed an entire world." (Mishna Sanhedrin 4:5).
When a cease fire seemed to be going into effect, and we have not taken the steps we could take to make lives better for Gazans, I have to ask whether we have observed the principle of minimum necessary force.
While our first responsibility is to hold our own government accountable, we must make it clear that Gazans should be held to the same standards. Our fellow Israelis must know that we know that they too are created in God's Image.
And, I can't help recalling the fact that not so long after the Gaza War, the level of rocket fire returned to where it was before the war. I can only sadly identify with the desire of my fellow Israelis for peace and quiet, and repeat again, "The sword comes into the world because of the suppression of justice and the perversion of justice, and those who misinterpret Torah."
In this weeks Torah portion (Toldot), Esau is driven into a murderous rage after Jacob cheats him yet again. Jacob flees for his life, and will live in exile for twenty years. Both feel themselves to be the victims. In two weeks, we will read that two older and wiser men will find God in each other.
Kein Yihi Ratzon, May this be God's Will.