We need days of judgment - opinion

The teshuva that needs to take place is not just the teshuva of our attacker. Societal teshuva is required for the message that we are sending to him and so many others.

 Two of the Israelis (masked) who allegedly assaulted Palestinian farmers harvesting their olives, along with Israeli human rights activists, last November. (photo credit: Shai Kendler/Megaphone News)
Two of the Israelis (masked) who allegedly assaulted Palestinian farmers harvesting their olives, along with Israeli human rights activists, last November.
(photo credit: Shai Kendler/Megaphone News)

Last November, three of us were injured by settlers while harvesting olives with farmers from Tzurif. After an officer of the legal adviser to the Civil Administration affirmed that the Morar High Court decision gave farmers the right to harvest their olives without advance coordination, the soldiers who had tried to stop us from harvesting left us to our fate. They were on their way back for the 40 minutes between our first call as we saw the settlers preparing to attack and the moment the attack began.

Despite the excellent documentation we provided to the police, only one attacker was indicted. Recently, the court approved a plea bargain. The lone apprehended attacker admitted to an indictment omitting some details and reducing the charges. There will be no trial.

The police say the fact that they are seeking two years imprisonment is actually a harsh sentence. In a sense, they are correct. It is almost unprecedented that an Israeli Jew is sentenced and statistically unlikely that our attacker would have even been caught if the victims had been Palestinian.

Every night before going to sleep and just before Kol Nidre we pray “I hereby forgive all who have hurt me... May no one be punished on my account.” I have always forgiven those who have done me wrong, even the young man who attacked me with a knife in 2015. I do this to remove a burden from my soul as much as I do it for the person who has wronged me.

However, I choked on the words a bit this Yom Kippur. While I have forgiven those who attacked us in November, I added that I did not want him to face heavenly punishment but I did want them to be tried and punished in an earthly court.

 SETTLERS HURL stones at Palestinians during the annual harvest season, near the settlement of Yitzhar in 2020.  (credit: NASSER ISHTAYEH/FLASH90) SETTLERS HURL stones at Palestinians during the annual harvest season, near the settlement of Yitzhar in 2020. (credit: NASSER ISHTAYEH/FLASH90)

The difference between my approach now and in 2015 has a lot to do with the marked increase in unchecked violence against Palestinians and human rights defenders.

We must be judged and need to know we are being judged

Both Judaism and the pioneering sociologist Emile Durkheim teach us that we must be judged and need to know we are being judged. The laws of teshuva (repentance, answering God’s call, turning and returning to our highest selves) teach us the difference between blithely expressing regret and truly making changes in our lives. While many believe that the period in which God judges the fate of all human beings for the coming year ends on Yom Kippur, our tradition actually teaches us that we actually have until Hoshana Raba, the seventh day of Sukkot. In my Kurdish neighborhood, some still read the Zohar all night long.

On the High Holy Days, we beseeched God to judge us from the throne of rachamim (mercy and compassion), rather than the throne of din (strict judgment). We didn’t ask God not to judge us. In Bereshit Raba we learn that the world, whose birthday we celebrated on Rosh Hashanah, had to be created with the proper mix of the din and rachamim (mercy). Harsh punishment isn’t the ideal solution to crime. However, in the case of the rising levels of Jewish violence against Palestinians and human rights defenders, the balance has been seriously compromised. While I wish this violence could be checked in other ways, I don’t see it being reduced when potential attackers don’t believe they will pay a price.

This is the message sent by the lack of effective law enforcement after we were injured in November and after countless attacks that didn’t make the news because the victims were Palestinian. Likewise, the hundreds of incidents that Torat Tzedek has documented in which settlers pay no price for bringing their flocks to wreak havoc in Palestinian fields, vineyards and olive groves on the lands of Taibe, Dir Jarir and Ramoun alone, sends the message that these actions can continue.

At the sentencing hearing after the 2015 attack, I cited Durkheim’s three possible goals of punishment: 1. Retribution. 2. Protecting Society. 3. Rehabilitation. Others would add “restoration.” I was not interested in retribution and most wanted rehabilitation; however, steps had to be taken to protect society, such as preventing my attacker from being drafted into the army. This time, the three of us have consistently expressed similar sentiments.

We must aspire and work for a world in which conflicts are solved and wrongs prevented through understanding between people and groups. When that does not happen there must be din that brings about tzedek (justice) and protection. Our rachamim and chessed (loving-kindness) towards both victims and perpetrators must be our guiding motivation when seeking to protect all human beings through the enforcement of just laws.

Durkheim believed that law and punishment reflect our actual collective consciousness and are essential to preserving that collective consciousness. While it may be better than nothing, it is not sufficient when public figures condemn violence. The current damage to deterrence is therefore twofold: There is no price being paid and no clear societal message of disapproval. Today, those using violence as a tool of dispossession and displacement believe that they will be praised by God and will never face an earthly court.

We make every effort to capture, try and punish Palestinian terrorists but no comparable effort when Jews attack Palestinians or human rights defenders. We are not fulfilling the aspiration in our High Holy Days prayers to be an “agudah ekhat la’asot ritzonkha b’levav shalem” (to be one whole so we can do Your will), a united collective wholeheartedly dedicated to carrying out God’s will. God’s will, as I understand it, eschews such violence.

I believe that there is a silent Israeli Jewish majority that wants to act justly towards all human beings; however, that majority needs to wake up or be woken up. A public trial could have been an important and insufficient step to wake people up and make those planning violence think twice.

We are taught that true teshuva requires acknowledging our wrongdoings, expressing regret, making amends when possible and not repeating the same action. While I don’t know what has happened since, the young man who attacked me in 2015 expressed regret and underwent violence therapy. His family left the Occupied Territories.

We have no knowledge of regret on the part of our November attacker, although he will no doubt express remorse at the sentencing hearing. In May, he waited outside the courtroom to photograph one of us. I truly desire his rehabilitation; however, his apparent lack of any remorse is another reason why I will ask for a stiff punishment.

The teshuva that needs to take place is not just the teshuva of our attacker. Societal teshuva is required for the message that we are sending to him and so many others.

Approaching Hoshana Raba, may our chessed and rachamim inspire us to wisely and justly enforce din reinvigorating a collective consciousness that honors God’s image in every human being.

The writer, a rabbi, has been leading Israeli human rights organizations for over 27 years. He currently is the founder and executive director of Torat Tzedek-The Torah of Justice