Rabbi Arik Ascherman: What I Wish for the Settler Who Attacked Me With a Knife

In the moment my attacker nearly became my murderer, did he wonder why he was on a hilltop in the Occupied Territories, driven to violence because the Israeli army was protecting Palestinian farmers?

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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.

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.

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. 

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 Arik Ascherman is the president and senior rabbi of Rabbis for Human Rights. Follow him on Twitter: @RavArik