About a month ago, I had the privilege of speaking with Rabbi Arik Ascherman, a man so devoted to human rights that he’s prepared to put his safety on the line. Rabbi Ascherman has been assaulted, beaten, attacked by a knife-wielding man, and nearly crashed his car after the wheels had been intentionally unbolted.
What is this rabbi doing to be on the receiving end of such brutal hatred? As you will hear, he argues that he is protecting Palestinian farmers and their lands.
Though most of the news about Israel concerns judicial reform and civil unrest (and the specter of great violence if things go awry), the West Bank / Judea and Samara is also a subject back in the news because of a new agreement between Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich and Defense Minister Yoav Gallant.
The Times of Israel summarized the new arrangement as follows:
Religious Zionism leader and Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich has been handed broad authority over civilian issues in the West Bank, enabling him to deepen Israel’s presence in the West Bank, increase settlement construction and thwart Palestinian development.
The authorities being transferred to Smotrich — following an extended internal coalition battle over the issue — include enforcement powers over illegal construction, authority over planning and construction for settlements and land allocation matters.
The agreement between Smotrich and Defense Minister Yoav Gallant appears to give the ultranationalist leader sweeping powers over the territory, and allow him to advance his goal of thwarting Palestinian aspirations for a state in the West Bank by enabling the Israeli population there to substantially expand.
The agreement was denounced by left-wing, anti-settlement organizations, including Yesh Din, the Association of Civil Rights in Israel, and Breaking the Silence, which said it amounted to “legal, de jure annexation,” of the West Bank.
But views on this issue are obviously deeply divided among Israelis. At Israel the Inside, our goal is to expose the “mosaic” of views and issues that make up Israeli life. This week, we present the worldview of Rabbi Ascherman, mentioned above. In a future episode, we will hear Naomi Linder Kahn of the organization Regavim, with almost precisely the opposite views. We spoke with her some time ago about the situation in the Negev; this conversation will be about what is happening over the green line.
Rabbi Arik Ascherman is the founder and director of the Israeli human rights organization Torat Tzedek (Torah of Justice). Previously, he was the Executive Director of Rabbis for Human Rights Israel. He was ordained at Hebrew Union College. He lives in Jerusalem with his wife and two children.
The link above will take you to the full recording of our conversation; below is a transcript (just scroll down a bit) for those who prefer to read, available exclusively for subscribers to Israel from the Inside.
I have the pleasure now of sitting with someone who I've known for a very long time, Rabbi Arik Ascherman, who is now the executive director of an Israeli human rights organization called Torat Tzedek, or Torah of Justice, which works on issues of human rights for both Jewish Israelis and for Palestinians. Before that, for about 20 plus years, Rabbi Ascherman was the leader of another human rights organization called Rabbis for Human Rights, where he actually achieved a good deal of fame, notoriety for a very activist position in helping Palestinians defend their fields, trying to stop bulldozers from bulldozing Palestinian homes and so on and so forth.
I think it was about 2002-ish or so that Rabbi Ascherman actually invited me to accompany him out into the West Bank to watch Palestinians take the olives off their olive trees, which, unrelated to the security situation, was actually a fascinating process to see the cloths that they put under the trees and then shaking the branches and the olives come down. But the point of my being present along with him and his colleagues there was the idea was that Jewish settlers who were trying to harass the Palestinians would be much less likely to be violent if they saw a group of Jews there. Especially group of Jews wearing kippot who they might think were more similar to them or something. It proved to be an unfounded optimism. The settlers were actually somewhat violent. I had a very old-fashioned digital camera back in the day. It wasn't on my phone. It was a real camera. I took some pictures and ended up being in court in Ariel with my pictures being used in a trial of these people. So, I got a little bit of a taste of the kind of courage that it takes for you to do the kind of work that you do. But I was there for a relatively tame day. You have been attacked, you've been beaten, you've had your car smashed, you've been arrested for civil disobedience. You are really kind of one of the good old fashioned 1960s civil disobedience types from American mythology. So, first of all, Arik, thank you very much for taking the time to chat today. I want to start by asking you to say a very brief word about the new organization that you founded and what it does to give our listeners an appreciation of what kinds of things you guys work on and then ask you to begin by thinking back from that time in 2002, so it's basically been 20 years. The situation in what some people call Judea and Samaria, some people call the West Bank, some people call different kinds of things, how has the situation changed in the last 20 years?
Okay, so Torat Tzedek is a universal human rights organization. Unlike Rabbis for Human Rights, we have people who are secular, who are religious. We're not all rabbis, as I am, but we believe from my point of view, everything starts from the idea of what we read in the first chapter of Genesis, chapter one, verses 27, that we're all created in God's image, every human being, not just the Jews, not just the wealthy. It makes a point, of course, of saying both men and women. So, on principle, we're always involved in the human rights of both Jewish Israelis and non-Jews who are part of our society, who are under control. So, we deal with issues of poverty in Israel, particularly with issues of public housing, issues of the Bedouin in the Negev who are Israeli citizens who are in so called unrecognized villages, evictions in East Jerusalem. And a lot of our time continues to be the issues of the rights of Palestinian farmers and shepherds simply that they should have the right to safely get to their agriculture and grazing lands, which is by no means to be taken for granted. Even the same farmer who you met back in 2002 is still fighting. And his situation is worse now. I mean, he had some 400 trees, the trees that the settlers have cut down and what have you, or built buildings of Havat Gilad, the nearby outpost inside his grove. He has some maybe 220 trees left. And just this last week, we've been fighting as the civil administration, as the army. You know, we won a major high court decision in 2006. This decision regulates what the obligations of Israeli police army are towards Palestinian farmers. They must be allowed to get to their land all year round. They must be protected when necessary. And yet this year, despite our warnings, which are that he needed to get to his land early because there's always theft by anonymous individuals, they put him at the very end of the harvest. There was nothing left. Usually, he's at least then allowed to plow because all the forces are there. He wasn't allowed to do that. He wasn't allowed to plant new trees in place of the trees that have been cut down or eliminated, as sometimes he has been in the past. So, things have been getting worse.
Let me ask you a question about this. I mean, he's obviously just emblematic of many, many people, I don't know if it's hundreds or thousands, but it's a whole population of people. And you describe these sort of I mean, it's dystopian in a certain kind of way… Is your sense not talking about each individual case, but in terms of Israel's comportment of its forces and its policy in the West Bank, is this a bureaucracy that has become too thick? Is this actually ill will towards Palestinians in general and an attempt on the part of the army to make their lives difficult? Is it the army protecting settlers who are trying to make the lives of the Palestinians difficult? Are there competing interests of security versus agriculture? What's the motivation for the actions that, as you describe them, seem horribly unfair and kind of unnecessary?
As somebody who talks with government ministers and members of Knesset and people in the army, sometimes with settlers, there's of course, a variety of things, but it varies from people who are outright committed to, if not entirely, expelling Palestinians from the entire West Bank, at least moving them out of Area C, the parts of the occupied territory still under full Israeli control, and concentrating them in the urban areas of Areas A and B.
Does this include army officers?
Yes. And in fact, sad to say, as a religious person, as more and more religious people and many settlers are rising in the ranks of the army, and this is before the new government, this is before Ben-Gvir, this is before Smotrich or Orit Strook or any of these people, you know it's natural almost, that to some degree, Israelis are going to on some level, identify more with their fellow Israelis than with Palestinians who we are in a conflict with, but the level of commitment to supporting the settlers has just risen and risen and risen. It used to be that I would meet top commanders, and the reason why I've never been able to watch “The Gatekeepers” is because if I had $100 dollars for every senior commander that said to me after they were out of the position, “I regret that I didn't enforce the law more against the settlers”. I'd be a rich person. I'd be wealthy. But today it's not even that. I have a video clip of an officer who tells me, and he invites me to video him saying, “Those settlers right over here in a gated in Palestinian olive grove that the State of Israel recognizes as being private land owned by Palestinians, that does not matter to me. That's not my job. You are the problem. I'm the problem. Arik Ascherman is the problem, because if you weren't here, the Palestinians wouldn't dare to come to their lands, and they wouldn't be harassing the poor settlers who are on their land.” And he had no bones about saying that. And that, unfortunately, is reflecting not the entire army. We have a citizen's army of people with a wide range of opinions. I sometimes meet officers who are really trying to do the right thing, who are proud to say that they are acting as I would expect a Jewish soldier to act. But more and more of what I just described reflects what we hear more and more from the army. The police are slightly better.
The police are better than the army?
Slightly. They a little bit more see as their mandate is defending everybody. But I often joke with Palestinians, the army is 100% against you, and maybe the police is 50% to 70% against you. And I'll let you in on a little scoop, since January of 2022, I was in fairly constant contact with a senior advisor to the outgoing police minister, Bar Lev and she agreed with me. For example, I have hundreds of cases documented where I or other people personally photographed settler flocks in cultivated Palestinian land, stealing what they planted for their flocks, destroying olive groves and vineyards and recorded phone calls with the police, WhatsApp communication with the army, and a vast majority of those cases doing nothing. And if they came still doing very little. And certainly, even when Palestinians submit complaints, nothing is really done.
Which are the courts that are responsible…
It never gets to the courts, because…
So, when they lodge a complaint, they lodge a complaint with whom?
The police as the gatekeepers never let it get to court, we may have to go to the High Court or something…
Is that a policy? Is that a laziness? Is that an officer and the police who's not interested in it going forward? I mean, I could see in one case, I could see in ten cases, I could see 100 cases, the complaints that are lodged getting stuck. But if all the complaints that get lodged are stuck, which is what you're saying?
More or less that's the case. And I don't sit in their boardrooms… But what I do want to tell you is, even when this senior advisor thought she had come to agreement with the police in the occupied territories, one, that they must keep the settlers out of land, which Israel knows is private Palestinian land, b, if they continue to do it, they should be arresting them. C, they should be doing more to bring cases to indictments. I gave her several sample cases, both of physical attacks or trespassing, and she tried to investigate. Unlike the incoming minister, Ben-Gvir, Bar Lev was more limited, and he couldn't micromanage investigations. But the fact is, she thought she had agreements, and they dissed her as well. The people, the police on the ground did not do what they said that she thought they had agreed that they would do.
So, when you have a right-wing government, you can sort of understand the trickle down and the support for settling land and for a somewhat more grander vision of the borders of the state of Israel. But in the last 20 years, I mean, it's true, the Likud has been in charge for most of the time, but there have been more left leaning governments in the last 20 years, and they haven't done much either. Why is that?
So, first of all, I think in addition back to even your earlier question, in addition to people who are totally ideologically committed, for other people it is just not high enough on their priorities. Or and this was the case of all these people that if I had $100 from each one of them, I'd be a rich person, most of them just want industrial quiet. They thought that the easiest way to keep things, not have to do too much activities or work was to appease the settlers. So, it's a combination of things.
How has the number of settlers changed in the last 20 years?
I'm not good on statistics, but certainly you know, I think we're certainly, probably at least 200,000 more settlers now than we had then. Despite the fact that again, if I look at that high court decision, there are many, many Palestinians as a result of that decision getting to lands that they couldn't get to previously. With believe it or not, the army there to protect them sometimes.
So, the 2006 Supreme Court decision which ruled that it's Israel's responsibility to protect Palestinian access to their lands and so forth, has improved the lives of some Palestinians?
It has. But nevertheless, if you look at aerial photographs, you will see that Palestinians are able to cultivate much less land than they could in 2006. The condition of the land is much more depredated. It's an awful situation. From the get-go, there were people I mean, one commander told me on the day we won, “We are the Israel Defense Forces. Our job is to defend Israelis, if you force me to, I’ll do something else, but that's not my job”. And the fact is that the people that from the very get-go want to roll back the clock have succeeded in chipping away at that. So even most Palestinians only think that they had the right, so called, to get to their land for a week or so to harvest their olives another week, maybe to plow, when in fact the law says they should be able to get there all day, all year round with army protection as needed. And one of the jobs that we're trying to do, one of our projects right now is working with municipalities to demand that right.
Municipalities such as?
Palestinian. From Beit Ummar to Awarta.
So, you're working with the Palestinian municipalities to demand of the Israeli courts and the Israeli authorities that the 2006 Supreme Court rights be actualized.
Going through what the legal advisor for the civil administration said, it's the proper way to do it, that the Palestinian liaison unit works with the Israeli liaison unit. It's a broken system, it does not work. We may have to go back to court. And of course, the court is not the same court it was back in 2006 either. There's a danger of losing more than you gain. We have to think about everything very seriously. But the fact is, on the one hand, yes, there are farmers. Just this year someone said to me, “I'm internally grateful to you. Because of you, I have my land back”. But if you look at the big picture, things are worse than they were in 2006 for many, many people. And many people today are shocked because of this new government. There are many people that are waking up and the thing that comes to my mind is, if you recall what Leah Rabin said when people gathered outside their house after Rabin was assassinated, and she said, “Why weren't you here before? But thank you for being here now.” And that's the way I feel. It's not like the so called centrist or left-wing governments were really doing that much for Palestinian human rights. They were not. The situation has been awful all along. Many Palestinians, they’ve said, about the new government, “What's the big deal? They've all been bad for us.” They're now starting to realize this one's going to be worse.
I want to come back to that in a minute. I want to come back to now that Smotrich is going to have a tremendous amount of authority over what, again, some of our listeners will call Judea and Samaria, and some will call the West Bank. You've referred to in our conversation as the occupied territories, whatever one wants to call them. They're all laden terms, so there's no good way to refer to them except by looking at a map and saying “there”. But before we get to what the Smotrich control over this area might mean, I want to ask you something about Israelis. I mean, you've been living here for a very long time. You're a super smart guy. I don't think I said at the beginning, but a graduate of Harvard. You're the real deal. And you know Israeli society very well. I'm not talking about Israeli society, real- Israeli society along the coast, let's say Tel Aviv, Netanya, Ramat Gan, Jerusalem… When you tell stories about a farmer, the one that we were talking about before, his name was Ibrahim, if I remember correctly, or you tell stories about this guy not being allowed access one week a year when the law says he should have access 52 weeks a year, you tell stories about all these kinds of stuff. I would think that the typical Israeli, if they were actually faced with this, would be appalled about some of the instances.
I'm not now taking a stand, me personally, Daniel Gordis, I'm not taking a stand on how much of the situation is characterized by these things because I don't know. And you have your views, and I don't have any information on that. But there are certainly things that are happening in those areas that I think would appall rank and file Israelis. And yet for decades after decades, these stories have not gotten traction in Israel. If you open up Yediot Ahronot today or you open up Maariv today, or you open up maybe Haaretz a tiny bit more, but not much more. These stories just aren't in the Israeli press. And my question to you is, what is this? Is this about because fundamentally, Israelis say the Palestinians it's very, very sad, but at the end of the day, these people are basically opposed to our existence. So, while I feel bad on an ad hominem case, I just can't get worked up about it.
Is it because Israelis vote security, security, security and then economics? And this doesn't fall into any of those categories. Israelis are startup nation-ing and are just too busy to worry. I mean, leaving aside now your work in those areas and your work for Torat Tzedek, just how do you as an Israeli understand that these stories which speak to our souls and our consciences are really not being batted around Israeli discussions? I just want to add to that, right, I mean, when Sabra and Shatila happened now, obviously it's a massive event, but it's also an event in which not a single Israeli soldier fired a single bullet. I mean, a million people came out to the streets and protested when the when the war started to go bad in Lebanon in the early 80s, they brought down the government and so on and so forth. So, Israelis have the capacity for moral outrage and Israelis have the capacity for banding together. Why is this story of what's happening in these places simply not getting traction?
Well, I think there's a couple of reasons. First of all, let me say that when people ask me why you haven't burned out after working for human rights for 27 years, part of my answer is Shabbat, taking some time off sometimes. But another part of my answer is that I still, from all the awful things I've seen, still believe in the basic goodness and decency of my fellow Israelis. And for the most part, most of them want to do the right thing, want to see themselves as just…
When you say you believe in it, though, is that like sort of I believe in the coming of the Messiah, or I really believe that's how they are?
Well, we've done opinion, focus groups in the past which have shown that most Israelis only want good things for Palestinians. They think they come first. They do think about security, they think about their economic. But they're not trying simply to screw over the Palestinians from the get-go. And one of the most depressing things for me about this last election, realizing that we've had human rights violations since the beginning of the state and in any other country in the world you want to take a look at. I mean, Ben- Gurion expelled who knows how many Palestinians.
Mostly in the War of Independence.
But also after. And the fact is that it ought to be a little bit under the table because our national ethos was that this isn't right. Our national ethos included principles of universal human rights and decency.
Is that a national ethos with kind of a wink and a nod, which is what we say, but we know we're not really that or is it people just didn't know?
I think people really wanted to believe that on some level. I think people had the great need to believe that they were good, decent people. But in this last election, what was one of Smotrich’s campaign slogans? “You vote for me, and you know what you're going to get.” So, this time we had some 10% of Israelis who knew that they were voting for people who were very upfront about racist, expansionist, homophobic and you name it, policies. Also, for talking about inside Israel, I mean, Smotrich now as a finance minister, is an avowed neoliberal. I don't know how that is going to have to play out versus the ultra-orthodox parties in terms of the Israelis living in poverty, but people voted for that openly and that's devastating for me.
Sure, I totally understand that and now in fairness, just if somebody else was sitting around the table with us, there are people who would point out that a lot of the people who voted Likud for 30 years in the Negev, who now voted for Ben-Gvir, voted out of fear of the Bedouin. Now, you work obviously on the other side of the Bedouin issue when trying to advocate for the rights of Bedouin in what are called unrecognized villages. But these things, they're very complicated and we can drill down, and we can put somebody else at the table and we'd have a good go around about it. Let's talk about not Ben-Gvir, let's talk about Smotrich. And I just want to say to our listeners, I think these are two…
To fully answer your question, there's two other things that have to be said. As much as I don't like to talk about us and them, if we are liberals or progressives, almost by definition, one of the dearest things we have is that we know that we could be wrong about something and it puts us at a disadvantage of people who take a more fundamentalist approach, who don't ask those questions. And the fact is, and I have to be honest about this, that many of the Israelis who share, in theory, our opinions, who would be a little bit outraged about some of these stories and it is also a question of gatekeepers in the press and everything else and how much of that gets them, but they sit at home and say, “Isn’t it terrible?” But they won't do… they won't forego income, education, put themselves maybe a physical risk to live out in the middle of nowhere in an outpost and they don't come enough of them. We have a number of many volunteers but not enough coming to join us. And so, it's a matter of that. They may be theoretically with us, but they're not sufficiently motivated.
Another issue is that I also have to differentiate between peace organizations and human rights organizations, and they often get confused. We don't have a position for example, we say the occupation must end because it leads to human rights violations. But of all the different possible solutions it’s a political question, it's not in our mandate to talk about. But people confuse those things. And two things seriously undermined the soft left and people that confuse peace issues and human rights issues. So first of all was the Second Intifada when Ehud Barack succeeded in convincing people to save his own rear end or trying to that in fact, he had exposed Arafat when in fact those of us work on the ground had been warning for a long time, trying to get to Barack about how explosive things were on the ground because we saw that more and more Palestinians were becoming disillusioned with the peace process. Just as the Israelis when they saw terror going on, Palestinians were saying look at all the increased human rights violations, this is not a peace process. And then with the withdrawal from Gaza and most Israelis will say look, we risked civil war to move out of like Gaza and we got rockets. That's partially true but also ignoring how we continue to maintain a stranglehold on Gaza. Which in no way justifies the rockets of course, but those things also devastated the soft left let’s say. And the third thing, the other side is again, I don't like to use those terms, but they send countless people as educators into every hole in the wall community in this country.
So why didn't the left do that?
And we don't have the will or the vision. We talked about peace now, but what happens if it doesn't… we are now reaping what we never sewed because for decades others have been sending educators into every place, every youth movement…
But that's a failure of the left, right?
That's a failure of the left. Absolutely. I get ego strokes because people know my name and they know what I do and this kind of stuff. We need hundreds or thousands of anonymous people who go and dedicate their lives to educate people in the no middle of nowhere. And we don't even have now, not only do we not have the people, but we don't have 40 years to make up for what's been done for the last 40 years. So that's the thing. But on the positive side, I just have to tell you, one year it was pouring, and my very right-wing neighborhood, late neighbor, actually, but at the time alive, I didn't even know that her father had been murdered in a terror attack. As she's passing the mishloach manot through the window, the portions that we give on Purim and she says, “Why are you always helping Palestinians?” I was taken aback. I never talked to her about what I do. And I said, “Well, we don't only help Palestinians, we also help the Jews.” And I asked her, “Why shouldn't a Palestinian farmer have the right to get to their trees?” And she says, “You're right, they should.”
Unfortunately, we can't have a personal conversation with one person, one person, one person, and get to millions of people. I've had amazing conversations with soldiers who start out meeting us in the field, mocking and angry that we're forcing them to deal with us. And at the end of the day, it's not that they take off their uniforms and join us. They say, “I get what you're saying”, or “I'm going to go and ask about it or I'm going to think about it.” We've had people come back the next day and say we went home to talk about it. Another thing that still sustains me, although we don't have the ability to talk to everyone one on one, is that when you do that, the goodness that is in many Israelis still comes out.
Yeah. That I agree with. You see goodness coming out in all sorts of ways, and in this area, too. Again, just to make sure that our listeners are fully appreciating the fullness of the worldview that you're presenting. Your argument is that whereas most Israelis say that, leaving Barak's political ambitions out, let’s just say that most Israelis would say that in 2000 Arafat got exposed for what he was. The Intifada had been planned, the Intifada was being funded by him, and then four years of devastation for Israelis and Arabs followed. Your argument is it was in large measure a result of Palestinian frustration with the absence of progress in the peace process. Just two very, very different ways of looking at that situation. I think the one that I described first is probably characterizing 90% of Israelis, but I don’t know for sure.
Till this day, the two different Israeli intelligence agencies have a disagreement whether it was spontaneous or planned. But yes, I'm saying for those of us on the ground and seeing the writing on the wall and trying to warn people, we saw it coming.
Right and the same thing with the Gaza. Most Israelis would say, again, I'm not taking sides here, in 2005, we pulled out. They more or less indirectly elected Hamas. Yes, we have an embargo around Gaza because they want to get more rockets and more dangerous weapons and we can't have that. So, we understand that it creates economic hardships, but fundamentally in 2005 they had the opportunity to elect a different kind of government to say that now that you've pulled out, we want to begin negotiations with you about certain kinds of things and that didn't happen. And your argument is that the rage in Gaza is largely fed by the poverty and the economic challenges which are in terms of result of Israeli embargoes and so on and so forth. I just want our listeners to fully understand the kind of the different world views here.
I wouldn't in any way justify Palestine violence. Also, I just want to think that at the time it was clear to us that the Second Intifada was a revolution against their own leadership. Arafat coopted it. But when we would talk to even civil society leaders, they were in fear that they were all going to be swept away because it was a lot and that was all part of the reality, which you only understand if you're there day in and day out on the ground, as I've been.
Yeah, okay. This is super important because it's an opportunity for the people listening to this to understand the Israeli reality through a very different set of lenses. They don't normally hear the world described as you're describing it, and they can agree or they can disagree, but it's important for people to kind of understand that there's people like you and your colleagues and your friends and so forth who see the world this way. Let's talk about now. I'll say here, by the way, in terms of distinction that I think that Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben-Gvir are very different characters. People sort of lump the three of them together, them and Avi Maoz. They're all very different. They're different religiously, they're different intellectually, they're different in terms of their personalities and whatever. So, I want to leave Ben-Gvir and Maoz out of this for the time being and with Smotrich leave his economic plans out. He has much more control over, again, that area that some people call Judea and Samaria, some call the West Bank. What do you think is now going to change on the ground in light of Smotrich’s, new responsibilities and authority in the government?
Okay, well, I think in general it's going to be much more even physically dangerous for the people we're trying to defend and for us. As you've said at the beginning, I've been attacked by knife-wielding settlers, I've been this and that and the other thing. It's going to get worse
Because of a wink and a nod or because of a direct order about changing policy?
That maybe is more to Ben-Gvir in terms of how he instructs the police. But let's talk about, as you said Smotrich. Let's talk about where he comes from. He’s one of the founders of Regavim, an organization ideologically, religiously, committed to basically dispossessing and reining in where Israeli Arabs, where Palestinians live on both sides of the green line whether it be in the occupied territories or the Negev.
We've actually interviewed somebody from Regavim who obviously told the story from her side.
If we had time, I could go into all the things that they say which I would say are disingenuous, but we'll leave that aside for now. Entire communities like Susya and Khan al Ahmar, Palestinian communities that have been a line in the sand for many years on both sides, with the human rights community and the international community fighting to keep them from being wiped off the face of the earth. And Regavim and a whole court of people of which Smotrich has been one of the leaders, is very, very committed to finally getting these communities destroyed entirely.
And you think that that can happen now under this government, under Smotrich?
I think that it absolutely can happen. The other thing is that those two communities in particular are only standing today because of international pressure.
Which is not going to go away.
It's not going to go away.
If anything, it'll be more intense.
But the difference is that's the question you still have people like Benjamin Netanyahu who have some understanding that we have to live in an international community and some sensitivity to what the rest of the world is saying. But you now have people like Smotrich and others. We'll see what actually happens. There's rhetoric and then there's reality, right? But they seem to be saying we can ignore international pressure; we should not be caving into international pressure. It will require then, a ratcheting up of international pressure simply to balance the increased pressure that's going to come from this government. And it's an open question of which I certainly don't have the answer at this point. Will the international community who has other concerns and there's the war in Ukraine and there's this and there's that, and a limited amount of political capital, will they have the will to do what it will take to counter the ratcheting up on the government side? And I don't know, but the fact that Smotrich is now in charge of the civil administration, the body responsible for civilian affairs in the occupied territories, West Bank, Judea and Samaria…
Which you've been saying has been a disaster all along.
The civil administration is not going to get us in the human rights community to save them. We have our own criticism for them. However, what he's been very clear about, and you can see from his record and from Regavim and everything else that he believes in, he is dedicated to seriously increasing the number of permits for settlers, to increase the number of houses that they're building. Primarily in Area C. It's more difficult in area B or A. It's already almost impossible for a Palestinian to get a building permit to build legally. It's almost impossible. The civil administration has already been preventing the adoption of any master plans for Palestinians that would give them a chance of building legally. That's only going to get worse. In the coalition agreements, even if not every I dotted and every T crossed, as Smotrich would have liked, but a commitment to legalizing the so-called “young settlements”, which are the outposts, which today are illegal even according to Israel. Although Israel, according to what some report shows, has always been funding resources and everything.
These things, and we've written reports about this, they in a very real way will make life worse for Palestinians. And I want to refer, in February, it will be two years since "Zambish", Ze'ev Hever, longtime settler strategist, ideologue leader, convicted in the past for Jewish terror, at a conference of Amana, the major settlement organization which he leads today, said very proudly, “We have created 30 shepherding outposts and we're going to do more. Why? Because this is a much more effective way than other form of settlements to taking over and holding on to Palestinian land.” He talked; I think in that talk about that one outpost which is also cost effective because you just need a flock and a few settlers and a few tents or prefabs, as opposed to a whole huge settlement, each one of these controls a thousand dunam about 250 acres. I know some of these outposts controls 4000 dunum. And so, when you pave the way, and these are the same they are committed to fighting flocks with flocks. They are the people that I have these hundreds of documented cases taking their flock into lands that Israel knows belongs to Palestinians. I can show you places. I could take you to places where there were people Bedouin living, but they're all gone because of the intimidation and the financial impact of when what you planted for your flocks is eaten and destroyed and you don't have any. It becomes no longer financially viable to be a shepherd. Or at least not in that area. Smotrich is going to promote all these things and in all likelihood, I hope I'm wrong of course I've tried my best since the elections not to just automatically press the panic by them but to watch what's happening. But as I see the government appointments and I see the coalition agreements; I have to come to the conclusion that we are going to see Smotrich orchestrating a major effort to legalize and give protection to almost unlimited expansion of settlements and ratcheting up all the efforts to prevent Palestinians from building, from accessing their own lands. Already the challenges with the civil administration in terms of even doing what the High Court decision said. So, what's going to happen now that Smotrich is in control of these things? It's a nightmare.
Yeah, I can understand that. So, we have to begin to wrap up. I want to come back to the point that we talked about before, which is that the people who are in favor of settlement expansion and the people who have a grander, greater Israel view, have been really very effective, as you yourself pointed out. They've gotten educators into all the classrooms, and they've figured out a way to have one little shepherd thing in one area, control a lot of territory. They've been very smart. The left and the center failed. They've failed to capture the Israeli moral imagination. They have failed, I think, to get the story of what you argue is transpiring out there into the regular old Israeli press discourse, radio. You listen to the radio, as long as you're driving in the car, you don't hear anything about this. Is this government an opportunity? Are we seeing some beginning of a bubbling up of a renewed interest in Israel's democratic nature, in Israel's religious pluralism? Are we seeing the center and the left, but maybe mostly the center now being reawakened? And if we aren't, okay, but if we are seeing the center being reawakened, do you think that the reawakening will extend to this issue also? Or are the issues that you've devoted your moral professional rabbinic life to, you think still likely to stay off the center of the average Israelis radar?
So, I get back to what I said before. Leah Rabin and why weren't you here until now? But if you're here now, we appreciate it. Although also, let's be honest, all the children with their candles, the young people with their candles and all that, those people that showed up around Leah Rabin’s home didn't stop what's happened since then. I do see signs also in World Jewry. I mean, the fact that the Anti-Defamation League came out with a very strong statement about Smotrich and Ben-Gvir, I know people in the American Jewish establishment…
But I don't want to talk about that. I want to talk about Israelis.
So, I don't know. That is a huge question. And it will be our challenge, as you said, how we're going to do a better job of getting around the gatekeepers, of getting our message out. I basically have five strategic suggestions at this point. One is we’re going to be in more danger. And unfortunately, sadly, one of the few things that gets the attention of the public is when Jews not in Palestinians, but when Jews are attacked, we're going to have to do more civil disobedience to get around the gatekeepers, to get into courts and try to use that to also get messages out. We'll have to do smarter legal work. We will have to turn more to the international community. And I highly commend people read a column written by Anshel Pfeffer in Haaretz in English the Friday after their elections, where he said, we talk about a Jewish and democratic state. And most of the people who've been fighting for human rights and progressives have been concentrating almost entirely on the issue of democracy. It makes sense if we're progressive, we have to have not just an in-house Jewish conversation and therefore it's more difficult. Even as a rabbi, although I always try to talk from Jewish sources, less in this talk, but generally I do. And if you look at the demographics of those who are moving more and more to the right for whatever reasons, including some of the things you said about fears for personal security and everything else, most of them do not respond to discourse about democracy. We're going to have to talk Jewish to them. We're going to have to speak in the terms that they understand. And even myself, as a Reform rabbi, I'm going to have a limited ability. We're going to have to have more and more partners in the Orthodox world and there are people who understand that this is wrong and we're going to have to do that if we're going to have any chance of returning our country to a more of a sane course.
Returning the country to a sane course is, I think, a goal that would be hard for anyone to disagree with. I suppose that there's some that think it's just now found a sane course, but I don't agree with that. I'm also very worried about many dimensions of this incoming government. I'm less pessimistic than many people, but I'm also worried. So, for your reminding us of the importance of having both a Western liberal discourse as well as a Jewish discourse so that we can speak to the hearts and minds of all different kinds of people, that's really a fabulous way of drawing our conversation to a close. You have been dogged, persistent, heroic, deeply, deeply committed to the cause that you represent and I'm really, really grateful to you for sharing your insights and your understanding of the situation with our listeners around the world.
Thank you so much. I want to also say that we are now on the 10th of Tevet and in another eight days, 18th Tevet we're going to have the 50th yortzeit of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. And ten days before his death, in the famous interview that he gave to be able to give a message, particularly to young people is with all the frustration, with all the disappointments, remember that what you do counts. And I always think of that image in the Talmud. Two perfectly balanced scales. And the little things we do that seem irrelevant, ineffective, pointless, may be the thing that tip the scales one way or the other. So, my hope and wish and prayer and blessing for all of us that we should have the wisdom, the courage, and the faith to tip the scales in the right direction.
Music credits: Medieval poem by Rabbi Shlomo Ibn Gvirol. Melody and performance by Shaked Jehuda and Eyal Gesundheit. Production by Eyal Gesundheit. To view a video of their performance, see this YouTube:
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