Israeli Rabbi Describes Settler Rampages Across West Bank

Israeli-American rabbi and human rights activist Arik Ascherman delivered an Oct. 29 lecture about the situation in the occupied West Bank since Oct. 7 from outside a cell phone repair shop in Jerusalem. (Zoom)

Rabbi Arik Ascherman delivered an Oct. 29 online lecture on settler violence in the West Bank to Reform Jews in Canada from outside a Jerusalem cell phone repair shop.

He was there, in a perfect illustration of the topic he was discussing, because a settler fanatic stole his cell phone, so Ascherman was trying to get an old phone of his repaired to use as a replacement.

While the world’s attention has rightfully been focused on the situation in southern Israel and Gaza since Oct. 7, extremist Orthodox Jewish settlers have used this opportunity to escalate their ongoing efforts to destroy Palestinian villages in the West Bank, intimidating residents into fleeing across the Jordan Valley.

Ascherman, an American-born Israeli rabbi who founded the Jewish human rights organization Torat Tzedek — or Torah of Justice — addressed members of Reform for Human Rights, a new organization of Canadian Jews in the liturgically liberal Reform movement dedicated to defending Palestinian human rights.

“None of us, with all of our long-term collective memory, had seen anything like this. If we were saying that before the war, now it’s on steroids.”

Emboldened by Israel’s far-right government, with a minister of national security, Itamar Ben-Gvir — who is himself a settler who has been convicted of racist incitement — settlers had already intimidated Palestinian residents of three shepherding villages in the West Bank into fleeing their homes between May and August.

“None of us, with all of our long-term collective memory, had seen anything like this. If we were saying that before the war, now it’s on steroids,” said Ascherman.

According to the Israeli human rights organization B’tselem, more than 850 Palestinians, including 13 entire communities, have fled settler violence since Oct. 7.

Rather than the usual campaigns of harassment — burning down olive orchards, vandalizing mosques and assaulting Palestinian youth — settlers are now shooting to kill, and they have Israeli soldiers and police there to protect them.

Ben-Gvir announced on Oct. 10 his ministry’s plan to purchase 10,000 assault rifles to arm militias in the illegal settlements, mixed Jewish-Arab cities and near Israel’s constantly shifting borders.

The Washington Post had an excellent Oct. 30 piece documenting the increased West Bank settler violence since the war on Gaza began, highlighting the role of Israeli authorities in facilitating it:

After a settler shot and killed Bilal Saleh, 38, on Saturday in the village of Sawiya, Israeli police at the scene asked his brother Hashem for eyewitness testimony. As he approached their jeep, Washington Post reporters saw uniformed officers pull him aside for questions, then handcuff him. Hashem — his shirt still stained with his brother’s blood — was shoved into an unmarked truck with civilian plates and driven away with a military escort.

Israeli police told Hashem’s family he is being held on charges of supporting Hamas…

Armed settlers began roaming through the small Bedouin community of Wadi Siq nearly every day after Oct. 7, threatening Palestinians with a massacre if they refused to leave, according to Tariq Mustafa, who fled the area to a neighboring village with his family.

“Get out of here; go to Jordan,” the settlers shouted in Arabic before knocking down tents. One of the settlers drove off with Mustafa’s car, forcing him to walk with his wife and three children to the closest town. Mustafa said he called the Israeli police, but the officer hung up when he tried to report the incident.

“The war in Gaza gave the settlers the green light,” he said. “Before, they would yell at us to go to Ramallah. Now they are telling us to go all the way to Jordan.”

Ascherman observed that, at this point, few in Israel want to hear about any sort of Palestinian suffering.

“Unfortunately, 99.9% of Israelis are currently incapable, in the midst of our immense pain and anger, of distinguishing between Palestinian terrorists and terrorized Palestinians,” he said.

The Reform for Human Rights event, which was scheduled well before Oct. 7, was supposed to focus on developments in the West Bank.

But given recent developments, Ascherman did, of course, address the Israeli assault on Gaza. As I was writing this piece, Israel bombed the largest refugee camp in Gaza, killing at least dozens.

Ascherman emphasized that Hamas’s Oct. 7 surprise attack on Israel was “barbaric and evil,” but cited Talmudic wisdom to condemn Israel’s deliberately disproportionate response:

We’re taught if you kill somebody to keep them from killing somebody else and you could have stopped them in another way, you are a murderer. And we’re taught that even to save your own life, you can kill the person coming to kill you, but you cannot kill an innocent person even to save your own life.

That’s a standard that very few human beings can live by… But for all my understanding that according to international human rights law, according to what I see as core Jewish values, there can be no excuse for the fact that we’ve bombed neighbourhood after neighbourhood and killed so many civilians — thousands.

While he understands that many Israelis want to eliminate the organization responsible for killing 1,400 Israelis — the deadliest single day in Israeli history — Ascherman questioned what comes next.

“Even were we to wipe out Hamas entirely, you cannot wipe out the anger of an oppressed people,” he said, referring to the Palestinians.

But while Israel has a pretext for what it’s doing in Gaza — no matter how flimsy — there is none for the situation in the West Bank, Ascherman noted.

He compared it to the internment of Japanese-Americans after imperial Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbour, which the U.S. didn’t apologize for until 1988.

“One could argue that maybe there is a potential contradiction between support for Israel and concern about the thousands of Gazans killed … But there’s certainly no contradiction between support for Israel at this time and demanding that the settlers be reined in,” he said.

While U.S. President Joe Biden has lined up fully behind Israel’s assault on Gaza, alienating electorally important Arab voters in the process, he has been mildly critical of recent settler rampages, referring to “extremist settlers” who are “pouring gasoline” on the explosion of Middle East violence.

Biden called on the settlers to be “held accountable,” but the question is by whom? U.S. officials refuse to acknowledge the Israeli military’s role in facilitating these attacks.

Ascherman, who spends a lot of time in the West Bank with Jewish and urban Palestinian activists to create a “protective presence” against settler violence, was jailed recently for violating a 15-day ban on entering the West Bank.

When he was gone, in the village of Wadi al-Siq, settlers “went from house to house along with settler soldiers, beating people, robbing people, tagging them — you’re out of here — so they all fled.”

A Palestinian from Ramallah was “beaten with an inch of his life [and] urinated on,” Ascherman said. “[Settlers] tried to force a stick up his anus. They jumped on him to break his spine,” he said.

In the days leading up to the lecture, Ascherman used his car to block a convoy of settlers, which was accompanied to a Palestinian village by a military Jeep “to do who knows what to a shepherding family that they’d already the day before, sent three of them to the hospital, and broke windows, solar panels and cars.”

Ascherman was hit with a rifle butt and had his phone stolen.

“But … they didn’t get to the family. We protected them, as a human being should do,” he said.

When Ascherman went to the police station to file a complaint against the settlers and soldiers, he was shouted at by a cop on the balcony, who told him he wasn’t welcome in the police station. The officer called him a traitor and accused him of doing human rights work for the money.

(Wonder who gets paid more — a rabbi volunteering to put himself in physical danger to protect Palestinians in the West Bank, or a cop?)

Meanwhile, the amount of people volunteering to protect Palestinian villagers is dwindling — some are afraid while others are “dealing with their own mixed emotions after the slaughter of Israelis,” said Ascherman.

“That’s where their Israeli society is at right now.”

I remember as a young kid, I really loved Bible stories, with their strong moral messaging, where the good are rewarded and the wicked punished.

The rabbi concluded his talk by citing relevant parts of each of the three weekly Torah portions read in synagogues on Shabbat since the war broke out.

After Cain murders his brother Abel out of jealousy, as was read on Oct. 14, Cain asks God, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” Expanding on commentary of 19th century German rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, Ascherman said that when we see our brothers “standing in our way, causing us trouble, as we see the Palestinians standing in our way, it becomes so easy to justify murder.”

On Oct. 21, Jewish congregants read about Noah’s ark. When Noah comes out his ark following the flood, he gets drunk and asks God how he could have caused such destruction to the world. God’s response: “Now you come to me?” At no point in the 60 years he took to build the ark did Noah express any reticence about the flood’s impact on everyone living outside the ark.

Ascherman said:

Someday we’re gonna come out of the ark, both the international community and maybe in Israel, and we’re gonna see what we’ve done under the cover of this war and for many years some of us will be outraged. We’ll start pointing fingers at the terrible settlers and our awful governments. But if we didn’t do anything to stop it, we first and foremost have to point fingers at ourselves and say, “What did we do to protest, to do whatever we could to stop this?”

The Oct. 27 Torah portion was about the banishment of Abraham’s first son Ishmael and second wife Hagar after his first wife, Sarah, gives birth to Isaac.

Ishmael is about to die in the desert, so God builds a well for him to drink from. An angel objects, arguing that an omniscient God knows all the horrible things Ishmael’s descendants will do to the Israelites, but God insists on saving Ishmael’s life.

“God knows that no future is inevitable,” Ascherman said. “It is so easy for us, as many Israelis do today, to say, ‘They’re all terrorists. They must all be killed. They must be expelled.’ But that’s not what God teaches. That’s not the way we need to be.”

This piece first appeared at The Orchard.

Jeremy Appel is an independent Edmonton-based journalist and author of the forthcoming book, Kenneyism: Jason Kenney’s Pursuit of Power (Dundurn Press, 2024). Follow him on Twitter @JeremyAppel1025, or email him at appel.jeremy@gmail.com