18 February 2021

A Boy with a Knife

On remorse, forgiveness, and a near-murder in the West Bank

David Shulman

I know something about remorse; less about forgiveness. I have a story to tell in which both of these figure.

It begins with an olive harvest in October 2015 in the village of 'Awarta, southeast of Nablus, close to the infamous Hawara Junction and to the village of Yanun. There are grave sites in 'Awarta considered sacred by Muslims, Jews, and Samaritans, though the names of their occupants vary; one shrine is linked to Pinchas, the grandson of Aaron the Priest, and another, to the west of the village, to Ezra the Scribe ('Uzair). A shrine to the Seventy Elders is situated near the center of the village. 'Awarta is also adjacent to the large Israeli settlement of Itamar, a hotbed of ideological hatred. Settler attacks on 'Awarta have a long, continuous, and blood-soaked history.

Every year the olive harvest in 'Awarta has drawn brutal settler assaults. From 2002 on, the Rabbis for Human Rights have been coming there to protect the harvesters and to harvest alongside them. The presence of these activists has undoubtedly served as a deterrent; the Rabbis are also there when needed throughout the year. Over the years, huge numbers of olive trees belonging to the villagers have been cut down by thugs from Itamar. In 2010, two cousins from the village, eighteen-year-old Salah Qawariq and nineteen-year-old Muhammad Qawariq, who were out gathering scrap metal, were shot by Israeli soldiers in what may have been execution-style killings. In 2011, two villagers from 'Awarta killed five members of the Fogel family, including a baby, in Itamar; the killers were caught and eventually confessed. The Fogel murders have a tangential link to the story I am about to tell.

Rabbi Ascherman inspecting a closed-military-zone order, Al 'Auja, Occupied Palestine, April 2018. All photos Margaret Olin.

In October 2015, the olive harvest was coordinated with the army; Arik Ascherman was there along with other activists from the Rabbis for Human Rights. The Palestinian harvesters were nervous from the beginning, anticipating potential attack. Apparently, so were the soldiers; they closed down the work quite early. After the olive-pickers came down from the groves high on the hill, they looked back and saw settlers stealing their olives. Arik and the activists called the army and the police; soldiers arrived and chased the settlers away.

One masked, heavy-set Israeli was coming down the hill. Then he stopped and stood there, watching.

A fire broke out in the adjacent wadi. Arik started walking uphill to get a better view so that he could direct the army to the spot. With him were another volunteer and a foreign journalist. The volunteer turned back. Suddenly the masked Israeli came charging at Arik and the journalist. He was throwing rocks and waving a knife and screaming: “You get out of here!”

Arik faced him and tried to calm him, backing away. It didn’t work. At some point the burly man-boy with the knife ran after the journalist; Arik, feeling responsible for the latter’s safety, rushed toward him as well and pushed him away from the unfolding confrontation. Now the attacker, knife in hand, turned back on Arik. A deadly choreography swept over the steep, rocky hill; Arik stumbled. The boy was now on him, kicking him hard, wielding the knife in circles around him, swinging the weapon ever closer to his prey. Arik grabbed his foot; the attacker, screaming, caught Arik by the neck with his right arm, held him close to his own body, and transferred the knife to his left hand. Three times he brought the knife down to kill and stopped at the last second. Then he punched Arik with the knife handle, threw another rock, and escaped. All this was captured on film by Zakaria Sedda, a Palestinian photographer and fieldworker with the Rabbis for Human Rights.

Footage of the attack on Rabbi Ascherman, October 2015. Warning: contains images that some viewers may find disturbing.

Thinking about it later, Arik wondered why the wielder of the knife didn’t plunge it into his neck. Did an angel inside him, like the one who stopped Abraham from sacrificing his son on Mount Moriah, whisper, “Don’t kill him”? Could he have heard that voice in such a moment when he was on fire with hate and bloodlust?

The security forces arrested the attacker within two weeks. Undercover police made a concerted effort. He was known to them—an Israeli Jew from Itamar, seventeen years old. They found the knife in his room, and he confessed.

The extremist settler Itamar Ben Gvir represented the boy in court. It took about a year before the trial got under way, because the defendant was a minor. He was charged with aggravated assault. By the time the case came before the judge, a plea bargain was already in place. The boy admitted the charges. In a video interview he said, “I should have killed him, but I didn’t because I knew I’d get into more trouble.”

Arik argued in court that the boy should not be sent to jail. His words, telling me the story five years later: “I almost wanted to cry when I found out he was a minor who was throwing away his life.” After the sentencing—in which the boy was not handed a criminal conviction but was given a six-month suspended sentence, required to perform 150 hours of public service, and fined five thousand shekels—Arik explained the stance he took in a published statement:

The sociologist Emile Durkheim posited three possible goals of punishment: revenge, protecting society, and rehabilitation. At the hearing, I made it clear I wasn’t interested in revenge, and I didn’t see any point to jail time. I asked the court to order steps promoting rehabilitation, while protecting society, including Palestinians.

I am at peace with my decision to request rehabilitation. We must honor God’s image in every human being. When a perpetrator works to rehabilitate himself or herself, we should all be giving the backing s/he needs, whether or not s/he is from our ideological camp.[1]

The boy was also required to undergo therapy, as Arik had demanded. Arik had argued that he should not be conscripted into the army unless it was certain that he would never use the weapon in his hand to hurt or threaten innocents. But can such certainty be achieved?

Rabbi Ascherman conferring with shepherd Abu Jibril, 'Ein Rashshash, Occupied Palestine, December 2018.

The sentence was clearly a very light one and sparked debate. Voices on the left protested vehemently. The prosecution appealed, and the higher court did issue a conviction. Arik felt that conviction was important in order to show that the system could actually work. One needs to remember that the trial took place largely because Arik is an Israeli Jew. Had the same attack targeted a Palestinian, it is extremely unlikely that it would even have come to court. In practice, crimes by settlers or soldiers against Palestinians, including murder, are only rarely pursued by the legal system, and then too only under some form of duress. And even if by some miracle they do come to court, the settler perpetrator usually goes unpunished. (For those interested in statistics on this matter, please read the article referred to in note 1.)

So the boy went to therapy, and there were some indications that he was working hard at changing his life. The family left Itamar. Did he ever express remorse? It’s hard to say. He seems to have come to the conclusion that responsibility for the incident was shared by everyone there.

He at first agreed to meet with Arik, face to face, for a form of restorative justice. He then got cold feet. After some time, he again expressed interest, and the two met for a couple of hours. What happens in a restorative justice meeting is not for publication.

There was hearsay evidence that the boy had found some Palestinian friends; he remained in contact with his old comrades from Itamar. Before the attack, he had close friends from the Fogel family and was traumatized by the murders. There is no doubt that he was susceptible to the hate-filled propaganda of the extreme right, directed at Palestinians and Israeli human-rights activists. I don’t know where he is today.

Settler assaults upon Israeli human-rights activists in the territories are not rare. Like nearly all Israeli activists, I have myself witnessed and survived not a few of them. There have been many in the last months, including attempted murder.

Given the reality of state terror in the occupied territories, I’d like to consider Arik’s case more closely.

It doesn’t seem to be about forgiveness as understood by the Jews, the Theravada Buddhists, or the Christians. For the Jews, forgiveness is associated with a notion of debt. If someone has hurt you, he or she owes you persistent proof that he or she feels true remorse. Until such remorse is demonstrated, there is no compulsion to forgive. If the person does, however, show credible signs of remorse and is capable of putting them into word or deed, then, in theory, the injured party is supposed to forgive. Thus Maimonides in his Mishneh Torah. However, the paradigm of debt does not, I think, exhaust the topic of forgiveness in Judaism. At stake is something that cannot be quantified or understood as a transaction.

There are, in my world, acts and deeds that are unforgiveable. Take a casual glance at the occupation of Palestine: the thousands of house demolitions that have left families without shelter in the freezing winter or the burning summer; the arrests and torture of numberless Palestinians; the killing of innocents (with impunity) by soldiers and settlers; the invasion of homes in the middle of the night, every night; the expulsions, the beatings, the massive theft of land; the farce of the military courts in which one can find anything but justice; the daily insults on all possible levels; the racism…. When one faces such a system, what space is left for forgiveness? It is not for me to say; perhaps our Palestinian friends will find it in their hearts, someday, to forgive us, Israeli Jews, assuming that acknowledgment of the crimes and some indication of remorse emerge. Even then, I am far from sure that I, myself, can forgive. There is a long list of Israeli army officers I have encountered in the field whom I would like to see standing in the prisoner’s dock at the International Court of Justice in the Hague.

This is not simply, or complicatedly, a thirst for revenge. I’ll come back to this theme. Meanwhile, let me say that I stand with Jean Améry when he speaks, out of unimaginable personal pain, of the Jews who, not long after the war, were “already trembling with the pathos of forgiveness and reconciliation, whether their name was Victor Gollancz or Martin Buber.”[2] Reading that sentence, I was struck by a sense of relief, even though I, too, have a stake in forgiveness and reconciliation—assuming there is remorse. Perhaps there is such a thing as facile forgiveness.

Améry writes of a moral calculus that survives, perhaps forever, in its own temporal mode:

Whoever lazily and cheaply forgives, subjugates himself to the social and biological time-sense, which is also called the ‘natural’ one. Natural consciousness of time actually is rooted in the physiological process of wound-healing and became part of the social conception of reality. But precisely for this reason it is not only extramoral, but also antimoral in character.… The moral power to resist contains the protest, the revolt against reality, which is rational only as long as it is moral. The moral person demands annulment of time—in the particular case under question, by nailing the criminal to his deed. Thereby, and through a moral turning-back of the clock, the latter can join his victim as a fellow human being.[3]

That’s the crux of it: the perpetrator may have the outrageous good luck of being humanized. Even one such person can diminish our loneliness. Malice, wickedness, torture are, in their very essence, about the generation of extreme loneliness in their victims, as Améry says. If we, Israeli activists in the occupied territories, have done some good, it is mainly in slightly easing the loneliness of Palestinians under occupation.

Before putting aside the question of forgiveness, we might examine a rather extreme Buddhist example. A man named Bandhula is a minister to the king; his enemies slander him, poison the king’s mind, and the king has Bandhula and all of his thirty-two sons beheaded. Mallika, Bandhula’s wife, receives the bitter news in a letter. She puts it in a fold of her dress and continues ministering to the Buddhist monks. As she is doing so, a servant happens to drop a clay jar, which shatters into pieces. The teacher says to the monks: “No one should be disturbed when something that can be broken is, indeed, broken.”

Mallika brings out the letter and reads it to the congregation of monks. “They have just brought me this letter: ‘The head of your husband has been cut off and the heads of your two and thirty sons likewise.’ Yet even when I heard this, I took no thought. Much less, therefore, am I likely to take thought of the breaking of a mere jar, Reverend Sir.”[4] Mallika advises her thirty-two daughters-in-law to cherish no resentment against the king—for the king, like all other beings, acted out of ignorance and from within the endless chain of conditioning that made him who he was. She knows the “infinite embeddedness, dependency and consequently compromised nature of whatever—and whomever—we take to be a discrete entity.”[5] And, from the depths of this understanding she acts—by stopping the violent chain of suffering at this point of most grievous pain. She has it in her to break that chain.

It seems that nothing could be farther from Améry’s cherished resentment, or from a Jewish theory of forgiveness, than this story. A closer look, however, might reveal some affinities between these competing visions. Even Améry shares the notion that, if justice were to be done, the evildoer might—perhaps at the moment of his death—become human. And what is the meaning of Arik’s stand vis-à-vis his would-be killer if not the wish that the endless cycle of violence and suffering come to an end, at least for this one young person whose life should not be wasted?

Rabbi Ascherman lecturing soldiers about grazing rights and the Torah, 'Ein Rashshash, December 2018.

For me, possibly the most striking thing in Arik’s story is the moment that he nearly cried when he understood that the boy was likely to throw away his life. Tears are a good indication that something real is happening, something unlike striking an attitude or thinking through a theoretical question. This sign suggests the activation of a whole person, though the Buddhists might not care for that formulation. In Arik’s case, there is also the matter of faith (not belief, but faith). I think we might start from there if we want to see what this incident means.

But, you will say to me, there was apparently no true remorse in the settler boy. And not everyone can be Arik Ascherman. Most of us, I think, including myself, would have some wish to see the almost-killer punished. How would you feel if it was your throat that had been touched by the knife? And let us not forget that the knife was wielded by a person whose mind was full of hatred and who was acting in the service of an ideology that justified stealing all Palestinian land and the expulsion of Palestinians en masse from the Land of Israel (and only of Israel, from the Jordan River to the sea).

Yet Arik had no interest in revenge. Protecting society does matter to him: hence his wish for a conviction, as a meaningful public statement, and also perhaps to keep the boy out of the army. But what he wanted most was rehabilitation and restorative justice.

Revenge is probably a transient pleasure. Dissatisfaction is built into it. Although there are philosophers and legal scholars who defend it as a necessary principle in the making of justice, Arindam Chakrabarti has demolished their arguments.[6] There is a paradox built into the thirst for revenge: the victim wants not only to hurt the perpetrator but also to impact the latter’s self-awareness, to make him wish to god he’d never delivered the initial hurt; but it’s hard to achieve that if the perpetrator is killed in the course of the victim’s revenge, and maybe even if he survives intact. In this respect, there is a parallel with the mechanics of remorse which, as Georg Simmel says, does not tell us what to do but rather what should have been done.[7] If one follows that line of thought, then one can only agree with Vladimir Jankélévitch that “moral conscience always arrives late.”[8] We want him who hurt us to suffer in an agony of remorse, the remorse that should have been there, in potential, before the crime and was not.

And what if it never arrives at all?

Let us stay a moment longer with Jankélévitch, the greatest modern theorist of remorse. Very central to his thought is the insistence that remorse, to be real, to be effective, should happen spontaneously, not as a result of an external stimulus, the inculcation of a patterned program of religious or ethical feeling, or any other “extrinsic element.” Here is how he puts it:

This beneficial sadness [of remorse] emanates from the very center of our misdeed; this is not a treatment that would be administered from the outside in order to counterattack the sickness; on the contrary, the remedy, here, naturally and organically prolongs the misdeed like an intravital medication; evil is in itself its own medication. Thus remorse germinates spontaneously from the depths of our sins; and reciprocally our sin exudes remorse by virtue of a curative power that is proper to it.[9]

Remorse, for Jankélévitch, is a sign that a process of healing has already begun, indeed may be close to its conclusion. “To have remorse is a symptom of recovery. … The bad conscience of evil is a good … if it is sincere, that is, without complacency; consciousness of the misdeed mysteriously redeems the misdeed … on the condition that it does not become consciousness for the purpose of redeeming this misdeed, or because the shame would seemingly be a way to acquit oneself.”[10] Given these conditions, given the organic, involuntary arising of remorse from within, the result for the remorseful person is what Jankélévitch calls “moral joy.”

But for Arik’s attacker, utilitarian considerations are uppermost: he is sorry about the near-murder only because it got him into trouble. Maybe there was some indirect attempt to ask forgiveness. There are the political and ideological considerations that have molded his mind into what it is, or was. If remorse for an evil committed is a human achievement, then we might pity the person who cannot come near it. Like so many people we know, including those who rule us, the boy-man of this story may never heal. Now, writing these words, sadness suddenly envelops me as well.

There is always the pragmatic argument, even for cases of absent or aborted remorse. It is surely better to look ahead, to move toward a better future, than to remain stuck in the unredeemed pain of the past. Was this notion the rationale of Arik’s compassionate act? It could be part of it, but I think there is something more, of a spiritual nature, though “spiritual” is not a word I use.

Some well-intentioned people would no doubt argue that holding on to a hurt is unhealthy and that it would be much better to let go of it. No one has ever described just how to do that. It is not a matter of simply willing this internal movement. In fact, “holding on” is a poor description. Something is torn inside and cannot be sewn together. It’s like the Telugu proverb of a man who falls into a river where a bear happens to be waiting; the bear takes hold of the man in a bear’s embrace. An observer standing on the shore, seeing the two, man and bear, floating down the river, cries out to the man: “Let go of the bear!” The man cries back: “I let go of him long ago, but he won’t let go of me.”

One might expect the Buddhist bodhisattva, a creature of total compassionate wisdom, to have done what Arik did, in the tradition of Mallika and others. And there is a recent American-Christian example: relatives of the nine victims of the Charleston African Methodist Episcopal Church massacre in 2015 expressed their open-hearted forgiveness of the gunman, the white supremacist Dylann Roof.[11] But Arik is a Jew (maybe one of the last in Israel). Forgiveness was not the issue. The boy never really asked for it. The debt was never repaid.

Rabbi Ascherman, Al 'Auja, July 2019.

I think Arik was mainly moved by a stubborn hope that the boy could someday become human. Potential, proleptic remorse is a human good, at least as crucial and as necessary in the world as the healing that full-fledged, self-conscious remorse may offer. Potential remorse often depends, however, upon the intimate presence of someone, usually the intended victim, who can see it, hidden as it always is.

Arik’s words: “We must honor God’s image in every human being.” Out of the 613 mitzvoth the Jews are meant to perform, this one stands out. It may well be the only mitzvah left that I could affirm. Its existential priority, in the awareness of a person like Arik, speaks to the old tradition of Jewish humanism that I knew from my grandfather and my parents. That humane, innately moderate and hopeful tradition has largely gone underground in today’s Israel.

Despite the universalist articulation of the principle, it is not without limits. A still unformed seventeen-year-old boy is not to be equated with the hardened evildoers we see around us, from the current prime minister on down. There are those who deserve punishment commensurate with their crimes. And yet here is Maria Khoza, the daughter of Portia Shabangu, who was killed along with two comrades in an ambush planned by the notorious Eugene de Kock, killer and torturer of hundreds as head of the South African counterinsurgency police during the apartheid time. Maria met her mother’s assassin, who was still in prison, in 2012 and, after evident soul-searching, said to him: “I am healed and free from bitterness and hatred. I freely and fully forgive you, and I am ready to help others to heal.” This was after de Kock had told her that after the ambush, he himself had found Maria’s mother still alive, gasping for breath; de Kock shot her twice more in the head. De Kock, it should be noted, did express remorse, perhaps sincerely.

Maria’s astonishing ability to forgive extends the range of human capabilities. It is beyond the scope of my imagination. I want to juxtapose that story not with Arik’s, which is of a different order entirely and took place in a different context, but with the words of Archbishop Desmond Tutu: “To forgive is not just to be altruistic. It is the best form of self-interest. It is also a process that does not exclude hatred and anger. These emotions are all part of being human. You should never hate yourself for hating others who do terrible things: the depth of your love is shown by the extent of your anger.”[12]

Interestingly, Arik acted not in self-interest. One might say that he entered into a necessary wager, rather like Pascal’s. It is wise to believe in God, Pascal said, or to live as if God exists, because if you are wrong there is nothing to lose, and if you are right then the rewards are immense. This principle is sometimes said to be an early articulation of probability theory. Arik, for his part, was prepared to wager that the young settler with the knife might yet actualize God’s image in himself. Unlike most bets, this wager is not a probabilistic one. You can’t average out the statistics and come to a decision. Either one takes on the bet or one doesn’t. And while God was not a party to Pascal’s bet with himself, the Jewish God is not immune to wagering with Himself, as He did, for example, when He ordered Abraham to sacrifice his son—hoping, I would want to think, that Abraham would refuse to carry out this command. Built into the Biblical story is God’s uncertainty about the outcome: Abraham, like all of us, had to make a choice. Would he recognize the divine voice that spoke to him, or that somehow arose in his mind, as issuing a false and terrible command? That was the wager God entered into, as Midrashic sources tell us.[13] Arik, too, could not know if his would-be killer would ever come to understand how close he came to destroying God’s image in himself.

To wager on the potentiality of a person who was separated only by an infinitesimal margin from killing an innocent, good man requires a certain compelling spaciousness in heart and mind. It is a bold move of uncertain outcome. It speaks to what could be called “tough compassion”—a non-absolute, unsentimental, unromantic form of being and feeling. It has within it no calculus of remorse and forgiveness, only an idea, precarious in itself, that every human being, even my potential killer, embodies God’s image. Probably what is required is a sensual awareness of that image in one’s own body, a mode of knowing that is deeper than words and that comes without complacency or pride. Arik was unable to close off the possibility that his near-assassin would become a person and would grow. An intuitive clarity of the heart sees the Quixotic prolepsis built into the bet; therefore the bet is worth taking on, in order to affirm your own humanity along with that of the violent other. I think that’s what being a Jew once meant.

I have seen the bet pay off. Authentic remorse may need to germinate for years before it breaks through the brittle surface of the mind. I have met soldiers who were overwhelmed by remorse after they emerged from the moral numbness that is the soldier’s default. I have watched settlers who, for at least a moment, were able to go beyond the toxic indoctrination they undergo in the settlements. I know someone who grew up in Itamar, where Arik’s wild enemy came from, but who miraculously arrived at the certainty that she could never treat another human being the way she had been taught to relate to Palestinians. Never. I think it is not inconceivable that a day will come when millions of Israelis will inch slowly, against all odds, toward some such recognition. I wouldn’t bet on it, myself, but neither would I rule it out.

Arik Ascherman must have acted out of that rare, expansive space in the self. No doubt faith was involved as well—the faith that recognizes the possibility that the attacker might never know remorse, might never heal, but that nevertheless refuses to give up. Even a soupçon of remorse—to be distinguished from mere regret—counts for something in the world. That kind of faith is based on a benign uncertainty. That’s the beauty of it and the reason it suits the dark and noxious world of the Israeli occupation. In a particular moment, a good man knowingly refrains from adding an extra dose of pain—that of a sterile vengeance, or even justice, vis-à-vis the person who nearly killed him. And all this because he knows, from his own experience, that a human being in potentia sometimes becomes one for real.

  1. Arik Ascherman, “If I Were Palestinian, Would the Knife-Wielding Settler Who Attacked Me Have Faced Justice?” Haaretz, 26 December 2017. Available at haaretz.com/opinion/.premium-if-i-was-palestinian-would-the-settler-who-attacked-me-have-faced-justice-1.5629512.
  2. Jean Améry, At the Mind’s Limits: Contemplations by a Survivor on Auschwitz and Its Realities (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1980), p. 65.
  3. Ibid, p. 72.
  4. Amber Carpenter, “‘And None of Us Deserving the Cruelty or the Grace’—Buddhism and the Problem of Evil,” in Engaging Buddhist Philosophy: A Cross-Cultural Approach to the Perennial Questions, ed. Steven Emmanuel (New York: Columbia University Press, forthcoming). See also Charles Hallisey and Anne Hansen, “Narrative, Sub-Ethics, and the Moral Life: Some Evidence From Theravāda Buddhism,” The Journal of Religious Ethics, vol. 24, no. 2 (Fall 1996). The story is taken from the Mangalatthadipani, part 1, sections 48–50.
  5. Amber Carpenter, “‘And None of Us Deserving the Cruelty or the Grace’—Buddhism and the Problem of Evil.”
  6. Arindam Chakrabarti,Against the Error of Retaliation: A Philosophical Tribute to Ramchandra Gandhi,” in Passion, Death, and Spirituality: The Philosophy of Robert C. Solomon, ed. Kathleen Higgins and David Sherman (Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Springer, 2012). 
  7. This phrase from Georg Simmel’s Einleitung in die Moralwissenschaft is cited in Vladimir Jankélévitch, The Bad Conscience, trans. Andrew Kelley (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2015), p. 40.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Ibid., p. 118.
  10. Ibid., pp. 161, 164.
  11. Rasha Ali, “Five Years after Charleston Church Massacre: How ‘Emanuel’ Reveals the Power of Forgiveness,” USA Today, 17 June 2020. Available at usatoday.com/story/life/movies/2019/06/17/emanuel-explores-power-forgiveness-after-charleston-church-massacre/1478473001.
  12. See theforgivenessproject.com/stories/desmond-tutu.
  13. For more on this, see David Shulman, The Hungry God: Hindu Tales of Filicide and Devotion (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1993), pp. 133–140.

David Shulman is professor emeritus at the Hebrew University, Jerusalem. He specializes in the languages and cultural history of southern India and is the author of many books, including Tamil: A Biography (Harvard University Press, 2017). He is a veteran activist in the Palestinian-Israeli grassroots peace group Ta'ayush, “Arab-Jewish Partnership.”

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