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A different voice for peace
By FRANCIS NATAF
24/02/2014
Remembering Rabbi Menachem Froman
 
By Francis Nataf

From the looks of it, the Kerry initiative will soon be cast into the dustbin of history, joining all of the other well-meaning recent plans to resolve the Israeli-Palistinain conflict. I would like to be more optimistic, but it could be that the gaps between the two sides are simply still too great to bridge. After all, that proved to be the case over a decade ago when thenprime minister Ehud Barak stretched as far as any Israeli consensus could go, only to be met by a second intifida.

One wonders if this is not a question of simply repeating a failed approach over and over again simply because that’s more comfortable than trying something new. Playing on that possibility, some voices on the Right and Left have proposed other ways to deal with the conflict. In fact, however, their own proposals for Jewish sovereignty over the West Bank on the one hand, or a bi-national state on the other, have even less of a chance for success than the mainstream two-state solution, which is perhaps the one thing that both sides actually agree to. That being the case, maybe it is time to try something completely different and look beyond politics for a solution.

One man who did just this was Rabbi Menachem Froman, and this coming Tuesday will mark the highly unconventional rabbi’s first yahrzeit, 12 months after his death on the Hebrew calendar. One of the founders of the settler movement and rabbi of the West Bank town of Tekoa, Froman reached out to Hamas and PA leaders alike, focusing on the bonds of commonality between Islam and Judaism to further his efforts.

In that context, he was fond of reporting that he often heard Hamas leaders telling him, “With you we could make peace in five minutes.” While that may be a gross exaggeration, it does illustrate the dramatic potential found in an approach largely ignored.

Froman understood that the geo-political is only one dimension of our interaction with our Arab neighbors.

He also understood that for many Arabs, it is not necessarily the most critical. In the words of Froman, “those who think that a devout Muslim will have a profound problem that is not just political in associating with an Israeli who sends out a message of atheism, and also often scorn, with respect to religion in general and Islam in particular – are correct.”

Froman’s conclusion from this was that it is actually the religious Jewish sector in Israel that is best positioned to make headway in relations with the largely religious Muslim populations of the region.

This may sound strange in view of Economy and Trade Minister Naftali Bennett’s conflation of religiosity with a hard line on the question of a Palestinian state. But Froman – who was admired by many of Bennett’s supporters, though usually in spite of his political views – was the greatest proof that religion and right-wing politics don’t have to go in hand in hand.

Froman clearly expected his approach to lead to compromises on the Arab side. What he may not have realized is that it would also have a strong effect on him, ultimately leading to his support for a Palestinian state and to broader thinking about the question of Jerusalem.

This is nothing short of a personal paradigm shift, since both of these positions are seen as treasonous by many of his fellow graduates of the Merkaz Harav yeshiva. For, together with him, they had always spoken about the redemptive need for Jews to populate and control all parts of the biblical Land of Israel.

What is interesting is that even as he moved toward political compromise, his views about settlement never changed. So much so that he moved to the Gush Katif settlements in the Gaza strip right before their evacuation in a vivid show of support for the settlers against the Sharon government.

Rabbi Froman’s otherworldy personality and thinking remind one of his own source of inspiration, the mystical and almost mythical ideologue of the religious Zionist movement, R. Avraham Yitzhak Hakohen Kook, known more simply as “Rav Kook.” Like Froman after him, Rav Kook had a love for all men and a fervent hope to bring all of them to harmony with each other and with their Creator. This, in spite of a strong identification with the return of Jewish sovereignty to the Land of Israel.

As with R. Froman, for Rav Kook, something that was paradoxical meant that there was more of a chance that it was also true! While Froman’s paradoxical thinking still baffles many, it may well be the type of thinking that needs to be tried. Froman put it more colloquially by writing that “when reality is crazy then logic and common sense require us to seek crazy solutions.” But in fact, there is nothing crazy about his line of thinking. Rather, it is part and parcel of many religious world views.

If R. Froman is no longer with us, it is more than worth our while to honor his memory by remembering his ideas.

The writer is a Jerusalem-based educator, writer and thinker. He is the author of the Redeeming Relevance series on the books of the Torah (Urim Publications).
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