Death stilled the fiery activism of Rabbi Moshe Levinger, 80, who was buried on Sunday in Hebron, the ancient patriarchal city that he lived in and so loved.
It was there in April 1968 that the tall, bearded rabbi with thick glasses and a black skullcap first entered the limelight as he fought the army and the government to rebuild the city’s destroyed Jewish community.
And it was there that mourners walked with his body, as it made its way for the last time through the city streets.
“You believed with all your heart that by rebuilding Hebron you would also rebuild Jerusalem,” President Reuven Rivlin said as he eulogized Levinger.
“It is difficult for us to part from you,” said Rivlin. As he spoke, he looked at Levinger’s body, which was wrapped in a prayer shawl and laid out on a gurney on a stage in the stone plaza in front of the Cave of the Patriarchs.
In describing the legendary settler leader, Rivlin said, “You argued, you got angry, you were sharp, incisive, assertive and forceful in your words.”
“People like to say that you weren’t a man of consensus – and this must be true. Yet you never neglected to make an effort to involve as many people as you could in your endeavors,” said Rivlin.
“You didn’t look for compromise, and yet you never doubted that only a firm foundation among the people of Zion and broad support for the Jewish community of Kiryat Arba and Hebron [would allow the resumption] here of the chain of generations,” Rivlin said.
Rivlin recalled that he and Levinger had both grown up in Jerusalem. Levinger’s parents had emigrated from Germany just two years before his birth in 1935 and lived not far from Rivlin’s family, on the border of the Rehavia and Sha’arei Hessed neighborhoods.
“You grew up in a household with a rare religious and spiritual depth.
A household with wide-ranging knowledge, a loyalty to the concept of “Torah and science” as well as observing and maintaining religious practices in an uncompromising way,” Rivlin said.
His eulogy was followed by parting words from Kiryat Arba Rabbi Dov Lior; the head of the Bnei Akiva movement, Rabbi Haim Druckman; Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem Arye Stern; Rabbi Eliezer Waldman of Hebron; and veteran settler leader Daniella Weiss.
Waldman said that Levinger was both the “father” of the Hebron community and the “father” of the settlement movement. He helped create Gush Emunim and the Council of Jewish Communities in Judea, Samaria and the Gaza Strip.
A devoted disciple of the religious- Zionist leader Rabbi Tzvi Yehuda Kook, Levinger was among the first Jews to come to Hebron after the Six Day War, when the city passed from Jordanian to Israeli hands.
Although Jews had lived in Hebron almost continuously since biblical times, the 1929 massacre in which Arab rioters killed 67 Jews destroyed the community.
As a young man, Levinger decided that the time had come for Jews to return, and he rented out rooms in Hebron’s Park Hotel in 1968 to hold a Seder for dozens of Jews. But when the first day of the holiday was over, the group refused to leave.
After a month they were relocated to a nearby military base, where they remained until the nearby settlement of Kiryat Arba was built.
In one of his last interviews, Levinger recalled those historic moments for a short 2013 video that was produced when he received the Moskowitz Prize for Zionism.
“We decided to go to Hebron…. A group was established and we met with Shlomo Gazit, one of Moshe Dayan’s chief assistants,” Levinger said.
“His title was coordinator of government activities in the territories. He said bring me some plans. We gave him plans but he did not give us an answer,” Levinger recalled. “When we saw that the answer was delayed, we decided to move in without permission and to get the OK afterward,” he said.
“Once we arrived in Hebron we didn’t know where to go. We had two possibilities: One was to rent a hotel; the other was to settle on one of the empty hills in Hebron,” Levinger said.
“Eventually we decided to rent a hotel, which we did a month before Passover,” Levinger said.
A month later, Levinger recalled, “they moved us from the hotel to the military administration building so the army could look out for us. “Eventually, after two years of pressure, they let us establish Kiryat Arba. In 1970 the building of Kiryat Arba began."
“By 1979, after Kiryat Arba was firmly established, we decided that we ought to be in Hebron itself,” he said.
“That was when a group of women moved into Beit Hadassah and the settlement was developed in Hebron,” said Levinger, who was among the Jewish families that then moved into the city.
In 1988, Palestinians stoned Levinger’s car as he drove in Hebron. In response he took out a pistol and shot at nearby Palestinians, killing one and injuring another. After two years of legal proceedings, he was convicted of causing death by negligence and served a threemonth shortened sentence in 1990. Two years later he tried to run for a Knesset seat as the head of a party, Torah Veha’aretz, but it failed to pass the threshold.
After the 2005 evacuation of 21 settlements from the Gaza Strip and four from northern Samaria, Levinger was among the leaders of the settlement movement who called on activists to build more outposts in the West Bank.
“After the evacuation of Gush Katif, we didn’t give up,” said Levinger in the Moskowitz Prize interview.
“We said if we could not live there, we would do what it takes in Judea and Samaria,” he said. “We decided not to despair but to keep building.”
On Sunday in Hebron’s Jewish cemetery, Levinger’s son, Malachi, who heads the Kiryat Arba Council, spoke of his father’s very public love for Israel and his private love for his family.
“Father, you were always a man of truth. You followed your mission without [counting] hours or [imposing] limits. You alone blazed a trail and pulled everyone after you. Your truth was the Land of Israel and the Torah of Israel. You acted on this all your life and taught your children to do the same,” said Malachi.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday sent the Levinger family a condolence letter in which he said that the rabbi’s “name will be forever linked with the movement for renewed Jewish settlement in Hebron and other areas of the country where our patriarchs walked thousands of years ago.
“He was an outstanding example of a generation that sought to realize the Zionist dream, in deed and in spirit, after the Six Day War,” Netanyahu wrote.
“Our return to the holy places of our people in the defensive war and war of deliverance 48 years ago stirred our hearts. Our eternal capital Jerusalem was a united city once again. Rachel’s Tomb and the Cave of the Patriarchs, where our patriarchs and matriarchs are buried, again became centers of prayer for myriads of Jews,” Netanyahu said.
“There is great symbolism that Rabbi Levinger died on the eve of Jerusalem Day. He leaves behind him a well-established legacy and many students who are dedicated to taking root in our land,” Netanyahu said.