Two rather unique and even extraordinary people passed away during the past two weeks. Both were over 80 years old and both had impacted Israeli society in many different ways. One is Rabbi Dr. Aharon Lichtenstein, the rosh yeshiva of the Gush Etzion Hesder Yeshiva in Alon Shvut, who with the late Rav Yehuda Amital fashioned a special Torah learning atmosphere for Modern Orthodoxy.
The other is Dr. Meir Rosenne, lawyer, diplomat and ambassador, and a senior member of Israel’s Foreign Ministry staff.
We do not want to compare between the two, nor do we intend to even hint that one has contributed more or less than the other. They contributed to Israeli and Jewish life in totally different spheres. There is, though, one ground for comparison and that is how the Israeli media related to them, both in life and afterwards. And since our local media devoted too little coverage to their deaths, we wish to add some perspective.
Dr. Rosenne, in view of his background as Israeli ambassador to the United States and to France, was frequently interviewed by the media as an expert on foreign affairs. Rabbi Lichtenstein was a very modest person. Radio and television were very far from his milieu; his world was that of Torah. The media was introduced to him, four decades after his arrival in this country, only on the occasion of his being awarded the prestigious Israel Prize last year.
Journalists hardly ever spoke with him (barring the rare event of a journalist who was a former student of his yeshiva).
In contrast to many rabbinical leaders, Rabbi Lichtenstein was the embodiment of a lover of peace and a pursuer of peace.
His brief connection with the dovish Meimad religious-Zionist party was the exception as far as personal political involvement went, although he certainly commented on affairs of state such as the Gaza disengagement and the Temple Mount.
The Har Etzion Yeshiva which he led together with Rabbi Amital was not your characteristic “right wing” yeshiva.
Rabbi Amital was identified with the Oslo process, and served as a minister in Shimon Peres’ government for the six months following the assassination of prime minister Yitzhak Rabin. Rabbi Lichtenstein was not a leader of the settlement movement, living most of his life in Jerusalem. Yet, not only could he work together with Rabbi Amital, he also appointed Rabbi Yakov Medan as a rosh yeshiva in his place, on the basis of Rav Medan’s Torah knowledge and intellectual prowess. Rav Medan’s strong support of the settlement movement was just not relevant.
There are other aspects of Rabbi Lichtenstein’s life which are noteworthy.
Money did not interest him. A known story is his willingness to cut his salary for the sake of the yeshiva during financially hard times. He was a man of letters, with a PhD in English literature. This should be contrasted with, for example, the Har Hamor Yeshiva (which split off from the Merkaz Harav Yeshiva), where anything having to do with the humanities, especially in a university context, is considered to be strictly forbidden.
Indeed, how many heads of yeshivot in Israel can boast of a PhD? We know only one: Rabbi Dr. Nachum Rabinowitz, who heads the Hesder Yeshiva in Ma’ale Adumim.
One may have thought that such a personality would be used by our media as a model of Jewish life in it broadest sense. Rabbi Lichtenstein was a teacher of tens of thousands, who influenced generations of students, among them leading rabbis and academic figures. Yet, the media was not interested in him, and even when he died, Kol Israel did not think it worth mentioning. It took a plea from Israel’s Media Watch to convince the powers that be there to mention him briefly in the 9:30 a.m. news flash preceding the 10 a.m. funeral.
Dr. Rosenne was a secular Jew. He was born in Romania in 1931 and immigrated to Palestine in 1944. His legal education was at the Sorbonne, where he obtained his PhD in 1957, at the same time also working for the fledgling Israeli Foreign Ministry.
Rosenne was a model public servant.
He was the legal adviser at the Foreign Ministry from 1971 until 1979.
In this capacity, he took part in the truce negotiations between Israel and Egypt following the Yom Kippur war.
In 1978, Rosenne was a member of the Israeli delegation to the Camp David peace negotiations. He then served from 1979 to 1983 as Israel’s ambassador to France. From 1983 until 1987 he was ambassador to the United States.
This overlapped the premierships of both Yitzhak Shamir and Peres.
Rosenne was a public servant trusted by both Right and Left in Israel. This is especially noteworthy considering that recently too many Israeli diplomats abroad have made it a habit to publicly criticize the Israeli government they purportedly serve.
Since then he served in a number of roles: he was president of the Israel Bonds organization, a member of the board of IDB Holdings and, to our pride, served as president of Israel’s Media Watch since 2010.
Rosenne passed away on April 14. The sad news was broadcast on Kol Israel, including a short biography as well as the time and location of his funeral.
It is interesting to note that the Israel Hayom newspaper covered in some detail the funeral of Rabbi Lichtenstein, giving it substantially more space and depth than Dr. Rosenne’s obituary. However, the coverage of both personalities in the media was largely superficial. Both served as role models. Their biographies are very different but also very educational.
Dr. Rosenne entered Israel illegally, during the British Mandate. He was outstanding at the foreign office, understanding that the duty of a civil servant is to serve his government.
Rabbi Lichtenstein came from very different circumstances, having grown up and matured in the United States.
He could have followed in the footsteps of his father-in-law, Rabbi Dr. Joseph B.
Soloveichik, becoming the rabbinical leader and authority of Orthodox Jewry there. He chose the idealistic but hard way of coming to Israel, establishing a yeshiva and dedicating himself to his students in Israel.
It is high time that our media understands that our society exists, reinvigorates itself and withstands world pressure only due to people like Rabbi Lichtenstein and Dr. Rosenne. If we want to continue to exist and safeguard our culture, historical heritage and ethical legacy we must present the proper role models in the media.
Let us be optimistic and hope that our media will pick up the challenge.The authors are respectively vice chairman and chairman of Israel’s Media Watch (www.imw.org.il).