Shouting from the rooftops

Rabbi Elyakim Levanon's struggle to maintain Greater Israel makes him more popular than ever.

elyakim levanon 298.88 (photo credit: Matthew Wagner)
elyakim levanon 298.88
(photo credit: Matthew Wagner)
Elyakim Levanon, the rabbi of Elon Moreh for the past 23 years, has never been so popular among the settlers. He is the elder rabbi of the "Hill Top Youth," that idealistic, anti-establishment group of young men and women inhabiting the hills near Nablus - often in small, illegal outposts - and hitchhiking on the roads shunned by most Israelis who fear being shot by Palestinian terrorists. Elon Moreh, like other settlements around Nablus - such as Bracha, Yitzhar and Itamar - is both geographically and ideologically detached from much of Israeli society. Most Israelis do not know where Elon Moreh is, and those who do would never dream of visiting - even in a bullet-proof bus. Veteran residents of Elon Moreh include Menahem Felix and Beni Katzover, founding members of Gush Emunim, an organization positing ideals that - if recent election polls are to be trusted - are far from meeting general consensus.
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Nevertheless, Levanon is one of the most influential leaders of religious Zionism in post-disengagement Israel. He has played a central role in all of the settler movement's major battles over the past few months, beginning with disengagement itself and continuing on to a public call for military insubordination, as well as caring for evacuated Gush Katif families. Nursing an arm bruised by a policeman's baton in Amona, Levanon winced slightly when he shook my hand. "What is the lesson to be learned from Amona?" I asked. "It was the hand of God that brought us to Amona," answered the compact, sober-eyed rabbi, who heads a group of rabbis representing the spiritual needs of the Gush Katif evacuees. His message was that religious Zionism has to stand united to express itself unabashedly and accept responsibility for spiritual leadership. I met with Levanon, 56, a product of Rabbi Tzvi Yehuda Kook's Mercaz Harav Yeshiva, at the Social Affairs Ministry, where he had just attended a meeting of the ministerial committee charged with rehabilitating the evacuees. Visibly shaken by the results of the meeting, he launched a diatribe against the Sela Disengagement Administration, which, accurate or not, reflects settlers' anger at the government for "abandoning" evacuees. "There is absolutely no coordination between the ministries," said Levanon angrily. "Sela is an evil organization that has done absolutely nothing to alleviate the plight of all those expelled families. The state of Israel rushed to expel everyone, and then it went to sleep." In Nitzan, the largest evacuee neighborhood, there are neither playgrounds nor sport fields nor a community center, he said. Plans for building them were presented but nothing has been done. "When school is over in the afternoon, what are young people supposed to do?" he said. "There isn't enough room in the synagogue for everyone. There is nothing but houses. The youth are frustrated from all the blows, from the years of mortar fire that ended with expulsion. Technically, children are in school but the traumas don't let them learn anything. Community, education, personal security no longer exist. Even religious Zionists living in Petah Tikva, Ra'anana and Tel Aviv do not fully comprehend the extent of the trauma." Levanon's rise in popularity is a direct result of his hard-nosed policy of uncompromising struggle to maintain Greater Israel and to transform the secular sovereignty nestled between the Mediterranean and Jordan into a truly Jewish state built on Jewish values. The confrontation he led on the roof of Kfar Darom's synagogue became the archetype for Amona and stood in stark contrast to the hugging that went on between evacuated Gush Katif settlers and military and police evacuators. Chief-of-Staff Maj.-Gen. Dan Halutz and OC Manpower Maj.-Gen. Elazar Stern singled out Levanon to be censured for publicly encouraging soldiers to refuse evacuation orders. His Yeshiva in Elon Moreh was moved to Kfar Darom during the disengagement to help in the struggle against the "expulsion." Now Levanon's yeshiva is in danger of being removed from the hesder or "arrangement" between the IDF and religious Zionist yeshivot which provides religious soldiers with a reduced military service (16 months instead of three years) and Torah studies. Hesder rabbis estimate that the IDF's attempt to ostracize Levanon has had the reverse effect: Levanon's hesder yeshiva is one of the most popular destinations for high school graduates, according to a rabbi intimately involved with the recruitment process. Six months before admissions, Levanon has received more than 100 requests - many more than the 30 students he can accept. The young men seem to be attracted to Levanon's uncompromising vision of religious Zionism as the soul of the Israeli state. It is religious Zionism's job to posit the values, set the goals and dictate the spiritual tone, argues Levanon. Secular Zionists, in contrast, are responsible for building the state and developing its mundane dimension. Asked whether his vision isn't a bit condescending, Levanon replied: "We have to accept the challenge with humility. It is like what Rabbi Yehuda Halevi writes in Kuzari that the Jewish people is responsible for providing values to all of humanity like the heart is responsible for supplying blood to the body. Every religious boy and girl has an entire value system some more or some less. But secular people, what do they have? Who is their role model, their symbol of emulation? Someone good? Who is it? Sports figures, actors, TV personalities, broadcasters. Those are their role models. Now I ask you, those are the people who should be determining our values? Those are the people responsible for determining the Jewish peoples' values?" What kind of values is he talking about other than that of Greater Israel? "Determining whether drugs are good or bad is a value judgment. Violence is a value judgment. Is there somebody who would seriously say drugs are good? Yes. A large portion of secular high society uses drugs. Police officers who are supposed to enforce the law use drugs. At least some of them. I am not blaming all of them. [Secular] educators do not teach values. When there is violence, the police are called to take care of it." Perhaps, I suggested, he needs to focus on educating religious Zionists and forget about trying to make an impact on Israeli society as a whole. "The religious Zionist public is the soul of Israeli society," he said. "We do not restrict ourselves to our own schools, our own yeshivot, our own terrific educational system. If we did it would create a tremendous vacuum. We would be abandoning our responsibility to the Jewish people. Religious Zionists must not shirk their responsibility for inculcating Israeli society with values." NOTWITHSTANDING HIS resolve, there is an almost palpable tension between Levanon's aspiration to become a light unto the Israeli nation, and the on-the-ground reality that in the eyes of those secular Israelis he wishes to influence, the rabbi and the settlers he represents are pariahs. Levanon represents the more haredi wing of religious Zionism that advocates maintaining a certain amount of parochialism, while at the same time integrating enough into secular society to affect a change. Insular religious-Zionist neighborhoods and settlements and the establishment of semi-private schools that broke with the classic state-religious school system are products of this "haredization" of the religious Zionist population. In contrast, more "integrationalist" religious-Zionist rabbis support mixed neighborhoods of religious and secular, and integration of traditional and religious children in the same school system. In a recent speech before visitors to Elon Moreh, Levanon summed up the opposing opinions: "Once Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi [the founder of Chabad] was asked how to deal with excessive talking in the synagogue during prayers. Two options were presented: scattering a group of zealots throughout the congregation who would hush the loose-lipped congregants, or creating a bloc of zealots smack in the center of the synagogue whose influence would radiate outwards." Both the Chabad rabbi and Levanon chose the second option. Levanon feels the same about army service. He wants his hesder students to serve in separate companies in which the majority of soldiers are religious. This jibes with his belief that in order to have an impact there must be a "critical mass." In contrast, many hesder yeshiva heads support total integration of their students among secular soldiers. They feel the best way to influence is through integration. Levanon said he fears that without critical mass and a certain amount of segregation, the influencer ends up being influenced. Nevertheless, he is very adamant about the need to bridge the yawning divide between the secular and religious populations in Israeli society. "One group [religious Zionism] seems to be moving ahead towards a clear goal while the other seems to be distancing itself," he said. "During the past half-year, there has been a concerted effort, led by the government, the supreme court, the IDF and the media, to relegate religious Zionism to a museum. In every sphere we are under attack. We are portrayed as a population that can be shot at, expelled; a population that is no longer relevant. The government is building a security fence and a large portion of the population is finding itself outside the fence. There is a lot of talk about the rights of Palestinians. What about the rights of settlers? Basically what the state is saying is that we are responsible for security inside the fence; outside the fence is no man's land." ELON MOREH is one of the settlements slated to be relegated to this no-man's-land beyond the pale - a leper colony. But Levanon is hopeful that society will see the light. "To our joy or not to our joy, the Hamas has taken over Palestinian leadership. This is a serious blow to the entire left-wing," he said. But how does he explain the fact that polls have not registered any real shift in public opinion? "There will be a reaction to Hamas. The public will wake up. I am sure of it. Give them a chance. In the meantime, we must save our strength for the struggles that await us. We must be careful not to spread ourselves too thin." A visit to Elon Moreh illustrates clearly just how thin settlers have spread themselves. The settlement has a breathtaking view of Nablus and the the Eival and Grizim mountains, where, according to the Bible, the Jewish people stood and swore allegiance to the Torah. But it is surrounded by radical Palestinians. What does Levanon think should be done with all those Palestinians? "First of all there are not so many Palestinians," he said. "They lie about their numbers to exaggerate the demographic problem. I admit there are quite of few and we have to find a solution. We have to decide. But what we have been doing is not the answer. Hamas was strengthened by our misguided policies. I believe Palestinians can become productive workers, make a respectful living, enjoy the fruit of their labor. Instead of turning them into terrorists, we have to make them productive members of our state. The most important thing to do is to stop talking about a Palestinian state. [Doing so] is the biggest injustice that we can do for the Palestinians. It causes them damage. They have no idea how to run a state. Look what they are doing in Iraq, what they did in Syria. Deep down Palestinians really do not want a state. They know that if we were to give them a state it would become a terrorist state; if we give them money, they use it for terrorism, for killing. We have to govern them." Asked whether Israel doesn't have to give them certain basic rights, he said, "We have to decide what to give them and what not to give them. The state of Israel is not state for its citizens; it is a Jewish state. It was established by Jews for Jews alone. Others must accept that fact and reconcile themselves to the idea that they are not entitled to all rights. They are entitled to services like any other Jewish citizen. But not rights, such as the right to vote." Levanon said he is convinced that eventually the settlement movement will be vindicated - that Israelis will realize the folly of territorial compromises and that religious Zionism will make inroads to the hearts and minds of the secular populace. But before that happens, he said, he has a lot of work to do. "The Torah is our road map," he concluded. "God revealed to us what he wants; that is our goal. We have to set our sights on and attain it."