Voicing religious moderation

Naphtali Lavie explains his personal approach to making the state a little more Jewish.

lavie 88 (photo credit: )
lavie 88
(photo credit: )
Naphtali Lavie has advised his younger brother, former chief rabbi of Israel and present Chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv Yisrael Meir Lau, not to vie for the presidency of Israel. "He made a name for himself as a rabbi, a Torah scholar. Being president is not for him," says Lavie as we sit in the garden of his modest Jerusalem apartment sipping cool water flavored with mint leaves. "My brother is an independent man who makes his own decisions," says Lavie, who was instrumental in helping Lau get elected as chief rabbi. "But I would not support him on this one. He has been a rabbi all his life. He should respect his calling. Serving as president is whole different ballgame altogether." Lavie's shock of white hair, slicked straight back, is the only clue to his age. He recently celebrated his 80th birthday, but he could just as well be in his late 60s. Lavie tells me that as of two weeks ago, he is officially retired after stepping down as one of the heads of the World Jewish Restitution Organization, which deals with retrieving Jewish property left behind in Eastern Europe after the Holocaust. "I think that at the age of 80 it is time for me to do personal things." Ostensibly, this interview was timed to coincide with Lavie's birthday celebration, which was attended by Shimon Peres, Elyakim Rubinstein, Zalman Shoval, his brother and other luminaries, and the release of a book in his honor called Am Levadad [A People that Dwells Alone], which was edited by his son Rabbi Benny Lau. The birthday celebration took place at Yad Ben Zvi and was attended by three distinct groups. There were the diplomats such as Shoval, Rubinstein, who worked with Lavie in the Defense Ministry during the period leading up to the Camp David negotiations, and former US Ambassador to Israel Daniel Kurtzer. There were the journalists such as Ha'aretz's editor-in-chief David Landau and military commentator Ze'ev Schiff. And there were also rabbis and Torah scholars. But it wasn't the birthday celebration, nor even the book, that most intrigued me about Lavie. Even his candid comments on his brother's presidential aspirations were secondary. True, they made a newsy lead for this story, since President Moshe Katsav's sexual harassment scandal has made an early presidential race likely. As a religious journalist, what interested me most about Lavie was what I could learn from his experiences working at Ha'aretz between 1956 and 1970. What was it like for a strictly religious Holocaust survivor working in the bastion of Israeli secularism? "I never felt I was treated differently because I was religious," says Lavie. "It could be that people looked at me as though I was not 'in.' I personally never felt that way. But maybe other people saw it that way. At any rate, I had good relations with everyone." Lavie gives an example of his good relations with Gershom Schocken, the legendary editor-in-chief and publisher of Ha'aretz. "Once I was asked to write a profile of the Satmar Rebbe," recalls Lavie. "I wrote about the rebbe's disastrous policy of discouraging his Hassidim from leaving Europe in the years leading up to the Holocaust. The Hassidim got really upset. But nothing I wrote was wrong. "Schocken came up to me afterwards and said, 'I did not think you could be so objective about a subject so close to you.'" LAVIE TOOK a roundabout route into journalism via his work in the Mossad. In the '50s, Lavie was sent by the Mossad to Eastern European countries to recruit Jews with military experience who would strengthen the IDF. "Masquerading as a journalist was the best cover," says Lavie. "It also gave me experience. When I returned to Israel I was offered a job as the parliamentary correspondent for Ha'aretz." Lavie admits that he did not wear a kippa when he was working in Ha'aretz's newsroom. He also went bareheaded during the period he worked as an aide and media relations adviser to former defense ministers Moshe Dayan and Shimon Peres. Even when Lavie became Israel's consul general in Jewish New York, he refrained from covering his head in the office. "I have no interest in making a show of my religiosity, of trying to prove something," says Lavie. "When I was not praying or eating I simply did not wear the kippa. I felt that if I wore a kippa while I was in the office working it would look as though I was trying to make some kind of a statement." Lavie's restrained, self-effacing approach to working as a religious Zionist among seculars in the Jewish state differs sharply from the aggressively activist mainstream national religious philosophy. Most religious Zionists, heavily influenced by Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak Hacohen Kook and his son Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook, want to make an impact on Israeli society via media, politics and education. Religious Zionists want to make Israel a more Jewish state by excelling in the IDF, in the universities, in the legal system and in the Knesset. Leading religious Zionist rabbis tell their students to strive for leadership positions in all of Israel's major institutions in a concerted effort to turn Israel into a state influenced by Jewish law and Jewish philosophy. What does Lavie think of Rabbi Kook's approach? "Rabbi Kook's teachings on these matters have always struck me as forced and artificial," says Lavie. "I have little faith in the ability of one individual to have an impact on others just because he or she reached a position of power. If the change does not come from inside, from internal awareness, then it will not last. You can't force anyone to do anything against their will. "But there are religious people who hold senior positions in government who have an impact on others by virtue of example, " he continues. "For instance, Dr. Ya'acov Herzog [former director of the Prime Minister's Office] was a man like that. He was a Torah scholar who had wide general knowledge. He gained the respect of those who knew him and served as a role model. "I believe that religious people who want to influence the state of things should concentrate on doing their job well and the influence comes naturally." Lavie says he never belonged to the National Religious Party because he felt uncomfortable with its Kookian approach to transforming the State of Israel. He says Rabbi Kook's influence on the party was apparent even before the Six Day War when Gush Emunim began its big push to settle Judea, Samaria and Gaza. However, Lavie is positioned squarely right-of-center politically. To this day he is proud of the part he played in negotiating the establishment of Kedumim in the winter of 1975 in the wake of massive demonstrations at the old train station in Sebastia. "Dayan's policy with the Palestinians after the Six Day War," says Lavie, "was to bring them to the realization that if they did not negotiate peace with us, we would begin settling Judea and Samaria. Once Jewish settlements were established, it would be too late and there would be nothing to talk about. Perhaps if we had followed through with Dayan's policy we wouldn't be in our present situation. I don't know." Like a true diplomat, Lavie refrains from voicing his opinion on Israel's settlement policy over the past 38 years. But as a Holocaust survivor, Lavie is keenly aware of Israel's fragile existential reality. "The fact remains," he notes, "that there are 3 million Palestinian Arabs waiting to carry out their plans of destruction."