Center Field: Let's at least mourn as one people

30 days after the Mercaz Harav attack, the gov't and the rabbis are presented with a unique opportunity.

Gil Troy (photo credit: )
Gil Troy
(photo credit: )
The national pain from the Mercaz Harav massacre lingers. It remains shocking that someone could systematically shoot young people studying holy books - and be cheered for it. In Israel, the victims' parents have reported an outpouring of outrage - and love - from Right and Left, from religious and secular alike. It is thus particularly disappointing to see some of Israel's leading politicians - and rabbis - failing to act as nobly as their followers. The mass funeral on Friday March 7, outside the stricken yeshiva, was broadcast live on Israeli television, uniting the entire house of Israel in mourning. As the cameras showed one sobbing mourner after another, many viewers sitting comfortably in their own homes cried too. Alas, through the tears, one noticed something missing. In the clump of eulogizers at the front, not one leading secular politician stood, and not one secular leader spoke. That even Jerusalem's mayor, Uri Lupolianski, is Orthodox, added to the one-sided impression. The mourning for this national tragedy appeared on television as a funeral limited to the religious community. President Shimon Peres, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, and the cabinet ministers represent the entire country. All Israelis pay their salaries, whatever ideology the citizens may embrace. As part of the national mourning process, secular representatives of the government should have attended. Even if their security details advised against appearing, true leaders need to show leadership sometimes. Democratic leaders who fear their constituents are failing at an essential part of the job description and should consider early retirement. Unfortunately, when the Minister of Education Yuli Tamir visited Mercaz Harav days later, the ensuing scuffle seemed to confirm her colleagues' good judgment in avoiding the funeral. By most accounts, Tamir was received properly in the yeshiva, and the altercation occurred outside. Still, the ideals of Jewish unity and of welcoming guests, obligated the yeshiva's leadership to ensure a smooth visit from arrival to departure. At the same time, Tamir behaved as a partisan not a national leader after the brouhaha. Comparing the incident to "the days before" former prime minister Yitzhak Rabin's murder, was incendiary and boorish. The partisan swipe also undercut her claim that "I only came to pay my respects to the murdered not to engage in politics." Subsequently, the newspapers published conflicting reports about whether Prime Minister Olmert sought an invitation to visit, and whether the yeshiva's leaders advised for or against it. HERE, THEN, is where Mercaz Harav's rabbis failed - although the onus falls less on them because of their grief and because they are not paid to represent Israel. The rabbis should have asserted their authority to choreograph a moment of national unity. They should have guaranteed a safe, respectful visit for the state's leaders, no matter how serious the political differences are. In this deferential culture of obedience, with the rabbis asserting authority over so many aspects of their students' lives, it is hard to believe the ever-so-convenient claim, that the rabbis cannot control their students' political activities too. Just as secular universities fail when they rely on the "thin blue line" of police to protect a speaker, armed guards should not be needed to protect government representatives from Mercaz Harav students. The yeshiva's leaders should have dispatched a rabbinic honor guard to make a "thin black line" flanking their guests, guaranteeing safe, smooth appearances at the funeral and future visits. THE GREAT religious Zionist visionary, Harav Abraham Isaac Kook, taught his followers to respect the secular Zionist leaders who were building a Jewish state. Rav Kook wrote a responsum in the 1920s printed in Mishpat HaCohen, recently reprinted in The Jewish Political Tradition, volume one, saying, "any ruler who arises in Israel has the status of king with regard to certain of the laws of kings, especially those that pertain to governing the nation." Rav Kook did not grant this exalted status to the future State of Israel's leaders contingent on good behavior or political concurrence. When representing the nation, the current president, prime minister, and leading ministers deserve respect. This ability to transcend political and religious differences creates the essential lubrication that makes civil society function. In the United States, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton mastered the presidency's ceremonial dimensions to unite their often squabbling citizenry. When Reagan tearfully greeted the coffins of the 241 Marines killed in Lebanon in 1983, the nation mourned with him - even as critics denounced his incompetence for putting the soldiers in harm's way. When Clinton visited Oklahoma City after the terrorist bombing there in 1995, his public embrace of the mourners rallied the nation - even though many Republicans still disliked him when he returned to Washington. By contrast, George W. Bush's failure to greet the coffins of war heroes returning from Iraq on national television helped undermine his status as a national leader and healer. APPROACHING the shloshim, the end of the 30-day mourning period, Israel's leaders have another chance to do what they are paid to do - represent the entire nation, expressing the communal anguish as the mourning over these eight murders continues. It is not always easy for citizens in a fragmented, passionate political culture to see the prime minister, or even the president, as a non-partisan figure. Hopefully, if Israel's leaders make the right and mature move, the Mercaz Harav community - and the broader religious Zionist world - will appreciate the gesture, and respond with the maturity, civility and commitment to achdut, unity, Israel so desperately needs. Both secular and religious Zionists were raised on the warning that sinat hinam, systematic fraternal hatred, destroyed the Second Jewish Commonwealth. We all need to do what we can to heal its successor, for which we waited nearly 2,000 years. The writer is professor of history at McGill University, on leave in Jerusalem since July. His next book Leading from the Center: Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents will be published by this spring.