Middle Israel: When Ehud Olmert met Mercaz Harav

What these people want is conviction, consistency, sincerity and personal example.

2803-middle (photo credit: www.shechem.org)
(photo credit: www.shechem.org)
What can be more devastating than rejection? Ask the fat boy benched out of his classmates' crucial basketball match, or the stammering girl politely excluded from the spelling bee, not to mention the unsuspecting wife who accidentally saw her husband admiring a coastal sunset in another woman's arms. Rejection can hurt even more sharply than the failure, defeat or loss that cause it, for those are attributable to mistakes, circumstances, luck or providence, but rejection hits smack at the solar plexus making one feel - with or without good reason - scorned, abandoned and worthless. One can therefore understand the self-pitying Ehud Olmert's reported sense of "What do they want from me?" following Mercaz Harav's cancelation of its invitation for him to visit the school following the murder of eight of its students by a terrorist earlier this month. "Olmert sure was hurt," his aides told Yediot Aharonot bitterly, "he had no intentions of speaking there, all he wanted to do was convey his condolences to a public he very much appreciates." Don't they have a point? How is it that even after Olmert goes to Ashkelon and tells its residents they are in for the long haul, he gets attacked for simply telling it as it is? Why does Olmert deserve to be resented so widely and so deeply, from Right to Left and from North to South? Why? Because he asked for it. FEW PLACES in Israel could be more distant from Ehud Olmert's value system than Mercaz Harav. One has to understand that secluded planet's unique blending of asceticism, Messianism and chauvinism to realize just how many light years apart it is from Olmert's hedonism, greed and nihilism. What do this shrine's pious scholars know about biting cigars, buying castles, dealing jobs, disbursing billions, flying first class, patronizing haute cuisine restaurants, inhabiting luxury hotel suites, or mediating between oligarchs and soccer clubs? And never mind the gaps in their routines - how could the man who turned the West Bank's abandonment into an ideal expect warmth from those who worship its possession? Simple: as mayor of Jerusalem, back when he impersonated a Greater Israelite, Olmert was a welcome and frequent guest at Mercaz Harav, whose students and rabbis took his hawkish bravado at face value. It was, after all, a time-honored tradition in this place to gullibly dance ahead of anyone who satisfied this yeshiva's veneration of raw Jewish power, beginning with Moshe Dayan, whose famous adulteries did not prevent his annual red-carpet reception there as a savior of Israel. Mercaz Harav's theology is indeed problematic. Though ironically situated around the corner from where Jerusalem's most modernist landmark, the Calatrava string bridge, now stretches its neck, the yeshiva originally founded by British Palestine's first chief rabbi has come to represent a narrow-mindedness that even modern-Orthodox Israelis seldom share, not to mention everyone else. Inspired by Rabbi I.H. Kook's writings, the belief there is that the Zionist enterprise is sacred and Israel's military victories are part of a divine plan which they call "the redemption process" - a curious flipside to the equally naive "peace process." Middle Israelis never bought this and have been debating the so-called "Kookniks" for decades, arguing that in their confusing of geopolitics and theology, in encouraging settlement in the thick of Palestinian cities, and in leading the value of settlement away from the consensus - they are courting disaster. Never mind Middle Israelis, almost every contemporary rabbinical heavyweight - from J.B Soloveichik, Ovadia Yosef and Moshe Feinstein to Y.S Elyashiv, Elazar Shach and Aaron Lichtenstein - flatly rejected Mercaz Harav's theology. Olmert, however, a theologian in his own right, smelled revelation: here, in God's ultimate city upon a hill, will meet those who crave the Golden Dome with those who sculpt the Golden Calf. AS MAYOR of Jerusalem, Olmert never bothered telling Mercaz Harav's rabbis what he really thought of them and their cult. On the contrary. As long as it served his career, he played ally to the far Right in its relentless efforts to settle in the thick of Jerusalem's Arab neighborhoods, and while at it always offered its activists his trademark hugs, clasps and pats on the back. Now they tell us he feels rejected. How touching. And how did the people of Mercaz Harav feel when Olmert had mounted police storm their youth at Amona? Had it not been for Olmert and the rest of the expedient right-wingers who, like drug pushers, for decades encouraged religious zealots to do what those politicians would never do themselves - settle beyond the Green Line - Olmert may not have been rejected the way he just was. But having duped these idealists the way he did - it was inevitable, indeed natural, that they respond in kind; for these people may be irrational in their theology, but in their feelings they are like all of us. If anything, it is Olmert's failure to understand them that boggles the mind. For Olmert, Mercaz Harav was but a detail in a broad picture, one where numerous movements, individuals, parties and institutions were orbiting one man, Olmert, and promoting one cause - Olmert's success. Apparently, he expected them to see their ideas the way he saw them: as disposables, as springboards, as instruments of departure, as positions meant for mere camping rather than nesting, let alone dwelling, not to mention defending. So now Olmert wonders: "What, I can't even come and pay them condolences? Have my hugs, clasps and pats on the back lost their magic?" Well, they sure have, Ehud. Back when you succeeded Sharon, we told you: Be Levi Eshkol, the man who - upon succeeding Ben-Gurion - set out to reconcile this society's many antagonists, because he knew he was no Ben-Gurion. You refused to understand you're no Sharon, who possessed the charisma you lack, let alone that you're no Ben-Gurion, who was a man of books and ideas, and that you're no Begin, who believed in what he preached and lived as modestly as his voters. One blushes at the thought that you actually expected the people to accept you as a preacher of ideas. Well, the people, unlike the sycophants, hacks and horse thieves that surround you, refuse to be confused by your quips, jabs and pats on the shoulder; what they want from their leaders before anything else is conviction, consistency, sincerity and personal example. In this - we are all Mercaz Harav.