There was nothing quite like the funeral of Rabbi Menachem Froman, just as there was no one quite like Rav Menachem, as we called him. For hours the thousands of mourners who gathered in the synagogue of his settlement, Tekoa, wept as we sang the songs he loved – songs of devotion and longing for God, songs against fear, songs of the land of Israel.
Each of us was taking leave of his own Rav Menachem, the man of paradox who helped found the settlement movement and continued to believe passionately in the right of Jews to live in all parts of the land of Israel, even as he came to promote a two-state solution and rapprochement between Judaism and Islam.
For me he was a teacher and a partner in interfaith adventures. I learned to share his vision: that, however improbably, it was religious Jews who were best positioned to make peace with the Palestinians and the Muslim world generally. In the Middle East, believed Rav Menachem, only a peace fashioned from religious language and sensibility would be accepted as legitimate. One reason the peace process had failed until now, he concluded, was that it had been a dialogue between secular elites on both sides. A European-style rational approach to peace-making – the “Oslo process” – would never take root here.
Rav Menachem was constantly phoning me with some new plan to advance religious peace. “Who do you know who can get me to Obama?” he demanded. Ramadan was approaching: Did I think that Bibi would agree to send holiday greetings to Egypt’s leader Morsi, softening his opposition to contacts with Israelis? Should Rav Menachem try to join the Palestinian delegation to the UN, where he would affirm the Jewish people’s right to statehood? And then there was Turkey: No, insisted Rav Menachem, the State of Israel shouldn’t compromise its honor by apologizing to the Turkish government for having defended itself against the Gaza flotilla, but an apology from our chief rabbis, in the language of believers, wouldn’t sound ingratiating but generous.
The more elusive Middle East peace became, the more vigorously he pursued it. Not just because Israel needed peace to survive in the long term, but because peace was itself the value. Even when I despaired of reconciliation with the Palestinians and wearied of his endless enthusiasm, Rav Menachem reminded me that we have no choice.”Bakesh shalom v’radfehu”: We are commanded not just to seek peace but to pursue it.
For Rav Menachem, peacemaking was a mystery of the heart, a mission that required mystics no less than diplomats. Love for one’s fellow mortal being endowed with an eternal soul, faith in God’s capacity for the miraculous: Those were the qualities necessary to bring peace, especially in this sacred land.
He taught me that, in order to make peace with the Muslim world, one needs not only to honor Islam but to love it – cherish its fearless heart, the power of its surrender, the wisdom of its frank confrontation with human transience.
Once we went together to a mosque in Nusseirat, a refugee camp in Gaza. It was the time before the second intifada, when such adventures were still possible. We’d been invited by a community of Sufi mystics to join their zikr, the dance that combines chanting and breathing with vigorous movement. For nearly an hour we danced together with our Muslim fellow believers in God. “Allah!” Rav Menachem repeatedly cried out in devotion.
After the zikr, we sat with members of the community, and Rav Menachem explained why he had come here. Two thousand years ago, he said, my people sinned and were expelled by God from this land. But now God has brought us back, and I want to learn from my Muslim brothers who didn’t leave here how to worship God in this land.
It was an extraordinary moment: A rabbi – from a West Bank settlement! – was telling Palestinian refugees that God had brought us back to this land. And they listened to him — because he had come to learn from them, because he was speaking to them as one religious person to another, because he made no apology for Jewish indigenousness.
And that was another lesson I learned from Rav Menachem: Peace with the Palestinians required affirming our right to be here. We didn’t return home because of anti-Semitism, but because we belong to this land – and because it was God’s will that we return. That is a language that may not resonate at a Peace Now demonstration, but it is the only Israeli language that has a chance of being heard in a mosque in Nusseirat.
Rav Menachem insisted to his Palestinian partners that the settlers weren’t colonialists but, like them, children of this land. And he insisted that his fellow settlers confront the presence of their Palestinian neighbors and accept their right to self-determination. His message to both sides was that peace becomes possible when settlement is separated from sovereignty.
I told Rav Menachem I was dubious about Jews living safely in a Palestinian state. He acknowledged my fears, but convinced me that the principle was still worth fighting for — that just as Palestinian Israelis live in Jewish state, so should Jewish Israelis be able to live in a Palestinian state.
We argued constantly – about his outreach to Hamas, about whether the Palestinian Authority was really prepared to accept a Jewish state in any borders, about the chances of a two-state solution anytime soon. Sometimes I found myself to his left, sometimes to his right. And that was another precious lesson of Rav Menachem: Israel’s dilemmas would not be solved with a dogmatic ideological approach.
Was he left-wing? Certainly: He advocated a two-state solution, met regularly with leaders of the PA, even with the late Sheikh Yassin of Hamas. Was Rav Menachem right-wing? Of course: He believed in the right of the Jewish people to live in all parts of the land of Israel, opposed the uprooting of settlements in Gaza in 2005, once told a friend that if Tekoa were evacuated he would die.
Not your typical settler, journalists invariably noted when they wrote about him – as if there were such a thing as a typical settler. Or, for that matter, a typical peace activist. Rav Menachem’s very being – a settler peace activist – mocked the way we label each other.
Rav Menachem was one of the very few among us to understand that the fate of the Jewish people in the 21st century will in large part be determined by the nature of our relationship with the Muslim world. And so he reached out indiscriminately – not just to moderates but also extremists, in part because, as he knew from his own life, people could change.
I sensed that many of us standing at his grave made the same silent commitment: In the absence left by Rav Menachem’s departure, the work of the heart must go on.
Yossi Klein Halevi is a senior fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute and a member of its iEngage Project research team. Learn more about the project at iengage.org.il. He is the author of “At the Entrance to the Garden of Eden: A Jew’s Search for God with Christians and Muslims in the Holy Land“