Thousands mourn beloved, controversial West Bank rabbi

Unique personality of Rabbi Menachem Froman evident in eulogies from across the political spectrum

Menachem Froman, 1945-2013 (Photo credit: Moshe Shai/FLASH90)
Menachem Froman, 1945-2013 (Photo credit: Moshe Shai/FLASH90)

Thousands attended the funeral of Menachem Froman in the Judean Desert settlement of Tekoa on Tuesday, remembering the mystic rabbi and activist as a unique figure in Israel’s religious and political landscape.

Froman, 68, who died of cancer Monday, believed religion and the love of the land could bring together Jews and Muslims instead of dividing them. 

Few events in his lifetime would seem to have proved him right. But his rare character and the regard in which he was held were evident in the eulogies that came from across Israel’s political spectrum: The dovish group Peace Now called him a “brave and very special man who believed with all his heart that Jews and Arabs can live together on this land,” and Likud Cabinet minister Moshe Ya’alon said at the funeral that Froman was a “man of vision.”

Ziad Sabatin, a Palestinian from the town of Hussan and an activist in a Froman-inspired group called Land of Peace, was also at the funeral. He called the rabbi “our teacher.”

“The rabbi was not a settler — he was a special person,” Sabatin said. He noted Froman’s meetings with Palestinian leaders from Fatah and Hamas and his stated willingness to remain in his settlement under Palestinian rule, which made him subject to fury and ridicule from other settlers.

“There is a saying that every seed someone plants yields seventy,” Sabatin said. “He planted thousands of seeds.”

Rabbi Menachem Froman, 68, was buried Tuesday near his home in the West Bank settlement of Tekoa (Photo credit: Elie Leshem/Times of Israel)
Rabbi Menachem Froman, 68, was buried Tuesday near his home in the West Bank settlement of Tekoa (Photo credit: Elie Leshem/Times of Israel)

Froman was a man of electric faith: He was often photographed in the black straps and boxes of phylacteries, and in prayer he would move his limbs ecstatically, raising his arms skyward, his white beard and faraway gaze giving him the appearance of a figure not entirely of this world.

His vision was not without its contradictions — he sought an equal partnership with Palestinians while participating in a settlement enterprise predicated on their disenfranchisement under military rule — and his ideas drew widespread interest but few dedicated followers. His personality was such, however, that few doubted the honesty of his intentions, and many were attracted by his engaging and offbeat nature, by his willingness to flout criticism and pursue an entirely original path, and by the intensity of his belief.

The rabbi’s restless intellect was on display in an interview with Haaretz last year in which he quoted, among others, the Soviet diplomat Andrei Gromyko, the Persian mystic poet Jalal al-Din Rumi, the early Hebrew poet Rachel Bluwstein, and the founder of Hamas, Ahmed Yassin.

In Froman’s worldview, settlements like his are not an obstacle to a peace agreement but an opportunity for contact between the sides — “the fingers of the hand extended for peace.” They should remain even if Israel ceded the territory, he thought, as the expression of an eternal Jewish connection to the land that transcended Israeli political control.

Froman (left), at a roadblock outside the West Bank village of Yasuf, near Nablus, in 2009 (Photo credit: Abir Sultan/Flash90)
Froman (left), at a roadblock outside the West Bank village of Yasuf, near Nablus, in 2009 (Photo credit: Abir Sultan/Flash90)

Speaking at the funeral, Yehuda Liebes, a professor of Jewish thought at Hebrew University and the rabbi’s longtime study partner, recounted an interview in which Froman was asked what he would do if told that Tekoa was to be evacuated: “In a choked voice, he answered, ‘I’ll die.'” 

In the 2012 Haaretz interview, Froman said the West Bank “is where the true contact is forged between the Muslim and Jewish cultures.”

He recalled sending greetings on the occasion of a Muslim festival to Yasser Arafat and Mahmoud Abbas, writing “about loving your fellow man as yourself and not doing to others what you would not wish them to do to you.”

“What I want for myself I must also want others to have. I want a Jewish state, I must want there to be an Arab state. I love Jerusalem, I have to want them to have Jerusalem, too,” he said.

Despite Froman’s efforts, contact between settlers and Palestinians is fraught when it happens at all. Religious trends on both sides have generally tilted away from the thrust of his teaching and instead toward hatred based on interpretations of the same sacred texts Froman read to mean that human beings should see a divine spark in each other.

But Froman saw the scope of history in centuries, not in years or even in decades, said one of his students, Shaul Judelman, 33, of the settlement of Bat Ayin. Though he may now be seen largely as a “dreamer,” his ideas will remain relevant, he said.

“The rabbi had a sense of Jewish history. We’re caught up in our own lives, in the next ten or twenty or thirty years. But he knew to look at things over a much longer period.”

“He was always far ahead of his time,” Judelman said.

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