Settler Leader's Bio Charts the Victory of Settlement and the Trauma of Evacuation

While this new biography of Hanan Porat – the man who personified the Gush Emunim settler movement – is not particularly objective, it has some redeeming value.

"Hanan Portat - Sippur Hayav" ("Hanan Porat - Life Story"), by Haggai Huberman. Yedioth Ahronoth Publishing House, 360 pages, NIS 98 (in Hebrew )

"Hanan Porat - Life Story" is also the life story of the mass movement Gush Emunim, which emerged in the wake of the Six-Day War with the purpose of settling Judea, Samaria and the Gaza Strip. In this respect, this biography by Haggai Huberman - dedicated to a man who helped to lay the cornerstone of settlement in the territories - succeeds in telling more than merely a story about its main protagonist. As the book thoroughly demonstrates, Hanan Porat, who died in 2011, was an extraordinary individual, and this story sheds a new and significant light on him and the world he represented.

One revelation, for instance, is that Porat was not born in Kfar Etzion, a kibbutz in Gush Etzion that was founded in 1943, but rather at Kfar Pines - where the kibbutz founders were still living in that year. As with the movement which he helped to found, Gush Emunim, Porat emerged from the womb of religious Zionism. His place of birth did not prevent him from being counted over the years as one of the most prominent representatives of the so-called children of Kfar Etzion (where his parents moved when he was six months old ). Nor did this dull the trauma of experiencing "the first uprooting in his life" - the evacuation from Gush Etzion early in the War of Independence, when residents "did not know where they were heading and when they might return, if at all."

Porat and his colleagues in the movement, who wore sandals, typical Israeli coats and flannel shirts, may have looked different from their ancestors, but they were actually revisiting the ancient Jewish trauma of wandering from place to place. Over and over again, they built settlements and were then evacuated: Sebastia, Yamit, Gush Katif, Amona and other such communities and outposts. Each time, it was as if they were trying to heal their childhood wounds, but instead those wounds only grew deeper.

This theory may not stand up to actual research findings, but there is no doubt that the trauma of settlement and evacuation is the axis along which Porat's biography is built. It is a dominant common denominator in his life story, from the day of Gush Etzion's evacuation in 1948 to the freeze on construction in Judea and Samaria in 2011, about a month before he was diagnosed with cancer.

This axis is pulled more taut in the biography, and at both ends of it are other important features. Sadness and joy, for instance. Indeed, Porat plumbed the limits of sorrow on numerous occasions in his lifetime - mainly whenever the Land of Israel suffered harm. His sadness is described at several junctures in this biography. At one point during the freeze on construction in the territories in 2010, Huberman relates, Porat poured out his wrath on a Civil Administration inspector: "He yelled and screamed with such fury that Shimon Karniel, who was standing at his side, was sure that he was about to have a heart attack."

On the other hand, it is a great mitzvah to be eternally happy, and not only on Purim (Huberman explains that Porat said "Happy Purim" not only after the 1994 massacre by Baruch Goldstein at the Tomb of the Patriarchs, but, since he maintained that this was "a blessing that is always said," even on Purim in 1982, when Porat's rabbi and teacher Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook died ). Porat apparently felt both happiness and sadness at high intensity. Even when he was suffering a terminal illness, "he would smile from ear to ear - a sweet smile - and he told me slowly while stressing every syllable: I thank God." This sort of joy is related optimism, and it is found in a similar position at the other end of the axis. The other extreme is where you find the age-old Jewish pessimism, which is renewed in every generation.

Following the evacuation of Gush Katif (to which Porat had moved from Kfar Etzion, just as he had been evacuated from Yamit, as well; time and time again he settled and was evacuated ), Porat wrote: "Ever since my return from Gush Katif the pictures of destruction and ruin will not leave my eyes. Perhaps it might seem that I have been stricken with a persecution complex, but as I walk past the well-tended homes of Elon Moreh or Efrat, I compare them - despite myself - with the homes of glorious Neveh Dekalim, and ask myself how much time will pass until they are demolished by deafening bulldozers."

A close relative of joy and optimism was Porat's tendency to cling to goodness. "I wanted to be good. There isn't much more than that to say," he said in his last interview, which is quoted on the book jacket as a sort of motto reflecting his general character. There is no doubt about it: Hanan Porat and his counterparts indeed wanted to be good. Not only in the sense of being "upstanding fellows," but in terms of morality.

In the biography, Huberman talks about how Porat was willing to forfeit his Knesset membership in 1984, how he volunteered his services on behalf of the Land of Israel and the Torah, founded charitable enterprises and spearheaded various legislative initiatives in the Knesset. One was the so-called Jerusalem Day Law, establishing a certain date as a national holiday in honor of the capital. When he presented it, writes Huberman, "He stressed that the law was not intended, heaven forbid, to harm the Arab population." Was this a matter of Porat's lack of awareness, or that of the author? Did anyone really think the Jerusalem Day Law was good for the Arabs? It is more reasonable to assume that the thinking was: If it is good for us, it must be good for others.

Goodness for the righteous

Hanan Porat and his counterparts seem to be, generally speaking, pleased with themselves, and are for the most part "a contented people," as our nation is described in the Sabbath prayers. In their eyes, the division was clear: Goodness is "concealed" - that is, reserved - for the righteous, and to a certain degree also for secular Jews, whereas evil is reserved for the wicked person or non-Jew - i.e., the Arab.

Following the destruction of Gush Katif, for instance, Huberman writes, "The synagogues have been ransacked, and are desecrated by hundreds of cheering Arab rioters." It seems as if Huberman, a veteran reporter for Hatzofeh and Makor Rishon (publications with national-religious readerships ), was not interested in writing a totally balanced, objective biography. He wrote it as a pupil and friend of Hanan Porat. Still, one must admit that the book does not read like a hagiography, a story written in praise of a rabbi and leader; it makes an effort to maintain a certain balance.

For example, this tension between the ideal and the real emerges in a description of Jerusalem Day 1969: "Hanan who, as mentioned, participated in the battle to liberate Jerusalem, described it in his inimitable fascinating and colorful manner. And as a learned Torah student who also remembers that the Talmud can at times speak in exaggerated tones, he enthusiastically described how at night the halo of the moon emitted a strong light and illuminated the entire surroundings, and how the fighters marched beneath the glow of that halo. When Rabbi [Shlomo] Goren got up to speak, he said: 'Hanan, in the Six-Day War there were a lot of overt miracles, but a full moon on the 28th day of the month: That miracle did not happen.'"

Even if the author of a biography identifies with the central protagonist, he at times needs to be more critical, and mindful of engaging in ideology. The following are two examples that provoked bittersweet laughter in this writer. In the first, Huberman talks about Porat's meeting with Menachem Begin in 1977: "The prime minister pointed at a pile of foreign newspapers on his desk. Nearly all of them expressed alarm at the election of Begin, the 'hawk,' Begin the 'warmonger,' whose election was liable to spark another war in the Middle East. 'Look what they are writing about me,' the insulted Begin said to Hanan, in a raised voice. 'I will prove to everyone that I will bring peace!' An initial small dark cloud of worry hovered above Hanan's head." And one surely needs an extra large dose of naivete to write: "As predicted, the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin did not stop the withdrawal in Judea and Samaria."

There may be a biographical reason for the tension between heaven and earth, between messianic ideals and grounded reality. After all, Porat and the people of Gush Emunim wanted to be in the middle, between the religious and the secular, to uphold the values of the Labor movement - and to read the Bible, the Talmud and the writings of Rabbi Kook, but also the poetry of Rachel and Uri Zvi Greenberg. The need for recognition by the secular public led to innumerable high expectations and also disappointed low points among Porat and his colleagues. In fact, it seems that the next generation of settlers is increasingly ignoring this need today.

In the opinion of Hanan Porat, words possessed a power that could generate action. He and his friends "transformed" the writings of Rabbi Kook and Uri Zvi Greenberg into site maps and construction plans. Consequently, their everyday language is peppered with numerous quotations from the holy tongue. Porat employed this language routinely in his vernacular, and of course in his speeches and writings, as well. For example, this is how he greeted a police officer at Neveh Dekalim during the Gush Katif evacuation: "[Porat] took the megaphone and declared: 'If you have come for peaceful purposes, then blessed are those who arrive, we will receive you in joy and invite you to sup with us. But if, heaven forbid, your intent is to expel us - then leave this place!!!"

It would be wise to pay attention to this sort of language, of which Hanan Porat was one of the creators over the past few decades in Judea and Samaria. It has many diverse and interesting characteristics, and naturally reflects the nonhistorical religious perception according to which "what was is what will be" (this applies to both redemption and destruction ).

Another important characteristic of this kind of Hebrew is euphemism. The clean, high-brow and clipped tone is a primary characteristic of the book "Et Anat Anohi Mevakesh" ("In Search of Anat" ), which Porat wrote in the 1980s in the form of letters to a secular (fictitious ) woman. This same linguistic style is also expressed in nearly every quote featured in the biography under review.

If the reader wishes to discover the source of both this "word view" and world view, he or she is advised to read the end of the biography, where the author cites Porat quoting Rabbi Kook thus: "Death is a vain spectacle! Its defilement is a lie! That which human beings call death, is merely a response to life and life-force."

These words very much recall the "War is peace" example of Newspeak from Orwell's "1984," and apparently for good reason. When your self-perception is so far away from the reality, it is impossible either to be complacent or to go crazy - or both at the same time.

Tomer Appelbaum