Misleading Our Youth

Rabbi Benny Lau, a lifelong believer in religious Zionism, can no longer remain silent. He calls the increasingly strident youths protesting the disengagement a `collection of boys and girls who are being incited by a handful of arrogant people'

In the Bnei Akiva forum of the Kippa Web site, the kids were called upon last week to identify with Gush Katif in what was termed "an entirely legal protest." The anonymous announcement said,"We're going to sleep in the streets of the State of Israel. Today and tomorrow, we sleep in the Jerusalem pedestrian mall, with as many people as possible equipped with sleeping bags, blankets, signs, et al. Even if afterward they go home to sleep. Come on, invest two hours in a nice show for the media."

When Rabbi Binyamin (Benny) Lau passes the intersections and sees those same young people who sleep in the streets or riot in the name of the protest against the disengagement, he is horrified. In correspondence he conducted recently via e-mail with Yona Goodman, chair of Bnei Akiva, the religious Zionist youth movement, Lau wrote: "A collection of boys and girls incited by a handful of arrogant people who do not hesistate to undermine the fabric of life in the country is threatening to set our house on fire."

"It won't help us to describe the youths at the intersections as marginal or as bad seeds. They come from the center of activity of religious Zionism: from the yeshiva high schools, from the clubhouses of the youth movements. If we, the members of the religious Zionist community, do not halt this trend, we will pay a terrible price. The growing lack of confidence between the youth and the state institutions is liable to develop into alienation from the system. The most highly regarded sport among the youth is to be arrested by police. They opened a file on you - you're a big shot. You confronted a policeman - you're a tzaddik (a righteous person). A general distortion of the rules."

Who leads these lawless youngsters? Who are their rabbis? He asks these obvious questions, and raises his hands in embarrassment. "We are their rabbis. But what alternative can we offer these boys and girls, in the face of a summer full of orange- colored attractions?" (Orange is the color of the anti-disengagement protesters.)

Lau is familiar with the spirit of adventure characteristic of religious youth. He tells how as a young boy he went up to Sebastia [the first settlement in Samaria] one night with Meir Har-Etzion. "We walked in at night, in total darkness, and we bypassed the police roadblocks. There was an exciting sense of anticipation and risk in the air." Lau says that the youths are now being exposed to a similar atmosphere.

Now he is afraid of bloodshed, of traumas worse than the murder of the late prime minister Yitzak Rabin. "There is despair in this world where the young people spend their time. In spite of Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav," he says ironically. "They are uprooting you from the land. If you are aware only of the land, and not of the nation, that is dangerous."

In the summer months, Bnei Akiva prepares for social activity that reaches its climax in August, in what the movement calls "summer projects." But this year, he says, the schedule of programs and projects is empty. "No day camp for the children of new immigrants or for distressed neighborhoods, for the disabled, and for other social needs. Everything is empty. They're all in Gush Katif. Here is where religious Zionism is buried."

A embarrassed establishment

Lau divides his time between serving as a rabbi in Jerusalem's Katamon neighborhood and serving as the rabbi of two city high schools - Himmelfarb for boys and Pelech for girls. He also teaches in the religious Maaleh Film School in Jerusalem, and at Bar-Ilan University. He is 43 years old and the father of six - five boys and a girl. His wife, Noa, is a homeroom teacher in Pelech and a halakhic adviser (she advises women on issues related to nida, the laws of family purity).

He looks like a good Bnei Akiva boy. He wears a large crocheted kippa on his well-tonsured head. His shaven face makes him look younger than his years. An integral part of Bnei Akiva, he is a member of the movement's directorate, and his oldest son, who is now studying in the Otniel Yeshiva in the southern Hebron Hills, last year worked as a kommunar, a clubhouse leader, postponing his army service for a year. His younger children (with one exception) are members of the movement. What happened suddenly to cause him not to accept the decision of the movement, and to come out against it?

Lau: "The situation is that the older leadership of the movement is in fact broadcasting to the members messages that oppose violence, and overall, is in favor of a policy that opposes [anti-disengagment] activities, but the youth leadership is kicking and biting in bright orange. The establishment is very embarrassed."

In other words, he is upset by the helplessness of the movement, and by its lack of control - as well as by the rabbis' lack of control - over the youth, in whom he sees a symptom of the destruction of religious Zionism. He says that he is afraid of the increasing alienation of "our youth" from values sacred to Bnei Akiva: the state and Zionism. He is afraid of the disengagement of youth from the state and from the community.

His views are right-wing. At the beginning of the conversation he went into great detail about the prime minister being to blame for the sense of alienation and rage in religious Zionist society. He definitely was in favor of a referendum. He thinks that the prime minister's decision about the disengagement was unilateral and undemocratic. He also speaks about his private pain over the uprooting of settlements.

But on the other hand, he presents a complex view, simultaneously painful and sober, of post-disengagement religious Zionism. He proposes an alternative, whose main feature is a return to the old values of religious Zionism, based on integration into the state - which to his mind, as to that of Gush Emunim (the settlement movement), is still "the beginning of the growth of our redemption." Instead of messianic ideas, he presents a new agenda based on social justice. "I definitely don't want a situation where as a result of the disengagement, religious Zionism turns into a sector, and parts of it turn to seclusion and isolationism," he says.

Little by little recently, we have been hearing rabbinic statements about the rift between religious Zionism and the government over the issue of disengagement. Lau, who up until a year ago served for seven years as the rabbi of the religious Kibbutz Saad in the south, and is considered one of the liberal rabbis of religious Zionism, believes that the fact that youth are being carried away is a symptom of this rift. The youngsters hear their parents' alienation and disgust, and want to react.

In his opinion, rabbis are not doing enough to stop the unruly behavior of their students. Words are not enough, he says. Youngsters should go back to their usual social activity during the summer, no matter what. "We must halt this rift. Out of our great pain, we have to broadcast that we want to be connected to society." At the beginning of the week, he even sent a letter to the female clubhouse leaders of Bnei Akiva, asking them to direct their energy to social activities. "There is nothing easier," he wrote, "than to motivate young people to active and attractive deeds, such as a war against a government decision." He says that in Bnei Akiva they took the letter seriously, and reviewed its contents at a conference of these youth leaders at the beginning of the week.

Rabbi Yehuda Gilad, the head of the yeshiva in Ma'aleh Gilboa and a member of the left-leaning Meimad movement, says that the soul-searching of various rabbis is "too little and too late." As opposed to the period before the murder of Yitzhak Rabin, says Gilad, today rabbis speak out against violence. He says that one of the most outstanding examples was Rabbi Shlomo Aviner, who courageously opposed refusal to do army service. "It's problematic, as long as at the same time, the rabbis continually speak of the disengagement as a catastrophe," says Gilad. "They don't understand that there are consequences to that. That among the young people, a dynamic of opposition and alienation has already been created. Now, when the obstruction has been halted, the youth, whose world view tends to divide the world into black and white, are not aware of the difference between legitimate protest and obstruction, and it is hard to stop this oncoming train."

Gilad believes that the rabbis should have planned "a huge educational move, in order to make the youth aware of the complexities, to help them understand that on the other side of the barricade there is also logic, and there are also people who are thinking about the good of the country."

Lau admits that before the decision about the disengagement, it was difficult to plan a move that related to the disengagement in a practical way. "It would have been considered outright treason."

His sobering up is also evident in his agreement to take part in an educational process being conducted at present in the police and the army in preparation for the disengagement. In Beit Morasha (a religious advanced studies institute) he is presently advising commanders, from the most junior to the most senior, how to relate to the evacuation. Among other things, he explains to them how the settlers see the disengagement, and how halakha (Jewish religious law) relates to the return of territories. He says that he hesitated about the issue together with his colleague, Rabbi Yehuda Brandeis (both head the beit midrash of Beit Morasha). After all, this is a matter of crossing lines, or of cooperating with a move with which they don't agree in principle.

Lau appears in a visual presentation designed for those commanders in the army and the police, and speaks about heroism. Who is a hero? he asks there - one who overcomes his instincts. If they curse you, he counsels the soldiers and the policemen, remain silent. Restrain yourselves.


Lau is the son of Naftali Lau-Lavie, a former Israeli consul general in New York, and the nephew of former chief rabbi Israel Meir Lau. He is a member of the generation of moderate rabbis such as Yuval Cherlow, head of the Petah Tikva Yeshiva; Shai Piron, head of the democratic Yeshurun Ulpana (a religious girls' high school) in Petah Tikva; Re'em Hacohen of the Otniel Yeshiva, Yehuda Brandeis and David Stav, the rabbi of Shoham. But unlike them, he did not join the rabbis of Tzohar (an organization that represents the younger generation of religious Zionist rabbis). He preferred his independence. He believes that "they are full of good intentions, but because of the large number of intentions and opposing views among the rabbis, they do not succeed in carrying out significant activity."

He says that they even have difficulty in expressing clear positions on issues such as the status of women, women who are refused divorces, and so on. "Most of the Tzohar rabbis are students of Rabbi Avraham Shapira. And it is customary not to differ with the rabbi. So they refrain from expressing their opinion. It's a problem."

The members of Lau's generation have experienced the process of change undergone by national religious society, in the direction of religious and halakhic extremism, isolationism and messianism, which was reflected in the establishment of extremist school systems and in the splitting off into the Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) Zionist stream. In this changing world, Lau's choices testify to his paving a moderate and consistent path in religious Zionism.

"In my day, the rabbis weren't agents of culture at all," he remarks. He studied at the Netiv Meir Yeshiva High School in Jerusalem in its days of glory. Instead of studying in a hesder yeshiva (combining Torah studies with army service), he served in the Golani Brigade - "that contributed to my concept of Israeliness." Afterward he studied at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He did his doctorate on Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the spiritual leader of Shas.

Lau himself did not live in the settlements, except as a young man, when for six months he took part in establishing the settlement of Yatir in the southern Hebron Hills. A stranger cannot understand the love for the soil, he says. He has absorbed the romance of the country, of the beginning of the settlements. "There is understanding that is related to age, to being a father," he says. "But there is something deep, that will always remain in my bones."

He identifies with the settlers, but he thinks that in a part of the religious community there are the beginnings of a Haredi mentality in relation to the state. "The vast majority of the Haredi community is not anti-Zionist, but a-Zionist," he says. "Today, a substantial part of the religious Zionist community is adopting this mindset. And I say that we must not give up our integration into the country."

Lau lives in the Katamon neighborhood, on the ground floor of a typical apartment house. A moment before supper, which is ready on the table, some of his children are standing and having difficulty pulling themselves away from the television. "I'm not afraid of modernity. I'm in favor of being part of the world," he remarks on the way out. He says that as a young boy he was sensitive to being ridiculed by cousins who studied in Haredi yeshivas. "When I was 20 years old, I once returned home from the army and sat down to study Talmud with a friend. My cousin stood in the doorway, with his Lithuanian hat in his hand. He looked us up and down and said: "So, you learn too?"

Lau wants to bring back sanity to religious education. "When [Gush Emunim activist] Hanan Porat came to the Netiv Meir yeshiva to call on the students to demonstrate against Kissinger, Rabbi Aryeh Bina, the head of the yeshiva, didn't allow him to enter the yeshiva," he says. "That happened at a time when buses were going out to demonstrations from Rabbi Druckman's Or Etzion yeshiva. Rabbi Aryeh called the disappointed Porat and told him, `I'm more a member of Gush Emunim than you are. Children don't participate in such serious things.' Today there are no such rabbis who will say that clearly. Children should not participate in protest activities, even legitimate ones."

The Bnei Akiva movement, in response, says they decided to move up the date of the summer camps, which take place each year in August. This year, they will run from the last week in July to August 7. Bnei Akiva secretary Eitan Mor-Yosef says this will be done "so that everyone who wants to can express his democratic position." In his words, "It's untenable that at the time of the disengagement, heaven forbid, the children will be singing in the forests."

According to Mor-Yosef, he doesn't see a problem in finding counselors to operate the summer camps for immigrants, "despite the fact that for some of the youngsters, this is not as heroic as blocking intersections." Although Bnei Akiva does not call for blocking intersections, Mor-Yosef understands those who do it. "If someone is hurting, the country can't go on as usual. Labor unions also strike. So if they strike about money, we can't strike over land?"