A Moderate National Zionist, Relegated to the Sidelines

"It's a shame all these people didn't know how to support him during his lifetime. Maybe if they had, things would look different."

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
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Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

When he saw the throngs at Rabbi Yehuda Amital's funeral in Jerusalem on Friday, one of the rabbi's former students said: "It's a shame all these people didn't know how to support him during his lifetime. Maybe if they had, things would look different."

Amital educated thousands of students for more than 50 years. He wrote philosophical works. He was the first to draft principles guiding the hesder yeshivas that combine religious study and military service. He represented the national religious public in the cabinet under Shimon Peres after Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated in 1995. But he was consigned to be a leader of just a minority of the religious public.

Then-prime minister Yitzhak Rabin with Yehuda Amital in 1993.Credit: Archive

It is hard not to compare Amital's death to that of former chief rabbi Mordechai Eliyahu a little over a month ago. It was actually the nationalist, ultra-Orthodox Eliyahu who introduced a different point of view. At his death he was bestowed the title "the spiritual leader of religious Zionism," while Amital, who was the very flesh and blood of the movement, was relegated to the sidelines.

Amital, however, knew what he stood for. After the Six-Day War, the leaders and rabbis of the Gush Emunim movement attracted a large following of young religious people on a messianic path to redemption that made settlement building the life's work of the religious public. Amital understood well that he was breaking with the consensus when he spoke of the primacy of the sanctity of the human being over the sanctity of the land.

Events for Amital could be divided into sanctification of God's name or the desecration of God's name. The Holocaust, which he experienced firsthand, was in his view the most extreme example of the second, so he showed understanding to those who lost their faith in God after the Shoah.

In the years after the Six-Day War, he felt the spirit of the redemption and initially supported settlement beyond the Green Line and agreed to head the hesder yeshiva in the Gush Etzion settlement bloc in the West Bank. But the 1973 Yom Kippur War, in which eight of his students were killed, was a shattering experience, after which he found it difficult to function for a time.

His political views also underwent a transformation. In 1982, when thousands of young religious Jews went to the Israeli settlement of Yamit in Sinai to try to stop Israel's withdrawal as part of the peace agreement with Egypt, he barred his students from taking part. Several months later, he made his views public when he and the co-leader of his yeshiva, Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein, called for a commission of inquiry into the massacres of civilians at the Sabra and Chatila refugee camps in Lebanon, which he saw as another extreme example of the profanation of God's name.

Despite the admiration he attracted, he never managed to get his views accepted among the central stream of religious Zionism. The moderate Meimad political movement which he established in 1988 never managed on its own to cross the threshold needed for Knesset representation. And the nearly complete identification between the religious Zionist knitted skullcap and right-wing nationalism was to become something taken for granted.



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