Rebbe With a Cause: The Unconventional Truths of Menachem Froman

Menachem Froman was tough to pin down: a settler and peace activist; deeply religious and a free-love advocate; living in occupied territories and preaching an end to occupation.

Asher Schechter
Asher Schechter
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Asher Schechter
Asher Schechter

One cannot write about Menachem Froman without mentioning Abu Ammar, more commonly known as Yasser Arafat.

Beginning in the early 1990s, the eccentric and fascinating chief rabbi of the Israeli settlement of Tekoa and the former terrorist and PLO chairman struck up an unlikely friendship, both as political leaders of their respective communities and as men who were looking for a way out of hate.

Their friendship (or perhaps more accurately, compatriotship) had its ups and downs – Arafat had his dodgy side when it came to keeping promises – but it persisted over the years and even survived the tumultuous Second Intifada.

Froman, ever the odd bird even within the bizarre world of Israeli religious leaders, visited Arafat in Ramallah many times, even at the latter's request when he still confined to his bulldozed and besieged compound, and was close to death. 'You are my brother!' a dying Arafat told him. Froman recounted this exchange a year later in a public letter to Arafat's successor, Mahmoud Abbas, who also became a close friend.

Actually Rabbi Menachem Froman, aka "The White Rebbe," who passed away Monday at age 68 after a long battle with colon cancer, struck up many unlikely friendships over the years.

Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, the founder of Hamas who was assassinated by Israel in 2004 and was often called "the mastermind of Palestinian terror," was one of them. Yassin and Froman had many conversations, some of them personal. "He said to me once, 'You and I could make peace in five minutes. Why? Because are both believers'," he told Haaretz in 2012.

No matter how you look at it, Menachem Froman was a believer, albeit a tough one to pin down. He was a settler and a peace activist; a deeply religious rabbi and a free-love advocate with hippie tendencies. Protected by guns, he preached an end to war and, while living in occupied territories, preached an end to occupation.

He could be dark and sometimes brutally realistic, but was most often wildly optimistic about the future, surrounded by death but still full of unexplained joie de vivre.

The glue that ties these contradictory ideas together, Froman believed, was religion. Not the religion we see too often today, the oppressive and dogmatic kind, the kind that forces people to kill each other over land. Rather, religion as a unifying force promoting love between different peoples that teaches them to share land in God's name instead of trying to own it.

Froman embodied the kind of religion you only find in the best verses of scripture, the one that liberated man from his basic impulses and enables him to feel love. That’s the religion Froman believed in and followed.

A man of a different peace

Since the early 1980s, Menachem Froman dedicated his life to peace but his peace did not come from the left and most certainly didn't come from the right. Froman did not believe in nations – he believed in the simple concept of neighbors acting with neighborly respect.

It doesn’t matter which nation actually rules the land, he often said, as long as people go to school together, or go out to the same theater on Saturdays. Eventually, they'll learn to get along and none of these distinctions will matter because we'll all peacefully co-exist.

His detractors, and they were legion, claimed he was insane, naive, and dangerously messianic. Yet in Israel's highly regimented society, where most things and people are defined by polar opposites – left/right, black/white, Ashkenazi/Sephardic – Froman refused to be tied down by such definitions.

He was born to a secular family in Kfar Hasidim in northern Israel and studied in the prestigious Hebrew Reali School in Haifa before serving in the military as a paratrooper and participating in the liberation (or capture) of the Western Wall. After his army service he found religion. He attended Mercaz HaRav and Yeshivat Hakotel and was ordained by famous rabbis Shlomo Goren and Avraham Shapira, both hugely influential in the blossoming religious Zionist movement.

After his studies, he helped establish the Gush Emunim movement, which is committed to settlement in the West Bank. He loved the biblical, mountainous landscapes of Gush Etzion, the settlement cluster outside of Jerusalem, and lived there, first in Midgal Oz, and later in Tekoa, which he helped found. He married Hadassa, an artist, with whom he had ten children and dozens of grandchildren. He studied Hassidic literature relentlessly, fascinated by the writings of Jewish mystics and their belief that love and joy were crucial parts of being faithful to God.

While never particularly nationalistic, the First Intifada, especially the arrest of the Jewish Underground, a militant organization in Gush Emunim active in the late 1970s and early 1980s, shook him and turned him from an unknown rabbi with an independent streak to a full-fledged nonconformist.

He started calling for negotiations with Palestinians, heresy in the eyes of most rabbis in the occupied territories. He even started meeting with Palestinians leaders, though it was illegal at the time. He called on Israel to allow Palestinians to have their own country and their own national identity. He even said he doesn't mind living under Palestinian sovereignty, if need be.

Naturally, he caused quite the furor and received several death threats. Over the years, his involvement with the peace movement deepened. He attended the Madrid peace conference in 1991 and developed a deep, meaningful relationship with the Arab-Israeli community as well. He even founded an Israeli-Palestinian peace organization, Eretz Shalom.

He was not a typical peace activist. The left was as confused about him as the right. He was a settler that supported negotiations and peace but also loathed the leftist dogma of evacuating the settlements as a necessary part of the peace process. He asked why anyone should be evicted from his home.

Whatever country ends up ruling the land, people have to learn how to co-exist on it, he'd say. Neither the Jews nor the Palestinians are going to disappear anytime soon, he argued, so stop hoping that will happen and start getting along. With that reasoning, he was fiercely opposed to Ariel Sharon's unilateral disengagement plan from the Gaza Strip.

The Buddhist rebbe

Overcoming (or ignoring) thousands of years of religious bloodshed, Froman believed in the power of religion to mend gaps and bridge cultures. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict was, to him, religious in nature so it was up to religious figures – not politicians – to solve it.

His independence from the religious establishment spread into other fields as well. In December 2011, after a long hospitalization due to his illness, he invited a female flute player to play in his synagogue, protesting gender segregation in Israel and calling for an end to the belief that men should not hear women sing. Sadly, though, he was still vehemently anti-gay, once famously telling a lesbian woman whose parents did not accept her that he would help them mourn for her loss.

Over the years, he shed more and more signs of the conventional rabbi, adopting an almost Buddhist-like view about the meaning of life and religion. He started hosting sessions with rock musicians that involved a bit of scripture and a bit of music, music being a big part of his life and his religious beliefs. In these sessions, he would read from Jewish writing, sometimes from the Zohar, the primary text of Kabbalah, or mystical Judaism, and sometimes talk about his personal life and his fear of death.

He started wearing all-white, even a white shtreimel, or fur hat, an outfit that earned him the nickname "The White Rebbe." Froman explained that the white symbolized his wish to transfer Judaism from darkness to light. At his funeral, attended by thousands, his young son told the audience how his father used to wear two separate sets of tefillin each day, one for himself and one for his secular friends, like Israeli president Shimon Peres and writer Amos Oz.

Of course, he had haters. But he made peace with it, and with them. He made peace with people who initially wanted him dead, like Yassin, and with people who wanted to remove him from his home in the settlement, like his leftist friends. Instead, he welcomed them into his home and in turn was welcomed into theirs.

Froman didn't judge haters. He listened to them. He made an effort to understand them, trying to instill compassion in them, trying to change their ways but never by force because compassion cannot be forced.

It is very easy to be cynical about Froman. In his life he certainly had to deal with a great deal of cynicism that came his way. But what made him special, and what earned him the love and admiration of so many, was the way he rose above the negative and avoided the temptation to become cynical himself.

Finding the humanity even in his bitterest enemies, Froman understood that hatred is temporary and love is eternal and a kingdom of heaven could be created here on Earth if only given the chance. When discussing Froman's legacy, that's an important point: he never stopped believing that there is still a chance.

"Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav once said that Abraham was the village nut, that they threw rocks at him," he told Haaretz in 2012, already struggling with terminal cancer. "If there will be peace, if the unconventional becomes the convention, all of this was worth it."

Rabbi Menachem Froman prays with Muslim worshippers at joint Muslim-Jewish prayer for rain in West Bank, November 2011.Credit: AP

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