Froman Redux: Are Religious Extremists Better Peacemakers Than Secular Liberals?

Menachem Froman was neither a liberal, a democrat, nor a supporter of the aims and value of the secular peace camp. But with that camp’s failure to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and with the critical threat pose by religious extremists on both sides, perhaps it is indeed time to co-opt religious dialogue into future peace negotiations.

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With great personal and professional sadness, I read of the death of Rabbi Menachem Froman of Tekoa after a long battle with cancer last week. Yet, as quixotic and memorable of a figure as the “White Rabbi” was — a mystic and man, peacemaker and political enemy, conservative and radical —Menachem Froman was neither a liberal, a democrat, nor a proponent of the aims and value of the secular peace camp. If we hope to do justice to his memory, we must remember and value him as the religious extremist he was in order to assess the legacy he leaves for future generations.

While his formative years suggest both the intellectual curiosity and broadmindedness that likely instilled in him an appreciation of Israel’s Jewish-democratic character, Froman remained at heart a religious mystic who arrived at the West Bank settlement of Tekoa believing first and foremost that he was ”a citizen of God’s country.” His faith remained unshaken in the idea that God had sanctioned the settler movement. In fact, his meetings with both PLO (Yasser Arafat once dubbed Froman ‘al-Hakeem’ [the wise one]) and with Hamas leaders were motivated strictly out of his belief that only religious factions — even religious extremists — could resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “Forty some-odd years from the Six Day War, many more, one hundred years, from the first aliyot, we’ve been trying to make peace on a secular basis,” Froman observed , recalling: “How did he once put it, Ahmed Yassin, yemah shemo ve zichro [that his name and memory should be extinguished]? The Oslo Accords was your heretics and my heretics making an agreement in order to subdue religion.”

He liked to tell the story that that the Sheikh had told him that based upon their shared religious worldview, the two could have conclude accord “b-hamsa dakika [fiveminutes]” and “I [would] agree to this kind of peace agreement.” In Froman's eyes, “it became clear the religious sector was the root of the problem and the root of the solution.” Further, , “From all my long talks with the Palestinians, I came to conclusion that while the problem is also political, about control over territory, and so on, the core of the problem is religious…[and the peace process] won’t succeed without a religious, spiritual basis.” For him, inter-religious dialogue was both a strategic and ideological necessity, as he noted: “Why do I support peace between the religious so much? Because that’s realistic. It’s possible to sweep dust under the rug, but you cannot sweep a tiger under the rug – Islam is a tiger.”

Froman took Islam seriously and on its own terms, while underscoring the God-centric nature of both faiths. To this end, when Froman was filmed in the ruined Qusra mosque in 2012, decrying the destruction of the place of worship in a price-tag operation by Israeli settlers, he clasped hands with Muslim clerics and chanted “Allahu Akbar [God is great!]". He was illustrating that the name by which God is called and how he is conceptualized is far less important than the belief in the dominion of God over man.

He also viewed his relationship with the Palestinians as a central tenet of his Jewish faith and practice,where “You have to love your neighbors, says the Lord,” and “the Palestines [sic] are my neighbors…so the love to the Palestines is the essence of my religion.” He referred also to the parable of Isaac and Ishmael, seeing this relationship as the basis for the religio-social order and for spiritual dialogue in Israel/Palestine. Yet, he repudiated Hamas leaders for what he considered to be the perversion of Islamic principles, remonstratingwith Sheikh Yassin: "You will go to hell because you are taking Islam, a religion whose name has connotations of peace, and turning it into a religion of terror.” At another point, Froman declared: “I pray that Gaza [under Hamas] will burn under the night sky! That there will be vengeance!”

Froman seemed more comfortable amongst the “frum” of any religion that with his secular counterparts. He cultivated alliances with non-religious groups to broaden his base, and established personal and professional relationships with its leading public intellectuals (and backroom negotiators) like Gershon Baskin, But Froman avowedly rejected the characterization that his work and persona , increasingly prominent and popular within the peace movement inside the Green Line, was motivated by any shared secular liberalism. Strongly distancing himself from these circles, he argued, “That which will bring peace is the religious-nationalist sector. It is forbidden to abandon the love of peace to leftists.” He thought that the national religious public was in fact a more natural partner for inter-religious peace-making, because of their shared vocabulary of faith with religious Palestinians.

However, these ideas also represented a more fundamental rejection of the secular models of tolerance and pluralism embraced by the left, as he averred, “I don’t have this kind of liberal idea of accepting the other. These ideals aren’t mine. They are of the HaKadosh Boruch Hu [The Holy One Blessed Be He].” Froman’s appreciation of democracy was seemingly mostly instrumental, believing “peace is the ultimate value of the state,” and that its leadership was a kind of heavenly conduit - on at least one occasion he used the Islamic terminology of “Rasul'Allah,” meaning the messenger of God — to achieving a Kingdom of Heaven on earth. He used similar terminology about Barack Obama's election: "I believe he was elected by God…I want to create an opening to God to perform a miracle here.” Yet Froman saw himself and his work only as a spiritual leader, declaring: “I am not a political person nor am I a subcontractor of politicians.” Ultimately for Froman, he saw himself as "A citizen of the state of God… my president is God… it is not so important who important who is the man, who is the government.”

To his core, Froman was inspired by a messianic vision and viewed his interfaith efforts as a tactical, interim solution to be fully resolved by the supreme redemption at the end of days. In hisinterpretationof both Jewish halakha and Muslim shari’a, he wrote that “all religious law is tactical…there is a Jewish saying that ‘the Torah was not given to the Angels.’ I deal daily as a Rabbi with people whose problems are tactical – not problems in principle.” He maintained the effectiveness of such tactical thinking when transferred to dialogue with other religious leaders: “Religion can be the expression of the greatest extremism and the greatest liberalism…But religious law is exactly the mechanism for bringing dogma face- to-face with reality.”

To Froman, the recognition by both Islam and Judaism of a division between the day-to-day and the end-time lent their discussions would have a distinct advantage over a parallel encounter between secular leaders: The religious leaders can make the distinction that they are not negotiating "over permanent conditions,” over which human beings have no control or jurisdiction.

Despite his shared language with the devout of other faiths, Froman was committed to the Jewish narrative of the end of days, which would re-align all these temporal , tacticalarrangements. What will happen at the end time? Froman's description:

“I also think that the day will come and the Messiah will be here, and things will be completely different. I, for example, believe that ultimately when the Messiah comes that the mosques on the Temple Mount will be replaced by a Temple. That ultimately, I will realize my most maximalist dreams. This is what allows for flexibility in the meantime. The fact that a religious person can have an absolutist ideal that he can postpone. When I meet with leaders of other faiths, they always like it when I end by saying, ‘I believe in God and you believe in God – we will let God do the job.”

Like another towering spiritual figure of the twentieth century famous for bridging the religious-secular divide, Israel’s first chief Rabbi Abraham Yitzhak Ha-Cohen Kook, whose image has been misunderstood and manipulated by later followers, the White Rabbi’s admirers have already begun memorializing him with motivations he did not espouse in his own lifetime.

We would do best to eulogize Rav Menachem Froman as the inspirational and effective messianic religious extremist he was, and to honor a man who succeeded in breaking down barriers and establishing bonds between individuals, nationalities and faiths on (his own) religious terms. Moreover, with the failure of secular leadership and liberal discourses to resolve the conflict and the critical threat of religious peace-process spoilers on both sides (settlers and Hamas), perhaps it is indeed time to incorporate, or co-opt, religious dialogue in future peace negotiations. Froman's view, instrumentalist as it was, did not give carte blanche to any idea of the ends justifying the means to peace, or that Israel’s Jewish-democratic framework be abandoned for one based on the imminent coming of the apocalypse. His unconventional and unusual successes foster the hope that another peace-maker will emerge to carry on his work into the future.

Dr. Sara Hirschhorn is a graduate of Yale and the University of Chicago and is currently a postdoctoral fellow at the Schusterman Center for Israel Studies at Brandeis University, researching the Israeli settler movement, the Arab-Israeli conflict, and the U.S.-Israel relationship.

Rabbi Menachem Froman prays with Muslim worshippers during a joint Muslim-Jewish prayer November, 2011.Credit: AP

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