President Obama's upcoming trip to Israel prompts us to note the death from cancer last week of a fascinating and prophetic religious figure in the West Bank -- Chief Rabbi Menachem Froman of the Takoa settlement, a few miles from the Dead Sea. Froman was known as the "settler rabbi for peace." Although a former paratrooper and a founder of the radical right-wing messianic settler movement Gush Emunim, he somehow evolved into Israel's foremost Orthodox religious exponent of peace with the Palestinians.
Proclaiming that he was a "citizen of the State of God," Rabbi Froman advocated the pursuit of peace by talking to Israel's enemies. He was friends with Yassir Arafat and talked with Hamas leaders like Sheik Yassin (assassinated by Israeli leaders who obviously did not share his views). He supported Palestine statehood and UN membership and expressed a willingness to live as a minority in a West Bank settlement within a Palestinian state.
In September 2011, when unidentified Israeli settlers burned and desecrated a mosque in the Palestinian West Bank village of Qusra, he came to protest. Standing in front of graffiti that derogatorily described the Prophet Mohammed as an animal, and wearing tefillin, the Jewish phylacteries, to signify that Muslim houses of worship are as holy as Jewish ones, the Rabbi shouted to the crowd in Arabic, "Alla hu Akbaru!" -- God is Almighty -- in identification with the deepest religious devotion of Muslims.
When it was said that he was considered the man closest to Hamas in Israeli society, Froman did not demur. Tongue in cheek, he related that he owed his very existence to the founder of Hamas, Izz ad-Din al-Qassam who shot the brother in law of his father on the former's farm in Palestine, causing the British to issue Froman's father an immigration certification (infrequently issued to Jews) so that he could operate the farm. This permitted him to escape Poland and the Holocaust which subsequently wiped out the rest of the Froman family.
Froman's commitment to talk peace with Hamas led him to develop a cease-fire plan with a Hamas-related journalist in early 2008, to which Hamas agreed. The agreement would have required the immediate and indefinite cessation of all hostile attacks by Israel against Gaza and Hamas against Israel, the lifting of sanctions against Gaza by Israel, the release of abducted Israel soldier Gilad Shalit and, over time, other Palestinian prisoners. Hamas would have declared its recognition that there are Jews living in the Holy Land, rather than the legitimacy of the State of Israel. When Israel ignored the deal, implicitly rejecting it, the Rabbi said out loud what Americans -- Jewish or not -- could not say here until very recently without being criticized as anti-Semitic: "The root of the [Israeli-Palestinian] problem is Israeli and American arrogance." He was a supporter of Barack Obama, and said after his election that it was a miracle which might lead to peace. Miraculous it has not been (at least so far).
Froman said that God sent the prophets to rescue us from pride and arrogance, that only those modest and humble could make peace -- humility before God, which required humility before, and love of, one's neighbors. Accordingly, he thought that peace could not be left to the politicians, but required the active participation of religious leaders on both sides. This was at the root of his view that he and other religious leaders should be integrally involved in peace negotiations. Considering the miserable failures that have littered past peace-making initiatives since Camp David in 1978, and the poor future prospects for progress now, maybe he was right.
Some years ago, Amana Publications, primarily a publisher of religious books on Islam, put out a book written by a New York Orthodox Jewish lawyer, Edward W. Miller, with the assistance of about two dozen Muslim and Jewish clerics and scholars, both here and in the Middle East. Entitled "Visions of Abraham: The Intertwined Stories of Islam and Judaism Told Through Images," it related in detail their genealogical, linguistic, cultural, traditional and religious commonality, and the political alliances between them that has characterized much of their history since the Caliphs liberated Judea from the Byzantines and restored Jews to Jerusalem in 638 AD/CE. Ironically, one seems to find the greatest animosity today between Israelis and Palestinians among the most conservative and religious elements of each, exemplified by the Israeli religious settler movement and Hamas, the Islamist face of the Palestinians.
Like Miller, who was not afraid to consult some scholars and clerics associated with Hamas in trying to compose a book that might be well-received and read in both religious communities, Rabbi Froman believed that, if Israel were truly serious about ending the occupation and making peace, it could not and would not ignore Hamas. It is clear from the Arab Spring that Israel -- and the United States -- are going to have to talk to and come to terms with Islamists around the world. Palestine might be a good place to start. It is too bad that President Obama's first trip to Israel comes a little too late for him to visit with, and take a lesson from, Rabbi Menachem Froman. May he rest in peace.