Why would Ibrahim Abu El-Hawa, a Palestinian Sheikh living in East Jerusalem, mourn the passing of a settler rabbi, even one year later? Turns out he is not alone. Rabbi Menachem Froman's passing in March 2013 was a loss to both Israelis and Palestinians. His life was a unique example for how Israelis and Palestinias might one day live. When he died this time last year, there were many articles written and considerable buzz in the air about who would continue his legacy. One year later I would argue that remembering Rav Froman is as important as ever.
Everything I thought I understood about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was turned on its head when I learned about this man's life. In the left-wing Israel indoctrination I received as a child, I had been taught that settlers were the bad guys and the main obstacle to a negotiated peace settlement. Now I'm not so sure. As a leader and founder of the messianic settler movement "Gush Emunim," Rabbi Froman, at first glance, was symbolic of everything the Palestinians hated about Israelis. So how come prominent Palestinians and religious Arab leaders mourned his passing? How did so many Palestinians come to respect a deeply religious figure whose life seemingly represented an expansionist reclamation of "Greater Israel"? Perhaps because what we believe is rarely as strong as personal relationships we build. More importantly, theology and experience can and often do inform and build off one another.
Rav Froman took the time and built relationships with Palestinians, particularly in religious settings. He had the holy chutzpah (or audacity) to go and meet his Palestinian neighbors. He became a living testament that putting a human face on your enemy is a game changer. Fear and preconceptions give way to other aspects of human behavior. He most likely fell "victim" to Palestinian extreme hospitality and vice versa. After doing this for years, he got to know "them," especially their religious leaders, so they weren't just a "them," but also part of "us." It is easy to say that Islam, Christianity and Judaism are brother religions, but Froman lived that ideal. He was known to pray alongside Muslims and Christians leaders and embodied the idea that what unites the Abrahamic religions is far greater than what divides us.
He didn't just believe in interfaith dialogue, he lived and breathed interfaith partnerships even as he assumed the role of Chief Rabbi of Tekoa. As it was written in the New York Times after his death, "He spoke out against attacks by Jewish settlers on mosques, and he often visited damaged holy sites with Palestinian officials." This settler rabbi had stronger ties to Hamas and the PLO than almost any left wing Israeli peacenick. He was the first person I ever heard say that the settlements were the key to peace, not an obstacle. Froman's intimate relationship with Palestinians, particularly religious fundamentalists, was simultaneously difficult to grasp and remarkably simple. Was this rabbi a total anomaly or a glimpse of what is possible? Either way, his example continues to make me wonder what it means to be a peace builder.
Many unbelievable things could be said about Menachem Froman, and this barely scratches the surface, which is why I hope his yartzeit will be remembered in years to come. There may never be another man like him. I pray more people will invoke this important and holy human being, especially during moments of tense political negotiations in the Middle East. It was precisely his counter intuitive, yet deeply religious instincts that could open doors that seem bolted shut for an eternity.