It is still unclear whether the terrorist who entered the Mercaz Harav yeshiva on Thursday night and killed eight of its students knew exactly what place he was entering. But the thousands of people who walked behind the coffins on Friday knew very well. “The flagship of religious Zionism” was the common expression used, the “holy of holies”; there was even a hyperbolic comparison to the Al-Aqsa Mosque in terms of sanctity. Some of the praise of the yeshiva is certainly well deserved, and nothing, of course, can justify the horrible killing of young boys in a library. Still, it would be appropriate to recall, even at this difficult hour, what this yeshiva has brought forth.
Mercaz Harav is the flagship of the last group in Israeli society still operating in the realm of ideas. Religious Zionists are the only group, aside from the ultra-Orthodox population, whose members are willing to lay down their lives for the collective and its worldview. It is a group that responds faithfully to its leaders — a group that even has leaders — and idolizes them. It is also a fairly homogenous group in terms of its thinking: Some 80 percent of its members define themselves as right-wingers. None of this is true of Israel’s complacent, individualist secular public. And so we end up with a minority, 12 to 15 percent of the population, whose influence in certain areas is crucial and far exceeds its own relative size.
No one can explain in depth the magical powers of extortion this group has obtained. Nor can anyone ignore the damage it has caused the country. Without the settlement enterprise, peace might have reigned here already; without the Gush Emunim movement, supported by successive Israeli governments, there would be no settlements; and without the Mercaz Harav yeshiva, there would be no Gush Emunim. This institution, then, was the cradle of the settlement enterprise and its driving force. Most of the students killed in the terrorist attack were second-generation settlers. It should be said again, clearly and unequivocally: Their killing was a criminal act. (An unusual personal comment: On Friday I said in a radio interview, among other things, that the Mercaz Harav yeshiva was a fascist institution; right-wing circles spread a rumor on the Internet that I had said the slain students were fascists. This is not true. In any case, if my comment about the yeshiva offended people in their grief, I wish to express my sincere sorrow and apology).
From Mercaz Harav emerged the rabbis that led the vilest move in Zionist history. Most of the delusional right-wing perpetrators and the mongers of hate for Arabs came from this flagship. Religious leaders such as Rabbis Moshe Levinger, Haim Druckman, Avraham Shapira, Yaakov Ariel, Zefania Drori, Shlomo Aviner and Dov Lior, all idolized by their students, raised generations of nationalist youths within those walls.
Rabbi Lior, for example, head of the Council of Rabbis of Judea and Samaria, ruled in 2004 that the Israel Defense Forces was allowed to kill innocent people. How do these words sound now, after the attack in Jerusalem? Is the permission ours alone? Back then, Lior ruled that, “There should be no feeling of guilt at the morality of foreigners.” He decreed that the Knesset could not decide to evacuate settlements, and that soldiers were allowed to refuse the order to evacuate settlers. Rabbi Druckman made a similar ruling.
In 2002, Rabbi Aviner, another graduate of the yeshiva, called for the execution of Israelis who refused to serve in the military. Back then the refusal came from left-wingers, of course. Aviner also ruled that war casualties are no cause for national grief, and he called for the abolition of Yom Hazikaron, the annual day of remembrance for fallen Israeli soldiers. He compared the road map peace plan to the appeasement of Hitler and considers the evacuation of settlements an “illegal crime.”
The same yeshiva graduated Hanan Porat, one of the founders of Gush Emunim and one of those who returned to Gush Etzion. Another alumnus, Rabbi Levinger, beat him to it with the Jewish settlement at the Park Hotel in the heart of Hebron. These are the prominent figures that have emerged from this radical seminary and that is their legacy. From here they preached the application of different laws of morality and justice than the universal ones; yes, where the chosen people is concerned, there is such a thing.
With all the changes religious Zionism has undergone — from the time the Mizrahi movement joined the Zionist Congress, through its existence as a moderate stream that deftly managed to combine religion and modernity, to its transformation into the source of Israeli nationalism — the movement has managed to retain an exalted, inexplicable standing in Israel’s largely secular society. There are still very many secular Israelis who view the religious Zionists, the students of the Mercaz Harav yeshiva and the West Bank’s so-called “hilltop youths” as a group of pioneers committed to noble values, as the pillar of fire advancing before the camp. Even those who deeply detest the Haredi public reserve a warm spot in their hearts for religious Zionism, the very group that has inflicted more calamity on us than all the Haredim put together.
The killing at the yeshiva is heartrending. No one deserved it. The innocents in Gaza and the victims at Mercaz Harav in Jerusalem were all an unnecessary sacrifice. They have already paid the highest possible price. Their families and those around them will probably adopt even more radical positions now, and so we will be led into another round of endless bloodshed.