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Behind the Headlines: Orthodox Cabinet Minister; `window Dressing’ or True Voice?

Raising to the rank of minister in Israeli politics is no easy task. To do so, one normally has to be a political shark and one or all of the following: Israel Defense Force chief of staff, war hero, in the leadership of a large or pivotal political party or a longtime ally of a party leader.

Rabbi Yehuda Amital – who rose to national prominence when he was recently appointed a minister without portfolio in the new Cabinet of Prime Minister Shimon Peres – is none of these.

His appointment came in an effort to represent the “good face” of religious Zionism and to help heal the near total rupture between Israel’s secular left and religious Zionist communities in the wake of the Nov. 4 assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.

Soft-spoken and humble, the antithesis of the typical Israeli minister, Amital never coveted a seat in the Knesset or Cabinet.

So what explains his meteoric rise from esteemed educator and leader of a small ideological movement to Peres’ Cabinet?

As always in Israel, it depends on whom one asks.

The government line is that Amital, 70, dean of the Har Etzion Yeshiva in Alon Shvut near Bethlehem in the West Bank, was brought on board to provide spiritual leadership and to facilitate dialogue between the country’s secular and religious Zionist communities.

Political pundits claim that Amital is Peres’ vehicle for demonstrating that he will serve as prime minister to all Israelis – including the religious Zionists and settlers – something, say some, his predecessor overtly was not.

Others, such as Yehiel Leiter, spokesman for the Yesha Council, which represents settlers in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, say that Amital is “merely window dressing.”

Calling Peres a “consummate politician,” Leither said the new prime minister “is not about to just wave us off with his hand and call us obnoxious like Rabin did.

“So he brings in Amital and says, `Hey, we have a guy with a kippah and a beard,’ but then will make no substantive changes in his policy toward us. Amital is merely naive.”

Such words do not anger Amital. Instead, they seem to sadden him.

“These are small people who say such things,” Amital said in an interview. “They just don’t understand the extent of the chillul haShem (desecration of God’s name) caused by the assassination of Rabin and by the ongoing investigation of rabbis who might have used halachah (Jewish law) to incite to violence.”

“Someone has got to do something to rectify this situation,” he added.

And even though Amital recognizes that the “Politicians in Yesha” do not think that his joining the government will help anything, he believes that the “people of Yesha are behind me.”

And, he said, “at a time when Israel faces such historic decisions, it’s crucial the settler population – and Orthodox Jews – have a vote in the government.”

Here lies the paradox of the Amital appointment: Although he has been warmly embraced by Israeli secularists thirsting for a moderate model of Judaism – and of religious Zionism – his assignment might cause serious divisions within the national religious camp.

This is because, unlike the majority of the national religious camp, Amital supports the peace process.

As the leader of Meimad, the Movement for Religious Zionist Renewal, Amital has scolded his co-religionists for radicalizing religious Zionism and for transforming it into a land-centered movement.

He has also chastised the national religious camp for abandoning the reason the movement was initially established: to counter the view of fervently Orthodox Jews as being extremists and to bring all Jews closer together.

After the Rabin assassination, Meimad, somewhat of a pariah in its own community, suddenly is speaking volumes to many from among the “silent moderates” in the religious Zionist movement who feel that they have allowed the camps more radical elements to gain too much sway.

Amital’s leap into prominence should only accelerate this process, much to the chagrin of groups such as Yesha and the National Religious Party.

Others, however, are pleased.

Rabbi Yair Kahan, a teacher at the Har Etzion Yeshiva who knows Amital intimately, said because Amital is the head of a yeshiva and a religiously inclusive man who is pro-peace, “he breaks the negative stereotype suffered by the religious nationalists.”

That stereotype has become particularly acute because Rabin’s confessed assassin, Yigal Amir, was product of a religious nationalist yeshiva.

“By joining the government, he becomes a representative of Orthodox Judaism that secular people – and even (secularist Communications Minister) Shulamit Aloni – can respect,” Kahan said.

Amital, a bearded, grandfatherly figure, is revered – and loved – by his students at Har Etzion, who listen intently to his every word.

When asked what they think of his political appointment, most voice concern, saying that at his age, he does not need the “anguish to the soul” he is bound to absorb while serving in public office.

Born in Transylvania in 1925, Amital studied in “cheder,” receiving virtually no formal secular education.

In 1943, the Nazis deported him to a labor camp; his parents and two siblings were killed at Auschwitz.

Amital came to Palestine in December 1944 and resumed his religious studies, eventually earning his rabbinical ordination.

While in yeshiva, Amital joined the Hanganah and fought in the 1948 War of Independence.

This experience later influenced him to formulate the idea of the “hesder” yeshiva, which combines religious studies with military service.

And it was at Yeshivat HaDarom, where he served as a faculty member, that the first hesder group was formed.

A reserve captain in the IDF’s Armored Corps, Amital, married and the father of five, made his first foray into politics in 1988, when he served as the spiritual leader for Meimad, which failed to capture any Knesset seats in the elections that year.

Meimad as a political soon disbanded, only to be resurrected by Amital as a social movement in 1993.

Its basic principles include support of relinquishing lands for peace, while retaining a united Jerusalem and concentrating most settlements into large blocs that will be part of a continuous territorial link with the State of Israel.

In recent months, Amital, a Talmudic scholar and normally placid speaker, lashed out at numerous Orthodox rabbis for demonizing the government and for mixing politics with halachah.

“Religious rulings must be based solely on halachic scholarship, not subjective political opinions,” he said.

Now, Amital says, his main goals are to encourage secular-religious dialogue, to foster more interaction between Israeli and Diaspora Jews and to find remedies to the growing “spiritual vacuum” in Israeli society.

He also believes that he can play a role by being the person to whom settlers can voice their concerns.

It remains to be seen whether he will indeed have an impact on Israeli society, or whether he will be, as one rabbi from the territories who requested anonymity put it, “a glittering mezuzah for the Labor government to draw votes.”

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