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Rabbi With a Cause: An Interview with Rabbi Menachem Froman

An Intervierw with Rabbi Menachem Froman

Newsweek International

April 16, 2001

Last week Rabbi Menachem Froman was invited by Yasir Arafat to his presidential palace in Ramallah. It was not the first time that Froman, 56, a hardcore member of the right-wing settlement group Gush Emunim, had crossed the lines that divide Palestinians and Israelis. He has devoted his life to achieving understanding through religious dialogue and has developed close ties with Muslim and Christian leaders. Arafat, who refers to Froman as Alhakeem, or wise one, was seeking Froman’s orthodox religious perspective on the ongoing bloodshed in the Middle East. Speeding through the streets of Ramallah to the meeting, Froman prayed for peace. NEWSWEEK’s Joanna Chen accompanied him and spoke with him afterward. Excerpts:

CHEN: What did you discuss with Arafat?

FROMAN: I urged Arafat to give his blessing to the formation of a joint committee of sheiks and rabbis to discuss religious aspects of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Religious problems must be separated from po-litical ones. I want Arafat to draw up a letter addressed to the two chief rabbis of Israel, stating his approval for such a committee. He said he would seriously consider it.

CHEN: Historically, the majority of wars have been grounded in religious conflict. Why should religion play a constructive role now?

FROMAN: Religious energy is like nuclear energy. It can either destroy the world or build it. Politics and religion is like gunpowder and matches. In the Middle East, the energy and the motivation come from religion, on both sides. If politics and religion can be separated, religion can fulfill a positive role.

CHEN: It is widely accepted that the main stumbling block in the peace process is Jerusalem. What solution do you propose?

FROMAN: Jerusalem is the easiest problem to tackle. Material issues such as water and land are much more difficult. I have always said that peace cannot be achieved in the Holy Land without taking religion into account first. You cannot ask either side to give up, since both sides feel that Jerusalem belongs to God and therefore cannot be given away. So I say: give Jerusalem to God.

CHEN: What does that mean in practical terms?

FROMAN: The Temple Mount has no oil, no gold and no water. It contains the deepest emotions of Christians, Jews and Muslims. It contains holy faith. The religious committee that I propose will be responsible for removing the Temple Mount from the politicians’ jurisdiction. It is forbidden to enter a holy site with arms. Let us take arms out of all holy areas.

CHEN: How would you describe your role as religious leader? FROMAN: I am a rabbi and as such I strive to attain the correct spiritual atmosphere. I don’t solve problems but I try to improve the basis upon which issues may be settled. I’m not a political person nor am I a subcontractor of politicians. I have pure religious interests in learning together with Muslims. This is the whole secret of religion – to meet the other side. “Love your neighbor” is the key to religion.

CHEN: Jewish settlers are often regarded as provocateurs rather than friendly neighbors.

FROMAN: Settlers don’t fight with their fists. They pray with open hands. They have a personal, existential interest in peace. For me, peace is practical, it is my children, my whole life.

CHEN: What about Hebron?

FROMAN: It is inconceivable that there be no Jews in Hebron. My prayers are always strongest at the Tomb of the Patriarchs. It is not a place for power or for conflict but for prayer alone. It must be kept clean of the Palestinian Authority and Israeli Defense Forces. I know that there are murderers on both sides in Hebron and that security is essential. But let’s place a special unit of young Jewish and Muslim men with strong religious sensibilities who will be responsible for security. Let this be a pilot run for the Temple Mount.

CHEN: You met several times with Sheik Yassin, the spiritual leader of Hamas, who has consistently advocated military activities against Israeli citizens.

FROMAN: It is not easy to confront a person who openly calls for murder. I went to see him because I thought my visits might result in less killing. I prayed and continue to pray for this. I didn’t go to Sheik Yassin as a sign of forgiveness.

CHEN: Jews all over the world are celebrating the festival of Passover this week. Does this holiday have special significance for you regarding the peace process?

FROMAN: Passover heralds the spring, a sign that life emerges from the earth after death. This land is full of bloodshed on both sides, but God will ensure that there will be a resurrection of life. Passover is also the festival of freedom. We have the freedom to believe. We have the freedom to despair as well. But the door to belief in a better future is open.