For national religious Zionists, yeshiva attack was personal

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The one with glasses and a wide smile was the brother of a friend, the one with blue eyes and side curls the son of another.

In the close-knit world of religious Zionism, no one feels removed from the grief for eight young people gunned down while studying Gemarah in their Jerusalem yeshiva.

The images of blood-soaked prayer shawls and glass doors riddled with bullet holes, then the eight coffins lined up in a row, have horrified an entire country. But the pain cuts especially deep in the national religious Zionist community, having been specifically targeted.

Now its members search for a way their faith can guide them through the mourning.

“Since the attack there is a sense that a darkness has fallen over Jerusalem when usually there is joy in our neighborhoods,” said Tal Weider, 17, a high school student and leader in the local Bnai Akiva youth group.

It was not by chance that the attacker targeted Mercaz Harav, the main yeshiva of national religious Zionism and a birthplace of the settler movement.

“It is a central place because it is a symbol of religious Zionism, and so it feels like we have been attacked personally,” Weider said. “It feels like everything has changed. They [the terrorists] knew the meaning of Mercaz Harav, and they wanted to show that the power is in their hands. But as one of the rabbis said, nothing will shatter us, we will not let this break us.”

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said the gunman struck the yeshiva as a deliberate ideological blow to Israel.

“It was not a place the killer just happened upon while looking for would-be victims,” he told his Cabinet in broadcast statements March 9, calling the seminary “the flagship of national religious Zionism.”

Olmert, a former Jerusalem mayor who after joining the government angered many religious Zionists by arguing that the Gaza Strip and parts of the West Bank should be ceded to the Palestinians, said Israeli national outrage at the gun attack transcends politics.

“The yeshiva is a special place in Jerusalem,” he said. “I know the yeshiva and its students well, and Israel has great appreciation for it. Regardless of any differences of opinion, we are all part of this pain.”

The yeshiva occupies an almost mythical place in the psyche of the national religious camp — the settler movement was born there.

Rabbi Avraham Kook, who founded the yeshiva in 1925, was the founder of religious Zionism. His son, Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook, headed the yeshiva for decades and famously told his students, “Close the Talmud and go settle in Judea and Samaria.”

And settle they did.

It was from the study halls of the yeshiva that a generation would establish Jewish settlements in the hills of the West Bank and sand dunes of Gaza.

Many of the boys who study at the yeshiva travel there from their homes in West Bank Jewish settlements that their mothers and fathers helped establish. Among the yeshiva’s graduates are the elite of the settler movement: rabbis, prominent scholars and Knesset members.

In announcing the tragic deaths, the yeshiva released a statement in which its rabbis described their institution as “the great Torah center, in the holy of holies of the nation, the heart of the state of Israel.”

Just three weeks before the Six-Day War in 1967, on Israel’s 19th Independence Day, Zvi Kook used his address to his students to bemoan the loss of the biblical heartland in the West Bank.

Nearly weeping he asked, “Where is our Jericho? Where is our Nablus?”

His students were stunned by his unusual lamentations and seemingly without warning found themselves in those same places within weeks of his talk.

“Within religious Zionist circles, that speech was very quickly seen as an outburst of prophecy,” said Yossi Klein Halevi, a senior fellow at the Adelson Institute for Stragetic Studies at the Shalem Center, a Jerusalem think tank. “The Mercaz Harav yeshiva’s significance is far deeper for the religious community than politics. The politics are an expression of prophecy.

“So this is an assault of place of prophecy,” he said, referring to the attack.

Many of the religous Zionist community’s rabbis have called on the Olmert government to take a more decisive, military stand to protect Israel.

“Within that community there is deep anger, even rage, at what is perceived to be the government’s inability to turn the tragedy into strength, and for the religious Zionist community it compounds the tragedy,” Klein Halevi said.

“What that community wants to see is a decision by the government to go to war with the intention of winning. Whether that’s against Hamas or Hezbollah now or in the future, whether it relates to Iran, the religious Zionist community is desperate for a government decision to fight the enemies of Israel with resolve.”

The yeshiva in its statement reflected this sentiment, saying, “This monstrous attack must bring about a major and substantial change. We call upon and demand from the government of Israel to wake up and to fight to the end, without mercy, against the enemies of Israel.”

Special study sessions in memory of the victims were held over Shabbat, and rabbis offered sermons trying to infuse a sense of strength. People spoke of a sense of numbness and anger, a difficulty finding words to even express themselves.

“It is still early days. Right now everyone is crying and looking for a way not to break down,” said Rabbi Yuval Sherlow, the head of a national religious yeshiva in Petach Tikvah.

“The key is not to lose faith; one must find meaning in this. In the various eulogies, everyone did so in their own way — some calling for unity, others saying this was a punishment or a warning bell,” he said. “As soon as you can put some kind of meaning to an event, it is not seen as having happened for nothing.”

Sherlow said that the attack coincided with the beginning of the Jewish month of Adar, the month that is supposed to be focused on joy and the celebration of Purim, has made grieving in the community feel more complex and conflicted.

Noting the proximity of Purim to the yeshiva attack, some rabbis have compared the perpetrators to modern-day Hamans or Amaleks, the biblical foes of the Jewish people.

For Rina Oved, 18, whose friend’s brother was among those killed, there is confusion and anger.

“At the funerals I saw young children and I thought, ‘They should not be there,’ Oved said, “but then I also thought I should not be there, kids my age should not be at funerals, and I’ve been to more than one to my dismay. And eight at once, that is a real blow.”