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West Bank Rabbi Menachem Froman’s Zionist Post-Zionism, and What It Can Teach American Jews

The late Kookist leader’s belief in spirituality over politics also has a message for Israel’s religious right

Shaul Magid
August 04, 2015
Gali Tibbon/Getty
Menachem Froman (1945-2013) at home in the West Bank Tekoa settlement, 2006.Gali Tibbon/Getty
Gali Tibbon/Getty
Menachem Froman (1945-2013) at home in the West Bank Tekoa settlement, 2006.Gali Tibbon/Getty

Post-Zionism, like Zionism, is not one thing. There are post-Zionists who are focused on revising Israel’s “myth of origins” but maintain that Israel has a right to self-identify as a “Jewish” state in some form; there are one-staters; there are those who believe Israel should be a full liberal democracy with equal rights of all its citizens, in both principle and practice; and there those who believe Israel is a racist state that should not exist at all. Some diasporists and most anti-Zionists would likely not identify as post-Zionists since for many of them the problem is not Zionism per se. Rather, many of them argue that living in the Diaspora where Judaism as we know it really began, is the best, or most fruitful, way for Jews to fulfill their Jewishness.

Post-Zionism, however, is not really about the Diaspora, it is about Israel. It is about what kind of country Israel is, or wants to be. For the most part, post-Zionism has taken a secular form. That is, it is promoted by secular scholars and intellectuals who view Zionism as a secular Jewish ideology that is in need of significant revision. Yet there have been a few significant religious voices in Israel who have tried to make what I will call a spiritual case for post-Zionism. Rabbi Menachem Froman is one of them.

While Rabbi Menachem Froman (1945-2013) is not very well-known among Diaspora Jews, he was a highly visible and iconoclastic voice in Israel for the last four decades before his death at the age of 68. He was raised in a Zionist home in the Israeli town of Kfar Hasidism in northern Israel and spent years as a close disciple of Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook. Kook’s father Abraham Isaac was the first chief rabbi of Palestine and arguably the main source of contemporary religious Zionism. The elder Kook died in 1935 and did not see the establishment of the State of Israel and thus could not predict the challenges political sovereignty would present. His more militant son Zvi Yehuda served as the dean of the Rav Kook yeshiva in Jerusalem until his death in 1982 and was the architect of the neo-Zionism of the settler movement (known as Gush Emunim—The Block of the Faithful, and Yesha, the Council of Judea, Samaria, and Gaza).

Froman, center, behind Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Yona Metzger and the Dalai Lama, during the Tibetan spiritual leader’s visit to the offices of the two chief rabbis of Israel, Metzger, and Sephardic rabbi Shlomo Amar, in February 2006, Jerusalem. (Getty: AFP / Stringer)
Froman, center, behind Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Yona Metzger and the Dalai Lama, during the Tibetan spiritual leader’s visit to the offices of the two chief rabbis of Israel, Metzger, and Sephardic rabbi Shlomo Amar, in February 2006, Jerusalem. (Getty: AFP / Stringer)

Froman was raised in the epicenter of settler ideology. Yet in his tenure as rabbi of Tekoa, a settlement in the occupied West Bank, known among settlers and their supporters as Judea, Froman developed a decidedly anti-militant worldview that was deeply committed to the idea that religion, instead of being that which made peace improbable, is precisely that which held the key to the solution to the conflict. A committed activist, Froman professed openly that he was willing to meet with any religious leader, friend or foe, who was willing to meet with him. He subsequently met with Yasser Arafat of the PLO, with Sheikh Yassin of Hamas, and with many other leaders in the Palestinian community, all in an attempt to foster dialogue and mutual understanding. But Froman was not naïve. He did not believe “talking spirituality” would melt away decades, perhaps centuries, of hatred and acrimony. Rather, he believed that the realm of the spiritual—if it could be expansive rather than insular, if it could be inclusive instead of isolationist—was the best path toward fostering human flourishing; that “God talk” could lead to respect for human dignity; that the problem was not religion but politics or, more specifically, religion as politics. For Froman, religion had the power to bring disparate people together while politics divided even like-minded people.

It is noteworthy that Froman remained to his last day a believer in the right of all Jews to live anywhere in Eretz Yisrael. In July 1996 he wrote, “As a primitive religious Jew who is connected to the land that God gave my ancestors I can attest: This is also the reason that the connection between those who support Greater Israel (Eretz Yisrael ha-Shelamah) and the Palestinians has far greater potential [for success than the left]. This is because the Palestinians are also generally religious, or at least have a strong connection to their tradition, to their people, and to their land. What severs our connection is [only] hatred of the other.” Froman exhibits a kind of “spiritual nativism” that grew from his teacher R. Zvi Yehuda Kook but arguably moves beyond him in that he acknowledges, and affirms, the Arab connection to the land as well. One of his novel solutions, which may be itself a form of “settler post-Zionism,” was to distinguish between the state and the Jewish attachment to the land. That is, to enable settlers to remain in their homes in the West Bank and become citizen of the State of Palestine. While certainly impractical, even utopian, its mere mention cuts through the religious Zionist narrative as it has heretofore been presented by the Kookean school.

Viewed as a renegade in his community, Froman nonetheless enjoyed a kind of immunity due in part to the fact that he was one of R. Zvi Yehuda Kook’s first generation of disciples and was respected by his teacher and his circle of colleagues. Rabbi Froman’s death in 2013 after a long illness was mourned by both Israelis and many Arabs with whom he developed close ties. He also cultivated a small circle of followers who began to see another way besides the militarism and dogmatism of the settler community. More of a teacher and activist than a writer, and more well-known for the force of his personality rather than his prose, Froman nonetheless published many short essays and poetry in Israeli journals and newspapers. His essays have recently been collected and published in a slim volume titled Sokhaki Aretz, (Laugh My Beloved Land): Peace (Shalom), People (Am), Land (Adamah). The essays in this volume span the breadth of Froman’s interests, from the crisis in religious Zionism, to education, ecumenism, politics, and secularism. Included in this volume is an essay titled “Placing Limits on Faith” that was originally published in 1998. Froman structures his remarks around a short and penetrating passage from R. Abraham Isaac Kook’s Orot Emunah (Lights of Faith) and then renders it applicable to his generation. Taking Froman’s lead, I will extend his reading of Kook as the basis of my spiritual case for post-Zionism in the Diaspora.

Froman believed that the realm of the spiritual was the best path toward fostering human flourishing.

While Froman surely did not identity as a post-Zionist, he does mention post-Zionism numerous times in his writings (not in the essay below) and often in a positive light. Deeply committed to religious Zionism, Froman stayed solidly in the Zionist orbit but, taking license from Kook’s dialectical thinking, he was able to see the ways in which critique is itself born from within in order to push the limits of any ideology beyond itself to a new articulation.


Regarding the crisis he witnessed in religious Zionism, Froman writes, “I feel in our time when Jewish nationalism—that is being expressed through Zionism—has also reached its limit, its power needs to be contained so that it too does not overextend its measure.” What exactly does Froman mean here? Does he mean something close to what Avrum Burg suggests in his 2003 Guardian article that this may be the last Zionist generation? Unlikely. This was first published in 1998, after Yitzak Rabin’s assassination but before the Second Intifada, in fact before the euphoria of Oslo had fully worn off. What is Froman’s evidence of Zionism having reached its limit? Froman remained a believer in Greater Israel as a spiritual ideal but not necessarily a political one, and he claims elsewhere that the operative question of his community is how to deal with human freedom, as “this is the essence of Zionism.”

The crisis of religious Zionism for him is thus not about history but about human will. What will Zionists do with freedom? While one cannot know for sure, in other writings Froman stresses the choice of politics over culture, jingoism over humanism, and land over spirituality as the widening crack in the “Golden Bowl,” as Henry James might have put it, of Zionism, the imperfection that undermines its true merit. As a movement that was intended to establish Jewish sovereignty and freedom, in Froman’s mind, Zionism in general, and religious Zionism in particular, had become a tool to control another people, thereby limiting their freedom and by extension, making Zionism itself an emblem of unfreedom. In effect, according to Froman Zionism was in danger of losing its moral foundations. In a 1995 op-ed in the Israeli daily Haaretz, “The Right To Stand,” Froman wrote, “In school we were taught a formal principle that if a person wants to build his world (as beautiful as it may be) by means of destroying the world of another (as impoverished as it may be), this is ‘the sin and its punishment.’ The lesson one learns from this is simple: It is forbidden for Jews to build their return to Zion (shivat Zion) at the price of the Arabs. It is forbidden for settlers to build their settlements—even if they are beautiful and rooted—in the midst of the destruction of the world of the Palestinians.”

Here and elsewhere Froman seems to echo sentiments of many in Brit Shalom and Ichud, two short-lived binational movements comprised of mostly German-Jewish intellectuals who advocated for a binational state and equal rights for Arab citizens. In an interview in May 1972 Gershom Scholem, who was for a time a member of Brit Shalom, remarked, “The Land of Israel belongs to two peoples, and these peoples need to find a way to live together … and to work for a common future.” The aspiration for coexistence is quite common, among left and right, but the declaration that the land itself belongs to two peoples is a far more audacious claim, certainly for religious Zionists, that Froman seemed quite open to considering. In another essay in his volume, “Politics and Humanity: Can They Coexist?” Froman writes, “For my people I hope that nationalism will be expressed less through political means and more through cultural means. And one who, in any case, expresses their song of hope in that which exceeds the boundaries of Zionism—it is possible to respond that this is a claim to be a post-Zionist and not a pre-Zionist. And I would not recoil here in using the elder and great Hegel: It is possible to hope that the Jewish people will, in the future, succeed in building a synthesis of an intimate collective religious form of Judaism and a positive and passionate vision of Zionism.”

I wonder if there is a way for contemporary Israeli post-Zionism to fit into this formula of negation as a spiritual exercise, as a necessary preventative of the over-extension, and thus destructiveness, of present-day Zionism, especially religious Zionism, without necessarily adopting the totalizing view of a final synthesis as the necessary trajectory of all history. Kook was making a case for Zionism through its own force of negation, negating the ultra-traditional worldview that claimed Zionism was impossible. Can we formulate Kook’s equation in reverse? That is, as viewing post-Zionism as the instrument of Zionism’s over-extension. Perhaps we can posit that the over-reach for Froman may be viewed in the move from a Greater Israel ideology in people such as Menachem Begin who still retained a humanistic side, or his predecessor Ze’ev Jabotinsky whose militarism was coupled with a deep humanism and belief in minority rights, to the radical religious Zionism (or is it neo-Zionism?) of people such as Naftali Bennett, Yizhak Ginsburgh, Moseh Levinger, or Moshe Feiglin whose Zionism appears to be void of humanism and a deep respect for the integrity of the other. And this too will be a stage with no obvious aufheben, or overcoming, of opposites. Froman appears committed to reinsert (religious/spiritual) humanism into the religious Zionist discourse, that is, his personal negation.

Whatever the case, Froman clearly felt that by 1998 religious Zionism had run its course, as indicated by its over-reaching and destructive side (whatever he meant that to be), and thus negation was inevitable. In an essay a couple of years earlier, in 1996, Froman quotes Uri Elizur who wrote in the settler journal Nekudah, “There is a contradiction between hating the Arabs and loving the land. We have to decide which of the two we want to choose.” Froman continues, “To be more specific, if the movement for the land is not successful in overcoming its weaknesses and does not realize that it must develop ties with the Palestinians, it will not succeed in building a country that can stand the pressure from the outside, and more importantly, from the inside.” From here we see Froman still believed the settler movement could succeed, but only by enacting its own negation of those destructive forces (“hating the Arab”) that were becoming dominant. Whether he felt religious Zionism could indeed pull itself back from the precipice where truth becomes falsity, I do not know.


In today’s Jewish Diaspora, rather than viewing the hegemony of Zionism as an example of its overextendedness, as Froman seems to do, (unlike Israelis, few American Jews actually experience or witness the oppressive nature of contemporary Zionism), many view Zionism as a requirement of Jewish identity. While Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi famously claimed in his Zakhor that in modernity, history has become the “religion of the fallen Jew,” today Zionism, or pro-Israelism, has arguably become “the civil religion of the American Jew.” There is an old joke in America about “three-day Jews”; Jews who attend synagogue two days of Rosh Hashanah and one day Yom Kippur. I recently heard a new L.A. version; the “three dinner Jews.” Jews who go to the annual synagogue dinner, the Jewish Federation dinner, and the AIPAC dinner. Pro-Israelism has become an integral part of American Jewish civil religion. As a result, Zionism often functions as Jewish identity, sometimes as “Jewishness” itself, and as a litmus test that closes off all other alternatives.

I suggest that the overreaching of contemporary Diaspora Zionism is its hegemonic control of public Jewish discourse. This operates in numerous ways. Perhaps on the most base level it is the equation of non- or even anti- Zionism with anti-Semitism, a sure way to prevent any serious consideration of its position. More subtly, albeit along similar lines, it is the innate suspicion that any non-Zionist position is an attempt to destroy the State of Israel. This is simply not the case. Many non-Zionists, and many Diasporists, are not primarily focused on Israel. Or they are so largely to protest that the extent to which Israel gets to dictate the politics of the Jewish Diaspora. Rather, they are interested in creating a viable cultural, religious/spiritual, political, and moral case for Jewish life in the Diaspora without Israel at its center.

The hegemonic role of Zionism is not new to late-20th- and early-21st-century American Judaism. Its beginnings are rooted much earlier, arguably with the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948. For example, in her essay “To Save the Jewish Homeland,” published in 1948, Hannah Arendt wrote, “From the time of the Balfour declaration the loyal opposition in Zionist politics was constituted by the non-Zionists. But for all practical purposes the non-Zionist opposition longer exists today. This unfortunate development was encouraged, if not caused, by the fact that the United States and the United Nations finally endorsed an extremist Jewish demand that non-Zionists had always held to be totally unrealistic. With the support of a Jewish state by the great powers, the non-Zionists themselves believed themselves refuted by reality itself.” While Arendt is certainly correct that the reality of the state rendered non-Zionism (if we understand non-Zionism simply as opposing the establishing of a state) a position that stood in opposition to reality, her lamentation is more about the ways in which the non-Zionist position offered a salient and relevant critique to some of the decisions being made early on about the nature of the state more than about the existence of the state, in particular regarding the return of Arab refugees after the 1948 War of Independence. Yet I would still argue that the weakening of non-Zionism after ’48 has reached new heights in 21st-century America whereby non- and anti-Zionism is totally rejected as a kind of secular Jewish heresy the likes of which did not exist when Arendt wrote her essay.

Pro-Israelism has become an integral part of American Jewish civil religion.

My suggestion of an American post-Zionism is not to deny Zionism but to negate its hegemony in public discourse in order to free some Diaspora Jews from the confines of Zionism or pro-Israelism in order to encourage the development of new alternatives to Jewish life in the Diaspora. Zionism has functioned for most of its history as one among many Jewish alternatives. And while the destruction of European Jewry in the Holocaust and the establishment of Israel certainly thrust Zionism from the margin (where it was until the late 1930s in America) to the center of Jewish life, it did not necessarily mandate Zionism’s hegemonic status for Diaspora Jews. The extent to which that is the case is, in fact, quite recent, beginning after 1967 (as Norman Podhoretz wrote in Commentary Magazine, “We are all Zionists now!”) and gained ground with the rise and success of AIPAC and Jewish neo-Conservatism in the 1980s.

Kook legitimizes Zionism as the negation of the traditionalism that refuses to view Zionism’s (heretical) negation of tradition as the inauguration of a new stage toward the messianic era. Froman adopts this to criticize the defects in religious Zionism, its disappearing humanism, its choice of politics over culture, as a way to view his critique as a new form of negation, one that will prevent religious Zionism’s excesses from becoming destructive. The post-Zionist negation I propose here is informed by, but surely not identical to (either in structure or substance), either Kook or Froman. And it is not really about Israel per se but about the role of Israel in the Diasporic imagination.

Unlike Kook or Froman, we do not need to proclaim that negation itself has only instrumental value. Its value is that, if implemented, it will break open the hegemonic nature of Zionism and enable other forms of identity formation to flourish in conjunction with Zionism. As a result of subverting the hegemonic and totalizing nature of Zionism in the Diaspora it can then begin to articulate a vision of identity that is not subservient to the Zionist narrative of “negation of the exile.” It will resist the totalizing nature of one form of Jewishness, i.e., Zionism (this, I claim, is Diaspora Zionism’s present state of overreaching) while allowing Zionism to remain and develop (the “post” retains that which it reaches beyond). Finally, it will be healthy for Zionism in that it will be released from the burden of all totalizing concepts; it will not have to be all things to all people. It will be kept honest by being confronted with resistance and a call to clarify its positions.

Rabbi Menachem Froman was a man of extraordinary courage and conviction. From deep within the recesses of the Zionist orbit he cracked open the tightly woven binary between right and left in Israel by arguing for humanism while maintaining that there is an unbreakable theological connection between the Jewish people and Eretz Yisrael. While his practical solutions may not satisfy one interested in public policy, his vision of saving religious Zionism from over-extension by exposing its destructive tendencies is noteworthy. In this he shared much with Kook, although Kook remained far more theoretical even than Froman who, even given his spiritual inclinations, lived amidst a radicalizing settler movement and had to respond to the daily challenges of occupation. Both viewed resistance and negation as a spiritual exercise that served both a preventative and constructive purpose. Jews living in the Diaspora can learn much from them, not so much about the value or obligation to live in Israel (where Diaspora Jews choose not to live) but about the dignity and importance of living spiritually engaged lives in the Diaspora alongside, but not necessarily auxiliary to, the State of Israel.


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Shaul Magid, a Tablet contributing editor, is the Distinguished Fellow of Jewish Studies at Dartmouth College and Kogod Senior Research Fellow at The Shalom Hartman Institute of North America. His latest books are Piety and Rebellion: Essays in Hasidism and The Bible, the Talmud, and the New Testament: Elijah Zvi Soloveitchik’s Commentary to the Gospels.