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Remembering Hanan Porat

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In May 1967 Rabbi Tzvi Yehuda Kook spoke to his former Mercaz HaRav students at their annual Independence Day reunion in Jerusalem. Usually a festive day of celebration, this year was different. Rabbi Kook sorrowfully recalled his feeling of despair nineteen years earlier, when the State of Israel was born: “I was torn to pieces. I could not celebrate.” Suddenly he cried out: “They have divided my land. Where is our Hebron? Have we forgotten it? And where is our Shechem? And our Jericho – will we forget them?”

Rabbi Kook’s outburst, his former student Hanan Porat remembered, “echoed in us, as if the spirit of prophecy had descended upon him.” Three weeks later, during the Six-Day War, that prophecy was fulfilled. Porat fought in the Paratroopers Brigade that swept across the Temple Mount, reclaimed the Western Wall for the Jewish people, and liberated the Old City of Jerusalem. As biblical Judea and Samaria fell to the Israel Defense Forces, the State of Israel and the Land of Israel had finally converged.

For Porat, the stunning Israeli victory offered the opportunity for return, restoration and redemption. Until 1948 he had lived with his family in Kfar Etzion, the Orthodox kibbutz a few miles south of Jerusalem. He was among the dozens of children who were evacuated not long before the Arab Legion annihilated their community on the eve of Israel’s proclamation of independence.

Defended to the tragic end, with more than 150 fighters killed in battle and slaughtered after surrendering, Kfar Etzion became an enduring symbol of heroic Zionist resistance. For nineteen years young Porat was among the Gush Etzion survivors who nurtured memories of the tragic disruption and destruction they had endured. “We felt that we’d been torn away,” he remembered. “They cut our roots brutally.”

Every year, on Israel’s annual Day of Remembrance, they gathered in Ramat Rachel at the southern edge of Jerusalem to gaze longingly at the “Lone Tree” in the distance that marked the site of their destroyed community. “Almost all the children became orphans,” Porat would recall sadly, but they were determined to “return and rebuild.”

With Israel triumphant in the Six-Day War, Porat knew the time had come “to return home.” He persistently lobbied government ministers to restore his lost boyhood community. News of his efforts reached Moshe Levinger, another Mercaz HaRav graduate, who was the rabbi at an Orthodox moshav near Petach Tikva. After meeting in Jerusalem they enlarged their group to include Elyakim Haetzni, a brilliant maverick lawyer who had arrived in Palestine from Germany in 1938. Like Rabbi Kook, he had declined to celebrate independence because “we gained a state but lost the Land of Israel.”

The three men planned their strategy for the return of Jews to Gush Etzion and nearby Hebron (“part of our genetic code,” Haetzni insisted), whose Jewish community had been destroyed during the Arab rioting in 1929. But neither Prime Minister Eshkol nor Defense Minister Dayan, who hoped to exchange land for peace with their Arab enemies, would meet with them.

Porat was not deterred. Just before Rosh Hashanah a convoy of cars, led by an armored bus from the 1948 exodus, returned to Gush Etzion. He viewed the restored community as only “the spearhead of the struggle for the Greater Land Of Israel.”

The following spring Porat joined dozens of Israelis to celebrate Passover at the Park Hotel in Hebron, rented for the week by Rabbi Levinger. Marking the birth of the restored Jewish community of Hebron, it was an extraordinary gathering of the future leaders of the Jewish settlement movement. Five years later Hanan Porat’s restored home in Gush Etzion became the launching pad for the return of Jews to biblical Samaria.

After the disastrous Yom Kippur War caught Israel unprepared, shattering illusions of its invulnerability, Gush Emunim (“Bloc of the Faithful”) emerged to revitalize Zionism. Its founding convention was held in Gush Etzion. Porat wrote its manifesto, stressing “the sacred duty of every Jew to inhabit and repossess every portion of the ancestral inheritance.”

Sharply critical of the yearning for normalization that had come to characterize mainstream secular Zionism, it called for “a great awakening of the Jewish people towards full implementation of the Zionist vision.” Committed to “restoring the pioneering and sacrificial spirit of the past,” it asserted that “there is no Zionism without Judaism, and no Judaism without Zionism.”

To secular Zionists, then and since, it was the voice of a Jewish fanatic crying in the wilderness. But Porat, who became the chief spokesman for Gush Emunim and then its recognized leader, lobbied the government relentlessly to authorize settlement expansion. In 1975, after the army had repeatedly stymied persistent settlement attempts, Sebastia finally became the vanguard of Jewish settlement in Samaria.

An iconic photo of the triumphant moment when the government finally yielded to unrelenting Gush Emunim determination shows Porat, eyes closed and arms spread wide in victory, on the shoulders of his ecstatic followers who were singing and dancing around their leader. With his fusion of Jewish and Zionist passion, Porat had found the way to revitalize a moribund Zionist movement by returning Jews to their ancient homeland. Gush Emunim settlements, he believed, fulfilled Jeremiah’s ancient prophecy: “The children will return to their borders.”

If Gush Emunim represented “the true spirit of awakening,” as Porat believed, it was his leadership that propelled the settlement movement into the forefront of Israeli politics. After the peace treaty with Egypt, which called for Palestinian autonomy in the West Bank, he joined the new right-wing Tehiya party and became the settlers’ representative in the Knesset. Resigning after three years he was reelected in 1988 as a member of the National Religious Party. Porat defended the cause of religious Zionism in the Knesset for eleven more years.

Flourishing Jewish communities in Samaria – Ariel, Ofra, Kedumim, Itamar, and dozens of others – bear witness to Hanan Porat’s Zionist vision and his unrelenting determination for Jews to settle the Land of Israel. Even in his final months, when he was wracked by cancer, Porat’s Zionist passion remained undiminished and palpable.

Honored at a gathering of his friends and admirers not long before his death, it was evident that Porat still retained their loving admiration and abiding respect. For one final time, as they had done as young men with a burning vision back in 1975, they danced around their revered leader, who gently swayed with them inside their innermost circle.

Hanan Porat, father of ten children, died in his Gush Etzion home on October 3, the day after Rosh Hashanah. At his funeral Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin said: “You were a man whose soul was filled with a great overwhelming love for the nation, its land and its Bible.” It was a fitting tribute to the rabbi and soldier, Jew and Zionist, visionary and leader, whose life exemplified the primal experiences of the Jewish people: exile and return.

When it came time in 1967 for the children of Israel to return to their borders, Hanan Porat knew that “everyone who takes part will be blessed.” Zichrono L’verachah.

Jerold S. Auerbach is professor emeritus of history at Wellesley College. His blog is www.jacobsvoice.tumblr.com.

About the Author: Jerold S. Auerbach is the author of “Jewish State/Pariah Nation: Israel and the Dilemmas of Legitimacy,” to be published next month by Quid Pro Books.

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