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.”Jerold S. Auerbach