A most unusual politician passes away in Israel.
Back in 1988, I was living in Jerusalem for a spell, and I got a call from Don Feder. Feder, the noted conservative columnist, was at that time the editorial page writer of the Murdoch-owned Boston Herald. The paper had sent him to Israel to cover the elections and he wanted to meet any of the Orthodox Jewish members of the Knesset. I set up a meeting for him with Abraham Ravitz, who had recently taken office as a member of the Flag of Torah party, later merged into United Torah Judaism, UTJ.
Ravitz did not stand on ceremony and offered to meet us in his home. He sat patiently and answered all Feder’s questions. His English was occasionally imperfect, so whenever Don looked a bit puzzled, I interposed a few more idiomatic words to get the point across. Although he was in the first months of what turned out to be twenty years in the Knesset, he was already a very accomplished person in a number of arenas.
He was just thirteen years old in 1946 when he joined the Lehi, an underground resistance force led by Yitzhak Shamir (still going strong today at age 93) which fought alongside Menachem Begin’s Irgun. Ravitz grew up in Tel Aviv but was accepted into the Hebron Yeshiva — which had relocated to Jerusalem in 1929 after losing many students in the Arab massacre — at an unusually young age. This gave him an excellent vantage point for his extracurricular activities; the British did not suspect young rabbinical students of fomenting revolution.
After Independence, he served a tour in the Israel Defense Forces, then turned his attention to helping establish a religious education network in the fledgling country. The left wing, led by Ben-Gurion and his trusted henchman Shimon Peres (currently President of Israel at age 86), officially gave lip service to the right of the Orthodox to educate their children. At the same time, they fought bitterly against the immigrants from Arab countries sending their kids to those schools. They had the idea that these poorly educated Jews could be easily secularized and provide the left wing with votes for generations.
This created great tension, with political battles morphing into holy wars. The process included some public demonstrations, which the government tried to shut down forcefully. My father, who studied in Israel in 1949, personally witnessed Ravitz being bloodied by the nightsticks of the riot police as he refused to enter a paddy wagon on the Sabbath. Ravitz and his feisty friends created a non-profit to help the immigrants educate their kids in religious schools, and he set off to New York City to raise funds in the Jewish community. One door he knocked at was opened by a young woman, Abigail Feller, who tells everyone who will listen that as soon as she saw him she thought, “I will marry this man!”
Married to Abigail, he returned to Israel. Once the new state entered a normal mode, he left his advocacy role and became a building contractor. He and Abigail had children and put up housing, building the country in both senses of the word. Twelve children and a successful construction career later, Ravitz returned to Jewish education, this time with adults. After the near-defeat in the 1973 war, many secular Israelis were inspired to study the Torah and Talmud they had neglected in their youth. They did not respect the academic types much, but a Renaissance Man like Ravitz could capture their attention.
In the '80s he entered local politics in Jerusalem, and in 1988 he was elected to the Knesset. The party he represented was committed to following the dictates of senior religious scholars, who usually delegated most of the decisions to Ravitz, saving their veto for major issues. Feder and I were very much taken by his command of the facts and his quiet confidence. One argument he made in that meeting impressed me deeply. He said, “I believe in peace theoretically, but only one in which some Jews live in Palestine as well, like Americans in Canada and Canadians in America. For them to demand territory with zero Jewish population shows they think like Nazis. If they get what they want, they will have the only truly ‘judenrein’ country as Hitler envisioned.”
His two decades in the Knesset were principled, earning broad respect among religious and secular alike. His family made news a few years ago when he needed a kidney transplant and his children were competing for the honor to donate a kidney. In the end, the question was brought to Israel’s senior authority of Jewish law, Rabbi Eliashiv, who decided that the eldest son should perform this unique act of kindness. Ravitz died suddenly last week, shortly after completing a speech on the Knesset floor. Scholar, fighter, advocate, builder, family man, teacher and political leader; he was a man for all seasons, and always loyal to a proud religious tradition. He gave us a powerful 75 years, and he will be missed.
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