Hanan Porat, RIP
Hanan Porat died earlier today. He was 67.
Most of the world won’t take any notice. Porat was not a world-famous figure. Even the kind of people who might have once recognized his name have probably forgotten, since he’s been out of the public eye for many years. Here and there, if you know where to look, you’ll find mention of him, as one of the most important leaders of the Israeli settlers, as one of the founders of Gush Emunim, as a firebrand Knesset member in the 1980s and 1990s, and as the owner of a ghastly off-the-cuff response to the murder of 29 Palestinians by a settler in Hebron in 1994.
All of which is true – though he afterwards claimed the response to the murder had been misunderstood, he hadn’t been responding at all, and hadn’t understood what the reporter was referring to. Those of us who knew him hoped this was so, and indeed, could see why it was plausible, while recognizing how awful it seemed.
But none of this really captured the significance of the man, and it certainly won’t explain why I’ve come out of my non-blogging period to eulogize him today.
To understand Hanan Porat you had to know two things about him. The first was that he was born in the same place he died. In Gush Etzion, on the West Bank, in 1943 – though of course, it wasn’t the West Bank in 1943, simply a hilltop in Mandatory Palestine. In 1948 the four Jewish settlements of the Etzion Block were overrun and destroyed by combined forces of the Jordanian Arab Legion, and the local Arab villagers; large numbers of the defenders died in the fighting or were shot down in cold blood after they surrendered, in May 1948. Five-year-old Hanan became a refugee. Between the ages of five and 24 he and his fellow uprooted neighbors used to stand on a low hill a few miles to the west, inside Israel’s borders, and gaze wistfully at the tall oak on the top of the ridge where once their homes had stood. When in 1967 Israel suddenly controlled the place where the ruins of their homes had been, it was clear they had to go home; Kfar Etzion thus became the first of what the world unanimously calls “illegal Israeli settlements”. How a Jewish village which was ethnically cleansed and razed in 1948 could become illegal in 1968 is a mystery, but life is full of mysteries, I’ve come to see.
(So far as I know, in 1967 Porat fought with his paratrooper unit in the very bloody battle of Ammunition Hill in Jerusalem, but this isn’t central to his story).
The second thing you needed to know about Hanan Porat was that he lived and loved the Bible. There are lots of people around who will sniff at this: “The Bible? That old book from the dawn of time which old-fashioned people insist on taking seriously, which shows how backward and non-sophisticated they are? That one? Fairy tales, tall tales and myths, nothing any serious body would wish to be associated with”. Given the sheer staying power of the Bible as a cultural item these sniffers are probably wrong, and readers of the Bible will undoubtedly still be at it centuries after their derision has been lost and forgotten, but I doubt Porat would much have been troubled by them one way or the other. He was born to a generation of Jews who read the original version of the Bible in their living mother-tongue, and looked out the kitchen window at the places where it happened. For him, the Bible wasn’t old-fashioned, dated or anachronistic, it was the foundation of his life. He grew up eventually to be a scholar of Jewish learning, but unlike dozens of generations that preceded him, his central focus wasn’t the Talmud and its myriad layers, rather the older Bible, and its many interpretive layers.
Which reminds me that there was actually a third thing you needed to know about Hanan Porat: that he was a fascinating, mesmerizing and charismatic teacher. A few months ago, when he and his entire audience all knew he was dying, he gave a talk during a ceremony at a nearby military cemetery, and people talked about it, repeated parts of it, quoted it with tears in their eyes. His face was disfigured and his speech laborious and hard to understand, but who cared? His images soared, his ideas soothed, his sentiments penetrated.
I first heard him as a teenager, when he was perhaps 30. Listening to him was like being in those biblical events, watching the actors as they walked the hills (this particular hill, this specific Biblical figure, this exact immortal verse in this eternal language. Here. See them?) By the time I ceased to be a teenager I had already recognized some of the pitfalls of his politics, and it didn’t take long to see the danger of his charisma. He was immersed in his way of seeing the world (which is true about most of us, tho our versions are different from his), and he was not at all a practical thinker if by that one means a pragmatist who always puts achievable near-term targets over dreamy unattainable goals. Eventually he climbed onto the political stage, where he often came across – and probably really was – as a rather otherworldly fanatic, impervious to arguments external to his vision (as many politicians are). By the time he slipped off the stage, no-one really noticed or cared; even in his own political camp he was overtaken by the hard-nosed realists. So he went back to being a teacher.
I haven’t gone to hear him for many years now. Decades. Yet over the past year or so, as his approaching death became common knowledge, I stopped to think of him from time to time: he was one of my most important teachers, ever. For all his fanaticism, he never preached hatred: he wasn’t against the Palestinians, he was for the Jews; in spite of that horrendous slip of tongue, he wasn’t for violence – and in a century crowded by murderous genocidal monsters with unlimited blood lust, his brand of fanaticism will some day be seen for the clear limits it set itself. His importance, eventually, wasn’t in the political sphere at all. It was in his ability to transport us straight into the events of the most enduring book in the annals of Man: See the angels and the patriarchs, negotiating down in that valley? And look, over there, a prophet facing down a king! If you stand silently and don’t make any noise, we’ll presently see the peasant woman on her way back from bringing her offering to the priest…