Nobody ever said it better than English Jacobean poet John Donne in his Meditation XVII: “No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main,” therefore “any man’s death diminishes me.”
It’s all the more so when the departed man was as much of a unique and rare relic, alas, as was Tsafrir Ronen.
At the premature age of 53, on the last Saturday of 2008, Tsafrir’s heart suddenly stopped and, though we weren’t particularly close, I felt my own world suddenly shrink. Tsafrir’s like once proliferated in this land and resurrected Jewish national sovereignty. His like is disappearing alarmingly from our midst, which is why I feel personally diminished by the loss.
We met a decade ago when he planned a cable history channel to inculcate into this country’s youth their connection to this land – something so obvious to his generation and mine but which, thanks to moral relativism and postmodern education, had become the religious sector’s near-exclusive preserve. We both lamented the de facto vanishing of secular Zionist ideology and idealists, of the national Jew – Left and Right – confident of and conversant with the justice of his cause, free from Diaspora complexes that induce some Jews to perceive their adversity through their adversaries’ eyes.
The TV scheme never got off the ground, but we stayed in frequent touch, commented on each other’s writing and I sometimes helped him translate tricky passages into English. In Tsafrir I encountered a true living incarnation of a quality sometimes nostalgically dubbed “Old Eretz Yisrael.” He was a native of Ein Harod, a veteran of the IDF’s General Staff Reconnaissance Unit of crack commandos, and one of the founders of Kibbutz Gilgal in the Jordan Valley. In 2005 Tsafrir took it upon himself to restore to life yesteryear’s “patriotic Left,” as he referred to it. On disengagement’s eve he founded the Nahalal Forum – named after its venue, the country’s first moshav.
Its participants convened to protest “against the raging madness of uprooting Zionist pioneers. We, members of kibbutzim and moshavim from the full spectrum of movements which wrought the miracle of Zionist revival… implore every person of conscience to raise a sane Zionist voice against the illegitimate and immoral destruction of Gush Katif and northern Samaria.” Their manifesto opened by quoting Simon the Hasmonean’s letter to Antiochus in the second century BCE: “We didn’t conquer an alien land, nor ruled the property of foreigners. It is our patrimony which in the past was unjustly occupied by our enemies. And now, when opportunity is ours, we reclaim the legacy of our fathers.”
SUCH UNABASHED straightforward affirmation of our right to be here was once the hallmark of Labor Zionism, Tsafrir tirelessly reiterated. He reminded me of my own father when he stressed that he “hadn’t moved to the Right. The socialist mainstream had dangerously skidded leftward to the extreme fringe, if not beyond Zionism altogether.”
Many assume, Tsafrir noted, that “kibbutzniks who assert that the Land of Israel belongs to the people of Israel had gone off the rails along with messianic, hallucinatory, dangerous fanatics – to cite just a sample of the pejoratives with which left-wingers slander those who believe that this land is ours.”
He proudly showed me a small volume in an orange binding entitled The Six-Day-War Lesson. The subhead reads: “Settling an Indivisible Land.” Its author was no less than the legendary Yitzhak Tabenkin (Ein Harod founder, leader of the Hakibbutz Hame’uhad movement, one of the Palmah’s prime progenitors and a founding-member of the Land of Israel Movement). The title page bore a handwritten inscription from 1970 by Lilia Basevich entreating her grandson Tsafrir to “remember Tabenkin and his teachings. Stay faithful to his/our path.”
Tsafrir considered his grandmother, one of Ein Harod’s pioneers and a prolific writer in her day, the salt of this country’s earth. Her spirit, he argued, wasn’t the kibbutz exception but its norm.
TSAFRIR WAS fond of recalling who the Land of Israel Movement’s originators were. Aside from the mastermind, poet Natan Alterman, they included literati like Nobel laureate Shai Agnon, Moshe Shamir, Haim Hazaz, Yehuda Burla, Ya’acov Orland, Moshe Tabenkin and Yitzhak Shalev; ex-generals like Dan Tolkovsky and Avraham Yaffe; Mossad ex-chief Isser Harel; Palmah legends Zerubavel Gilad, Benny Maharshak and Yosefa’le Tabenkin; researchers like Ze’ev Vilna’i, Yohanan Aharoni and Dov Sadan; public figures and mentors like Yitzhak Tabenkin, Rahel Yanait Ben-Zvi (wife of Israel’s second president), Zvi Shiloah, Eliezer Livneh, Rivka Katznelson; and Warsaw Ghetto fighters Zvia Lubatkin and Yitzhak Zuckerman. There were more, many distinguished by affinity to Labor Zionism.
Their movement declared: “Eretz Yisrael is now in the Jewish people’s hands. Just as we have no right to surrender the State of Israel, so we are duty-bound to maintain what the state bequeaths us – the Land of Israel. We are obligated to our country’s territorial integrity, to the nation’s past and future, and no government may relinquish this totality.”
This proclamation, a staple of Tsafrir’s repertoire, was always accompanied by his exclamation: “It makes you rub your eyes! By today’s criteria, this is a rabid Gush Emunim text, yet these words came from the most solid rocks of Labor’s historic establishment. It’s an incomparable yardstick for Israel’s political aberration. Labor was swallowed by post-Zionist vogue, while Tabenkin’s true heirs are national-religious settlers. The slot filled today by dedicated Judea and Samaria pioneers was once the bastion of the kibbutz movement, which betrayed its raison d’etre. Not only has it forsaken the Jewish vanguard but it stands derisively on the sidelines, hurling rocks and invective at those still fighting the Jewish fight.”
Tsafrir rattled off by heart the Tabenkin book’s bottom-line: “Any attempt to eradicate difficulties by redividing the land will only regenerate these difficulties. The 1967 war was spawned by boundaries that traversed an indivisible land. For 20 years Arabs robbed and bled us. For 20 years they amassed power to annihilate us. Territorial partition threatened our existence… It failed to appease any Arabs, but emboldened them to destroy us.”
It became Tsafrir’s self-imposed mission to remind us whom today’s maligned settlers emulate.
He was as good as his word. He sacrificed every shekel he earned and more to finance protests and campaigns. Most of all, however, Tsafrir wasn’t just an erudite and altruistic individual but a vestige of an extraordinary type of native son that has sadly become atypical in his own native milieu.
“When one man dies,” Donne assured us, “one chapter is not torn out of the book, but translated into a better language; and every chapter must be so translated.”
We can only hope.
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