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We need a president with a beard and black hat

Why the former Chief Rabbi should fill the office and is singularly capable of healing the rifts in Israeli society

In July 2014 Shimon Peres will complete his seven year term as President of the State and, according to his recent comments, “retire into politics!” Whilst Peres has used the office to promote his own agenda on various issues, sometimes in collaboration with Netanyahu’s governments, sometimes not, what he has singularly failed to do is unite a fractured and fractious nation. The political cleavages within the Jewish population are threatening to grow ever wider as the Lapid-Bennett axis accelerates towards the abyss of civil war with the haredim and the increasing disillusionment of the religious-Zionists.

The most vital aim and objective of the next president should be not to meddle in foreign affairs or the ‘peace process’ but to try to heal the rifts between the various religious and secular communities; between the rich and the poor; between the new olim and the sabras and between Israelis and Diaspora Jews. In short, what we all desperately need is a unity candidate, a statesman above the daily political dog fight and someone, most of all, whose love for Klal Yisrael – the entirety of the Jewish people – is beyond doubt.

In my mind there is only one outstanding figure with all these qualities: Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau, the current Chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv-Jaffa and the former Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Israel.

The holder of the Israel Prize, “for outstanding contributions to the state,” and the French Légion D’honneur, for “working for inter-faith relations,” Rabbi Lau is both an outstanding teacher and a skilled diplomat. Having met and impressed world leaders such as popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI, presidents Ronald Reagan, Nelson Mandela and prime ministers such as Tony Blair, he can assuredly handle the ceremonial aspects of the post.

More importantly Rabbi Lau is the very personification of Jewish intellect, humanity and, above all, resilience. His autobiography “Out of the Depths: the story of a child of Buchenwald who returns home at last,” is the most moving account of both dastardly inhumanity and self-sacrifice, of persecution and triumph, of horrendous cruelty and man’s ability to rise to the greatest heights of loving kindness. Note his use of the phrase “home at last” in the title. The second half of the book is the story of his arrival in the infant state and his determination, from the age of eight, to overcome his past and build a strong Jewish future. His story is the story of all Jews in the late 20th and early 21st centuries because, in some ways, we are all Holocaust survivors.

Rabbi Lau grew up when Israel was a less fractured nation. He attended Bnei Akiva groups and religious-Zionist schools. He went on to study in the most prestigious haredi yeshivot. He was a student of Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach in Kol Torah Jerusalem and Rav Elazar Menachem Shach in Ponevezh Bnei Brak. He has walked on both sides of the street and is recognised and widely admired by all sections of Israeli society, from the most liberal and secular to the most conservative and pious. He is fluent in Hebrew, Yiddish and English. He can communicate with everyone.

Most importantly Rabbi Lau exudes kindness, generosity of spirit and an impish sense of humour that the five year old ‘Lulek’ might have lost forever in Buchenwald. He is not bitter, as he has every right to be, following the murder of his parents and nearly all his family in the death camps. He looks to the future as well as to the past. He lives in the present because he knows that it is in the present that progress is made. He combines the wisdom of the Talmud with a pragmatism and realisation that not all Jews (especially most Israelis) are connected to their heritage. He never forces the issue of Torah observance he just explains and offers people the choice of accepting or rejecting authentic Judaism.

We need someone in the Bet HaNassi, the president’s office, who can mix equally at the simchot of Meah Sha’arim and the cocktail parties of Herzaliya. It has been done before. Zalman Shazar (ne Shneor Zalman Rubashov), the third president, was from a strongly hassidic family and remained an observant Jew all his life. He combined scholarship, wisdom and integrity; three qualities sadly lacking in most of this generation’s politicians.

The last person we need as president is another political operator – think Moshe Katsav – who might drag down the office of the presidency into the cockpit of controversy and conflict. We need a healer not a partisan.

The person we all, religious or secular, need is Rabbi Lau.

About the Author
Dr Yaakov Wise is a Research Fellow in the Centre for Jewish Studies at the University of Manchester. He spends part of the year in Israel visiting his extensive family and is a free-lance journalist and broadcaster specialising in Orthodox Jewish affairs.