The Story of a Spiritual Peace Activist: Part One

“Seek shalom and pursue it!” (Psalm 34:15)


The Midrash teaches: “Great is shalom, for the Name of the Omnipresent One is ‘Shalom,’ as it is written (Judges 6:24): ‘Hashem Shalom.’ ” (BaMidbar Rabbah 11:7)


Dear Friends,


The Yiddish word for the anniversary of someone’s death is yahrtzeit. The Shabbos which arrives at the end of this week – the 23rd of Sivan – is the yahrtzeit of Yaakov Yisrael HaLevi De Haan, a spiritual seeker who became a spiritual peace activist in the Land of Zion.


He was born in 1881 in a small town near Amsterdam, and he was one of eighteen children. He received a traditional Jewish education, but while attending a local gymnasium (secondary school), he was swept up in the tide of assimilation which was affecting many Jews of his generation. He became interested in politics, and his concern for social justice led him to become an active member of Holland’s Social Democratic party. He gained renown as one of Holland’s greatest lawyers, and through his degree, he became known as Dr. De Haan. He was also a gifted linguist who became fluent in twenty-two languages.  Blessed with great personal charisma and an extraordinary ability to forge personal friendships, De Haan became a favorite of European government circles and the upper strata of high society.


Despite his assimilation, De Haan still considered himself a Jew, and he used his influential political and social connections to assist his people. For example, when he learned of the mass imprisonment of Jews in Czarist Russia who were suspected of “revolutionary” activities, he set out for Russia armed with a letter of recommendation from the Queen of Holland. As a result of his ability to find favor in the eyes of rulers, he was able to do much to help his unfortunate brethren who were suffering in Czarist prisons. After two full years of unremitting work in Russia on behalf of the suffering Jews and the resulting close contact with the cruel anti-Semitism of the Russian regime, he experienced a Jewish awakening; thus, he returned to Holland with a desire to return to his spiritual heritage.


This desire was reinforced when he was in the palace of the Dutch Queen, and he heard a government minister’s anti-Semitic remark. This remark hurt him deeply, and he began a process of return to the Torah and its path of mitzvos. As he began this process of return, he wrote a series of poems full of deep gratitude to Hashem, the Compassionate and Life-Giving One, for showing him the way to return to Him. In addition, he kept two signs on his writing desk which strengthened his resolve. One sign contained the words, “A redeemer will come to Zion and to the repentant sinners in Jacob” (Isaiah 59:20), and the other sign contained the following famous teaching of the Talmud which applies to all the members of our people:


“Even if one sins, one is still an Israelite.” (Sanhedrin 44a – cited by Rav Abba the son of Zavda)


Dr. De Haan became an active member of Mizrachi – an Orthodox organization that is part of the World Zionist Organization. (Another term for this organization is “National-Religious.”) De Haan, however, was not satisfied with his initial steps of return, for he yearned to spiritually grow, and he felt that this growth could be best achieved in the sacred Land of Zion. He therefore resolved to leave Holland and move to the Land of Zion; moreover, his goal was to live in Jerusalem, which he termed, “the heart of the Jewish nation.”


Dr. De Haan arrived in the Land of Zion on the 14th of Sivan, 5680 (1920), and was received joyously and enthusiastically by the Mizrachi organization in the Land. With characteristic drive and energy, he became a leading activist in Mizrachi, and the leaders of the W.Z.O. also began using his talents. In order to better understand why his talents were especially needed by the W.Z.O., we need to be aware of the following information about that period:


After World War I, Great Britain replaced Turkey as the ruler of the Land of Zion or what the British referred to as “Palestine” – a reference to the ancient Philistines who lived on the coast of the land. In addition, the British government had issued the “Balfour Declaration” which contained this statement:


“His Majesty’s Government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavors to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.”


The British government also gave the World Zionist Organization the right to govern the Jewish community in the Land of Zion, even though the majority of the Jewish residents who were then in the Land were Torah-committed Jews who opposed the secular ideology of the W.Z.O. – an ideology which claimed that “nationalism” had replaced the Torah as the guiding spirit of our people. As we mentioned previously, the opposition of these Torah-committed Jews to this ideology of the W.Z.O. caused them to become known as “chareidim” – a biblical term for those who are fervently devoted to the Divine word (Isaiah 66:5). The chareidim felt that they had a right to govern their own communities in the Land of Zion, for they lived in the Land and were involved with the renewal of Jewish life in the Land before the arrival of the secular Zionist settlers; thus, the urban communities and agricultural settlements which these Torah-committed Jews established were known as the “Old Yishuv” – the Old Settlement.


Dr. De Haan became interested in the conflict between the World Zionist Organization and the Torah-committed Jews of the Old Yishuv. De Haan heard his colleagues in the W.Z.O. attacking the members of the Old Yishuv; however, his strong sense of justice inspired him to want to understand the position of these Torah-committed Jews. He therefore decided to visit Rav Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld, a major spiritual leader of the Old Yishuv, who lived in a small, humble dwelling in the Old City of Jerusalem. At this first meeting, Rav Yosef Chaim discussed the spiritual vision of the Torah which is to guide our lives in Zion, and he described the struggle of chareidi Jews to preserve the purity of this vision. The words of the sage greatly moved Yaakov Yisrael De Haan, and from that day on, he became deeply attached to Rav Yosef Chaim.


I could not find a record of the exact words that Rav Yosef Chaim used to describe the Torah’s vision for Zion at his first meeting with Yaakov Yisrael De Haan, but we can get an idea of what he said from some of his other statements regarding this vision. For example, in the previous letter we cited the following reply of Rav Yosef Chaim to a challenge by Dr. Weizmann:


“We pray that we should merit the return of the Shechinah (the Divine Presence) to Zion as it was in days of yore, before the destruction of the Temple. As stated by all the prophets, the main yearning to return to Zion must be to renew our spiritual lives in Zion – to return to lives of holiness and purity, as it was when the Kohanim and Levites stood at their posts and the populace absorbed Ruach Hakodesh (the Spirit of Holiness) and conducted itself according to the Torah.”


Another example that we mentioned was Rav Yosef Chaim’s public call for peace which was published in both the Jewish and Arab press. In this call for peace, he described the Land as, “the Holy Land, to which God affords special supervision, from which blessing emanates to the rest of the world, and in which God’s prophets foresaw the future happiness of all humanity.”
In his relationship with Rav Yosef Chaim, Yaakov Yisrael De Haan found the “rebbe” – spiritual teacher – who could guide him, and he made it his practice to visit Rav Yosef Chaim nearly every day. He also decided to use his skills and political connections to support the Old Yishuv in its struggle against the dominance of the World Zionist Organization.


Dr. De Haan became involved with another area of conflict between the leadership of the Old Yishuv and the leadership of the World Zionist Organization. This was the conflict over how to relate to the Arabs, who were then a majority in the Land of Zion. For example, Rav Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld felt that negotiations with the Arabs should take place with the awareness that the Arabs were developing a strong spirit of nationalism. This was not the view of Dr. Chaim Weizmann, who became the president of the World Zionist Organization. He did not believe that a serious question of Arab nationalism existed; instead, he felt that the root cause of the problem was the social struggle between the exploited Arab farmers and the effendi (Arab landowners). Weizmann felt that these landowners were trying to turn the poor Arabs against the Jews in order to divert attention from their own exploitation. Rav Yosef Chaim, however, felt that there were genuine nationalistic feelings developing among the Arabs, and that it was unrealistic to ignore this development. De Haan had the same view. In addition, De Haan argued that the increase of tensions between Jews and Arabs served only to further British colonial interests – their policy of ‘divide and conquer – and that it prevented the attainment of the Jewish goals of an expanded settlement and unrestricted Jewish immigration. As we shall discuss, later events justified his concerns.


The  W.Z.O. stressed the importance of Jewish nationalism; however, its nationalistic rhetoric was inadvertently strengthening the nationalistic feelings of the Arabs in the Land, who were also influenced by the growing spirit of nationalism in the world; thus, many Arabs began to oppose further Jewish immigration to the Land. Rav Yosef Chaim avoided the nationalistic rhetoric of the W.Z.O. in his dialogue with Arab leaders; instead, he sought to emphasize those spiritual ideals and aspirations which Jews and Arabs had in common and which could inspire both peoples to work together to develop the Land.


To further the goal of peaceful cooperation with the Arabs, Rav Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld sought to arrange a meeting with King Hussein ibn-Ali, head of the Hashemite dynasty. Hussein was considered the senior and most influential Arab leader in Arabia and the entire Middle East. With the support of the British, his son Faisal became the Emir of Iraq, and his son Abdullah became the Emir of Trans-Jordan – an area west of the Jordan River. (Trans-Jordan was originally part of “Palestine”; however, the British separated it from the rest of the Land and gave it over to the Hashemite dynasty.) The King had a positive attitude towards Jewish immigration to the Land; in fact, he called on the Arabs to remember that their traditions bid them to be hospitable and tolerant, and he acknowledged that the Jews had historic roots in the Land.

When King Hussein visited his son Abdullah in Amman, many delegations went to greet him, including a delegation from the World Zionist Organization. Rabbi Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld considered this a unique opportunity to meet with the senior Arab ruler and apprise him of the position of the chareidim, who advocated mass Jewish immigration in cooperation with the Arab leadership. Dr. De Haan, who had already become a popular figure in the courts of the Arab monarchs, and who was especially friendly with Emir Abdullah, arranged a meeting between a delegation of chareidim, led by Rav Yosef Chaim, and King Hussein. As we shall discuss, these Torah-committed delegates not only represented the chareidi Jews of the Old Yishuv; they also represented the international chareidi organization, Agudath Israel, which was founded by the Chofetz Chaim and other leading sages; in fact, Rav Yosef Chaim was a leader of the Jerusalem branch of Agudath Israel. With the help of Hashem, we will discuss their historic meeting with this Arab king in part 2 of this letter.


Be Well and Shalom,

Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen  (See below)


P.S. Much of the information in the above letter is from “Guardian of Jerusalem – the Life and Times of Rabbi Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld.” The author is Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Sonnenfeld, and the book is published by Mesorah Publications:  .


The original Hebrew edition is HaIsh AlHaChomah.

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