Tearful eulogies for the victims, anger at the weakness of Israel's leaders

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The Independent Online

After the psalms had echoed through the loudspeaker, the crowd of several thousand packed into the road, having repeated the verses line by line after the rabbi made a narrow space for the slow queue of ambulances bringing the bodies from the mortuary in ones and twos, and fell silent.

The sobs of a few mourners, scattered here and there on this, the warmest day of the year so far, were the only sound as the first of eight bodies, lying on a stretcher and covered with a prayer shawl, was carried up the steps to the yeshiva yard for the eulogies and the Kaddish.

But by the time Rabbi Yerachmiel Weiss, head of the young yeshiva, the high school section of this rabbinical seminary which had lost four of its students in the previous night's attack, began to speak, his own repeated and uncontrollable gasps and sobs magnified through the speaker as he did so, the weeping and keening among the crowd became more widespread. The cries came not just from the families of the dead gathered in front of the yeshiva or the students clustered on the balconies of the building above them, but from the crowd in Harav Zvi Yehuda Street, its central reservation performing the task – necessary, in religious Jewish funerals – of dividing the men on the near side from the women on the far one.

And the crying came from among both sexes. Rabbi Weiss, who had had to identify the bodies of his young charges the previous night, started by referring to what should have been a day of celebration rather than of burial, the first in the month of the festival of Purim. "How can you say a eulogy for one person on Rosh Hodesh Adar?" he asked. "How can you say one for two, three, four, five, six?" Naming each of the students in turn, he spoke directly to God: "You took Yonathan – God gives and God takes – what sweetness, what humility, what a student, what a prayer. He loved to sit in the library and you have taken him to the good library on high."

Turning next to 15-year-old Neriah Cohen, from Jerusalem, he added: "You took the youngest, Neriah, what a house, what a family, what a sweetness you took with you."

But if the deep grief of the occasion was palpable and genuine, so too was the equally deep ideology that the rabbis of Yeshiva Mercaz Harav also expressed. For this is the most important yeshiva in right-wing religious Zionism, the spiritual backbone of the Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank. Just one of its many famous ex-pupils was Rabbi Moshe Levinger who in 1968, a year after the Six Day War, spearheaded the national religious concept that redemption lay in the reclamation of "greater Israel" from the Jordan to the Mediterranean and established the still hardline settlement of Kyriat Arba at Hebron.

Directing yesterday's ceremony, Rabbi Eitan Eisenman appeared to have no doubt that all this was well known to those that had dispatched the lone Palestinian gunman who gunned down eight students on Thursday night. "Not for nothing they came to this yeshiva," he told the mourners. "From this yeshiva we grow up the next generation of the Torah ... The next generation of Eretz [the land of] Israel Here they learn that we don't give up any part of Eretz Israel. Here started the big revolution and it will continue with these eight martyrs."

And the head of the yeshiva, Rabbi Abraham Shapira, referred to the killings of more than 60 Jews on a single day in Hebron during the British mandate, adding: "This massacre is the continuation of the 1929 massacre, and the prophet's blood is still boiling." And Rabbi Shapira, who also repeatedly broke into sobs during his own address, had a clear message to reinforce those national religious politicians who started declaring from soon after the killings on Thursday night that the atrocity was the price paid for what he described, despite the operation last weekend which killed more than 100 Palestinians, as "weakness in the face of terror in Gaza" and the willingness of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to pursue negotiations, however falteringly, with the Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. A message that not just the religious but also the secular right will see Thursday's carnage as strengthening their entrenched opposition to present efforts to secure a two-state solution to the conflict.

"The time has come for all of us to understand that an external struggle and an internal struggle is raging," Rabbi Shapira told the mourners, "and everyone believes that the hour has come ... for us to have a good leadership, a stronger leadership, a more believing leadership." The land of Israel was not "ownerless," the rabbi declared. "You can't play with it, you can't divide it."