Obituary: Zevulun Hammer

Joseph Finklestone
Saturday 22 October 2011 21:59

Zevulun Hammer, politician: born Haifa 1936; member, Knesset 1969- 98; Minister of Education and Culture 1984-88, 1992-98; member, Committee for Foreign Affairs and Defence 1988-92; married (four children); died Jerusalem 20 January 1998.

Though leader of a religious party which adopted a hawkish stand in the peace talks with the Palestinians, Zevulun Hammer presented a reasonable non-confrontational front which won him universal admiration. A unique term was coined for him: the moderate hawk.

As President Ezer Weizman pointed out, Hammer was never known to raise his voice. Yet for over 20 years he was the undisputed leader of a party noted previously for its acrimonious disputes. Quietly he promoted a social, educational and political revolution.

The first Sabra (native-born) leader of the moderate Mizrachi Zionist religious party, which was transformed into the National Religious Party (NRP), he personified to many the admirable philosophy of the movement: Torah (the Bible) and Labour, with the aim of serving and building the Jewish State. This entailed creating religious kibbutzim, one being the famous British Kibbutz Lavi, in which the London head of Mizrachi, Arieh Handler, played a leading role.

Hammer's father was a humble biblical scholar in the port of Haifa who gave his son his unusual biblical first name: "Zevulun shall dwell by the sea; he shall be a haven for ships". But Zevulun's urgent desire for education led him to leave the city and join the religious youth movement Bnei Akiva, whose Tel Aviv branch he led. Here he met his wife, Menahemia. Later he obtained a Bible degree at the religious-secular Bar Ilan University near Tel Aviv.

By joining Nahal, the organisation which allowed army service with work in kibbutzim, Hammer fulfilled a fundamental part of the Mizrachi philosophy. He fought as a signalman in a tank corps in the Sinai Campaign of 1956, and was a reserve sergeant in the Six-Day War.

His devotion and abilities led to his rise in the newly formed National Religious Party. Convinced that it would be a sin to give up any area of Israel, particularly in the West Bank, he became a founder of Gush Emunim, which established major settlements in the West Bank.

After a prolonged and bitter struggle his group in the NRP swung the party away from the moderate Labour Party, with which the Mizrachi had been closely associated since the heroic days of David Ben-Gurion, and joined the right-wing coalitions of their opponents.

Netanyahu had no more loyal or understanding colleague than Zevulun Hammer. Yet, uniquely, nobody spoke of him as an extremist, as they do of Ariel Sharon, the former defence minister, or Benny Begin, the former Prime Minister's son. There was a feeling that Hammer would adopt moderate policies, even in giving up cherished land if there was a real opportunity for lasting peace. His mourners have included left-wingers and Arabs.

Always seeing himself as much an educator as a politician, Hammer took particular pride in providing free education for all. Equally he was proud he had tried constantly and honestly, though not always successfully, to promote equal rights for Arabs, Druse and Bedouin.

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