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To his foes, he’s the Orthodox man who shamefully sold out his community. To his admirers, he’s one of the few people around who embody a moderate religious Zionism that is disappearing.
Elazar Stern holds the second spot on the Knesset candidates list for the new party headed by former Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, which is polling at around nine seats. Stern was head of the Israeli military’s Human Resources Directorate in 2005, when Israel withdrew its settlements and army from Gaza. He played a key role in that withdrawal, in line with his position then. For this, members of the predominantly religious Zionist communities in the Gaza settlements pelted him and his family with stones and bags of water when they prayed at the Western Wall a few weeks later.
Stern is harshly critical of the direction that religious Zionism has taken. “Unfortunately the biggest mistake of religious Zionism in the last 40 years is that it pushed the question of Jewish identity aside for the question of where the border should go,” he told the Forward. This has had the effect of alienating non-Orthodox Jews who aren’t pro-settlement from Judaism, he said.
Stern wants Israel to allocate state funding to Reform and Conservative institutions, and to make state bodies concerned with religion more approachable for the non-observant.
Now 56, Stern was a career soldier from 1974 until 2008. In his role as the IDF’s human resources chief, he set up the program that allows soldiers who aren’t halachically Jewish to convert during their army service — a conversion track despised by Orthodox hard-liners. And he broke up many Orthodox-only units and integrated their soldiers into normal units.
Stern has a reputation as a man who speaks his mind even when it’s not popular — he was one of just a handful of public figures to openly oppose the deal to free Gilad Shalit due to concerns about releasing 1,027 Palestinian prisoners.
He rejects the international community’s view that settlements are illegal — they are rather part of “our homeland,” he says — but adds that he is prepared to make concessions for a peace deal. Nevertheless, he is “not sure we have a real partner.”