How it really was – and is : Chabad, Israel and Zionism

Chabad is known for its gentle, warm and welcoming face, providing succor and meals to those who need help in faraway places or wish to have access to kosher food.

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August 15, 2019 11:07
How it really was – and is : Chabad, Israel and Zionism

Chabad rabbis sing ‘Ani Ma’amin’ in front of the movement’s world headquarters in Brooklyn. (photo credit: MARK KAUZLARICH/REUTERS)



We are all – at least those who follow the news – on over-overload. For a change, I thought we should take a look at the historical relationship between Chabad and Zionism, and Chabad and the State of Israel. Chabad is known for its gentle, warm and welcoming face, providing succor and meals to those who need help in faraway places or wish to have access to kosher food.
These good deeds and the warm face are one side of an ideology that is not known to most of us today. I am a critic of some of Chabad’s beliefs and practices, and therefore will lean backward to separate fact from opinion.

Zionism as a threat to ultra-Orthodoxy
The Zionist movement founded by the secular and liberal Theodor Herzl in 1897 kindled a flame of hope throughout the Jewish communities in Eastern Europe, and even in Western Europe and the New World. Its ultimate aim – to create a Jewish state in Palestine – aroused fear and antagonism in almost all of the Hasidic rebbes, and among the heads of the great yeshivot in Lithuania and Poland.

Orthodox Jews who wished to counterbalance the basically secular leadership of Zionism founded the Mizrachi Zionist organization – Mizrachi being a play on words. On the one hand, it is an acronym: merkaz ruchani (spiritual center), and on the other, Mizrachi embraces the word mizrach, the East – in other words, the Land of Israel.

As Zionism gathered mass followers in the first decade of the last century, the Hasidim and yeshiva heads feared that the secular force of Zionism and the Mizrachi openness to fellow Zionists could “infect” their followers. They organized Agudath Israel, a political movement to combat Zionism.

The ideological opposition to Zionism found its basis in a second-century Talmudic debate whether Jews from Babylon should go “up” to the Land of Israel. In a midrashic formulation, Rabbi Yossi ben-Hanina said that God abjured Israel “not to scale the wall” and not to make war against “the nations of the world,” and in turn “the nations” would not oppress Israel “too much.” (The source can be found in Tractate Ketubot 110b-111a; the background was the bloody defeat and massacre of the soldiers of Bar Kochba and Rabbi Akiva in the Judean revolt against Rome in 132-135 CE, which Rabbi Yossi obviously did not want to see repeated.)

The term “to scale the wall” is code for not attempting to fight for the walls of Jerusalem, and therefore not to return to the Land of Israel until the Messiah leads the people back to the Land. Rambam (Maimonides) states this is a midrash, and therefore has no halachic force. Ramban (Nahmanides) includes the return to the Land as a positive commandment, that is, one of the 613 mitzvot, thus negating the midrash.

Agudah saw the people’s weakness as a given, to last forever.

Zionism was based on hope, the renewal of the people’s strength, at first politically and then under “practical Zionism,” the potential of the pioneering and armed “New Jews.”

The tragic concomitant of the Agudah’s ideology was a ban on the followers of the rebbes and yeshiva heads to “go up” to Palestine, even in the years when there was no British limitation on Jewish immigration. The leaders of Chabad, the Lubavitcher rebbes, urged the Jews not to leave Europe for Palestine.

De facto recognition of the Jews of Israel

The Shoah brought about a de facto change. Many Haredi leaders blamed the Shoah on the Zionist and other normalizing ideologies (for which God punished six million, including countless practicing Jews, and among them a million and a half children!) The Satmar and allied Hasidim speak about this openly. Others, however they felt about Zionism, realized that the only hope for the “remnant” – the hundreds of thousands of survivors still in Displaced Persons camps – was the Land of Israel.
The Zionist movement headed by Dr. Chaim Weizmann and David Ben-Gurion was waging a major battle at the newly formed United Nations to obtain a majority to vote for the creation of a Jewish and Arab state in a partitioned Palestine.

As head of the Jewish Agency-WZO, Ben-Gurion wanted a united Jewish front to demand a Jewish state. He cut a four-point deal with the World Agudath Israel, promising that in the state-to-come, Shabbat would be the official day of rest, kashrut would be observed in all state-operated kitchens, personal status (marriage, divorce, etc.) would remain in rabbinic hands, and the Haredi educational network would retain its independence.

The nuanced acceptance of the idea of a Jewish state was for most ultra-Orthodox groups a “de facto” recognition that a large number of Jews lived and live in Israel. For example, when Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson was asked whether supporting the Yishuv in its battle against the British in pre-state days was not “scaling the wall,” he answered that this is a community of Jews who are entitled to defend themselves.

Later, when asked whether he was a Zionist, he reportedly retorted, “If it is a state of the Jews, I am not a Zionist, but if it is a Jewish state, I am a Zionist.”

If you, the reader, thinks he meant a Jewish state as understood by the majority of Israelis, you are wrong. He used the code “a Jewish state” to mean a “halachic state.” He instructed his followers to vote for the Haredi party of their choice.

Even after the war, he only directed a few dozen of his Hasidim to form Kfar Chabad, the village near Ben-Gurion Airport where a perfect replica was built of Chabad-Lubavitch headquarters at 770 Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn. Chabad has created a network of schools, which I am told do not raise the Israeli flag, nor sing “Hatikvah.” Unlike other ultra-Orthodox schools, there is no distinction between Ashkenazim and Middle Eastern or other Mizrahi Jews, but regarding Ethiopians, a spokesman fudged the issue. I am not sure that they are welcome in Chabad’s network of schools.

As in the entire ultra-Orthodox camp, Chabad objects to yeshiva students being drafted, and one wonders how many do go to the army. Hiding behind the good that Chabad does with its houses throughout the world, there is the unsavory side of Chabad invading and splitting established communities. I have witnessed their efforts in Florence, Venice, and Hong Kong to open centers in the very face of struggling Jewish communities.

In Venice, their storefront synagogue posts activists with a bottle of wine on a folding table in the ghetto square leading to Venice’s historic synagogues offering a drink and hawking their wares to snag tourists and some Italian Jews into their synagogue. There, they are very welcoming, and just the sermon leads to the messianic hope. (More on that later).
In Florence, their storefront was located across the road from the kosher restaurant attached to the beautiful synagogue. There, they warned passersby that the synagogue was not truly Orthodox and the kashrut was not truly kosher. Why do they say so? The clear and simple answer is: “Chabad is the only real halachic way.”

‘Judaism is either our way – or no way’

The head of the Jewish community at the time, a professor at the university, told me, with tears in her eyes, “They [Chabad] tell me that these Passover recipes, handed down from mother to mother for hundreds of years, are not kosher for Passover. How dare they?” In a word, the Chabad branch offices ride roughshod over local traditions, and only respect their own.

One of the reasons is the fundamentalist tribalism of their ideology. Generally, most of their rabbis know their view of Jewish history, and their learning is often practical regarding kosher observance and the minutiae of Sabbath and holiday observance, and does not embrace the field of social justice. For those Chabadniks I have spoken with, the Five Books of Moses, the Talmud, the Book of Zohar and the Lubavitch credo Tanya all have the same force and validity.

Add to this the fact that Rabbi Menachem Mendel never forbade his followers to crown him as Moshiach (the Messiah), and the glorification of “770” as a second Jerusalem. Lubavitch messianists’ belief that Rabbi Schneerson “will return, that he still lives” does not seem at all to be within the realm of Jewish teachings.

Again, we see that life is more complicated than what we see on the surface. Under all that is “kosher” is extremism with a smile.

Avraham Avi-hai is a Jerusalem author who has filled major positions in the early Israeli governments and in the leadership of the World Zionist Movement


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