REYKJAVIK, Iceland – A few years ago my wife and I had Shabbat dinner at the World Economic Forum in Davos. Many VIPs were there, as you would expect among the Davos elite, including, at the same table, president Shimon Peres and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Because I love Iceland, I was especially happy to meet its president at the time, Olafur Grimsson, and his Israeli wife, Dorrit Moussaieff, who sat at the head table. If memory serves me right, it was Peres who said that night that the president of Iceland had joked with him that “if you are the chosen people, we are the frozen people.”
I was back in Iceland last week and had the great honor of speaking at the country’s new Chabad House in Reykjavik, the first permanent Jewish institution in the island nation’s history. Its directors, Rabbi Ari and Rebbetzin Mushka Feldman, have brought their two young daughters to a land with not that many Jews and a country that recently tried to ban circumcision. Religion is well on its way to a fatal death in Iceland, and religious practices are in general frowned upon. That, coupled with an unfavorable opinion of Israel, will make the Feldmans’ job that much more challenging.
They will succeed, God willing, as Chabad always does. They will succeed because Chabad refuses to fail. Ever. They will succeed because no Chabad emissary has a career but, rather, a calling. No Chabad House director has an occupation but, rather, a mission. The objective: validate every person’s infinite dignity, make them feel irreplaceable, and connect them to their 3,000-year-old faith.
I have no doubt that, even amid a tiny Jewish community, the Chabad House will be uber-impactful and will reverberate positively among the wider non-Jewish community. I also predict that the presence of the Chabad House will serve to reverse some of the irrational Icelandic hostility to Israel and to cast the Jews in a favorable light, just by being there.
Don’t ever underestimate the power of simple visibility. Chabad succeeds because of the power of its immense Jewish pride. There is no possibility of hiding one’s Jewishness when one is Chabad. If you’re a man, the beard, yarmulke and black hat give you away. If you’re a woman, the sheitel – usually a stylish head covering – and modest dress code give it away. And unlike other Jewish communal members in Europe who have succumbed to the all-encompassing advice to wear a baseball cap instead of a yarmulke, Chabad emissaries walk the streets of Berlin, Paris, Moscow and Budapest with their Jewishness proudly on their sleeves.
Is it responsible? Should they be concerned about attacks? That’s where faith comes in. Yes, we must all be much more security conscious in an age where antisemitism – especially in Europe – is greatly on the rise. But there is a difference between caution and fear. Caution is a calculated response to a real and present threat. Fear is a hysterical response to an imagined danger. Synagogues and Chabad Houses need security in Europe, where they can be targets. But hiding one’s Jewishness – which I believe is impossible anyway – tells those who hate us that we are afraid. And fear invites intimidation.
A little while ago my wife and I were in Paris, and a woman selling us a ticket to one of its museums told Debbie to put away her Magen David necklace. “I love Israel,” she said, “but I don’t want you go to get hurt. And wearing that, you could be attacked.”
Needless to say, Debbie wore her Magen David proudly the rest of the trip. Not because we are the most fearless Jews in the world.
I can assure you we’re not. That would apply far more to our children who have served in the IDF, where I and my wife have not.
Rather, my wife wore it proudly because she loves Israel and is honored to be Jewish. And Jewish pride should never be squelched.
Seventy years ago Jews in Europe were forced to wear a yellow star of shame. Today we are capable of wearing Jewish symbols of pride. And the prouder you are, the more the world will respect you.
WHICH BRINGS us back to Iceland.
I have visited the island many times for its beauty and natural treasures, and, yes, at times I have frozen. But I have never found the people to be anything but friendly, warm and respectful.
So what’s their beef with Israel? And why is Europe in general turning against the Jewish state?
Some say it’s the new European antisemitism. After six million Jews were incinerated in European ovens by the Germans, it’s no longer fashionable to be an out-and-out antisemite. So hating Israel is the closest you can get to the real thing.
No doubt there is truth to this assertion. But it cannot explain countries where there is no history of antisemitism, such as Iceland, because there is little Jewish history to speak of. Rather, I believe, it comes down to this.
People read about Israel in the media every day as a troublesome little country that is fighting with everybody. And it’s being condemned by all the world’s mainstream bodies, especially organizations like the UN, which people are taught to respect for its humanitarian aid and peacekeeping missions. So, although people confess to not knowing much about the complexities of the Middle East, they begin to see Israel as the pain-in-the-rear country that is nettlesome and troublesome.
And if they live in countries where they scarcely ever even meet Jews, they have precious little to counter the observation and understand that the Jewish people, far from being belligerent, excel in all peace-loving fields such as charity, community, education and family. It’s only in Israel – where the Arabs have decided that the Jewish state is a humiliation to Arab and Islamic hegemony in the Middle East, and where the Jews have been given no choice but to fight back lest they be annihilated – that we are more famous for our army than for our scientists, academies and teachers (although this, too, is changing).
WHICH BRINGS us back to Chabad.
There are many things that can be said about the Lubavitcher rebbe on the occasion of the 24th anniversary of his death, which was commemorated this past Shabbat. But for now I will focus on just one thing.
The rebbe was quite simply the proudest Jew of the postwar era, and he raised an army of disciples whose pride in being Jewish is public, global, irrepressible and positively inspiring.
The rebbe sent his emissaries to live in countries for the rest of their lives in places where most Jews were fleeing, as was the case with the former Soviet Union prior to its collapse. While Jews were rightly trying to make aliya to Israel, where they could live the Jewish dream rather than be oppressed, the rebbe sent his emissaries to live there so as never to abandon the Jews who needed religious leaders and never to allow any country to become judenrein.
The result has been a proud and public Jewish presence in countries where Jews either were absent, as in Vietnam, or had been slaughtered, as in Germany. And every Jew who visits these countries as a tourist today know how comfortable the presence of a Chabad family and a warm Shabbat meal can make him feel.
Throughout our history the Jews have been simultaneously the chosen as well as the frozen people, shut out in the cold by their neighbors who have chosen to shun and persecute them. But with the miraculous success of Israel, coupled now with an American government that shuns Israel’s enemies, especially at the UN, a new era of light and warmth can dawn upon the Jewish people.
It is up to us to determine if we will, even in Europe, wear our Jewish identities with passionate pride and bold affirmation.The writer, “America’s rabbi,” whom
The Washington Post calls “the most famous rabbi in America,” is founder of The World Values Network and is the international best-selling author of 31 books, including his most recent,
The Israel Warrior. Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.