Chabadniks in India deny espionage charge

Shneor Zalman, Yaffa Shenoi say they were invited to country by local Jewish community of Kochi.

Jew Street in Mattancherry, India 390 (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Jew Street in Mattancherry, India 390
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Members of the Chabad community in the southern Indian city of Kochi on Tuesday vehemently denied a report accusing them of being part of an Israeli covert operation.
Rabbi Shneor Zalman and Yaffa Shenoi told The Jerusalem Post that they had been stunned by a story in The Times of India in which unnamed Indian security officials said they were Israeli secret agents who would soon be deported from the country.
“I was invited here by the Jewish community of Kochi with the full knowledge of local authorities,” said Zalman, a 27-year-old rabbi from Jerusalem. “I have no idea how they got the impression I was part of a Mossad operation.”
He said he and Shenoi ran an outreach center catering to Jewish travelers in the popular tourist destination, as well as to the city’s 50 remaining Jews. Kochi once had a much larger community whose origins dated back to the 16th century.
He insisted that this was their sole motivation.
Shenoi speculated that the report might have been related to an upcoming hearing on their visa status, but said she had been unaware of claims that they were Israeli agents before the story appeared.
Earlier in the day, The Times of India quoted anonymous security sources as saying the two had been under “close surveillance” by Indian intelligence officers for a year, and had taken part in “suspicious activities,” including hosting large groups of people at their house late at night. The officials added that the pair also drew attention to themselves for paying more than the average rent.
“A monthly rent of Rs 50,000 is disproportionately high, even in Fort Kochi. This is one of the main factors that made us suspicious,” the intelligence source was quoted as saying.
“They have been in the country from March 3, 2010. When their visas expired on March 3 last year, they went out and returned on April 1, 2011, on a new visa.”
The newspaper also published private information about the two Israelis, including their passport numbers.
By just after 4 p.m. local time, the story had received 613 comments on The Times of India’s website, many of which were anti-Semitic. One reader tied the report to the case of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, a Jewish couple executed by the US in the 1950s for spying on behalf of the Soviet Union, as proof of the existence of an international Jewish conspiracy.
Followers of the Chabad movement run outreach centers in dozens of countries around the world, including several in India. In 2008 Rabbi Gavriel Herzberg, his wife, Rivka, and four Jewish guests at the center they ran in Mumbai were killed by Islamic terrorists.