Light unto the nations: Chabad’s relationship with Zionism

When once asked whether he was a Zionist, the Rebbe reportedly answered, "If Israel is a state of Jews, then I am not a Zionist, but if it is a Jewish state, then I am a Zionist."

CHABAD EMISSARIES engage with IDF soldiers, offering to lay tefillin, at a staging area near the border with Gaza during Operation Protective Edge in July 2014. (photo credit: MENDY HECHTMAN/FLASH90)
CHABAD EMISSARIES engage with IDF soldiers, offering to lay tefillin, at a staging area near the border with Gaza during Operation Protective Edge in July 2014.
(photo credit: MENDY HECHTMAN/FLASH90)
‘A little bit of light dispels a lot of darkness,” wrote Shneur Zalman of Liadi, the first Chabad-Lubavitch Rebbe.
It was “light” that once again brought controversy to the Chabad movement, and its delicate relationship with the State of Israel. Earlier this year, just before Yom Ha’atzmaut, Chani Lifshitz, co-director of Chabad Nepal in Kathmandu, was forbidden by the Chabad hierarchy in New York from lighting a torch at the Independence Day ceremony on Jerusalem’s Mt. Herzl.
Lifshitz was invited by then-culture and sport minister Miri Regev to light one of the 12 torches at the revered state ceremony, a role regarded as acknowledgment of one’s contribution to Israeli society, or the wider Jewish world. Lifshitz and her husband, Rabbi Chezky Lifshitz, are well-known to the thousands of Israeli and Jewish travelers who reach Nepal every year and enjoy the hospitality of the Chabad house in Kathmandu, lodging and dining there. The Lifshitzs are also famous for annually hosting what is reportedly the largest Passover Seder in the world.
The couple have become so renowned for their work that an Israeli TV drama was made about them back in 2012. 
So when Lifshitz was asked to light one of the Independence Day torches, it must have seemed like well-deserved appreciation. The celebrations, however, were tarnished when the Chabad Rabbinical Court in New York, one of two governing bodies of Chabad alongside Agudas Chassidei Chabad, ordered Lifshitz to withdraw from participating.
CHANI LIFSHITZ, the Chabad emissary in Kathmandu whose participation sparked the torch-lighting controversy. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)CHANI LIFSHITZ, the Chabad emissary in Kathmandu whose participation sparked the torch-lighting controversy. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
The order was reputedly on the grounds that participation in such ceremonies as a representative of Chabad must be approved by the Chabad Rabbinical Court and cannot be decided by individual members.
“We are hereby informing you that you must cancel your participation in this ceremony,” Rabbi Yitzchak Yehuda Yaroslavsky, Rabbi Avraham Michael Halperin and Rabbi Menachem Mendel Gluckowsky of the Augadas Chassidei Chabad in the Holy Land wrote to Lifshitz in a letter. “We are certain that you will comply with these instructions, and the continued tracking of this will be passed on to the coordinator for educational issues.”
Following the cancellation of her appearance, Lifshitz penned a post on an internal Chabad forum about the decision, noting, “I write these words from my heart. This matter does not depend on me. I have been required to cancel my participation in the Independence Day ceremony, and I cannot enter the fire of argument.”
“I again thank you. To the State of Israel and everyone for the blessings and well-wishes and most of all for the recognition and thanks that have come from around the world,” she wrote. “I will perhaps not be able to light the torch, but the greatest honor in the world I have already received – a life of mission and mutual responsibility. There is no greater gift.”
THERE HAS been some precedent to this situation. In 2011, Chabad Rabbi Shimon Rosenberg was also invited to kindle one of the Independence Day torches. Rosenberg’s daughter, Rivka Holtzberg, and son-in-law, Rabbi Gavriel Holtzberg, were murdered along with four other hostages and over 150 other people in the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks. Rosenberg’s decision to participate was criticized by several of the rabbis on the Chabad Rabbinical Court and when Rosenberg went ahead with the ceremony, it was later said he did not participate as an official Chabad representative.
PRAYING OUTSIDE the Beit Chabad house in Kathmandu, Nepal. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)PRAYING OUTSIDE the Beit Chabad house in Kathmandu, Nepal. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)
Rosenberg also changed the wording of the traditional torch-lighting text, saying, “For the glory of the State of the land of Israel,” as opposed to the normal “For the glory of the State of Israel.”
The decision of the Chabad hierarchy in banning Lifshitz from taking part raised several questions, due to the fact that no real explanation was provided by Chabad leadership.
Was some anti-Zionist ideology at work within Chabad as it is often accused of? Was Chabad not proud to have one of its emissaries recognized for her work? Was she forced to withdraw simply because she is a woman? Or was it merely a case of not following the “party line?”
One anonymous source even suggested that it could be the leaders of Chabad wanted to keep Lifshitz in check after a budding career has seen her name become well-known through regular contributions to Israeli publications and the TV show.
A Chabad spokesman in Israel told the Magazine that it was simply down to the fact that Lifshitz did not check in with higher authorities to get the go-ahead to participate.
“Chabad must be in control of activities of its emissaries,” the spokesman stated. “If not, tomorrow every emissary will make their own decisions. It’s the same if you want to donate to Magen David Adom or something like that. You go through the organization, not the guy on the street. If you want something from Chabad, you must go through Chabad.”
Though the role of women in religion is not a new question, it is one that has come to the forefront of modern-day Judaism, especially in light of the rise of secular liberalism, women’s rights and the growth of the Jewish Reform and Conservative movements in the 20th century. Yet the spokesman categorically denied that it was because Lifshitz is a woman.
A CHABADNIK helps a man put on tefillin in Safed. (David Cohen/Flash90)A CHABADNIK helps a man put on tefillin in Safed. (David Cohen/Flash90)
“The idea that it’s because she’s a woman, it doesn’t have a leg to stand on. She’s a woman working in shlichut [emissary work].”
The spokesman also countered the anti-Zionist accusations yet again leveled at the Chabad movement. “To think that Chabad doesn’t want to be involved in Israel, it doesn’t make sense.” He failed, however, to specify whether he was talking about state institutions, events or celebrations.
CHABAD’S RELATIONSHIP with secular Zionism has walked a tightrope ever since the State of Israel was founded. “Nuanced” is the term Chabad uses. Unlike many ultra-Orthodox sects, such as Satmar Hasidim, who oppose the existence of the State of Israel; or the infamous Neturei Karta, who have actively met with Israel’s enemies, Lubavitchers have made significant contributions to Israeli society.
Its members have served in the IDF in large numbers, contribute to the Israeli economy and vote in Israeli elections, and the last Rebbe of Chabad-Lubavitch, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, famously met on many occasions with Israeli prime ministers, presidents, MKs and leaders of Israeli society.
Yet the Rebbe himself was somewhat of an ambiguous Zionist in public, based on the religious beliefs that a Jewish state cannot exist until the coming of the Messiah. It is the 70-year-old question of the concept of the “Land” vs the “State.” The Land of Israel, as described in Jewish scriptures, should be settled by Jews, cultivated by Jews and is a homeland for Jews. The State of Israel, however, is a secular creation that has no basis in religious beliefs, and does not subscribe to Halacha. Modern religious Zionists would argue their view that the creation of the state after the horrors of the Holocaust showed the hand of God in giving the Jews a safe haven and that itself makes the state a holy establishment.
When once asked by yeshiva students whether he was a Zionist, the Rebbe reportedly answered, “If Israel is a state of Jews, then I am not a Zionist, but if it’s a Jewish state, then I am a Zionist.”
VIEW OF the stage at Jerusalem’s Mount Herzl, where Lifshitz was supposed to light the torch at the official Independence Day celebration.(Yonatan Sindel/Flash90) VIEW OF the stage at Jerusalem’s Mount Herzl, where Lifshitz was supposed to light the torch at the official Independence Day celebration.(Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Yet the Rebbe’s views on the concept of the Land of Israel also led him to take a more hard-line view on Israel’s interactions with its Arab neighbors, and he was adamantly opposed to any territorial concessions to the Palestinians and the establishment of a Palestinian state.
 This is a view continued by his followers. Last week, Rabbi Yeruslavski of the Chabad Rabbinical Court called on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to reject US President Donald Trump’s peace plan, under which there is a premise for the establishment of a Palestinian state.
“When we are hearing talk and so on about agreement to the establishment of a terror state in Judea and Samaria, we request from your honor that God forbid this mistake will not be made to accept the plan of the century of President Trump which includes a Palestinian state, God have mercy,” wrote Yeruslavski.
Despite sending some of his followers to found the town of Kfar Chabad near Lod, where a perfect replica of Chabad’s headquarters at 770 Eastern Parkway, Brooklyn, has been built, the Israeli flag is not flown in Chabad schools, nor is Israeli national anthem “Hatikvah” sung. Independence Day is not celebrated in any Chabad institution around the world. However, Schneerson was happy to recognize many events of modern Israeli history as miraculous. 
“There is no question that what happened in [the wars of] 1948 and 1967 was miraculous, but that does not mean that the state itself is holy,” Rabbi David Eliezrie, Chabad rabbi and author of The Secret of Chabad, told the Magazine. “Is Israel’s Independence Day a celebration of secular nationalism, as many of the Zionist leaders espoused, or a country based on Judaism?” he asks.
He reaffirmed the idea that Chabad’s support of the existence of the state does not mean it is a Jewish creation.
KFAR CHABAD’S replica of the famed Lubavitch headquarters at 770 Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn, New York. (Wikimedia Commons)KFAR CHABAD’S replica of the famed Lubavitch headquarters at 770 Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn, New York. (Wikimedia Commons)
“Israeli society in general is becoming a more religious society. The earlier leaders wanted a secular nationalistic state. Ben-Gurion and his generation were reacting against the religiosity of their family and the world.”
ANOTHER EXAMPLE Eliezrie gives is the date chosen after World War II to commemorate all those who were murdered in the Holocaust. Israel’s Holocaust Remembrance Day has become a standard date in the modern Israeli calendar, but during the early years of the state, debates were held to decide on what day to commemorate it. Should it be the 10th day of the Jewish month of Tevet, a traditional Jewish day of mourning; September 1, the day of the German invasion of Poland; or the 14th of Nissan, the day before Passover, on which the Warsaw Ghetto uprising (April 19, 1943) began? 
“Yom Hashaoh was chosen on a different date to Tisha B’Av and the 17th of Tammuz, the classical days of [Jewish] mourning as Menachem Begin wanted – that attitude of rejection of historical religious tradition existed in Israeli society at the time.”
While the haredi world looks upon the State of Israel as a secular institution, Israelis and many Jews around the world look upon Israel with its positive Jewish aspects. Marriages in Israel can be legally recognized only under the auspices of the Chief Rabbinate, offices of the government and other organizations are closed on the Shabbat and Jewish festivals, and in Jerusalem, for example, there is no public transportation at all on Shabbat or festivals.
PRIME MINISTER Benjamin Netanyahu visits Kfar Chabad in 2019. (Yehuda Haim/Flash90)PRIME MINISTER Benjamin Netanyahu visits Kfar Chabad in 2019. (Yehuda Haim/Flash90)
As is the case in nuanced positions, Chabad also has plenty of points to make in their support of the State of Israel. Despite being the largest ultra-Orthodox sect and fastest growing in the world, Chabad has never had a political party in Israel, yet their members actively vote in Israeli elections and have taken part in secular debates. “Chabad members try and act as a moral voice, not political activists and do not have a party,” Eliezrie told the Magazine. “Chabad disagrees with the haredi perspective of insulation, and wants to contribute to Israel society in a positive way.”
One ongoing debate that has raged in Israel for years is ultra-Orthodox conscription into the IDF. In 2014, the Knesset passed a contentious law to draft haredim, which resulted in mass protests by the community. At the time, one Shas MK said, “We understand there is a need to participate in things, but there is also a great duty of the people of Israel to study Torah.”
Chabad managed to find a compromise. As Eliezrie writes in his book, “Chabad leaders negotiated a special ‘Chabad Track’ in the legislation in February of 2014. Yeshiva students received deferments while studying and afterward, would join the military. The effort to find a middle ground is reflective of the core of Chabad philosophy.”
BLUE AND WHITE Party chairmen Benny Gantz carries a Torah scroll as he dances during Simhat Torah celebrations in Kfar Chabad in 2019. (Yossi Zeliger/Flash90)BLUE AND WHITE Party chairmen Benny Gantz carries a Torah scroll as he dances during Simhat Torah celebrations in Kfar Chabad in 2019. (Yossi Zeliger/Flash90)
The argument of Chabad and their views of the modern State of Israel are indeed nuanced. One can find many examples on both sides of the argument. In the case of Chani Lifshitz, it seems there was no middle ground to find, unfortunately. The actions of the leadership in New York and the words of those in Israel must have hurt her deeply, and it is unlikely they would have assumed such a decision would have caused the controversy it did, despite there being somewhat of a precedent.
It once again raised questions on how Chabad views Israel’s Independence Day, the State of Israel and modern Zionism as a whole. It just so happens that this particular time, one innocent woman was caught up in a debate that is likely to run for many more years.
FINANCE MINISTER Israel Katz speaks at a 2019 Chabad rally in Tel Aviv. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)FINANCE MINISTER Israel Katz speaks at a 2019 Chabad rally in Tel Aviv. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)
OPENING Chabad’s election campaign in Safed in 2018. (David Cohen/Flash90)OPENING Chabad’s election campaign in Safed in 2018. (David Cohen/Flash90)