Sukkot celebrations in Crown Heights, Brooklyn are among the largest and most joyous. Each night, tens of thousands of men and women gather to dance with such rigor that it’s a miracle the streets of Brooklyn don’t crack wide open. This year was especially enormous and rapturous, as it was post-COVID and Jews came to celebrate from every corner of the earth.
You will see many things at the Central Chabad Sukkot celebrations in Crown Heights. Jews with beards and Jews without beards. Women with head coverings and women without. Children running and playing, and babies in strollers. Amazing music and beautiful fireworks.
But one thing you will not see at the Crown Heights celebrations is a single Israeli flag being held by any of the thousands of people dancing.
You will see the Italian flag, even as Italy was Hitler’s closest ally during the Holocaust. You will see the French flag, even as France shipped off 80,000 Jews to Auschwitz without any help from the Germans. You will see the Union Jack, representing Britain, who, with the US and Russia defeated Hitler, but who closed the doors of Palestine to Jews who might otherwise have been saved from the gas chambers. You will also see the Ukrainian, Brazilian, and of course the yellow Chabad Moshiach flag.
But the one country that protects against another holocaust – Israel – is banned from the celebrations. It has never once been flown. The only Jewish state on earth has no flag at the Chabad Sukkot celebrations, and indeed, you’d be hard-pressed to find a single Israeli flag at any Chabad House in the world.
So why write about it now?
Because this year I witnessed something for which there is no excuse and which has pushed the issue beyond tolerance.
On the second night of the Sukkot dancing, I arrived in Crown Heights and saw a young Orthodox woman, whose name was Nily, holding an Israeli flag and dancing with it. I walked over to her and told her how proud I was of her love and support of Israel.
I asked her if I could dance with the flag as well, and she agreed. To make sure everyone saw, I danced with the Israeli flag proudly and posted a video to my millions of followers on social media.
Within minutes, Nily was harassed by some young Chabad students, who told her the Rebbe was opposed to the Israeli flag and that it was treif, unkosher. They ordered her to get rid of it. I intervened and told them to leave her alone. I did so repeatedly as they returned.
I told Nily to ignore them and keep on dancing proudly with her Israeli flag. She did. The harassment continued. Here’s Nily’s story, from an email she sent me the following day:
When Chabad harrassed a woman for bringing an Israeli flag
“I brought my flag that my brother bought me as a gift from a previous birthday.
“I was standing on the side, waving my flag and really not getting in anyone’s faces, really staying to myself when those teenagers started bothering me, saying I should not have my flag. That it’s wrong.
“Mind you, other people were waving their flags representing other nationalities. I felt that my nationality (Israel) should be represented.
“Then, when I was not focusing, one of the teenagers crawled up to the barricade and yanked my flag and ran away.
“It’s an invasion and it’s stealing. This kid just broke the eighth commandment, but calls himself a pious Jew.”
IMAGINE THAT. A Jewish woman is dancing with an Israeli flag at the world headquarters of Chabad. It’s stolen by a Chabad teen, and nobody says a word. As it happens, one of the official organizers of the outdoor Sukkot celebrations happened to be there, because he came over to discuss assisting with funding the event.
I told him about Nily being harassed with her Israeli flag. Nily was right in front of him. He said, “No one should be harassed here,” and promptly ignored the issue and departed.
Now, Chabad is, of course, not Neturei Karta, those fakers who dress up as Orthodox Jews, but who are in reality traitors to the Jewish people, who hate Israel and who meet with genocidal fiends like Ahmadinejad of Iran. Neither is Chabad the Satmar Hassidic sect, whom I respect for their ferocious Jewish pride and Jewish observance but whose anti-Zionism I obviously reject.
No, Chabad, of whom I am a very proud member since I was a boy, is a global organization that loves and supports Israel. No one loved Israel more than the Rebbe and no one showered more love on Israeli soldiers than the Rebbe. The Rebbe loved Israel so much that he opposed surrendering even one inch of Israeli land to its enemies.
The Rebbe was a vociferous critic of the Camp David Accords that surrendered Sinai, for which Israel received in return a freezing cold peace; and of course, the Oslo Accords that brought the terrorist Yasser Arafat and gave him large swaths of Judea and Samaria. The Rebbe warned that surrendering land will lead to an explosion of terrorism and the delegitimization of Israel. If only the Jewish people had listened.
SO WHY does Chabad shame itself with its opposition to the Israeli flag?
Some in Chabad will tell you it’s because the Rebbe was himself anti-Zionist and anti-Israel and once took his name off a yeshiva that played “Hatikva” at a fundraising dinner.
This is highly inaccurate. At the beginning of the state’s creation, there was concern among some Orthodox Jewish leaders – at a time when Zionism was being promoted by some secularists as a replacement for Judaism – that nationalism would supplant faith as the foundation of Jewish identity. There was a concern that Zionism, as a secular political philosophy, would come to supplant Judaism as the defining pillar of Jewishness.
Would the Rebbe be concerned with that today, when 60% of the IDF officer corps wears a kippa? Would the Rebbe be concerned with that today, when the State of Israel has led to the rebirth of thousands of yeshivas and religious schools? Would the Rebbe be concerned with that today, when those who work the hardest to stop the Israeli government from ceding land to terrorist neighbors are the religious Zionists, who are the settlers of Judea and Samaria?
There is another reason that I have decided to write about this issue now. As I danced at the Chabad Sukkot celebrations and saw every flag but Israel’s, I thought of my son Yosef Yitzchak, named after the Rebbe’s father-in-law. A bearded, Chabad, lone IDF soldier in an elite Israeli combat unit, our son Yosef was not enjoying Sukkot like all of us who were dancing.
No, he was eating dirt in the field in his olive green uniform, hiking and marching and shooting, to train to protect Jews and Israelis so that they can sing and dance in safety. And I began to feel like I was betraying my son as an IDF soldier. I called him and asked him how he felt about Israel’s flag missing while the Italian, French, and Australian flags flew among tens of thousands of Jews. He told me it pained him greatly.
So I called a philanthropist friend of mine, with whose partnership I can now make the following offer. Any Chabad institution that will fly or prominently place an Israeli flag anywhere in their Chabad House, school, yeshiva, Jewish Community Center, summer camp or similar venue, will receive $770 from the World Values Network, the organization I head, as a donation toward buying the flag and an appropriate pole or stand.
This is especially necessary for Chabad Houses on university campuses, where Israel is being demonized daily and which need visible, public support. Chabad Houses should be flying the Israeli flag.
Those interested should write immediately to [email protected]
Let’s put the confusion of the Chabad stance on the Israeli flag to rest, and let’s never force any Jew to choose between their love of the Rebbe, the greatest Jewish spiritual leader of modern times, and the State of Israel, the greatest Jewish miracle in 2,000 years.
The writer, whom The Washington Post calls “the most famous Rabbi in America,” is the author of Holocaust Holiday: One Family’s Descent into Genocide Memory Hell. Follow him on Instagram and Twitter @RabbiShmuley.