No holds barred: Moving past Chabad’s reluctance on Zionism to fight BDS

With the global assault on Israel concentrated on the world’s campuses, Chabad now faces a dilemma...

Anti-Israel demonstrators march behind a banner of the BDS organization in Marseille, June 13. (photo credit: GEORGES ROBERT / AFP)
Anti-Israel demonstrators march behind a banner of the BDS organization in Marseille, June 13.
(photo credit: GEORGES ROBERT / AFP)
With the global assault on Israel concentrated on the world’s campuses, Chabad now faces a dilemma: Will it rise to the occasion and defend Israel or will it see its primary mission as spreading Judaism to the exclusion of protecting the Jewish state.
The two are not the same. The former assumes a risk of being seen as political and Zionist. It also risks alienating left-leaning Jewish students – and there are plenty of those at universities – who are unsympathetic to the Jewish state.
Many Chabad emissaries have told me defending Israel gets in the way of their core mission of serving as a home away from home for Jewish students. For many, Israel is just too toxic.
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And yet, Israel is, after all, the Jewish state. And Chabad loves all things Jewish.
As for Chabad’s tortured relationship with Zionism, most of that is related to the previous rebbe, Rabbi Joseph Isaac’s opposition to Israel being portrayed as a secular replacement for the Jewish faith.
Many would argue things have changed substantially, with 60 percent of Israel’s officer corps now sporting kippot and the die-hard secularism of Israel taking a backseat to the significant rise of observance among the population.
Chabad, along with Hillel, is the best organization posed to lead the fight for Israel on campus. But it requires a shift in thinking. Chabad wants students to embrace their tradition. Few things are more important. But that commitment will falter without Jewish pride, and the great test of Jewish pride today is the degree to which we stand up for and defend the first Jewish state in 2,000 years.
Chabad today is truly international, operating even more outposts than the United States government. Chabad is not only the world’s largest Jewish educational network, it is quite simply one of the world’s largest networks period. Perhaps only the Catholic Church has a more extensive grid of schools and educational outposts. Yet, for all its internationalism Chabad continues to evince a largely parochial mentality. It is global in scope but not in outlook.
Indeed, Chabad’s continued insularity – wholly insistent on spreading Jewish observance exclusively to Jews as opposed to having Jewish ideas and values permeate the wider culture – is surprising and contradictory given the rebbe’s universalist vision of a Messianic future. No Jewish religious leader in modern times has thought so broadly or so grandly.
The mind labors to wrap itself around the breadth and scope of a personality who envisioned reshaping human history and nature as we know it. Yet Chabad often ignores the broader implications of the rebbe’s vision in favor of bricks-and-mortar activism that is geared almost entirely to local provinces and communities.
Jewish internationalism is today embodied in the State of Israel, the entity that has literally given the Jews a place among the nations.
Many in Chabad maintain that the movement’s global reach is proof that it has embraced the rebbe’s international vision. But a truer evaluation would have us conclude that Chabad’s expansion has been almost entirely horizontal rather than vertical. Chabad has opened countless centers in innumerable places.
But it has penetrated more of the Jewish community and not sought to influence the non-Jewish world.
People come to Chabad for its schools, its menorah lightings, its communal Seders, and inspiring social programs like Friendship Circle. They rely on Chabad for summer camps for kids and Torah classes for adults. What they do not do is come to Chabad for answers as to why Israel is not an apartheid state, why Israel’s response to rockets and attacks is proportionate and essential, or why Judea and Samaria are an integral part of Jewish history from ancient times.
Now, with Chabad operating hundreds of centers on campuses throughout the world, it can take the lead along with Hillel in being the global front line for Israel’s defense among the young. Fixing this glaring omission is easier than one might suppose.
Most Chabad emissaries’ kids study together via an online school. It can be easily redeployed to give Chabad emissaries the necessary information to respond to the Israel-haters on campus and the training to organize large-scale pro-Israel events that educate student minds as to the righteousness of the Jewish state.
Every global movement has an international hub where the spokes of the wheel meet. Catholics have the Vatican, the Muslims Mecca, and even the Mormons, who have experienced the kind of spectacular growth reminiscent of Chabad, have endeavored to transform Salt Lake City – once a sleepy desert colony – into a global pivot with the world’s largest indoor conference center, seating 21,000.
But Crown Heights, for all its undeniable energy and excitement, remains but a section of Brooklyn with a large, unadorned – some would say worn – central synagogue that appeals almost exclusively to Lubavitchers. Even on Simchat Torah, its premiere annual event, you will see only a handful of non-Chabad faces at 770.
And as far as the emissaries are concerned, Crown Heights is highlighted but once a year at the Kinus gathering.
It should be the priority of Chabad international to build in Crown Heights a museum for the proper understanding of the Arab-Israeli conflict and a center to educate future leaders how to be Israel warriors on campus.
A media network should be attached to the center that brings experts on Israel to respond to the lies told every day about the Jewish state. Just imagine what Chabad could achieve if its emissaries collaborated with a central organ, a boiler-room think tank, focused on responding to the never- ending lies about Israel.
When I was at Oxford I was amazed at the power and reach of the Oxford Union.
Founded by students in 1823, it leveraged the fame of the university to attract, as well as cultivate, world leaders whose participation transformed the union into the world’s most famous debating chamber. I used the union as my own model for creating the Oxford L’Chaim Society, which similarly focused on world personalities, but this time lecturing on the justice of Israel’s cause.
Chabad is eminently capable of doing the same in Crown Heights. Already, Brooklyn is being gentrified and becoming a hub of young and highly educated professionals.
Crown Heights is part of New York City, the world’s financial, diplomatic, and media capitol. Crown Heights is headquarters of the world’s most influential Jewish organization, and Jews are news. With a little vision Crown Heights can emerge as a leading American center for Israel defense with a broad global network of on-campus activists who fight on the front line.
Many will argue that a focus on Israel has never been Chabad’s forte. I disagree.
The Jewish people is Chabad’s focus. No organization shows more Ahavat Yisrael, love for fellow Jews, than Chabad. And right now six million Jews living in Israel face a global threat from a cesspit of hatred directed toward them.
Chabad should be leading their defense.
The writer served as the Chabad emissary at Oxford University from 1988 to 1999.
He has just published The Israel Warrior’s Handbook. Follow him on his website www. and on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.