Into the Maelstrom (Part II)

Send in e-mailSend in e-mail

Between Jerusalem and Zurich

The Palestinian press followed with great interest the deliberations of the 16th Zionist Congress, which opened in Zurich at the end of July 1929. The entire month of July had been marked by confrontations over the Western Wall, where the Muslims had received permission from the British to build a wall with a door in it to enable the passage of pedestrians through the plaza. In the Mughrabi neighborhood, whose houses abutted the narrow Western Wall plaza, religious festivities accompanied by music began to be held, which the Jewish worshipers believed were intended to disturb them at prayer. Despite the protests, the ceremonies continued. Headlines in Doar Hayom during July told the story: "No comfort by the Wall," "New clash at the Wall?" These were followed by a series of headlines about the wall the Muslims were building at the site - and then, on July 30, as the Zionist Congress opened, there was: "Protests against Western Wall scandal encompass whole country."

The hundreds of delegates who gathered in Zurich were fully aware of these developments. On August 4, Doar Hayom reported that "the Congress laments the clash at the Wall." Nahum Sokolov read out the text of the protest and all the delegates rose to their feet: "Emotions ran deep and tears welled up in the delegates' eyes. The meeting was then stopped for a time as a mark of sorrow." In many communities of the Yishuv, Jews from different streams, both secular and religious, established "Committees for the Western Wall." On August 7, on the eve of Rabbi Schneersohn's arrival, the Central Committee for the Western Wall was formed, and the next day a local committee of the same kind was established in Safed.

The Zionist Congress in Zurich decided to create the Jewish Agency for Palestine, in whose executive non-Zionist organizations had 50-percent representation. Speaking at the opening ceremony of the Jewish Agency Council, Herbert Samuel, who was the first British High Commissioner to Palestine (1920-1925), stated that the building of the Land of Israel was not a matter for only part of the Jewish people, but for the Jews everywhere. The presence of Prof. Albert Einstein, a non-Zionist, emphasized this approach.

The Palestinian press, which was alert to the developments in Jerusalem and Zurich, identified the greater danger. The paper Palestine, which expressed the views of the opposition to the mufti, sounded the alarm. On August 8 the paper noted that although "one demand unites all the Jews at this time" - referring to the Western Wall, known as "Al-Buraq" in Arabic - it would be wrong to follow in the Jews' wake: "We will forsake the question of the Western Wall, we will forsake it because of the disgust it arouses, because this is a plot by the Jews, because we want the Muslim Higher Council to stop preoccupying Arab public opinion in the country only with Al-Buraq and with reports about Al-Buraq. We will forsake the Western Wall, not because we are less protective than Al-Jamaa al-Arabiya and the Higher Muslim Council of the symbol and of the established rights the Muslims have to it, but because we want to talk about something that is more dangerous to the nation."

And what is the greater danger that is threatening the Palestinian people, according to the paper? "The [Jewish] Agency claims that it is now the representative of 16 million Jews and not of one million, as the Zionist Executive was." According to the paper Palestine, the clash over the Western Wall was intended "to throw dust in our eyes" and prevent the Palestinians from seeing "the great conspiracy that the Zionists and the non-Zionists have concocted at Zurich." It was into this maelstrom that Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn strode.

Like father, like son

The Rebbe Rayatz was born in Lubavitch, Russia, in 1880 and assumed leadership of the Chabad movement after the death of his father, Rabbi Sholom Dovber, the fifth leader of the Chabad movement, in 1920. This was not an easy time for anyone in Russia, but it was especially hard for Jews who wanted to continue practicing their religion. Post-Revolution Russia was ravaged by a civil war, and the Communist government viewed religious establishments as bastions of anti-revolutionary conservatism. The greatest rabbis, along with community leaders and heads of yeshivas left the USSR, leaving the Rayatz as the preeminent Jewish religious leader. He felt that divine providence had given him the opportunity to advance his standing from being head of one Hasidic movement (in which not everyone accepted his leadership) to that of leader of the entire Jewish community. It was a mission that fit in very well with the messianic tendencies that prevailed in Chabad.

From his place of residence in Rostov, to which his father had moved during World War I, the Rayatz created a clandestine network of religious schools, yeshivas, ritual baths and kosher slaughterers. To this end he made use of funds he received from the American Joint Distribution Committee, a Jewish aid organization, as the senior rabbi in the Soviet Union. He had to wage constant mind games with the Yevsektzia, the Jewish section of the Communist Party, and especially with Communists from Chabad families, who sought to undermine his position and induce his followers to abandon religion. He viewed all these difficulties as signs of the impending arrival of the messiah and was convinced that redemption was at hand. He admonished Hasidim who could not cope with the pressure exerted by the authorities and wanted to move to Palestine that this was a "flight from the scene of the battle."

In 1924 Rabbi Schneersohn was compelled to leave Rostov and moved to Leningrad, from where he continued his activity. Three years later he was arrested. That event has a special place in Chabad mythology. According to the Chabad account, the Rayatz was arrested by Yevsektzia agents in 1927 in the middle of the night, accused of rebellion against the government and sentenced to death. A wave of protests from abroad brought about his release from prison 19 days later, with the death penalty reduced to a three-year exile in the town of Kostroma. However, the protests continued, and 10 days later he was allowed to return to Leningrad.

Prof. Menachem Friedman is skeptical about this version of events. There are no documents or any other historical record of the trial that Rabbi Schneersohn allegedly underwent, Friedman says. Moreover, he also finds illogical the speed with which the death penalty was supposedly commuted to exile, and the exile to immediate release. "Find Kostroma on the map" - it's 300 kilometers from Moscow - "and you will see that he wasn't exiled to Siberia or to the Arctic Circle," Friedman notes.

Between the lines of the Chabad account may be detected an intention to attribute the rebbe's salvation to God's miraculous intervention, in order to enhance his standing in Chabad and outside the movement, too, and perhaps to consolidate his messianic traits.

Not long after these events, Rabbi Schneersohn received permission to leave the Soviet Union, and in 1928 he left Leningrad by train with his family. Four train cars carried the rabbi's belongings, including furniture and books. He settled in Riga, Latvia, from where he tried to continue to direct the clandestine religious activity inside the Soviet Union; this was also a departure point for international tours to muster support for the struggle to introduce religious freedom in the USSR.

In an article titled "Messiah and Messianism in the Chabad Movement," Prof. Friedman writes that Rabbi Schneersohn's father objected to the permissiveness of the Lithuanian yeshivas, claiming that the students shaved, took a negative view of kabbala (mysticism) studies and read "external books," thus "poisoning their souls." To stem this "deterioration," he established a yeshiva of a new type and developed a messianic theory. He called his students "soldiers of the House of David" and expected them to do battle against the false Zionist redemption. The Rebbe Rayatz was as extreme in his ultra-Orthodoxy and in his anti-Zionist opinions as his father, from whom he inherited the messianic doctrine. According to Prof. Friedman, not all Chabad followers accepted this viewpoint. The other branches were not "messianists" and one group was even "almost Zionist." In the Yishuv, too, a dispute raged over who represented Lubavitcher Hasidism, and the visit by Rabbi Schneersohn was intended, Friedman says, to examine the possibility of establishing a Chabad center headed by him in the Land of Israel.

Nevertheless, during his visit, the Rayatz also met with Zionist rabbis, including the Ashkenazi chief rabbi, Avraham Yitzhak Hacohen Kook. Similarly, the ultra-Orthodox public, which in Zionist history is known as the "Old Yishuv," was already far from the image created by its opponents - of ghetto-minded Jews who abstain from the life of this world and subsist solely on donations. Eliezer Dan Slonim, a relative of Rabbi Schneersohn's and the person who organized his visit to the Cave of Machpelah, not only managed a Zionist bank in Hebron (the branch was founded in 1907) - he also had a large picture of Theodor Herzl, the founder of political Zionism, on a wall in his house.

Among the 67 Jews murdered in Hebron were a married couple, Shlomo and Nehama Unger, who came to Palestine as pioneers at the beginning of the 1920s and settled in Hebron in 1928. Also murdered was Leah Grodzinsky, a pioneer from Hungary who married a yeshiva student who came to Palestine in 1925. Nahman Segal, who joined the Zionist movement in 1918, came to Palestine with his wife in 1925 and after a year in Afula moved to Hebron, was also slain.

From the Palestinian perspective, then, it was becoming increasingly difficult to distinguish between the Old Yishuv and the "New Yishuv" - between Zionists and non-Zionists.

Where are the Ashkenazim?

During the decade beginning in 1870, Jews in Hebron began to build homes outside the area of the "Jewish courtyard," where they had lived in what amounted to a ghetto. One of the first to make the move was Rabbi Chaim Yisrael Romano, who built a palace on a large tract of land. After his death the Rebbe Rayatz's father purchased the property using donations he collected for that purpose. In his book, "History of Chabad in the Holy Land" (published in Hebrew in New York, 1988), Shalom Dov Ber Levin writes that Rabbi Schneersohn received reports about Arab attempts to cut into his land via various construction projects. However, these and other harassments were dwarfed by the blow the Chabad community suffered in World War I, when most of its members were deported by the Ottoman authorities because they were still Russian citizens. (Most of them returned to Palestine after the war and settled in Jerusalem; few returned to Hebron.)

The establishment of the British Mandate and the growth of the Zionist project did not stop the regression. In 1890 there were 1,429 Jews living in Hebron, of whom 619 were Ashkenazim. In 1918 their number had fallen to 757, of whom 256 were Ashkenazim, and five years later there were only 413 Jews in the city, of whom a quarter (107) were Ashkenazim. However, in 1924 the entire yeshiva of Slovodka, in Lithuania, moved to Hebron, and its 150 students "injected a spirit of life into the degenerating community," according to the "History of the Haganah" (the pre-state forerunner of the Israel Defense Forces). "Employment increased, new houses were built and boarding houses were established for the yeshiva students." Jewish vacationers began to come to the city in the summer in order to enjoy the relatively cool air.

On Saturday, August 24, 1929, shortly before the start of the massacre, Eliezer Slonim met one of the local Arab notables, who suggested that he hand over to the Arabs "the outsiders," meaning those who were not born in Hebron. Slonim rejected this. But the data about the massacre show that the Hebron Arabs tried to make a distinction between "locals" and "outsiders." Those Arabs who saved Jews, and there were many of them, sometimes at the risk of their own lives, saved their acquaintances first of all, and they were generally long-time residents of the city (Arabs saved more than 250 Jews). Of those who were murdered, 48 were foreign-born (mainly Ashkenazim) and only 19 were Palestine-born.

In June 1930, the daily Davar quoted a report of the Haifa-based Palestinian paper Yarmuk about three Palestinians who were convicted of murdering Jews and were hanged in Acre Prison. Two of the three had taken part in the Hebron massacre. One of them, Mohammed Jamjoum, admitted before his execution that he had killed five Jews, while the other, Atta al-Zir, confessed to killing three. "They added," the paper said, "that those they killed were foreign Jews and not Arab-Jews."

This comment attests to the mood in Palestinian society, which was still trying to make a distinction between Jews and Zionists, even if this did not reflect the acts of all the murderers. Atta al-Zir, for example, was convicted of killing Rabbi Meir Kastel, a veteran resident of the Sephardi community in Hebron.

Outside Zionist history

In the prologue to the events of August 1929, the author of the "History of the Haganah" observes: "The faithful description of historical events, whose development and unfolding is the result of various factors, and their correct explanation, confronts the historian with the problem of deciding the role and responsibility of each of the elements involved in the historical event." Yet the book's detailed account of the clash at the Western Wall and the massacre in Hebron makes no mention of the visit by the Lubavitcher rebbe.

This omission comes as no surprise to historians of the period. According to Prof. Yehoshua Porat, an expert on the history of the Palestinian national movement, "from the point of view of the Yishuv, the Haredim were on the margins, and it was the Yishuv that wrote Zionist history."

The historian Yigal Eilam speaks of a "mental barrier" that caused the New Yishuv to ignore what was going on in the Old Yishuv. After 1929, he says, this was also reflected in the equanimity of the "organized Yishuv" toward the efforts by some Hebron Jews to return to their city. (Noam Arnon, the spokesman of the present-day Jewish settlers in Hebron, says he found documents showing that those who returned encountered an "almost anti-Semitic" attitude on the part of Jewish Agency officials, who accused them of "greed" and alleged that they were motivated by a desire to resume their usurious money-lending business.)

Prof. Porat says he did not find in the Arab sources any mention of a possible link between the visit and the massacre, nor could any such linkage exist, he says, because in contrast to the Temple Mount, where there was a Jewish claim to ownership of the site, no one contested the Muslims' control of the Cave of Machpelah. Porat is echoed by Prof. Friedman: "I found no mention of any connection between the Rayatz's visit and the pogrom in Hebron. I went over all the documents about the riots in the Zionist Archives and in the Agudat Israel archives. If any such connection existed, it would certainly be mentioned in one way or another."

However, a hint of the existence of a connection cropped up in the trial of Sheikh Talib Marka, who was accused of incitement to murder Jews in Hebron. Hebron resident Yehuda Leib Schneersohn, who spoke Arabic, testified that he saw the sheikh standing on the steps of the Slonim house and shouting, "Come here - Slonim is hiding 40 yeshiva boys here. Slonim bought the Muslims with money that he gives them from the bank. The secretary of the yeshiva, who brings new foreigners to Hebron every day, is also here."

Sheikh Marka denied the charges totally and claimed he had tried to defend Jews, but if Schneersohn didn't make up his testimony (and maybe even if he did), he was probably referring to rumors about the way Slonim obtained the permit to visit the Cave of Machpelah. Prof. Yisrael Bartal, who has been studying the Old Yishuv for 30 years, suggests that we remember what happened the previous time a Jew tried to enter the mosque above the Cave of Machpelah, 90 years before the visit of the Lubavitcher rebbe. In June 1839, Sir Moses Montefiore and his wife paid a visit to Palestine and received a permit to enter the Cave of Machpelah from the Turkish governor. In his diary Montefiore wrote that Arabs had almost murdered them, and reported a near-outbreak of a pogrom against the Jewish community.

Friedman thinks that after the massacre the Rebbe Rayatz dropped his idea of establishing a Chabad center in Palestine. After his visit to the Holy Land, he traveled to the United States, returned to Europe and resided in Poland until the start of World War II. Having once been forced to leave his flock behind in the Soviet Union, he wanted to remain in Poland this time, after the Nazi occupation, but his family and followers persuaded him to leave. In 1940 he went to the U.S. and told the Chabad Hasidim: "We Jews should not be frightened by the terrible situation. We should understand the clear voice of Hashem [God] and know that this is the voice that heralds the coming of the messiah."

Redemption did not come, but six million Jews were murdered. According to Friedman, this development unsettled Rabbi Shmaryahu Gurary, who was married to the Rayatz's eldest daughter and for years was considered his designated successor. He apparently began to cast doubt on the messianic message, and his place was taken by the other son-in-law, Menachem Mendel Schneersohn, who was married to the younger daughter. When his father-in-law died, in 1950, after suffering from multiple sclerosis for years, Menachem Mendel succeeded him and became the last Chabad admor. In his article on messianism in Chabad, Prof. Friedman notes that from the outset the new leader maintained that the Rayatz not only did not die, even though "in the eyes of flesh" he was buried and eulogized, but that his presence now, after "dying," was far more meaningful because the corporal limitations had fallen away.

The new rebbe, Friedman wrote, frequently sat alone by the grave of his father-on-law, feeling that he had "merged with him." For this reason he never left New York, in order not to be separated from his other half, and thus he never visited Israel, either, as the Rayatz had, because, after all, he could not "split off from himself." On the other hand, Rabbi Menachem Mendel changed the movement's attitude toward Zionism, and at his inspiration many of his followers actively supported the settlements in the territories occupied in 1967, and gave the settlers permission to use Chabad property in Hebron.n



Automatic approval of subscriber comments.

NOW: 40% OFF
Already signed up? LOG IN


הקלטות מעוז

Jewish Law Above All: Recordings Reveal Far-right MK's Plan to Turn Israel Into Theocracy

איתמר בן גביר

Why I’m Turning My Back on My Jewish Identity

Travelers looking at the Departures board at Ben Gurion Airport. The number of olim who later become yordim is unknown.

Down and Out: Why These New Immigrants Ended Up Leaving Israel

Beatrice Grannò and Simona Tabasco as Mia and Lucia in "The White Lotus."

The Reality Behind ‘The White Lotus’ Sex Work Fantasy

The Mossad hit team in Dubai. Exposed by dozens of security cameras

This ‘Dystopian’ Cyber Firm Could Have Saved Mossad Assassins From Exposure

מליאת הכנסת 28.12.22

Comeback Kid: How Netanyahu Took Back Power After 18 Months in Exile