Chabad Bans Envoy From Participating in Israeli Independence Day Ceremony

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טקס המשואות בהר הרצל שבירושלים, בשנה שעברה
The Independence Day torch-lighting ceremony in Jerusalem, May 8, 2019. Credit: Niv Ahronson

Chabad, the Jewish Orthodox outreach movement, has forbidden its envoy (“shaliach”) to Nepal from participating in a ceremony marking Israel’s 72nd anniversary. The Chabad Rabbinical Court did not explain its opposition, although the movement is known to walk tightrope on Zionism and the State of Israel.

Chani Lifshitz, who runs the Chabad house in Kathmandu, was chosen to light one of the 12 torches (representing the 12 tribes of Israel) at the annual event, considered a highlight of Israeli Independence Day celebrations. Lifshitz was chosen by Israel’s Culture Minister Miri Regev because she symbolized “mutual aid, hospitality and love for Israel.”

In a letter sent to Lifshitz, the Chabad Rabbinical Court notified her that she could not participate without its authorization. “We are certain you will obey our instructions, which will be monitored by the ‘Center for Education,’ with all that implies,” the seven rabbis wrote, hinting at the possibility of sanctions if she did not comply.

It is widely known that the Hasidic movement has an ambivalent relationship with Zionism and the State of Israel. On the one hand, Chabad vocally supports Israeli annexation of the West Bank and has an organized presence in West Bank settlements. On the other hand, it has not come to terms with the secular aspects of Zionism and the Israeli government.

According to a source in the court, Lifshitz initially rejected the request and then fell into line. The source said that the court’s main opposition was that Lifshitz did not coordinate her participation with the movement’s leaders and specifically with Rabbi Moshe Kotlarsky, who oversees Chabad’s thousands of institutions around the world. “She refused to listen to Rabbi Kotlarsky, forcing the court to take action,” said the source.

The source added that beyond the principled opposition to secular Zionism, the Chabad leadership does not view this as a time for celebrations as it has suffered dozens of losses in the coronavirus pandemic. “The Hasidim are mourning and many did not like her decision to participate in a celebratory ceremony,” said the source, adding that there is certainly controversy within the movement concerning the court’s intervention.

Because of the coronavirus restrictions, the event will be pre-recorded rather than held in front of an audience and televised live.

Lifshitz announced on her Facebook page Thursday that she would not challenge the decision taken by the Chabad movement and had notified Regev of her decision to back out. “Maybe I won’t be able to hold a torch,” she wrote, “but the greatest honor in this world I have already received – a life of purpose and mutual assistance. There is no greater gift than this.”

Lifshitz and her husband have run the Chabad house in Kathmandu for the past 20 years. Popular among Israeli backpackers, it is famous for hosting one of the largest Passover seders in the world.

In 2011, Chabad distanced itself from the participation of one if its representatives, Rabbi Shimon Rosenberg, in the ceremony. The rabbi’s daughter and son-in-law, Rivkah and Gavriel Holtzberg, had been killed in a terror attack in 2008 in Mumbai, where they ran the local Chabad house. That year, the rabbinical court did not instruct Rosenberg to withdraw, but issued a statement saying that he would be representing only himself and not the entire movement. Rosenberg is the brother-in-law of the head of the rabbinical court.

At the ceremony, it is traditional for participants to recite the following words as they light the torches: “To the glory of the state of Israel.” Rosenberg, instead, said: “To the glory of the state of the Land of Israel.”

The Association of Chabad Hasidim commented that the authority to approve participation in public events in the Land of Israel is in the hands of the association, headed by the court, as ordered by the religious leader. “We thank Minister Miri Regev’s team for their intent to appreciate the work being done around the world to bring together all the nation of Israel,” they wrote in a statement.

Aaron Rabinowitz contributed to this report.

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