Opinion |

Is Chabad About to Make the Most Calamitous Mistake in Its History?

Chabad wants to play a two-faced game, backing Israel’s most fanatic settlers on annexation but maintaining its non-political Jewish outreach image, and funding, in the U.S. It’s not going to work

Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie
Eric H. Yoffie
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Poster promoting the late Lubavitch rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson as the 'King Messiah'
Poster promoting the late Lubavitch rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson as the 'King Messiah'Credit: Wikimedia
Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie
Eric H. Yoffie

Is Chabad-Lubavitch, the ultra-Orthodox Hasidic outreach movement, returning to the political wars? Apparently so, in Israel at least. And its rabbis are doing so by promoting a "not one inch" approach to territorial concessions and identifying with the most fanatic elements of the settler population.

And if past experience is any guide, while Chabad attempts in the weeks ahead to influence the political process in Israel, it will conceal its involvement from American Jews.  

Evidence of the new campaign is a letter sent by Rabbi Yitzchak Yehuda Yaroslavsky, seen by many as the senior Chabad rabbi in Israel, to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, urging him to reject the "deal of the century" – the Trump administration peace plan. Here, Yaroslavsky is echoing the claims of the most radical settler leaders that annexation is unacceptable, because it lays the groundwork for a Palestinian state, no matter how tiny or how tenuous its borders.  

Yaroslavsky points out that Chabad had long opposed territorial concessions of any sort, and quotes the late Lubavitcher rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, as saying that "giving away territory threatens the lives of Jews." "This plan,” Yaroslavsky wrote, "will only bring the opposite of good and security for the Holy Land."

Lag Ba'Omer parade in Hebron organized by Chabad: children from Kiryat Arba march past the Tomb of the Patriarchs . 17 May 1987
Lag Ba'Omer parade in Hebron organized by Chabad: children from Kiryat Arba march past the Tomb of the Patriarchs . 17 May 1987Credit: Wikimedia

Kikar Hashabbat, a website that covers political and religious developments in the Haredi world, quoted a number of Chabad rabbis who expressed views either similar to — or even farther right than —those of Yaroslavsky. It noted that the opposition of prominent Chabad figures was of special interest, given the close ties between Chabad in America and President Donald Trump and the fact that Jared Kushner and his family attend a Chabad synagogue; the Kushner family are substantial donors to the movement.  

Rabbi Tovia Blau, also a senior Chabad figure in Israel, wrote that the Trump annexation plan represented an explicit willingness to relinquish parts of the territories and constituted a continuation of the process of ‘unfortunate concessions’ begun at Camp David.  

The writings of the late Rabbi Schneerson often stressed the centrality of the interrelated concepts of shleimut ha’amshleimut ha’aretz, and shleimut hatorah (the wholeness of the people of Israel, the wholeness of the Land of Israel, and the wholeness of the Torah).

According to Blau, commitment to the Land of Israel and the people of Israel followed directly from a commitment to the entirety of the Torah, and there could be no right-wing politics that was not completely faithful to Torah thus understood. Blau was stingingly critical of those who put loyalty to Prime Minister Netanyahu ahead of their devotion to Torah and the Land of Israel.  

Rabbi Sholom Dov Ber Wolpe, also a Chabad rabbi, who is known for his extreme language and opinions, organized a group letter that was sent to President Donald Trump. The letter referred to those currently protesting the killing of George Floyd in the United States as "terrorists."

"We have no doubt," he wrote, "that what we have here is a reminder from the Holy One Blessed Be He, who is reminding our great friend in America of the delusion of making concessions to terrorists.  And this is true whether we are speaking of the United States itself or of agreements that America is formulating for the Land of Israel." Kikar Hashabbat also mentioned other Chabad leaders, whose remarks were along these same lines.  

Chabad rabbinical congress hands then-Science Minister Ofir Akunis a rabbinical edict forbidding any retreat from settling the West Bank and rejecting the two-state solution. 30 August 2018
Chabad rabbinical congress hands then-Science Minister Ofir Akunis a rabbinical edict forbidding any retreat from settling the West Bank and rejecting the two-state solution. 30 August 2018

Will President Trump see any of these letters or statements? Will the notoriously sensitive and criticism-averse President care?  It is hard to tell, just as it is hard to tell how far Chabad will push its anti-Deal of the Century campaign.

Generally speaking, Chabad is exceedingly cautious about political involvements and is especially concerned about its image in America, where it raises much of its money. The last time that Chabad played a major role in the political process was in the 1980s and early 1990s, when the Rebbe was still alive and was the sole source of authority in the Lubavitch movement.

The Rebbe’s major focus at the time was his call to amend the Law of Return, which grants automatic citizenship to Jews who immigrate to Israel, including converts from all streams of Judaism. In a series of newspaper ads, lectures, and sermons, the Rebbe demanded that the law be amended so that the only converts considered Jewish were Orthodox converts. Non-Orthodox converts, he claimed, were not Jewish and were undermining the purity of the Jewish people and the principle of shleimut ha’am.

Amending the law became a Chabad obsession. For example, in full page ads in the Israeli daily Maariv,  the Rebbe was quoted as calling for daily protests in the Knesset against the unamended Law of Return, and for the religious parties to withdraw from any government that did not promise to amend the law immediately.  

Prior to the election of 1988, the Rebbe saw his chance. Chabad extracted a promise from the ultra-Orthodox Agudat Yisrael party to amend the law if included in the coalition. Chabad then formally abandoned its non-partisan stance, and Chabad activists asked potential voters to commit themselves in writing to vote for the Agudah, in return for which they were promised a blessing from the Rebbe. 

But despite the fact that more than 100,000 voters signed the forms, and Agudat Yisrael joined the government, the effort failed. An energized American Jewry opposed the suggested amendment, and Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir’s coalition was unable to pass it.

Mobile missionaries: A Chabad bus roving Israel as part of the movement's outreach work to bring Jews to an observant Orthodox lifestyle. Abirim, 9 February 2019
Mobile missionaries: A Chabad bus roving Israel as part of the movement's outreach work to bring Jews to an observant Orthodox lifestyle. Abirim, 9 February 2019Credit: Gil Eliahu

But religious issues were not the Rebbe’s only concern. When Shimon Peres attempted to become prime minister in 1990 by getting Agudat Yisrael to switch sides and support him, the Rebbe played a major role in convincing the Agudah’s Knesset members to change their minds and stick with Shamir. His reasoning was that only Shamir could be depended on to reject any and all territorial concessions.  

Later, when Shamir began considering some form of autonomy for the Palestinians and agreed to President George H.W. Bush’s demand to attend the Madrid Conference, the Rebbe was furious. 

Moshe Katzav, then Shamir’s transportation minister, was dispatched to the Rebbe to calm his concerns. Katzav promised that Shamir’s actions, including any talk of autonomy, would never lead to concessions on territory. 

But the Rebbe’s response, as noted in Haaretz on February 2, 1992, was unequivocal: "Even talk of an autonomy plan is a chilul ha’shem and a chilul ha’kodesh" (a desecration of God’s name and a desecration of the holy).

Shamir, the uncompromising nationalist, became an object of contempt for Chabad. And what was true for the Rebbe was true for other right-wing forces in Israel’s political system. Following Madrid, they withdrew from Shamir’s government, leading to an election that he lost.  

Two factors should be noted about Chabad’s political activism.  

The first is that during a decade of intense political involvement, which included high-profile campaigns and a central role for the Rebbe himself through ads, pictures, and direct quotations in various publications and campaign literature, Chabad did not say a word in America about its political work in Israel.  

In Israel, Chabad and the Rebbe aspired to be a major political force in promoting their political agenda. In America, they were intent on enjoying the image and support that came with being a non-partisan, non-political religious body, engaged in Jewish education and outreach.  

Chabadniks praying in Tel Aviv on the backdrop of a huge poster showing Lubavitcher Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson, in 2004.
Chabadniks praying in Tel Aviv against the backdrop of a giant poster of the late Lubavitcher Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson

The second is that after the Rebbe’s stroke in 1992, the political efforts more or less stopped. One assumes that, with their charismatic leader ill and severely disabled, and lacking an authoritative voice to give direction on sensitive and difficult political issues, Chabad quickly reverted to its more traditional role of Jewish outreach work.   

And so the questions that now arise are: What is happening today? Why the flurry of statements by Chabad’s major leaders in Israel on annexation and territories? Do they signal a return to a more activist political role on issues of major consequence?

Perhaps. As the Chabad leaders have rightly noted, the Rebbe’s views opposing territorial concessions and a Palestinian state of any size or type are clear and consistent. What is being said in the Rebbe’s name is completely accurate. And the Rebbe, of course, remains admired and adored among the Chabad masses, the unchallenged Chabad authority on matters large and small. 

Some in the Chabad leadership are undoubtedly thinking that with the Deal of the Century on the table, Israel faces an existential moment. For the first time since the Rebbe’s death, decisions are about to be made that will determine Israel’s territorial destiny, and therefore the fate of the Rebbe’s vision. As a result, they have no choice but to speak up, oppose the Trump plan, and fight a Palestinian state of any sort.

On the other hand, the 2020s are not the 1980s. It is not clear that absent the Rebbe’s voice, Chabad can mount any kind of systematic campaign, even if it attempts to do so. It is not clear that the Rebbe’s radical positions, extreme even for the Israeli right-wing, can ever win more than marginal support in Israel or the Diaspora.

And, especially important, it is completely clear that Chabad’s two-faced game of political radicalism in Israel and political neutrality in America is impossible in today’s interconnected world of social media and instant communication.  

I have my disagreements with Chabad, to be sure, but I also admire their sense of mission and their spirit of service to the Jewish people. If they are going to embrace the fanatic right on the Israeli political spectrum, American Jews will know and be appalled, and Chabad’s ability to do the good work that they do will be threatened in a significant way. This would be a calamitous error for Chabad, and a mistake, one hopes, that they will not make. 

Eric H. Yoffie, a rabbi, writer and teacher in Westfield, New Jersey, is a former president of the Union for Reform Judaism. Twitter: @EricYoffie

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