It is one of the best-known exports of the Jewish world: Chabad. The movement seeks to bring Jews closer to Judaism — a distinctly Orthodox version of it, some would argue — and has thousands of emissaries, active in more than 100 countries worldwide (Rwanda being the most recent addition to the long list). Its famous Passover seder, held annually in Nepal, is frequently ranked the largest in the world.
Chabad rabbis are universally known for being warm, friendly, hospitable — and even hip. They like to say they accept all Jews, regardless of affiliation or lack thereof, and are not prone to judgment like other, more insular, Hasidic sects.
Yet a look at last week’s election results shows that Israeli followers of the movement disproportionately supported a party whose political message is anything but inclusive. Otzma Yehudit (“Jewish Power” in English), a far-right, anti-Arab party, had its best showing in towns and communities with relatively large concentrations of Chabad Hasidim.
Founded by followers of the late Meir Kahane — the racist rabbi whose Kach party was outlawed in Israel more than 30 years ago — Otzma Yehudit ran independently in the September 17 election, after running as part of the Union of Right-Wing parties in the April election. The most recent results, therefore, provide an opportunity to identify the main pockets of support for this extremist ideology among Israeli voters.
Otzma Yehudit, which supports full annexation of the West Bank and the expulsion of Arab citizens deemed “disloyal” to Israel, is very similar in its platform to the outlawed Kach. It ultimately did not cross the 3.25 percent electoral threshold, garnering only 1.88 percent of the total vote (83,266 votes, with just a tiny number of ballots still to be counted). A disproportionately large share of those votes came from radical West Bank settlements.
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As a rule, the international Chabad movement (also known as the Lubavitcher movement) does not endorse political candidates anywhere. However, in a rather unusual move, about two weeks before the do-over election, leading Chabad rabbis in Israel issued a statement urging their followers not to vote for any party that was in danger of not crossing the electoral threshold.
Although the statement did not specifically mention Otzma Yehudit, it was widely interpreted as a call to boycott the Kahanist party. But the results show that a significant share of Chabad Hasidim chose to defy their rabbis.
Located in central Israel and known for its full-scale replica of Chabad headquarters in Crown Heights, Kfar Chabad is the largest Lubavitcher community in the country with nearly 6,500 residents. Otzma Yehudit won nearly 22 percent of the vote in the town last week, finishing only behind United Torah Judaism, the ultra-Orthodox Ashkenazi party.
Other Israeli towns where the Kahanist party captured a relatively large chunk of the vote, and where Chabad is known to have a significant presence, were Safed (nearly 8 percent) and Kiryat Malakhi (6 percent).
But it was over the Green Line (Israel’s internationally recognized border) where the party had its best showing by far.
In Hebron, where Chabad runs a large center that provides meals and other services to soldiers deployed in this key flash point in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Otzma Yehudit picked up 37 percent of the vote, coming in second behind the right-wing religious party Yamina.
Baruch Marzel, a former aide to Kahane and member of Otzma Yehudit, lives in Hebron and is known for his close ties to Chabad. He was disqualified from running on the Otzma Yehudit slate because of his racist views.
Rabbi Yitzchak Ginsburgh, a controversial rabbi with close ties to radical fringes of the settler movement, is considered deeply influential in certain Lubavitch circles. A resident of Kfar Chabad, he serves as president of the Od Yosef Chai yeshiva in the radical settlement of Yitzhar. This yeshiva has served on several occasions as a base for attacks against nearby Palestinian villages, which could help explain why Otzma Yehudit won 58 percent of the vote here — more than any other party.
It also won 35 percent in Bat Ayin, a settlement founded by followers of Ginsburgh. In Itamar, the Kahanist party picked up nearly 27 percent of the vote; in Shiloh 26.5 percent; in Mitzpeh Yeriho 25 percent; in Elon Moreh 19 percent; in Susya and Otniel 17 percent; and in Immanuel 13 percent. Chabad is a relatively small movement in Israel with an estimated 130,000 local followers. But coincidentally or not, it has a presence on all of these settlements.
David Biale, a distinguished professor of Jewish history at UC Davis in California and co-author of a recently published anthology on Hasidism, is not surprised by the results. “This is probably true of all Hasidic groups, but certainly Chabad: That among their followers there are definitely racial ideas about non-Jews, a sort of racial hierarchy that sees Jews as different from goyim,” he says.
‘The most right wing’
Ironically, Chabad does not define itself as Zionist. Like most ultra-Orthodox movements, it subscribes to the view that any Jewish state that comes into being must be a theocracy, and that this can only happen after the Jewish messiah comes. But in contrast to other Haredi movements, Chabad embraces a very strong and radical position on territorial concessions involving the Greater Land of Israel: Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the seventh and last Chabad rebbe, ruled that it is against Jewish law to give up even “one inch” of the land. He went so far as to oppose Israel’s decision to return the Sinai Desert in the early 1980s in exchange for peace.
Mendi Gruzman, an Israeli journalist and Chabadnik, says this is critical to understanding voting patterns among the movement’s followers. “The rebbe opposed giving back any land not out of any great belief in the Greater Land of Israel ideology, but rather, because he thought it would be dangerous,” says Gruzman, who co-hosts a daily program on Kan Moreshet, the Jewish-themed public broadcasting station. “As a result, Chabadniks tend to vote for whichever party running is most right wing and least likely to relinquish land.”
At the same time, he insists, most Chabadniks distance themselves from the “style” of the Kahanists — a reference to their racist language and actions. “If they vote for Otzma Yehudit, it is despite this style rather than because of it,” he says.
A prominent Chabad rabbi from the United States — who asked not to be named on the grounds that the movement discourages anything that might be interpreted as a political statement — seemed to agree. “Personally, I would never vote for such a party and I find their positions quite troubling,” he says. “But I think what happened here was that there were many voters attracted to their very strong position on not giving up land, because that was a very important principle for the rebbe.”
Following Schneerson’s death in 1994, Chabad split into two camps: one that believes the rebbe died, as any ordinary individual ultimately would; and another that believes the rebbe is the Jewish messiah and either never died (and is hiding somewhere), or died and will be resurrected. It is not clear which group dominates worldwide today, but Biale estimates that Israel’s Chabad community is disproportionately messianist. “That more radical sensibility could explain the large numbers voting for the Kahanist party,” he says.
Shabtay Bendet, a former settler, spent many years in the Chabad movement. After undergoing a radical ideological and religious transformation, he now serves as chief monitor of settlement activities for the anti-occupation group Peace Now.
It is a widespread misconception, he says, that Chabad is an apolitical movement. “Considering that they believe any territorial compromise is illegitimate, I would definitely call it an extremist movement,” he says. “In many Chabad circles, other right-wing parties are simply not relevant because they’ve already been involved in some way or another in compromising land, whereas Otzma Yehudit has not been and is therefore the preferred political party.”
Asked to comment on the relatively large number of Israeli Chabadniks who voted for Otzma Yehudit, local Chabad spokesman Menachem Brod said: “The numbers are not so large. Most Chabadniks voted for United Torah Judaism, Shas, Yamina and Likud [all right-wing parties]. Only 20 percent voted for Otzma Yehudit.”
According to Brod, the party won that many votes because it was able to persuade Chabadniks that it might not cross the electoral threshold if they voted otherwise.
Many Chabadniks also voted for Otzma Yehudit, he says, because they were angered by the High Court of Justice decision to block two members of the party from standing, “while allowing candidates who support terror to run” — a reference to the Joint List of Arab parties.
Otzma Yehudit leader Itamar Ben-Gvir did not respond to a request for comment on his party’s ties to Chabad.