Opinion

Advice From 770 Eastern Parkway

The last Lubavitcher rebbe gave advice to generations of Israeli leaders, but he never had to live with the results

Chaim Levinson
Chaim Levinson
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Praying 10 years after the death of Lubavitcher rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, Yad Eliyahu stadium, Tel Aviv, June 21, 2004. Credit: AP
Chaim Levinson
Chaim Levinson

Menachem Begin was the perfect leader for the last Lubavitcher rebbe, Menachem M. Schneerson, who died in 1994. Schneerson, who settled in Brooklyn after escaping from France during the Holocaust, waited 29 years for an Israeli candidate for prime minister who, instead of asking “what will the goyim say?” said “we strive to do what is good and right for the Jews.” Begin consulted Schneerson frequently, even after becoming premier. However, Schneerson took issue with Begin’s decision to return the Sinai Peninsula to Egypt, in exchange for a peace treaty. Without blinking an eye, the rebbe demanded that Begin resign if he was unable to withstand the pressure to sign a peace treaty.

The story of the Lubavitch rebbe contains all the twisted elements of relations between the leaders of Israel and of American Jewry. A new and outstanding book (in Hebrew) by Shalom Yerushalmi, Yossi Elituv and Aryeh Erlich about the Lubavitch Rebbe and the talks he held with Israeli decision makers on security and foreign-policy issues (full disclosure: the three authors are friends of mine) describes in detail the naturalness with which heads of state rushed to prostrate themselves before the Rebbe.

They were all his followers. Sometimes rebuking, sometimes advising, the faces change but the path to 770 Eastern Parkway — the world headquarters of the Chabad Lubavitch Hasidic movement — continues to be well-worn. When Jacob Perry, now a Knesset member for Yesh Atid, was the head of the Shin Bet security service, he held a long meeting with Schneerson. The rebbe sent Joseph Ciechanover, the legal adviser for the defense establishment, to Moshe Dayan to tell him to conquer Damascus during the Yom Kippur War. The head of military intelligence, Aharon Yariv, shared classified army plans with Schneerson. When Netanyahu was Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations, he was a regular guest in the rebbe’s court and consulted with him many times. “I see the rebbe as a modern-day prophet. ... the things the rebbe told me about the need to stand up for the truth guide me everywhere,” Netanyahu said in an interview for the book.

Responding to criticism about his interference in state affairs, Schneerson said in 1970, “Every Jew has a stake in the Land of Israel, and therefore what is done in Israel is the business of every Jew.” Another time, he told a senior Israeli official: “If your only son were serving in the Israeli army, wouldn’t you be worried about him? I feel that I have thousands of only sons in the army.”

One can see what the state’s leaders found in the Lubavitcher rebbe. They were taken with his wisdom, analytical ability and leadership. The rebbe from Brooklyn was careful to include every Israeli, leftist and rightist alike. There is no disputing that he loved Israel, but in the end Israel is a real country. It is not a playing field for Jews who prefer the economic and cultural comforts of the United States over taking part in establishing the Jewish state. The idea of a country is based on the notion that its citizens enjoy the fruits of its success and pay a price for its failures. When the country’s leaders consulted with the Lubavitcher rebbe, they allowed a person who chose not to participate in the state to get a foot in the door. The great politicians lectured in the morning about Zionism, sovereignty and power, and in the evening ran to Brooklyn to ask what they should do.

The Lubavitcher rebbe believed he could do more for the Jewish people from Brooklyn than he could if he were in Israel. He had a right to his opinion, of course, but the Zionist idea argued that the greatest benefit to Jews is to be found here. People living in Israel, not Chabad emissaries in Alaska, paid the terrible price of the wars with Egypt. It is easy to sit in New York and demand war. Chabad is a wonderful movement. If it wants to be part of life in Israel, the place to do it is Kfar Chabad. Let the advice from New York go to Bill De Blasio.

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