Hanukkah is the most appropriate time to discuss the dangerous relationship that has developed between secular Israel and the Chabad movement. Its “mitzvah tanks” patrol the country's streets, there seems to be a giant menorah on every corner and last Friday, emissaries handed out sufganiyot. All thanks to a non-Zionist movement that not only invented religionization, but is the national champion in encouraging individuals to become pious.
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Its “rebbe” became less observant when he lived in Paris, but returned to the fold after being rescued from Europe at the start of World War II. That led him to make the “return” of nonobservant Jews to religion the core of movement activities. There's no ultra-Orthodox movement that succeeds in this more than Chabad. En route, they've also invented the idea of transforming the whole country into a more religiously observant one.
In contrast to other movements, which focused on locating vulnerable individuals, Chabad's techniques were different and more sophisticated. They've flooded the surroundings with religious symbols, achieving a two-fold gain: wielding significant influence over a wide public that has no interest in returning to religion, as well as creating broader circles of people who do show an interest, which has allowed Chabad to find potential recruits. Jewish identity centers and “Torah Seed” groups run by Zionist-religious movements, which are spearheading the religionization campaign, have based themselves on the Chabad model. The Zionist-religious groups don’t try to get people to return to religion per se, but Chabad does, which is why it's so dangerous. The movement entraps lonely people, encouraging them to embrace religion as part of a burgeoning movement in the country.
Not only is Chabad a non-Zionist movement; in many respects it is anti-Zionist. It’s not by chance that the “rebbe” never set foot in Israel (which didn’t prevent sycophantic Israeli politicians from visiting him when he was alive, or going to his grave after his death). When Rabbi Shimon Rosenberg lit a torch at Israel's Independence Day ceremony a few years ago, his rabbis forbade him from uttering the traditional words proclaimed by the honorees, who dedicate the torch-lighting to the State of Israel. Instead of removing him, organizers conjured up a pathetic alternative, whereby he lit the torch and dedicated it to "the State of the Land of Israel,” a state that doesn’t exist, as far as I know.
A camera set up by a nonprofit group in Ramat Aviv recently captured a Chabad emissary telling children gathered around him in the middle of the night – as he showered them with junk food, soft drinks and a little alcohol – that Herzl was an apostate and the establishment of Israel a grave mistake.
But lo and behold, even though Chabadniks are anti-Zionists bent on spreading religiosity and encouraging people to embrace an Orthodox way of life, the state and its citizens not only continue groveling before them, they provide them with easy access to our most precious resource: our children. The Ministry of Education approves and recommends programs run by Chabad, such as a new and shocking core subject called “Israeli-Jewish culture.” Many schools and kindergartens invite Chabad emissaries to give lectures and hold day-long programs.
Many municipalities have rabbis who are permitted freedom of action within the school system, encouraged by the local authority. Apparently Chabad representatives have permanent access to army bases, where they do as they please – such as excluding women from events they hold. Outside many high schools in Israel Chabad erects stands every Friday, by which they try to connect with students. They win over younger ones with what every parent with any awareness tries to keep away from his children: lots of sweets and snacks, all for free.
Above all this hovers the main means for inducing children to become Orthodox: bar-mitzvah instruction. Chabad offers such instruction everywhere, often at no cost. Such lessons are the basis of the process of getting children to become religious, as I’ve often witnessed. All the other activities, including the stands where men are called on to don phylacteries, the free Hanukkah doughnuts, etc., are only ways to preserve and consolidate the connection formed during these bar-mitzvah lessons.
The most serious question arising from all this is: Where are the parents? How is it that they allow their children unsupervised and unmediated contact with a non-Zionist group whose main goal is making people become observant? Is it a lack of awareness? Are parents also tempted by the free gifts? Or is it the Chabadniks' perennial smiles and pleasantness that do the trick?
I have news for the people charmed by these smiles. This is only part of Chabad's methods; a smile is one of the combat tactics of their campaigns. I’ve been threatened more than once by Chabadniks who told me that they also have lives outside these campaigns. Indeed, anyone who tries to oppose Chabad learns that this is an aggressive movement that doesn’t shy away from strong-arm methods when necessary.
Only this week I heard from a principal of an educational institution about the curses and threats she was subjected to after she prevented a Chabad representative from entering her institution. I’ve been vilified and threatened many times. Like many secular activists, I too have received a letter from an attorney working for Chabad, threatening me with a libel suit. Filing complaints with the police is also one of their methods.
On the other hand, Chabad members themselves ignore law and order. Many of the structures in which they hold their events lack the necessary permits. They don’t care since when they are challenged there is always a municipal clerk who, for one reason or another, gives them a last-minute or retroactive permit. A few months ago a city inspector in Herzliya dared write a citation for a stand illegally erected by Chabad. Not only did the municipality have to revoke the fine, the compensation for the embarrassment the city supposedly caused involved a humiliating process during which the mayor went to visit the local Chabad rabbi, and sent a fawning letter to the dead “rebbe”!
These are anti-Zionists who lean on people to become pious. They’re trying to change the character of this country and use aggressive methods. Do we need more reasons for calling on secular society to remove Chabad from within its midst?
Ram Fruman is the chairman of the Secular Forum.