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Saturday, December 06, 2008

Religious Affairs: Burying the Jew-Israeli distinction?

Dec. 4, 2008
Matthew Wagner
THE JERUSALEM POST

The attack in Mumbai by Islamic terrorists that ended the lives of six Jews, including Chabad emissaries Rabbi Gavriel Holtzberg and his wife, Rivka, raised questions about Israel's role in providing security to Chabad houses.

This week, the Chief Rabbinate Council, spurred by one of its members, Chabad Rabbi Shimon Elituv, called on the government to provide such aid.

United Torah Judaism chairman Ya'acov Litzman sent a letter to Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni asking that Chabad houses, which "serve the entire Jewish people," receive state funding. In contrast, Foreign Ministry officials said that Israel could not help provide security, since Chabad houses were "not official Israeli organizations."

And Internal Security Minister Avi Dichter said that "the State of Israel cannot be the sheriff of Jewish sites in the Diaspora."

Obviously, part of the reason for Dichter's reluctance involves budget concerns. It would be prohibitively costly to fund even a fraction of security for hundreds of Chabad houses around the globe.

The Foreign Ministry's distinction between official and unofficial Israeli organizations, however, might hint at another reason for official opposition to supporting Chabad: Why should the secular State of Israel support Chabad, an organization with the essentially spiritual goal of spreading Yiddishkeit?

Lubavitch Hassidism's express purpose, as articulated Tuesday by one rabbi who eulogized the Holtzbergs at Kfar Chabad, is "to hasten the redemption and spread the light of Torah by making sure there is not one Jewish man who does not wear tefillin, not one Jewish woman who does not light Shabbat candles."

To accomplish this, Chabad's emissaries have created a network of Jewish centers that promulgate good deeds and Torah study wherever there are Jews. Chabad's emphasis is on strengthening the religious aspect of Jewish identity in preparation for the messianic era.

The Zionist state's goal, in contrast, is to normalize the Jewish condition. By providing the Jewish people with its own territory, Zionism's founding fathers hoped to transform the wandering Jew of the exile into a nation like all other nations.

Secular Zionists argued that with the creation of a Jewish state there would no longer be a need for halacha [Jewish law], which served the sole purpose of maintaining Jewish unity as a "portable homeland" in the Diaspora. A new, more normal Jewish identity would be created, and the old Diaspora baggage could be dropped.

Chabad did not seem completely comfortable with the idea of tightening its ties with the State of Israel either. Its leadership in New York was hesitant about the possibility of receiving security aid. The reason, said Chabad sources, was that security issues should be discussed behind closed doors.

But an Israeli Chabad source gave another reason: "Somebody in the Foreign Ministry said that if we started receiving money from the state, we would have to fly an Israeli flag over every Chabad house. We can't do that. There is nothing wrong with flying an Israeli flag occasionally if it strengthens someone's connection with the Jewish people and gives them a little Jewish pride. But we are not a Zionist organization."

HISTORICALLY, CHABAD, like other haredim, virulently opposed secular Zionism, because its ideology proposed to replace Judaism with nationalism. In 1903, Rabbi Shalom Dov Ber Schneerson, the fifth rebbe of Chabad, elucidated his staunch opposition to Zionism in a famous letter. "They think nationalism has replaced religion, and that Zionism is now the best means for the preservation of Jewish society, and not Torah and mitzvot," he wrote. "Zionists are more dangerous than the maskilim, because they believe that they are no longer obligated to the Torah, and that one is a proper Jew in that he is a loyal nationalist."

The seventh and last Chabad rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, who staunchly opposed territorial compromise and was adamantly pro-Israel, nevertheless was careful never to use the term "State of Israel," always referring, instead, to the "Land of Israel."

In a 1969 letter to former MK Geula Cohen, he explained that one of the reasons he refrained from using the word "state" was because "it implied a general approach and program among Jews to be like all the goyim, a program that resulted in many physical and spiritual causalities and which, due to our sins, continues to do so."

For Schneerson, the nationalist aspect of Zionism represented a potential spiritual danger. Jews were liable to believe that a secular Israeli identity patterned after gentile nations would supplant authentic Jewish identity.

THE ATTACK in Mumbai, however, may have helped both Chabad and secular Zionists realize the symbiotic relationship that has developed between the religious and nationalist aspects of Jewish identity.

The Pakistani Islamist terrorists did not distinguish between the "Jewish" and "Israeli" identity of Chabad. Most of the victims of the attack on the Chabad House either had dual Israeli-American citizenship or were not Israelis. Regardless of whether or not Chabad houses fly the Israeli flag, they are identified with Israel.

President Shimon Peres, the only state official and secular Jew who eulogized the Holtzbergs at Kfar Chabad, barely mentioned the State of Israel or Israelis. Rather, he spoke in the name of "the Jewish people."

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert lumped together the state and Jews in his official reaction to the Mumbai attack: "The hatred of Jews, the State of Israel and Jewish symbols is still a factor that spurs and encourages such murderous acts."

In a telephone conversation after the funeral, Rabbi Menachem Brod, the official spokesman for Chabad in Israel, was very candid about his organization's interest in strengthening its ties with the state. Unlike the New York Chabad leadership, he spoke openly about working together with security officials.

"We plan to meet with government representatives soon," he said. "We would like to see what they can do to help."

He added that Chabad already received help, advice and sometimes even training from security personnel located in Israeli embassies.

A senior official in the Foreign Ministry said that Mumbai represented a "turning point in relations between Chabad and the State of Israel. I don't know if we will be seeing more state funding for Chabad Houses, but the attack definitely blurred the distinctions between 'Israeli' and 'Jew.'"

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