July 1, 2005

A matter of priorities

By URIEL HEILMAN
NEW YORK

As Jewish opponents of Israel's planned withdrawal from Gaza later this summer step up their campaign against the pullout, there is a debate raging among Chabad Chasidim around the world about how to respond to the prime minister's disengagement plan.

While opposition to territorial withdrawal is virtually universal among Chabad Chasidim, there is vigorous debate about whether or not Chasidim who live abroad-and even those in Israel-should make their way to places like Gush Katif to do all they can to block the government's plans. Many are planning trips to Gaza-some merely to study Torah there, others to demonstrate-but they do not have the endorsement of Chabad's senior leadership, which has been largely silent on the subject.

At issue, many say, is whether clashing with the Israeli government ultimately will do more harm than good to Chabad's supreme goal: bringing Jews to greater religious observance.

"It's a hot topic," said Danny, 25, a British Chabadnik interviewed this week outside 770 Eastern Parkway in Crown Heights, Brooklyn-the world headquarters of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement and site of the home of the late rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson. Like many of those interviewed by the Jerusalem Post on this topic, Danny declined to disclose his last name.

"There's actually a big debate whether Chabad should be involved in the demonstrations or not. Some say it's an important issue. Some say it's ruining our other activities," Danny said. "The question is whether Chabad, when we're trying to bring people closer to Judaism, whether we should be doing these things."

Until the rebbe died, Chabad Chasidim took their marching orders on political issues from Schneerson himself, and chasidim still study the rebbe's teachings and speeches for direction on present-day political questions. On the question of Israeli territorial concessions, they say, the rebbe was clear: Ceding Israeli territory to the Arabs was wrong.

Schneerson's reasons, it seems, were less clear.

"The reason we're against [the Gaza withdrawal] is because we care for Jewish life and don't want it to be spilled. Jewish life always comes first," said Yechiel Goldstein, 25. "The dispute is merely a tactical one, on what is the best strategy for achieving security."

But a man who gave his name as Ohev Shalom, 54, said, "The land of Eretz Yisrael is a gift God gave to the Jewish people. It belongs to every single Jew. Nobody has a right to give that gift away."

The rebbe was even less specific when it came to the strategy for opposing territorial concessions; hence, the divisions within Chabad. While the tactic of praying against the withdrawal is met with universal approval within the Chabad movement in the United States, and many chasidim are raising money for Israeli settlers, there is great controversy over whether or not to go to Israel in advance of the disengagement.

Some rabbis have discouraged yeshiva students from going; others have talked about organizing charter flights to Israel and joining demonstrations against the withdrawal.

Rabbi Abraham Shemtov, chairman of Agudas Chasidei Chabad, the umbrella organization for Lubavitch, said public demonstrations "is not, has never been and will never be the approach and method of Lubavitch in conveying a message."

As for those who may be planning on going to study in a yeshiva in Gush Katif so they can be physically present when (and if) Israeli soldiers come to evacuate the Gaza settlements, Shemtov said, "It is not with the accord of Lubavitch."

Rather, Shemtov said, the rebbe advocated that his followers adopt the three facets of the patriarch Jacob's approach to the potentially hostile encounter with his brother Esau: diplomacy, prayer and confrontation. Shemtov was not clear on what constitutes confrontation, underscoring the ambiguity Chabad's senior leadership has fostered on the issue.

Rabbi Yekutiel Rapp, a senior teacher at the Chabad yeshiva in Brooklyn and an Israeli now living in the United States, said he understands "confrontation" as relating mostly to hasbara-in this case, making the public aware of the pitfalls of withdrawing from Gaza.

And if, God forbid, Israel moves ahead with its disengagement plan, Rapp said, "We will be there in the thousands to stop the program with our bodies"-albeit nonviolently.

Though hundreds and perhaps thousands of Chabad Chasidim are planning to go to Gaza to try to thwart the government's plans for withdrawal-though not necessarily violently-the movement's leadership in the United States will say only that they have not endorsed such activities and that they represent the beliefs of individual Lubavitchers, not the movement as a whole. At the same time, they have not condemned such efforts nor made public calls for Chabad Chasidim to stay home.

That ambiguity, and a general silence on the issue by many senior Chabad officials, have allowed both sides in the debate-those advocating active public opposition to the Gaza withdrawal plan, and those advocating only prayer, charity and study-to claim the mantle of the backing of Chabad's philosophy.

"Our job is to sit and learn," said Shalom, 20, one of hundreds of young Israelis studying at the Chabad yeshiva in Brooklyn. "The administration of the yeshiva says the job of the students here is to stay here and learn."

Shalom said he has heard rumors of people planning to go to Israel this summer in advance of the planned withdrawal, but, he said, "I don't know to what extent that has a basis in Chabad philosophy or the rebbe's teachings."

To the extent that people are going to Israel, they seem to be mostly American and mostly messianists, Shalom indicated.

The Americans tend to have more money than the Israeli students at the yeshiva and therefore can better afford to go, and the messianists tend to take more fervent and extreme approaches on a whole host of issues, including opposition to the Gaza withdrawal plan.

"We're fighting a war for moshiach," said Avinoam Friedman, 35, who said he believes Schneerson is the messiah. "There's a whole host of things we have to do on the spiritual front and on the physical front."

Like some Israelis and many Jews around the world, Friedman said he believed that when push came to shove, Israel would not go through with its planned withdrawal.

"Disengagement is not going to happen," he said.