From Zion, Not From Brooklyn

The New York Times/April 14, 1990
By Allan Nadler

A Hasidic rabbi in Brooklyn - one of the few New York rabbis never to have set foot in the Holy Land - has again obstructed the formation of a government in Israel.

Menachem Mendel Schneerson's latest intervention in the politics of the sovereign Jewish state is based on his conviction that the return of so much as one inch of "holy territory" to "heathens" violates rabbinic law.

Rabbi Schneerson, who is known as the Grand Rabbi of Lubavitch, feared that if Shimon Peres became Prime Minister, returning territory is precisely what he would do.

Two of the rabbi's followers, citing his ruling, frustrated Mr. Peres's efforts to form a parliamentary majority by deciding not to support him.

Once again, the parliament finds itself in the stranglehold of an Orthodox rabbi for whom the welfare of the state of Israel is entirely subordinate to parochial theological considerations.

This is hardly the first time that Israelis have had to endure the insult of having their Government exploited by rabbis who are ideologically opposed to Zionism and cynical about the very existence of the Jewish state.

Rabbi Schneerson's chief rabbinic antagonist, the 93-year-old anti Hasidic sage, Eleazar Menachem Shach, has also been a constant thorn in the side of Israel's political process.

Just last week, Rabbi Shach prevented the two members of the Torah Flag Party, the religious party faithful to his doctrines, from joining with Mr. Peres.

The massive demonstration for electoral reform in Tel Aviv on the eve of Passover was largely a manifestation of Israeli's anger and frustration with the intrusions and manipulative techniques of these ancient sages.

Although the exploitative theocratic politics of the religious parties are nothing new in Israel, there is something particularly outrageous and galling about these most recent interventions.

Though Rabbi Shach's tactics may be irritating and distasteful to many Israelis, he and his followers in B'nai Brak and Jerusalem are a legitimate part of Israel's political life. He may not be a Zionist, and his disciples may not all serve in the army, but they are citizens who pay taxes and vote.

The same cannot be said of Rabbi Schneerson, who directs on of the most powerful Jewish organizations in the world from his headquarters in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn.

This is not his first foray into Israeli politics. Just over a year ago, Rabbi Schneerson created unprecedented antagonisms between Diaspora Jews and Israel by instructing members of the religious Agudat Israel Party to make an Orthodox amendment to Israel's law of Return the absolute condition for entering into a coalition with either Likud or Labor. The proposed amendment would have denied the Jewishness of converts to Conservative and Reform Judaism.

It was the intense furor throughout the Diaspora fomented by rabbi Schneerson's insistence on that amendment that forced Likud and Labor away from the religious parties and back into a national unity coalition.

There are painful ironies in this latest spectacle of rabbinical politics for religious Zionists like myself. Not the least is the fact that the Lubavitchers, having opposed creation of a secular Jewish state on religious grounds, now operate like old pols.

The state of Israel was founded by visionaries whose goal was to normalize the Jewish people. A critical part of that normalization involved the emancipation of Jews not only from European anti-Semitism but also from the authority of a rabbinic oligarchy that had controlled the thinking and behavior of most Jews since the Middle Ages.

In recent years, most of my Orthodox colleagues, among them many followers of Rabbi Schneerson, have admonished Diaspora Jews against criticizing Likud policies.

These admonitions were rooted in a moral argument: We who live outside of Israel, and do not have to face the consequences of our opinions, have no license to influence the Israeli Government on such fateful issues as borders and security.

It now seems - from Rabbi Schneerson's perspective at least - that this principle of Diaspora nonintervention applies only to others. Widely revered by his not only as the world's leading rabbi but also as an infallible messianic figure, Rabbi Schneerson does not hold himself to the standard that he and his disciples would impose upon the rest of world Jewry.

"From out of Zion shall go forth the Law, and the word of the Law from Jerusalem" proclaimed the Prophet Isaiah.

From Zion, not from Brooklyn.

Allan Nadler, who teaches Jewish studies at McGill University, is rabbi of Congregation Shaar Nashomayim.

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