Chabad of the West Bank

Chabad Rabbis Play a Key Role in Israel's Right Wing Settler Movement

New Voices, National Jewish Student Magazine/September 23, 2008

After a frenzied prayer session in the battered structure beside the grave of the daughter of the second Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Danny Cohen pulls up a chair next to me and sits down. Youngish, heavily bearded, and jovial, he could easily be one of the Chabad emissaries drifting about your college campus, tefillin in hand, asking, "Excuse me, are you Jewish?" But Cohen operates in a setting more hostile than the average American bastion of secularism: since 2002, he has been running a Chabad house in the Jewish West Bank settlement in Hebron.

A city that has grown notorious for incidents of violence between settlers, soldiers, and Palestinians, Hebron is home to one of the most controversial Jewish settlements in the West Bank. The Israeli human rights group B'Tselem has reported that the once-bustling Palestinian commercial center there has been reduced to a "ghost town" by the security apparatus that protects the Jews there. Settlers in the city believe that the entire Biblical Land of Israel belongs exclusively to the Jews, and reject any sort of agreement that would limit Jewish sovereignty.

Despite the setting, Danny Cohen's work is much like that of any other Chabad emissary. He hosts Shabbats for Israeli soldiers, gives tours of the city's ancient Jewish sites to visitors, and organizes children's activities. He was appointed to his post by the Israeli body designated by the Lubavitcher Rebbe to appoint shluchim, just as he had been appointed by the parallel American body for his last job as a shaliach in Chicago. He was even the subject of a feature story in the most recent issue of Chabad's international newsletter.

Cohen is a mainstream Chabad rabbi, yet he exists on the fringes of Israel's political map. In that, he is not alone. For all the discord within the movement since the death of the Rebbe in 1994, what binds the Lubavitchers together is nothing less than their messianic determination, in the face of daunting political realities, to keep the Holy Land from once again falling apart.

"You Should Live Inside of Hevron"

When the Cohen family moved to Israel in the late 1970s, Danny was six. As an Orthodox adolescent growing up in the nearby settlement of Psagot, "on the outskirts of the friendly city of Ramallah," Cohen felt drawn to Hebron, the site of the Tomb of the Patriarchs and the second holiest city in Judaism.

No Jews lived in Hebron at the time, but many lived in Kiryat Arba, a settlement bordering Hebron that was built by a group of Jewish radicals eager to reclaim the city itself. Among those radicals were Baruch and Sarah Nachshon, a young Lubavitch couple whom Cohen would later meet, and whose actions would inspire Cohen to join Chabad.

"You should live inside of Hevron, not in Kiryat Arba, because Hevron belongs to the Jews," Sarah claimed the Lubavitcher Rebbe had told her, according to a 1996 article in N'Shei Habad, a newsletter for Lubavitch women. "So, I decided to be the bone in the neck of the government."

Rebellion came naturally to Sarah Nachshon, whose fact-on-the-ground style had previously been employed to force the government to re-open Hebron's Jewish cemetery for burials, and to allow Jews into the Tomb of the Patriarchs, where they had not set foot since the 13th century. When the Begin government agreed to evacuate the settlement of Yamit in the Sinai Desert as part of the 1979 peace agreement with Egypt, Baruch Nachshon declared at a community meeting that unless a Jewish presence was established in Hebron proper, the government was liable to dismember Kiryat Arba next, and Sarah saw an opening for her greatest stand yet.

On April 26th, 1979, just after Passover, the holiday of liberation, Sarah woke her children in the middle of the night and hurried them into a truck already packed with people outside their Kiryat Arba home. At 4:30 in the morning, a group of about 15 women and 35 children arrived at Beit Hadassah, a vacant hospital in downtown Hebron once owned by Jews. One by one, they climbed a ladder and, after cutting through some barbed wire, slipped through a small window in the back of the building.

For eight months, the women occupied Beit Hadassah. Eventually, the murder of six yeshiva students near Hebron gave Prime Minister Begin a pretext to allow the restoration of the old Jewish quarter. Today, just under 1,000 Jews reside in a heavily guarded enclave in Hebron, protected from the city's 160,000 Palestinians by a huge military presence. Israeli soldiers patrol the street corners, and violent incidents such as the 1994 murder of 29 Palestinian civilians at the Tomb of the Patriarchs by Baruch Goldstein have made the settlement famous as a hotbed of bloody conflict.

"He is Too Powerful"

Chabad's association with the right wing of the settler movement goes beyond a few shluchim on the ground in the West Bank. The leaders of the messianic wing of Chabad in Israel, those who preach that the deceased rebbe of the Lubavitch movement, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, was the messiah, affiliate with right wing parties and reject a secular democratic government in favor of a theocratic Torah state. They are Rabbi Sholom Dov Wolpo of Kiryat Gat and Rabbi Yitzhak Ginsburg of Kfar Chabad.

Wolpo, who briefly entered the media spotlight in America in late 2007 after suggesting that Prime Minister Olmert be hanged, heads an organization called SOS-Israel that fights government opposition to illegal settlements. Ginsburg presides over the Od Yosef Chai Yeshiva in the militant settlement of Yitzhar, near Nablus, and has written a book in praise of Baruch Goldstein. While Chabad's American leadership based in Crown Heights has publicly distanced itself from Wolpo and Ginsburg, both remain influential and widely accepted in Israel.

According to Shmarya Rosenberg, an ex-Lubavitcher who blogs at , Wolpo is the most popular Chabad rabbi in Israel. "Chabad cannot and will not excommunicate him," he insists. "He is too powerful."

Wolpo, who says that Danny Cohen is his "best friend," believes that the Rebbe approves of his work and does not see himself as particularly controversial. He claims a healthy relationship with Israel's Chabad leadership and is dismissive of Crown Heights headquarters. "Everybody knows that the Rebbe was fighting not to give territory to the Arabs," he explains, "and I was chosen by the Rebbe to write two books about his ideas to keep the Land of Israel."

Indeed, the Rebbe not only opposed territorial concessions; he also favored settlement of all of biblical Israel. According to When Silence is a Sin, written by Mordechai Sones and Yankel Koncepolski and published by Sichos in English, the Rebbe gave an address on Sunday, September 25, 1977, declaring: "[T]he entire Land of Israel should be populated, along its entire boundaries. This is similar to that which is said regarding Torah and mitzvos; just as we must perform the actual physical act, so must it be regarding the integrity of the Land of Israel; the physical act is necessary: to settle the entire Land of Israel!'"

Ginsburg, the subject of a forthcoming study by Motti Inbari titled Jewish Fundamentalism and the Temple Mount, is even more radical than Wolpo. Ginsburg studied under the Rebbe in America and now lives in Kfar Chabad, Israel's version of Crown Heights. He preaches Jewish supremacy, opposition to the secular Israeli government, and the importance of building the third temple. According to Inbari, "almost no notable [religious] authority has challenged Ginsburg's views."

Ginsburg's yeshiva, Inbari argues, "has had a profound influence on the entire settlement movement." In particular, Ginsburg is behind a new trend of Jewish terrorism in Israel where "acts of violence [are] committed by individual terrorists in an independent and spontaneous manner." Indeed, a recent article in the Israeli daily Ha'aretz reported that students from Ginsburg's Yeshiva, many of whom do not identify as Lubavitchers, are taking an active role" in the escalation of violent attacks against Palestinians.

Danny Cohen defends Ginsburg and Wolpo, with some reservations. "Sometimes he poorly chooses his words, but I think that the bottom line is that he's one of the few people, not only in Chabad but also in Israel, who puts up a voice against repeating such tragedies as the disengagement [from Gaza]," Cohen says of Wolpo.

As for Ginsburg, "I wouldn't call him mainstream," Cohen explains. "Ginsburg is a kabbalist. To people on the outside, things he says about land and other nations dwelling in the land seem extreme, but it's all according to inner Kabbalah. He sometimes speaks a language that media or people not used to his teachings don't understand."

While Inbari concedes that this is largely true, especially insofar as many of his direct disciples are not Lubavitchers, he believes that the ideology espoused by the extreme Lubavitch messianists may "become more and more dominant within Chabad." The virtual independence of Chabad rabbis in Israel from headquarters in Crown Heights means that no central authority can rein in heretics. And the appeal of the messianists, already stronger in Israel than in the United States, seems only to intensify with time.

The Specter of Failure

Among the Lubavitch, an Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank would require either ideological dissonance or an admission of failure on an apocalyptic scale. The Rebbe taught that this would be the generation of redemption. Withdrawal would mean accepting that he was wrong, or that the followers of the Rebbe did not sufficiently prepare the world for the messiah's arrival.

For Danny Cohen, thirty-six years old and at work full time in the Rebbe's service, the possibility that his efforts might eventually end in failure is too painful to imagine. Even for him, a moderate by Chabad standards, the greatest threat to the messianic vision lies in the land-for-peace negotiations. "The final redeemer is around the corner," he says. "Hopefully he will be the next Prime Minister. But, at the end of the day, people will vote for the person who will be most consistently pro-integrity of the land."

Cohen doesn't identify as a member of the messianist camp, but his sympathy for them is growing. "We all know that Chabad, from the beginning, 200 years ago, is focused on bringing the Moshiach [messiah]," Cohen says. He has now managed to include the number 770, the address of the Rebbe's office on Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn, in his email address, telephone number and home address. "We're fanatics," he jokes.

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