Zionism has always posed a problem for the ultra-orthodox. Unlike the religious Zionists of the Mizrachi, they always preferred the actual arrival of the messiah rather than his indeterminable coming to inaugurate a new era in the Holy Land for the Jewish people. Medinat Yisrael, the State of Israel, was nothing less than a blot on the spiritual landscape. Indeed since the Basle Congress 100 years ago, the Zionist movement has been seen as anti-religious and was strongly opposed by the great luminaries of the period such as Eliyahu Chaim Maisel of Lodz, Chaim Soloveichik of Brisk and Dovid Friedman of Karlin. The Lubavitcher Rebbe of the time, Shalom Dov Ber Schneerson, wrote that the entire desire and intention (of the Zionists) is to remove the burden of the Torah and the commandments and to uphold their nationalism. This is to be their Judaism’.
Given their heavy involvement in recent Israeli politics, it is hard to grasp that the adherents of Lubavitch were the foremost opponents of nationalism at the turn of the century. They believed that even estranged Jews would be made more distant from their religious heritage by Zionism. And even the faithful were said to be tempted. ‘It has even led right-thinking Jews to tear from their hearts every concern with the holiness of the Torah, faith in God and the fulfilment of the active commandments.’
Since that comment by the Lubavitcher Rebbe in 1903, most haredi opponents of Zionism have learned to live with the heresy of Medinat Yisrael. As Israeli citizens with voting rights and representation in the Knesset, they have been unable to avoid the reality of the Zionist experiment. While Kfar Chabad is a testiment to that reality, Lubavitch’s ideological opposition to Zionism has been submerged by its high profile educational activities and its regard for modern Israel as a central repository for the nitzatzot, divine sparks, that must be gathered from the four corners of the earth. Lubavitch’s ‘Zionist’ veneer was further enhanced in the public mind by the late Rebbe’s exhortations to successive Likud governments not to negotiate away parts of Eretz Yisrael in exchange for peace with the Palestinians. Indeed in 1985, the Lubavitcher Rebbe condemned the then Prime Minister, Shimon Peres, for bringing Israeli soldiers back from Lebanon after the debacle of the invasion of 1982. It was termed a retreat from the ‘North Bank’. Such an espousal of maximalist territorial aspirations and involvement in internal Israeli politics became a divisive issue in the politics of the haredi world. It was bizarrely condemned by Lubavitch’s mitnagdic rivals — who were even more opposed to the State of Israel — as contamination by the Zionist virus.
During the Israeli election campaign, many cars sported the Lubavitch sticker, ‘Netanyahu: Good for the Jews’. It was portrayed as an answer to Israel’s spiritual vacuum. The nature of secularism, it was argued, had changed. Today’s secularist was no longer an apikhores with knowledge, but instead an am hararetz steeped in ignorance. Yet the essential thinking behind the mass mobilisation of Lubavitch supporters was a return to the basic conviction of an earlier rebbe that ‘Zionism has deprived [the Jews.] of the basis of the obligation of Torah and commandments altogether and has instead planted in their hearts the belief that through nationalism they are complete Jews’. And yet, it was ironically suggested that a vote for the ultra-nationalist candidate, Bibi Netanyahu, was implicitly a vote for Judaism, a pledge for a more Jewish Israel, a demand for a Jewish State rather than a State of Jews like any other.
Although Netanyahu peppered his victory speech with quotes from tehillim and many well-placed intonations of b’Ezrat Hashem (with the help of God), did Lubavitch and the haredim really vote for Netanyahu because they believed that he would promote Torah-true values? Did they believe that he was another Menachem Begin who once described himself as ‘a believer, the son of a believer’? On what basis did the gedolim exhort their followers to support a man who did not observe Shabbat, did not keep kashrut and admitted on prime time television that he has been cheating on his third wife?
Most orthodox publications relegated this question to less observable parts of the paper or ignored it all together. The Jewish Tribune commented that ‘the short and simple answer is that Netanyahu is irreligious whilst Peres is anti-religious’. Netanyahu was deemed to be the better of two evils because of the Peres government’s stand against haredi political and religious demands. It became politically expedient not to dwell on his past as his conduct was not exactly a walking advertisement for ‘family values’ and a more Jewish Israel, yet he was still good for the Jews. Netanyahu was portrayed as virtually a baal teshuvah — and a commitment to holding onto Judea and Samaria was promoted as synonymous with a commitment to Torah-true Judaism. Only self-hating secular Jews, it was intimated, would surrender Eretz Yisrael to the terrorist PLO. Shulamit Aloni’s fiercely secular Meretz was thus demonised and deeply abhorred. Menachem Porush, a former Agudat Yisrael member of the Knesset and Deputy Minister wrote: ‘This defeat of Labour/Meretz allows us to breathe more easily, quelling our fear of further territorial concessions in the heart of our Holy Land, or any secret agreements made between Labour and PLO leaders. Moreover, words are insufficient to express our thanks to G-d that we are no longer under a government that was influenced by the leftist Meretz faction when listening to and watching how Meretz members conduct themselves, one gets the clear impression that they feel it unfortunate that they were born Jews. From their unmitigated support for the PLO, it would appear that they are not only anti-religious, but actually anti-Jewish. We can say the full blessing Boruch sheptorani — “Blessed is He Who allowed me to get rid (of them)”. (Jewish Press 7-13 June)
While the return to power of the Likud will restore funding to many religious institutions and an ultra-orthodox interpretation of Judaism, such triumphalism will not bring secularists back to the fold. In the light of such disparaging comments, Israel’s lost Jews will prefer not to be located. It will breed extremism on both sides and help to fragment klal Yisrael. It will produce an even more alienated group of people and distance them still further from Jewish tradition.
The retreat into the political ghetto under the protection of the Likud has thus been matched by the attempt of the religious parties to herd Israelis into a spiritual ghetto. Some religious commentators have claimed that Netanyahu’s victory was above all a ‘Jewish’ victory and that the Hand of God was clearly at work. Yet there remains the feeling that both Lubavitch’s embrace of Netanyahu and his manifestation of sudden spiritual awareness were both guided more by a transparent political expediency than an adherence to ideological idealism.
In a message to Lubavitch after the election, Netanyahu painted a picture of a wunder-rebbe preaching love and tolerance, a flower-power Judaism. He wrote: ‘I remember the Rebbe’s eyes, his look penetrated to the depth of my soul. I never saw such a look in any person. I remember not only his wisdom, his understanding and profundity but also his love for every Jew…he tried to unite every part of the Jewish people. He knew that there were differences of opinion — religious and secular Jews and various kinds of religious Jews. But that didn’t matter, he tried to bring people closer together.’ Thus spoke a politician. While Lubavitch canvassed all Jews, it is disingenuous to suggest that the late Rebbe — as a measure of his love for the Jewish people — made overtures to other Judaic movements. When the electoral honeymoon is over, Netanyahu will discover that it will take more than soothing sound-bites to derail this politico-theological bandwagon.
Judaism Today Autumn 1996