In September, 1993, the Oxford University L’Chaim Society, which I founded, was advancing. The organization we had started just a few years earlier had rapidly grown to be the second largest student society in Oxford’s history. Our Presidents were Cory Booker, later to be a United States Senator, and Toba Friedman, the first Orthodox Jewish woman to win a Marshall scholarship. Our student leaders included Rhodes Scholars like Noah Feldman, later to be a Harvard law professor academic superstar and Michael Benson, grandson of the President of the Mormon Church and today the President of Eastern Kentucky University. Our speakers included Nobel Peace Prize winners like Mikhail Gorbachev and my hero Elie Wiesel.
But I faced a problem.
Prime Minister Rabin of Israel, who was to be my speaker, had brought Yasser Arafat back to the West Bank and armed him and his Palestinian Authority in a belief that swapping “land for peace” would work. But the Lubavitcher Rebbe, my leader and mentor – at the time debilitated by a stroke – was completely opposed to any land swaps. The Rebbe could not have been more adamant. His opposition to territorial concessions was not based on arguments that all of the land was Israel, even though the Rebbe obviously agreed that the founding events of Jewish history had taken place in the West Bank. Hebron, for example, was the first capital of Israel, even before Jerusalem, and Shiloh was the site of the Tabernacle for hundreds of years. Rather, the Rebbe quoted Maimonides: tekhilat nefila nisa, the beginning of all defeat is retreat.
I remember his public talks on the subject. I stood right before him. The Rebbe could not have been more passionate. Israel dare not forfeit any land to its Arab enemies which sought its destruction. It would be seen as a sign of weakness and invite further aggression. The Rebbe had opposed the Camp David accords with Egypt. He cited the fact that the agreement was only with Sadat, a dictator. What would happen if he left the stage (which would happen in his assassination three years later). In any event, the degree of enmity and hostility from the Arabs toward the Jews obviated concessions that would not mollify them but would instead bring Arab armies closer to Jewish population centers.
Two outstanding new biographies of the Rebbe dwell on the Rebbe’s adamancy against territorial concessions, based, as the Rebbe repeatedly said, “not on the sanctity of the land but solely on his conviction that such withdrawal would lead to Jewish lives being lost.”
In his magisterial, beautiful, and mesmerizing biography, Rebbe, Rabbi Joseph Telushkin writes, “The Rebbe argued again and again that Israel’s conceding land would not only not bring peace, but would instead actually endanger Israel’s survival and put the lives of innocent civilians at risk… Israel’s succumbing to pressure would subject her to ever greater and continuing demands for the return of yet more land. Not only would doing so not ensure Israel’s security, it could earn her contempt from those, including the United States, who could come to believe that Israel could be pressured into acting against her own interest…. How sad, the Rebbe argued, that some Jews were now willing, “for the sake of peace or for the illusion of peace,” to surrender portions of the land “in the ill-conceived belief that our enemies would thereby be appeased.”
Rabbi Chaim Miller, in his audacious, utterly thrilling, and deeply captivating biography Turning Judaism Outward, writes, “From 1967 until as late as 1991, some of the most emotionally charged sermons delivered by the Rebbe on a consistent basis were devoted to what he referred to as Sheleimut ha-Aretz (the integrity of the land), a sustained polemic against any territorial concessions on the part of Israel. Over one hundred and twenty five sermons were devoted to the topic, and the central argument remained consistent throughout.”
As the Rebbe’s emissary in Oxford, it had taken me years to win over the cynics of Oxford academia. Even the great Oxford legend, Sir Isaiah Berlin – who had originally dismissed me as “a missionary sent by my cousin, another missionary” (Sir Isaiah was a Schneerson and he and the Rebbe were related) had befriended me warmly and hosted many of my students in his chambers. And now, while the world celebrated the Rabin-Arafat handshake on the lawn on the White House, and the outbreak of peace, we in Chabad were promoting the Rebbe’s position that Oslo would lead to scores of dead Jews.
In the end, Rabin cancelled on me just hours before his speech and after already flying to Britain. Tragically, the first of the suicide bombings against Israel started that very day in Tel Aviv, with great loss of life. Rabin returned immediately to Israel. I thought of the Rebbe’s words on that terrible day as the Israeli Ambassador to the UK read Rabin’s speech at the Oxford Union in his stead.
And that was just the beginning. Oslo I and II were to prove to be incomparable calamities for the State of Israel, with thousands of Israelis dead. The country has never fully recovered.
But even that pales besides the calamity of the dismantling of Gush Katif and the withdrawal from Gaza in 2005 that has now led to three horrible wars with Hamas, committed to the genocide of the Jewish people, and the launching of thousands of deadly rockets against Israel.
Noone knows how the current war will play out. Even if Israel clears out every last Hamas tunnel, how long will it be before it is forced to back in to dismantle Hamas’ rebuilt terror infrastructure?
The Rebbe had said over and over again that territorial compromise would lead to murdered Jews and no peace.
When the Gaza operations end, no doubt the pressure on Israel to withdraw from the West Bank will start up again. And while the Rebbe passed away twenty years ago this summer, his warning is as current and relevant as ever.
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, “America’s Rabbi” whom the Washington Post calls “the most famous Rabbi in America,” is the international best-selling author of 30 books, including The Fed-up Man of Faith: Challenging God in the Face of Tragedy and Suffering. Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.