Barak Hullman
Storyteller, Author, Podcaster, Entrepreneur and Community Leader

Is Chabad Now Anti-Zionist?

The Rebbe with Prime Minister Menachem Begin. (Photo: Eliyahu Attar/Dan Patir/Kfar Chabad Magazine)

A few years ago, at our Friday night meal, one of my teenage daughters asked me, “Tatti, what are we?” Our other kids all looked at me attentively waiting for an answer.

I understood the question. I’m a baal teshuva thanks to the Lubavitcher Rebbe and his Shluchim (emissaries). Our customs at home are Chabad minhagim (Siddur, Tzitziot, Tefillin, Kashrut). When we have a halachic question, my children call Moked Chabad for an answer. Six out of our seven children were educated in official Chabad schools (in Jerusalem). We have pictures of the Lubavitcher Rebbe around our house and shelves of Chabad chassidus books.

The answer should have been clear. But I decided many years ago not to wear a black hat and coat, even though I am a Chassid of the Lubavitcher Rebbe. 

Besides being a Chassid, I’m also a Zionist. I moved to Israel the summer after graduating from college because I wanted to be an active participant in the modern state of Israel. That included becoming fluent in Hebrew, marrying an Israeli, serving in a combat unit in the IDF and raising our children in Israel. 

However, I didn’t find my place in the Dati-Leumi (national-religious Zionist) camp because I’m a Chassid of the Lubavitcher Rebbe. I don’t say Hallel on Yom Ha’Atzmaut and I don’t have an Israeli flag hanging from my porch. But I firmly believe that the modern state of Israel – with all of its flaws – is the greatest thing that has happened to the Jewish people since leaving Egypt and receiving the Torah at Mount Sinai.

Thus my daughter’s question, “Tatti, what are we?” My immediate answer was “Chabad.” Kids have built-in truth detectors. It wasn’t a lie, but it also wasn’t the answer they expected. Because, for them, being “Chabad” meant “card-carrying Chabad.” If you’re really Chabad then everything you do and are is Chabad.

As I was searching for an answer, the questioning daughter blurted out “We’re Chabad-Leumi,” a play on national-religious and Chabad.

Recently, the Chabad Shluchim in Nepal – some of the most famous Shluchim in the world, because of their incredible work and a very popular Israeli TV show based on them – were invited to light a torch at the national state-sponsored Yom Ha’Atzmaut ceremony. In the Zoom video with Miri Regev, the Culture Minister who bestowed the honor on Chani Lifshitz, you can see that the Shlucha in Nepal was moved to tears.

Soon after the announcement, the Chabad Rabbinical Court released an official statement, written in a threatening tone, which explicitly forbade the Shlucha from participating in a state sponsored ceremony. Being a loyal follower of the movement, the Shlucha turned down the honor saying she could not go against a decision made by the Chabad rabbis.

The letter from the Chabad Rabbinical Court to the Shlucha Chani Lifshitz.

I wonder how much thought those rabbis gave to their decision. Did they realize the long reaching, global impact their short letter would have?

Since my first days being involved with Chabad (when I was 17) any time I asked for their views on Zionism I was met with either neutrality or a very pro-Land of Israel (not state of Israel) stance. They were unequivocal in their support of settlements, especially in Hebron, and the God given right of every Jew to live anywhere in the Land of Israel. They were opposed to the Oslo Accords and the withdrawal from Gaza. 

I’ve met several Chabad on Campus Shluchim who told me that they feel like they are on the front lines of fighting the BDS movement whose goal is to destroy the state of Israel.

The last Lubavitcher Rebbe met regularly with Israeli Prime Ministers, various members of the Israeli government, Israeli generals and other Israeli officials. The Rebbe was personally involved in attempting to influence Knesset decisions on land for peace, religious observance and conversion. He spoke publicly about his views.

Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, when he was Israel’s ambassador to the UN meets the Lubavitcher Rebbe. (Credit: YouTube screenshot)

The first time the Rebbe spoke with a group of handicapped Israeli soldiers when they were on a visit to America, he was told that they were Nechey Tzahal, handicapped soldiers of the IDF. The Rebbe, who always found a positive way to express himself, said it was the wrong title for these soldiers. He said that they’re not Nechey Tzahal, rather Mitzuyaney Tzahal, meaning the finest, outstanding soldiers of the IDF. 

The Rebbe wanted the state of Israel to be more Jewish. For the Rebbe, who understood Jewish history, the state of Israel was a God given miracle. He believed that it was the responsibility of the Jews living in the state of Israel to make it a Jewish state and not just a state of Jews.

I understand where the Chabad Rabbinical Court is coming from because of my decades of davening in a Yiddish speaking Haredi shul (which is a satellite of Mea Shearim) in Nachlaot and from my experiences as an immigrant baal teshuva parent in my children’s Chabad schools. 

Chabad has a “Haredi problem.” Who defines who is Haredi? Haredim do. If Haredim think you’re Haredi, then you are and if they don’t, then you’re not. Is the Satmar Rebbe Haredi? Absolutely. Is Rabbi Kanievsky Haredi? For sure. Are Chabad chassidim Haredi? It depends on who you ask. If you ask anyone who’s not Haredi they’ll most likely tell you, yes. But if you ask Haredim, especially Israeli Haredim, if they answer yes, it will be with a hesitation.

When a movement sees its mission as reaching out to the same people that Haredim do everything to avoid, they’ll have a hard time convincing other Haredim that they’re just Haredi as them. 

While the term Haredi is often translated as “Ultra-Orthodox,” I translate it as “Isolationist Orthodox.” It was a reaction to modern society; put up high walls to keep everything secular out and keep in Jewish life the way it was 200 years ago. So how could you be Haredi when you are immersed in the secular world?

Chabad was using satellite transmissions and the Internet before anyone even knew what the Internet was. The Lubavitcher Rebbe encouraged using every new communications technology in order to spread the wellsprings of Judaism outwards. Chabad lives on the edge of the modern world and the Haredi world. That creates a problem when Chabad claims that they are as Haredi as everyone else. 

For the Chabad Rabbinical Court, having one of their own publicly accept an honor from the state of Israel, moves them further away from being fully accepted in Haredi society. The rabbis of the Chabad Rabbinical Court were pushed into a corner. Their answer: We’re Haredi.

As far as I know the Shlucha did not ask the Rabbinical Court for its opinion but it was given anyway. Did those rabbis think about all of the people from around the world that come to Chabad? Did they realize that whereas previously Chabad’s public image was neutral on Zionism, they’ve now moved Chabad, officially, into the Haredi anti-Zionist camp? 

Did they think of the millions of dollars in donations to Chabad that will now go to other Jewish organizations who are not opposed to the state of Israel? Did they think of how many people will avoid contact with Chabad because of this public stance?

My connection with Chabad is a personal connection with the Chabad Rebbes, their teachings and way of life. The decision of the Chabad Rabbinical Court does not speak for me. I’m proud to be Israeli and a Zionist and proud to be a Chassid of the Lubavitcher Rebbe. However, I’m sorry that the Court did not consider the unintended ripple affects their decision has had. 

Had the Court remained silent, they would have been marked as “Zionists” by the Haredi community, which is nothing new. The Haredim are not going to accept Chabad any more as a result of this decision than they did before. However, now many people that do accept and embrace Chabad have been shunned by their publicly anti-Zionist stance. 

In HaYom Yom, the daily study of Chabad teachings and customs, it says: “We are ‘day workers.’ Day means light. Our work is to illuminate, to enlighten the world with the light of the Torah.”

The Chabad movement that I know is made up, mainly, of exceptional people who completely and selflessly dedicate their lives to helping all Jews wherever they may be. While I hope that the Chabad Rabbinical Court innocently didn’t realize the power of their words, I am confident that the light that is being generated by the actions of the Shluchim will continue to speak louder.

I am one of the baaley tefilah at the Mayanot Shul in Jerusalem. I want to make clear that these words represent my views only and do not represent Mayanot in any way whatsoever.

About the Author
Barak Hullman studied for a PhD at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem (MA at Princeton) in Islamic History. He made aliyah from South Florida in 1995. He lives in Jerusalem, Israel with his wife and their 7 children (all born in Jerusalem). Barak is the author of two books, Figure It Out When You Get There: A Memoir of Stories About Living Life First and Watching How Everything Else Falls Into Place and A Shtikel Sholom: A Student, His Mentor and Their Unconventional Conversations., available at bit.ly/barakhullman. He has two podcasts, Jewish People & Ideas: Conversations with Jewish Thought Leaders (guests have included Yossi Klein Halevi, Michael Oren, Natan Sharansky, Daniel Gordis and others) at jewishpeopleideas.com and The Chassidic Story Project at hasidicstory.com.   Learn more by going to barakhullman.com.
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