Hundreds of Chabad-Lubavitch Hasidim gathered in New York City last week to rally community opposition to Israel’s plan to dismantle settlements in Gaza and the northern West Bank.
The rally, held June 23 at the movement’s worldwide headquarters in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn, featured Arieh Eldad, a Knesset member from the National Union Party, who is calling for massive civil disobedience to obstruct the removal of the settlers. The event was dominated by a faction of the Chabad community that believes that the movement’s late rebbe or grand rabbi, Menachem M. Schneerson, who died in 1994, will return to life as the messiah.
Rally participants stressed repeatedly that Schneerson strongly opposed any territorial concessions to the Palestinians or to Arab countries.
Schneerson told us “that negotiating with our enemies is going to bring bad results,” said Rabbi Shmuel Butman, head of the Lubavitch Youth Organization, during an address to an applauding crowd made up almost entirely of yeshiva students and residents from the neighborhood. “Eretz Yisrael belongs to every Jew, and no Jew has a right to negotiate to give away” any land, he said.
While opposition to the disengagement plan is widespread among Orthodox Jews — many of whom see it as a betrayal of a biblical inheritance and as a security threat — their traditionally insular communities have been divided on the questions of whether and how to campaign against it.
Within the Chabad movement, individual leaders, particularly those from the messianic faction, have been in the forefront. Yehuda Leib Gruner, a rabbi who was Schneerson’s longtime secretary, met with Prime Minister Sharon earlier this week to protest the plan, according to the Israeli Web site Arutz Sheva. Chabad-Lubavitch messianists reportedly have played a lead role in anti-disengagement demonstrations in Israel and the United States. In response, leaders of mainstream Chabad institutions have made efforts to distance themselves from the controversial political initiative.
The neutral stance of the central Chabad leadership has caused anger among some movement members. They “feel like they have to dance at two weddings,” said one attendee at last week’s rally, speaking of the Chabad leadership. “The titular heads of the movement have basically marginalized themselves. Whether or not they’re on the train, the train has left the station a long time ago and is going and going and going.”
Several Chabad leaders have sought to maintain a distinction between the movement and its followers.
“When Chabad comes out strongly and publicly in favor of Greater Israel and against disengagement, even though this is not necessarily a political act, the public sees it as taking a political stand,” said Rabbi Menahem Brod, chief spokesman for Chabad institutions in Israel, in a Jerusalem Post interview earlier this mont. “As a result, Chabad becomes an enemy of certain segments of the population who are liable to say, ‘I cannot work with you.’”
The challenge for Chabad, said Rabbi David Eliezri, Chabad outreach director in Yorba Linda, Calif., is to recognize the limits of what Chabad can do as a religious organization without cross a line to “spearhead programs of political activism” — while recognizing the right of individual members to “do whatever they can within the context of democracy and the spirit of Martin Luther King… to peacefully protest this policy.”
Last week’s rally in New York featured several leaders of official Chabad institutions, and was advertised as sponsored by both the Beit Din, or rabbinic court, of Crown Heights, and the local Vaad HaKohol, or community council. The council earlier had passed a resolution to adopt the Gush Katif settlement bloc in Gaza as a sister city.
At the rally, the resolution was presented to Eldad, a physician and former chief medical officer of the Israeli military. He was in the United States to raise money for two field hospitals he is establishing in the settlements in advance of the disengagement. So far, he told the Forward, he has raised $40,000, mostly in small donations, and needs about $15,000 more.
In a discussion with reporters before the rally, Eldad described the looming evacuation as a “siege” and said that the purpose of the field hospitals is to provide routine medical care to settlers, who will not be able to leave the area without abandoning their homes. Eldad said his hope is that enough people will move to Gaza to slow the evacuation until new elections can be held.
“As a doctor, I know that the most effective way to practice medicine is preventative medicine,” Eldad said, adding that the best way to prevent future Palestinian violence is to stop the disengagement.