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Dangerous Talk

Israel got a rude reminder last week of just how deeply it is divided on the question of what to do with the West Bank. A popular rabbi, Shalom Dov Wolpe, declared publicly January 2 that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and his top ministers ought to be hanged for considering withdrawal.

Israelis across the spectrum were outraged over his remarks, as they should be. Israel is still smarting from the assassination 12 years ago of then-prime minister Yitzhak Rabin. The slaying capped a months-long period of violent debate among Israelis over Rabin’s effort to reach an agreement with the Palestinians. Prominent Orthodox rabbis at the time were calling Rabin a traitor and informer, accusations punishable by death in traditional rabbinic law. Ever since the threats came true, Israel’s legal system has taken incitement very seriously.

It’s not yet clear, however, whether Israeli law enforcement will be able to take proper action in this case. Wolpe is a prominent figure in the Chabad-Lubavitch Hasidic movement, which has an enormous following in Israel and around the world. The last time a leading Israeli Chabad rabbi was charged with incitement, in 1996, his arrest sparked a worldwide Chabad pressure campaign for his release. If a similar campaign is mounted for Wolpe, Orthodox leaders could find themselves under pressure to support it. That would make it difficult for Olmert to authorize legal action against Wolpe for fear of alienating Orthodox parties and jeopardizing his governing coalition.

The violence of the current Israeli debate over the territories results partly from a change in the frame of reference during Rabin’s final term in office. For the first 26 years of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, Israelis were divided over the territories’ fate but agreed to disagree, all the while continuing to dig in. In 1993, Rabin opened negotiations with the Palestine Liberation Organization, and suddenly withdrawal became a real possibility. Hawks no longer agreed to disagree, but rather launched into a period of intense, noisy activism. The activism flared up again after the 2005 election of Olmert, who ran on a platform of withdrawal and is now seeking to keep his promise.

Modern Orthodox leaders who reject territorial compromise have maintained for years that Rabin’s assassin was an unstable individual acting on his own. The incendiary rhetoric that exploded in their community after Rabin’s signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993 should not be blamed for the acts of a lone extremist, they say. Orthodox Jews who believe that territorial compromise would bring about Israel’s destruction should be permitted to voice their religious convictions, they insist. Faced with calls to take responsibility for the consequences of words and to disown the extremists in its midst, Modern Orthodoxy has mostly remained unbowed.

By contrast, Chabad Hasidism has never even been called on until now to distance itself from the inciters in its midst. Chabad leaders insist that their movement is completely apolitical, despite its strong views on the very political issue of territorial compromise — or, for that matter, on strict church-state separation in this country. Because of its strong record on outreach, and the deep loyalty it inspires among Jews whom it touches spiritually, it gets a pass on its other activities.

Chabad, like the Gush Emunim settler movement, teaches that the messianic age is around the corner and that Israel’s biblical borders, beginning with the West Bank, are essential to God’s plan. This belief is common to the whole movement. What distinguishes the so-called messianist wing is the belief that the messiah has already arrived, in the person of the late rabbi Menachem Schneerson.

It has become apparent over the past decade or so that the core Chabad belief in the messiah’s imminent arrival is having a corrosive effect on civil discourse in Israel. If the inflammatory rhetoric of the movement’s messianic wing truly does not represent the movement as a whole, then the central institutions of Chabad have a duty to make that clear and to distance themselves formally from the inciters. If they cannot, then other Jews will see Chabad as ambivalent, or worse.

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