Members of the Chabad chasidic sect danced in the streets Monday when one of its local activists emerged from an Israeli prison, where he had been imprisoned on suspicion of plotting an attack on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
But in Brooklyn Monday, Rabbi Yehuda Krinsky, Chabad’s international director, was striving to put as much distance as possible between the organization and the activities of its Israeli members.
“I don’t know who he is,” said Rabbi Krinsky, “I’ve never heard of him.”
As for the protests against Netanyahu that Chabadniks have launched in Israel since he signed a far-ranging agreement with the Palestinians last month to yield control of parts of the West Bank in exchange for specific Palestinian security actions, Rabbi Krinsky said, “I should make it clear: Chabad always has been and remains apolitical.”
That position might remain officially true. But as the latest episode highlighted, the active involvement of Chabadniks, including some of its highest-ranking members, in the political campaign to end the Middle East peace process, has made it increasingly difficult to rebut the perception of Chabad in Israel as a political organization.
Shabtai Bloch, a 48-year-old follower of the sect from the northern Israeli city of Safed, was released from jail but remained under house arrest this week. According to Israeli reports, police believed he was linked to another man arrested last week on suspicion of planning an attack on Netanyahu during the prime minister’s visit to Safed.
The episode highlighted the high state of anxiety of Israel’s security establishment three years after the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin by a right-wing Jew opposed to the Mideast peace process. The anniversary of that murder took place just last week.
Since Netanyahu signed the Wye River Memorandum last month, he too has come under the fierce fire of angry right-wing activists, forcing security services to increase their vigilance of the prime minister.
Meanwhile, Rabbi Joseph Gutnick, a Chabad-affiliated gold mine magnate, was scheduled to meet with Netanyahu in Jerusalem Wednesday in an attempt to cool the tensions that have lately developed between the Israeli leader and the Chabad movement. Other Chabad representatives met with Netanyahu Monday night.
According to Israeli press reports, Gutnick and Netanyahu were also expected to discuss Netanyahu’s plans to resume construction at Har Homa, site of a huge, controversial building project to house Jews in the heart of heavily Arab East Jerusalem. Gutnick, who organized pro-Netanyahu Chabad demonstrations during the 1996 election campaign and sponsored political ads then featuring the slogan, “Bibi is good for the Jews,” is a part owner of the Har Homa site.
According to Rabbi Shmuel Butman, president of the Lubavitch Youth Organization in Brooklyn, those calling on Chabadniks to mobilize against the Mideast peace process include Rabbi Yehuda Yeroslawsky, the secretary general of the Lubavitch Rabbinic Board in Israel; and Rabbi David Chanzin, Chabad’s “senior rabbi in Israel.”
Bloch was planning on nothing more than peaceful protests in support of retaining the territories under Israeli control, stressed Rabbi Butman, who said he did, indeed, know Bloch and his family.
“He only spoke about the Rebbe’s position on Israel,” said Rabbi Butman, referring the late Rabbi Menachem Schneerson, the Chabad leader who staunchly opposed Israel giving up any territory, going back even to the Sinai, returned to Egypt under the Camp David Accords. “Mr. Bloch never called for violence.”
Rabbi Butman denounced the arrest as a “blood libel on Bloch and on the Lubavitch movement.”
According to political scientist Ehud Sprinzak of Hebrew University, “Chabad in Israel has become totally political. “In the United States, they do not have this image. They are seen as merely interested in spreading Judaism, loving Jews and promoting Jewish continuity.”
But in Israel, he said, “Chabad took a radical move to the right immediately after the signing of the Oslo peace accords.”
Like Rabbi Butman, Sprinzak, who specializes in the study of the Israeli radical right, termed the case against Bloch “inflated,” adding, “I don’t think he is a real threat. It’s nonsense. At the most, he planned some provocation. But in this country, everyone is still living under the trauma of Rabin assassination.”
But as the Mideast peace process has stumbled through its various ups and downs, said Sprinzak, the position taken by Chabid in Israel has been “very extreme.”
Indeed, Rabbi Butman emphasized that in the view of Chabad, it was illegitimate “even to negotiate with the enemy. This was the Rebbe’s view, because to do so lends them a kind of legitimacy.”