Innocence and Responsibility

Yakov Rabkin
February 2009

Published in German in Jüdische Zeitung, Berlin, February 2009, p. 11 under the title “Unschuld und Veratwortung”.

Innocence and Responsibility

Yakov M Rabkin[1]

The recent massacre in Mumbai is hard to forget. Dennis Praeger, a prominent author and broadcaster, writes in the online Front Page Magazine that “slaughtering as many people as possible in India’s major economic center made sense. … But one target seemed to make little sense.” He refers to the Jewish outreach facility known as Chabad House, which apparently had been targeted with the same care as the luxury hotels. His puzzlement is, of course, a rhetorical device since he promptly concludes: “for the Islamists, as for the Nazis, the destruction of the Jews — and since 1948, the Jewish state — is central to their worldview. If anyone has a better explanation for why Pakistani terrorists, preoccupied with destabilizing India, would expend so much effort at finding the one Jewish center in a country that is essentially devoid of Jews, I would like to hear it.” This may not be a better explanation, but I shall try to offer a more Jewish one.

When calamities befall Jews, the traditional response is not to point fingers – which is easy in this case – but to go beyond the obvious and to examine one’s own acts, or “lefashpesh be-maasaw” in the language of the rabbis. Is there anything that Chabad, and all of us, may correct in our own behaviour to ward off further tragedies?

The Indian subcontinent has a long uninterrupted history of Jewish settlement. For centuries, Jews have lived peacefully among the Subcontinent’s Buddhists, Hindus and Muslims. The attack is Mumbai is therefore truly exceptional. It calls for an explanation.

Chabad operates hundreds of outreach outlets around the world. Their addresses can be easily found on the Internet. Selfless intrepid enthusiasts, usually young married couples, run many of them. They are renowned for their warm hospitality and boundless generosity. This is how in India Chabad has welcomed thousands of former Israeli soldiers who flock into the country after years of nerve-racking service in the Palestinian territories. They want to unwind, to relax and to forget the daily oppression and humiliation of Palestinians, which, like any violence, takes a toll on the perpetrators, not only on the victims. This may explain why the attackers, bent on revenge for the Palestinians, had chosen this target. But this may not be all.

In recent decades, Chabad has become part of the nationalist right in Israel. The movement opposes any concession and evacuation of the Palestinian territories. Chabad emissaries organized protests around the world against the withdrawal of Zionist settlers from Gaza. A few years earlier, Chabad flew hundreds of its members from New York to ensure the victory of the more intransigent Benjamin Netanyahu, who won against a more moderate prime-ministerial candidate by a hairbreadth. Israel’s leaders used to have routine tête-à-tête audiences with the leader of the movement when he was alive. Chabad studiously cultivates and shows off its connections with centres of political power. It holds Hanukkah parties in the Kremlin and organizes Torah writing ceremonies in the Pentagon.

Early leaders of the Chabad movement were visionary mystics who, nonetheless, had their feet firmly on the ground. They knew well the pitfalls of getting too intimate with political power. This is why Rabbi Shalom Dov Baer Schneerson (1860–1920), the fifth Chabad Rebbe, bitterly opposed the then fledgling Zionist movement:

The Zionists must abandon the Torah and the faith of Israel:

In order to infuse our brethren with the idea of being a “nation” and an independent polity… the Zionists must give nationalism precedence … in leaving exile by force and redeeming themselves by their own power….

He was unapologetic for the Jewish tradition of peaceful apolitical accommodation, which he found praiseworthy. For him, in addition to being a guarantee of survival, this tradition constitutes an active commitment to the idea of messianic redemption. However, nowadays Chabad is firmly embedded in political positions that provoke strong reactions.

While historically anti-Zionist, Chabad has now joined what the American Jewish theologian Marc Ellis calls “Constantinian Judaism”. This is a recent mutation of Judaism that, rather than speak truth to power, allies itself with it. This mutation is primarily due to a massive refocusing of Jewish identities on Israel, a major military power and a key ally of the United States. This necessarily leaves behind traditional Judaism and its message of morality and humility. Chabad members may find it instructive to review the classical writings of their own Rebbes who were warning precisely against such reliance on power.

For many Jews, innocence in suffering transmutes into innocence in empowerment. It is the latter that enables Israeli and Diaspora Jewish establishments to claim victimhood while Israel has become a formidable military power. Their ideologues conclude that, to quote Marc Ellis, “the religious duty of the Jewish community cannot simply revolve around belief in God. Rather, the survival of the people takes precedence, and because empowerment is crucial to that survival, empowerment takes on religious connotations.” This effectively replaces traditional Judaism and leads to the emergence of a new belief system that may still use the language of Judaism but radically transforms and even negates the latter. The change appears more profound than the transformation that led to the emergence of rabbinic Judaism from the ruins of the Second Temple, whose destruction the Jewish tradition attributes to the intransigence of patriotic Zealots nearly two thousand years ago.

Independent security experts quoted by Jerusalem Post in the wake of the tragedy believe that Chabad’s connection with Israeli can only hurt the security of its 4000 emissary families in 73 countries. However, the state of Israel continues to claim that it represents and protects Jews around the world. The government of Israel did not hesitate even to use the tragedy in Mumbai to reinforce this claim. Israeli warplanes flew the bodies of the Jewish victims to Israel, their coffins draped in Israeli flags.

The family of at least one of the victims, Rabbi Aryeh Leibush Teitelbaum, which belongs to the anti-Zionist Satmar Hassidic movement, had categorically refused to have his coffin wrapped in an Israeli flag. But, reports Israeli daily Haaretz, “all their entreaties fell on deaf ears.” This is particularly cruel to the memory of the American-born rabbi who had never taken Israeli citizenship and, in spite of his family’s dire economic situation, refused welfare aid from the Zionist state. He was in India to make a living: he supervised local kosher food facilities and must have found it convenient to stay at the Chabad house.

Reacting to the political use of the rabbi’s corpse by Israeli authorities, one of his friends wrote: “Ratsahta ve gam yerashta? Have you, the Zionists, killed this man and inherited him as well? Is it not enough that he died as an innocent casualty of your conflict with the Palestinians? Do you have to reap benefit from his death too?”

This tragedy shows the prescience of many anti-Zionist rabbis who, over a century ago, had warned that Zionism would fuel violence against Jews. Alas, this happens regularly both in Israel and beyond its borders. Most attacks against Diaspora Jews in the recent decades have been motivated by a desire to avenge the Zionists’ dispossession and oppression of the Palestinians. Chabad Rebbes were among the vast majority of rabbis who believed that the Zionist enterprise, with its reliance on political and military power, threatens Jews.

Contrary to what Dennis Praeger would have us believe, the murderers did not aim at “the destruction of the Jews.” Indignant at the desperate fate of the Palestinians, they were hitting at Israel, finding it easier to attack a Chabad house in Mumbai than the Israeli army’s headquarters in Tel Aviv. Nothing justifies the murder of the innocent, and we must all take responsibility for creating confusion between Judaism, which values life and inspires respect, and Zionism, which much of the world abhors because of the violence engendered by the state of Israel.

The recent tragedy in Mumbai should force many Jews to come to terms with the contradictions between the religion they profess to believe in and the ideology that has in fact taken hold of them. They must realize that Zionism is not identical with Judaism, and that promoting association between Jews and the state of Israel, they bring disaster upon the most devoted and vulnerable among us.

[1] The author is Professor of History at the University of Montreal; his recent book is A Threat from Within: A century of Jewish Opposition to Zionism, nominated for Canada’s Governor General Award.

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