Why is the US Honoring a Racist Rabbi?
If things proceed normally, President Barak Obama will soon proclaim April 11, 2014 “Education and Sharing Day, U.S.A.” Despite the innocuous name, this day honors the memory of a religious leader whose lesser-known teachings help fuel some of the most violent attacks against Palestinians by extremist Israeli settlers and soldiers.
The leader being honored on this day is Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, charismatic head of a mystical/fundamentalist version of Judaism. Every year since 1978, a Presidential Proclamation, often accompanied by a Congressional Resolution (the 1990 one had 219 sponsors), has declared Schneerson’s birthday an official national day of observance.
Congress first passed a Resolution honoring Schneerson in 1975. Three years later a Joint Congressional Resolution called on President Jimmy Carter to proclaim “Education Day, U.S.A.” on the anniversary of Schneerson’s birth. The idea was to set aside a day to honor both education and the alleged educational work of Schneerson and the religious sect he headed up.
Carter, like Congress, dutifully obeyed the Schneerson-initiated resolution, as has every president since. And some individual states are now enacting their own observances of Schneerson’s birthday, with Minnesota and Alabama leading the way.
Schneerson and his movement are an extremely mixed bag.
Schneerson has been praised widely for a public persona and organization that emphasized “deep compassion and insight,” worked to bring many secular Jews “back” into the fold, created numerous schools around the world, and had offered, in the words of the Jewish Virtual Library, “social-service programs and humanitarian aid to all people, regardless of religious affiliation or background.”
However, there is also a less attractive underside often at odds with such public perceptions. And some of the more extreme parts of Schneerson’s teachings – such as that Jews are a completely different species than non-Jews, and that non-Jews exist only to serve Jews – have been largely hidden, it appears, even from many who consider themselves his followers.
As we will see, such views profoundly impact the lives of Palestinians living – and dying – under Israeli occupation and military invasions.
Who was Rabbi Schneerson?
Schneerson lived from 1902 to 1994 and oversaw the growth of what is now the largest Jewish organization in the world. The religious movement he led is known as “Chabad-Lubavitch,” (sometimes just called “Lubavitch” or “Chabad,” the name of its organizational arm). Schneerson was the seventh and final Lubavitcher “Rebbe” (sacred leader). He is often simply called “the Rebbe.”
Founded in the late 1700s and originally based in the Polish-Russian town of Lubavitch, it is the largest of about a dozen forms of “Hasidism,” a version of Orthodox Judaism connected to mysticism, characterized by devotion to a dynastic leader, and whose adherents often wear distinctive clothing. (Spellings of these terms can vary; Hasid is also written as Hassid, Chasid, etc.)
There is an extreme cult of personality focused on Schneerson himself. Some followers consider him the Messiah, and Schneerson himself reportedly sometimes implied this was true. Some Lubavitch educators consider him divine, making such claims as, “the Rebbe is actually ‘the essence and being [of God] … he is without limits, capable of effecting anything, all-knowing and a proper object of worshipful prostration.”
While many secular Jews and Jews from other denominations disagree with its actions and theology, Chabad-Lubavitch is generally acknowledged to be a powerful force in Jewish life today. According to a 1994 New York Times report, it is “one of the most influential and controversial forces in world Jewry.”
There are approximately 3,600 Chabad institutions in over 1,000 cities in 70 countries, and 200,000 adherents. Up to a million people attend Chabad services at least once a year. Numerous campuses have such centers and the Chabad website states that hundreds of thousands of children attend Chabad summer camps.
According to the Times, Schneerson “presided over a religious empire that reached from the back streets of Brooklyn to the main streets of Israel and by 1990 was taking in an estimated $100 million a year in contributions.
In the U.S., the Times reports, Schneerson’s “‘mitzvah tanks’ – converted campers that are rolling recruiting stations whose purpose is to draw Jews to the Lubavitch way – roamed streets from midtown Manhattan to Crown Heights. And the Lubavitchers’ Brooklyn-based publishing house claimed to be the world’s largest distributor of Jewish books.”
Non-Jewish souls ‘satanic’
While Chabad sometimes openly teaches that “the soul of the Jew is different than the soul of the non-Jew,” Schneerson’s specific teachings on this subject are largely unknown.
Quite likely very few Americans, both Jews and non-Jews, are aware of Schneerson’s teachings about the alleged deep differences between them – and about how these teachings are applied in the West Bank and Gaza.
Let us look at Schneerson’s words, as quoted by two respected Jewish professors, Israel Shahak and Norton Mezvinsky, in their book Jewish Fundamentalism in Israel (text available online here. This book, praised by Noam Chomsky, Edward Said, and many others is essential reading for anyone who truly wishes to understand modern day Israel-Palestine. (Brackets in the quotes below are in the translations by Shahak and Mezvinsky.)
Some of Schneerson’s rarely reported teachings:
“The difference between a Jewish and a non-Jewish person stems from the common expression: “Let us differentiate.” Thus, we do not have a case of profound change in which a person is merely on a superior level. Rather, we have a case of “let us differentiate” between totally different species.”
“This is what needs to be said about the body: the body of a Jewish person is of a totally different quality from the body of [members] of all nations of the world … The difference in the inner quality between Jews and non-Jews is “so great that the bodies should be considered as completely different species.”
“An even greater difference exists in regard to the soul. Two contrary types of soul exist, a non-Jewish soul comes from three satanic spheres, while the Jewish soul stems from holiness.”
“As has been explained, an embryo is called a human being, because it has both body and soul. Thus, the difference between a Jewish and a non-Jewish embryo can be understood.”
“…the general difference between Jews and non-Jews: A Jew was not created
as a means for some [other] purpose; he himself is the purpose, since the substance of all [divine] emanations was created only to serve the Jews.”
“The important things are the Jews, because they do not exist for any [other] aim; they themselves are [the divine] aim.”
“The entire creation [of a non-Jew] exists only for the sake of the Jews.”
For example, the quotes above were translated by the authors from a book of Schneerson’s recorded messages to followers that was published in Israel in 1965. Despite Schneerson’s global importance and the fact that his world headquarters is in the U.S., there has never been an English translation of this volume.
Shahak, an Israeli professor who was a survivor of the Nazi holocaust, writes that this lack of translation of an important work is not unusual, explaining that much critical information about Israel and some forms of Judaism is available only in Hebrew.
He and co-author Mezvinsky, who was a Connecticut Distinguished University Professor who taught at Central Connecticut State University, write, “The great majority of the books on Judaism and Israel, published in English especially, falsify their subject matter.”
According to Shahak and Mezvinsky, “Almost every moderately sophisticated Israeli Jew knows the facts about Israeli Jewish society that are described in this book. These facts, however, are unknown to most interested Jews and non-Jews outside Israel who do not know Hebrew and thus cannot read most of what Israeli Jews write about themselves in Hebrew.”
In Shahak’s earlier book, Jewish Religion, Jewish History, he provides a number of examples. In one, he describes a 1962 book published in Israel in a bilingual edition. The Hebrew text was on one page, with the English translation on the facing page.
Shahak describes one set of facing pages in which the Hebrew text of a major Jewish code of laws contained a command to exterminate Jewish infidels: “It is a duty to exterminate them with one’s own hands.” The English version on the facing page softened it to “It is a duty to take active measures to destroy them.’”
The Hebrew page then went on to name which “infidels” must be exterminated, adding “may the name of the wicked rot.” Among them was Jesus of Nazareth. The facing page with the English translation failed to tell any of this.
“Even more significant,” Shahak reports, “in spite of the wide circulation of this book among scholars in the English-speaking countries, not one of them has, as far as I know, protested against this glaring deception.”
Praised by Said, Chomsky, etc., Shahak is almost unknown today
This pattern of selective omission, it seems, applies to Shahak himself, whose work is largely unknown to Palestine activists today, even though he was considered a major figure in the struggle against Israeli oppression of Palestinians, and his work was praised by diverse writers.
While Shahak was alive, Noam Chomsky called him “an outstanding scholar,” and said he had “remarkable insight and depth of knowledge. His work is informed and penetrating, a contribution of great value.”
Edward Said wrote, “Shahak is a very brave man who should be honored for his services to humanity … One of the most remarkable individuals in the contemporary Middle East.” Said wrote a forward for Shahak’s Jewish History, Jewish Religion.
Catholic New Times said: ‘This is a remarkable book …[It] deserves a wide readership, not only among Jews, but among Christians who seek a fuller understanding both of historical Judaism and of modern-day Israel.”
Jewish Socialist stated: “Anyone who wants to change the Jewish community so that it stops siding with the forces of reaction should read this book.”
The London Review of Books called Shahak’s book “remarkable, powerful, and provocative.”
Yet, very few Americans today know of Shahak’s work and the information it contains.
American tax money & Jewish Extremism in Palestine
If they did, it’s hard to believe that Americans would allow $8.5 million per day of their tax money to be given to Israel, where such teachings underlie a powerful minority that is disproportionately influential in governmental actions.
Nor is it likely that a fully informed American public would allow donations to religious institutions in Israel that teach supremacist, sometimes violent doctrines to be tax-deductible in the U.S.
One organization raised over $10 million tax-deductible dollars in the U.S. in 2011 alone – removing money from the U.S. economy and enabling illegal, aggressive Israeli settlements in Palestine. And some of this money went to benefit individuals convicted of murder – including the murderer of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.
The New York Times obituary on Schneerson reported that Schneerson was “a major political force in Israel, both in the Knesset and among the electorate,” but failed to describe the nature of his impact.
One of a sprinkling of writers willing to publicly discuss Shahak and Mezvinsky’s findings is Allan Brownfeld, who is less reticent. Brownfeld is editor of the American Council for Judaism’s periodical Issues and contributor to the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs.
“Rabbi Schneerson always supported Israeli wars and opposed any retreat. In 1974 he strongly opposed the Israeli withdrawal from the Suez area. He promised Israel divine favors if it persisted in occupying the land.”
Brownfeld reports that after Schneerson’s death, “[T]housands of his Israeli followers played an important role in the election victory of Binyamin Netanyahu. Among the religious settlers in the occupied territories, the Chabad Hassids constitute one of the most extreme groups. Baruch Goldstein, the mass murderer of Palestinians, was one of them.”
Another such Chabad Hassid is Rabbi Yitzchak Ginsburg (also sometimes written as “Ginzburg” and “Ginsburgh”), who studied under Schneerson in Crown Heights and who heads up a major Chabad institution in the West Bank.
Ginsburg praised Goldstein, the murderer of 29 Palestinians while they were praying, and considers all non-Jews subhuman.
According to author Motti Inbari, Ginsburg “gives prominence to Halachic and Kabbalistic approaches that emphasize the distinction between Jew and non-Jew (Gentile), imposing a clear separation and hierarchy in this respect.”
In his book Jewish Fundamentalism and the Temple Mount: Who Will Build the Third Temple? Inbari states, “[Ginsburg] claims that while the Jews are the Chosen People and were created in God’s image, the Gentiles do not have this status and are effectively considered subhuman.”
Professor Inbari, an Israeli academic who now teaches in the U.S., writes that Ginsburg’s theological approach continues “certain perceptions that were popular in medieval times.”
“For example,” Inbari writes, “the commandment ‘You shall not murder’ does not apply to the killing of a Gentile, since ‘you shall not murder’ relates to the murder of a human, while for him the Gentiles do not constitute humans.”
Inbari reports, “Similarly, Ginzburg stated that, on the theoretical level, if a Jew requires a liver transplant to survive, it would be permissible to seize a Gentile and take their liver forcefully.”
While the mainstream American press almost never reports this kind of information, an April 26, 1996 article in Jewish Week by Lawrence Cohler reported on Ginsburg’s teachings, including their problematic roots in Jewish texts.
Cohler reported that a professor of Bible at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, Rabbi Moshe Greenberg, “called for radically revising Jewish thinking about some Jewish texts on the grounds that scholars such as Rabbi Ginsburgh are far from aberrant in their use of them.”
Cohler quoted Greenberg’s concerns: “‘There’ll be a statement in Talmud… made in circumstances where it’s purely theoretical, because Jews then never had the power to do it,’ he explained. And now, he said, ‘It’s carried over into circumstances where Jews have a state and are empowered.’”
A rabbi associated with Ginsburg coauthored a notorious Israeli book, The King’s Torah, which claims that Jewish law at times permits the killing of non-Jewish infants. American donations to the Chabad school Ginsburg heads up, and that published the above book, are tax-deductible in the U.S. Ginsburg, who endorses the book, teaches classes throughout Israel, the U.S. and France.
Such extremism is opposed by the majority of Israelis, and major Jewish religious authorities condemn it, a Chief Rabbi, for example, stating: “’According to the Torah, every man is created in God’s image.”
Yet, such extremist views continue to exert a powerful influence.
Israeli military manuals echo extremist teachings: “kill even good civilians”
Israeli military manuals sometimes replicate extremist teachings. For example, a booklet authored by a Chief Chaplain stated, “In war, when our forces storm the enemy, they are allowed and even enjoined by the Halakhah to kill even good civilians…” Such teachings by the IDF rabbinate were prominent during Israel’s 2008-9 attack on Gaza that killed 1,400 Gazans, approximately half of them civilians. (The Palestinian resistance killed nine Israelis during this “war.”)
Chicago writer Stephen Lendman has described these teachings, giving a number of examples.
Lendman writes, “In 2007, Israel’s former chief rabbi, Mordechai Elyahu, called for the Israeli army to mass-murder Palestinians:
“If they don’t stop after we kill 100, then we must kill 1000. And if they don’t stop after 1000, then we must kill 10,000. If they still don’t stop we must kill 100,000. Even a million.”
Lendman reports that some extremist Israeli rabbis teach that “the ten commandments don’t apply to non-Jews. So killing them in defending the homeland is acceptable, and according to the chairman of the Jewish Rabbinic Council:
“‘There is no such thing as enemy civilians in war time. The law of our Torah is to have mercy on our soldiers and to save them…. A thousand non-Jewish lives are not worth a Jew’s fingernail.’”
Lendman writes, “Rabbi David Batsri called Arabs ‘a blight, a devil, a disaster…. donkeys, and we have to ask ourselves why God didn’t create them to walk on all fours. Well, the answer is that they are needed to build and clean.’”
Another such rabbi is Manis Friedman, a Chabad-Lubavitch rabbi inspired by Schneerson who served as the simultaneous translator for a series of Schneerson’s talks. (Friedman is currently dean of a Jewish Studies institute in Minnesota.)
A 2009 article in the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz reports, “Like the best Chabad-Lubavitch rabbis, Manis Friedman has won the hearts of many unaffiliated Jews with his charismatic talks about love and God; it was Friedman who helped lead Bob Dylan into a relationship with Chabad.
“But Friedman, who today travels the country as a Chabad speaker, showed a less warm and cuddly side when he was asked how he thinks Jews should treat their Arab neighbors.”
In Moment magazine’s article, “Ask the Rabbis // How Should Jews Treat Their Arab Neighbors?” Friedman answered:
“I don’t believe in western morality, i.e. don’t kill civilians or children, don’t destroy holy sites, don’t fight during holiday seasons, don’t bomb cemeteries, don’t shoot until they shoot first because it is immoral.
“The only way to fight a moral war is the Jewish way: Destroy their holy sites. Kill men, women and children (and cattle).”
Lendman reports, “Views like these aren’t exceptions. Though a minority, they proliferate throughout Israeli society…”
They also, Lendman notes, work to prevent peace in Israel-Palestine.
Shahak and Mezvinsky note that when the book containing Schneerson’s statements quoted above about Jews and non-Jews was published in Israel, he was allied to the Labor Party and his movement had been provided “many important benefits” from the Israeli government.
In the mid-1970s Schneerson decided that the Labor Party was too moderate and shifted his support to the more right-wing parties in power today. The authors report, “Ariel Sharon was the Rebbe’s favorite Israeli senior politician. Sharon in turn praised the Rebbe publicly and delivered a moving speech about him in the Knesset after the Rebbe’s death.”
Roots in Some Early Texts
Brownfeld decries the fact that few Americans are properly informed about the fundamentalist movement in Israel “and the theology upon which it is based.”
He notes that Jewish Americans, in particular, are often unaware of the “narrow ethnocentrism which is promoted by the movement’s leading rabbis, or of the traditional Jewish sources they are able to call upon in drawing clear distinctions between the moral obligations owed to Jews and non-Jews.”
Teachings that Jews are superior and gentiles inferior were contained in some of the earliest Hassidic texts, including its classic text, “Tanya,” still taught today.
Brownfeld quotes statements by “the revered father of the messianic tendency of Jewish fundamentalism,” Rabbi Kook the Elder, and states that these were derived from earlier texts. [Kook, incidentally, was also an early Zionist, who helped push for the Balfour Declaration in England before moving to Palestine. He was the uncle of Hillel Kook, an agent who went by the name “Peter Bergson” and created front groups in the U.S. for a violent Zionist guerilla group that operated in 1930s and '40s Palestine.]
Brownfeld quotes Kook: “The difference between a Jewish soul and souls of non-Jews—all of them in all different levels—is greater and deeper than the difference between a human soul and the souls of cattle.”
Brownfeld explains that Kook’s teaching, which he says is followed by leaders of the settler movement in the occupied West Bank, “is based upon the Lurianic Cabbala, the school of Jewish mysticism that dominated Judaism from the late 16th to the early 19th century.”
Shahak and Mezvinsky state, “One of the basic tenets of the Lurianic Cabbala is the absolute superiority of the Jewish soul and body over the non-Jewish soul and body. According to the Lurianic Cabbala, the world was created solely for the sake of Jews; the existence of non-Jews was subsidiary.”
Again, Shahak and Mezvinsky report that this aspect is often covered up in English-language discussions. Scholarly authors of books about Jewish mysticism and the Lurianic Cabbala, they write, have frequently “willfully omitted reference to such ideas.”
Shahak and Mezvinsky write that it is essential to understand these beliefs in order to understand the current situation in the West Bank, where many of the most militant West Bank settlers are motivated by religious ideologies in which every non-Jew is seen as “the earthly embodiment” of Satan, and according to the Halacha (Jewish law), the term ‘human beings’ refers solely to Jews.”
Israeli author and former chief of Israeli military intelligence Yehoshafat Harkabi touches on this in his 1988 book Israel’s Fateful Hour.
Harkabi writes that while such extremist beliefs are not “widely dominant,” the reality is that “nationalistic religious extremists are by no means a lunatic fringe; many are respected men whose words are widely heeded.”
He reports that the campus rabbi of a major Israeli university published an article in the student newspaper entitled “The Commandment of Genocide in the Torah,” in which he implied that those who have a quarrel with Jews “ought to be destroyed, children and all.” Harkabi writes that a book by another rabbi “explained that the killing of a non-Jew is not considered murder.”
Brownfeld writes, “Although messianic fundamentalists constitute a relatively small portion of the Israeli population [most Israeli settlers are motivated by the subsidized lifestyle US tax money to Israel provides], their political influence has been growing. If they have contempt for non-Jews, their hatred for Jews who oppose their views is even greater.”
Brownfeld cites the murder of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who had started to make peace with the Palestinians, writing that it was just one “in a long line of murders of Jews who followed a path different from that ordained by rabbinic authorities.” Brownfeld reports that Shahak and Mezvinsky “cite case after case, from the Middle Ages until the 19th century.”
The authors report, “It was usual in some Hasidic circles until the last quarter of the nineteenth century to attack and often to murder Jews who had reform religious tendencies…”
They quote a long article by Israeli writer Rami Rosen, “History of a Denial,” published by Ha’aretz Magazine in 1996. This article, which cannot be found online, at least in English, is also cited in the book Brother Against Brother: Violence and Extremism in Israeli Politics from Altalena to the Rabin Assassination, by Israeli professor Ehud Sprinzak.
In his Ha’aretz article Rosen reported: “A check of main facts of the [Jewish] historiography of the last 1500 years shows that the picture is different from the one previously shown to us. It includes massacres of Christians; mock repetitions of the crucifixion of Jesus that usually took place on Purim; cruel murders within the family; liquidation of informers, often done for religious reasons by secret rabbinical courts, which issued a sentence of ‘pursuer’ and appointed secret executioners; assassinations of adulterous women in synagogues and/or the cutting of their noses by command of the rabbis.”
While Rosen’s article may seem shocking, in reality, it simply shows that members of the Jewish population, like members of Christian, Muslim, Hindu, and diverse other populations, have at times committed atrocities, sometimes allegedly in the name of their religion. The difference, as Shahak and Mezvinsky point out, is that such information is largely covered up in the U.S. Such cover-ups, however, don’t make facts go away. They merely bury them, where they smolder and at times eventually lead to exaggerated perceptions.
U.S. media rarely report that some extremist Israeli settlers are intensely hostile to Christians, and in one instance threatened peace activists who came to the West Bank to participate in nonviolent demonstrations, “We killed Jesus and we’ll kill you, too.” There is also a record of official hostility. For example, a few years ago an Israeli mayor ordered all New Testaments to be rounded up and burned.
While Schneerson is honored on national “Education” days, the reality is that the elementary schools he created often failed to teach children “basic reading, writing, spelling, math, science and history,” according to a graduate.
In his article “National Education Day and the Education I Never Had,” Chaim Levin reports on his experience at the Chabad school “Oholei Torah” (Educational Institute Oholei Menachem) in Crown Heights, New York – the site of Chabad’s world headquarters:
“I have profound respect for the late Rebbe and his legacy. However, I remember very clearly those talks that [Schneerson] gave – the ones we studied every year in elementary school about the unimportance of ‘secular’ (non-religious, formal) education, and the great importance of only studying limmudei kodesh (holy studies). As a result of this attitude, thousands of students were not taught anything other than the Bible throughout our years attending Chabad institutions.”
The goal of such schools, Levin writes, was to produce “schluchim,” missionaries who would promote Chabad all over the world.
Meanwhile, he notes, “Failure to provide basic formal education cripples children within Chabad communities. We cannot ignore the harm done…” Levin writes, “Until this day, Oholei Torah and many other Chabad schools — particularly schools for boys and a few for girls in Crown Heights and in some other places — do not provide basic formal education.”
Education and Sharing Day 2014
In his 2000 article, Brownfeld writes that Shahak and Mezvinsky’s book should be “a wake-up call “to Americans, particularly Jewish supporters of Israel.”
Fourteen years later, however, very few people are aware of these books and their powerful information, and U.S. tax money continues to flow to Israel. The main author, Israel Shahak, is now dead, as is Edward Said; Noam Chomsky rarely, if ever, mentions him; and Shahak’s co-author, Norton Mezvinsky (uncle of Chelsea Clinton’s husband), is a member of a Lubavitch congregation in New York.
In many ways, little seems to have changed since 1994, when Congressmen Charles Schumer, Newt Gingrich, and others introduced legislation to bestow on Schneerson the Congressional Gold Medal. The bill passed both Houses by unanimous consent, honoring Schneerson for his “outstanding and lasting contributions toward improvements in world education, morality, and acts of charity.”
And in two weeks, Americans will be officially called on to observe a day that honors Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson and the Lubavitcher movement.
That is, unless masses of people contact their Congressional representatives to demand a whole new direction: a “National Education and Sharing Day” that honors an individual who values education, and who believes that all people – in the words of the Declaration of Independence – are created equal.
Alison Weir is executive director of If Americans Knew and president of the Council for the National Interest. Her book, Against Our Better Judgment: How the U.S. was used to create Israel, contains additional information on Rabbi Kook’s family connection to American front groups for Israeli terrorists. (Kook was unusual in his support for political Zionism; most Jewish religious leaders at the time considered the movement heretical). Weir is NOT the British historian.)