‘Jews Who Were Israelis’: Anti-Semitism and the Mumbai Chabad Center

The media coverage of the terrorist attack on the Chabad Center in Mumbai has focused on the tragic deaths of Rabbi Gavriel Holtzberg and his wife Rivka, despite the fact that an American Hasidic Jew from Jerusalem and several Israelis were also killed. In part, the Holtzberg family attracted so much attention and sympathy because they weren’t tourists but committed Jewish residents of Mumbai, sent by the Lubavitch community to provide services to the city’s Jewish residents and travelers. In a condolence letter to the families, President-elect Obama wrote:

In running the Chabad House in Mumbai, Gavriel and Rivka provided a home away from home for so many Jewish travelers, carrying out in their corner of the world Chabad Lubavitch’s mission of service to the Jewish community. They gave selflessly of themselves to others, and touched many lives along the way.

In other words, they neither represented Israel nor had any “Zionist” agenda. So why was the Chabad Center attacked?

The sole surviving terrorist Amir Kasab told his interrogators that they were instructed to target “Jews who were Israelis,” a phrase that deserves some attention.

The conjunction “Jew and Israeli” is bound up in the complex nature of Jewish modernity where “Jew” no longer means, as it once did, a member of the Jewish people; it also has a specific nationalistic or political identification. Of course, not all Jews are Israeli (or even support Israel) and not all Israelis are Jews (20% of Israeli citizens are not Jews). But on the world stage, as in much of the Jewish world itself, the relationship between the two overlapping terms is all-too-commonly misunderstood.

Anti-Israelism, for example, which in principle can be based on purely political and not religious considerations, is often viewed as an extension of anti-Semitism. While the latter targets a people and the former a state, it is further complicated by Israel’s self-defined status as a “Jewish State,” causing many to erase the crucial distinction. And, though it is surely true that almost all anti-Semites are anti-Israel, not all those who hold anti-Israel views are anti-Semites. Even within the camp sloppily referred to as “anti-Israel,” there are many gradations—from a belief that a “Jewish” state should not exist at all to a critique of Israel’s policies toward its non-Jewish minority and the Palestinians under its occupation.

The Case of Brother Daniel, a Jewish-Born Priest

In some ways, this issue revolves around the vexing question of “who is a Jew?,” a question whose origins reach back at least to Paul’s Letter to the Romans and is crucial in determining the status of citizenship in the modern “Jewish” State of Israel. One interesting articulation of this dilemma is the 1962 Israeli Supreme Court case of Brother Daniel. Oswald Rufeisen (a.k.a. Brother Daniel), born a Jew in Poland in 1922, was able to escape the Nazis and saved other Jews in the White Russian city of Mir by disguising himself as a Gentile. He secured a job with the Germans as a policeman, eventually converting to Catholicism and becoming a Carmelite priest.

In the late 1950s, Brother Daniel applied for Israeli citizenship under the Law of Return, which allows any Jew to settle in Israel and become a citizen. The Israeli government denied his request on the grounds that even though he was born a Jew, his conversion to Catholicism rendered his (secular) status as a Jew null and void. The Israeli Supreme Court upheld the decision against the general opinion of Rabbinic Law which states that, according to halakha (traditional Jewish Law), Brother Daniel, despite being a Carmelite priest remained, by most definitions, a Jew. Of this reasoning the Supreme Court ruled:

Clearly the term ‘Jew’ as used in the Law of Return (1950) does not have the same meaning as it does in the Rabbinical Court’s Jurisdiction (Marriage and Divorce) Law (1953). The latter is religious in meaning, as prescribed by the laws of Judaism; the former is secular in meaning, in accordance with its ordinary meaning when used in popular language an by Jews. (Israeli Supreme Court Decision 76/62, Osvald Rufeisen v. Ministry of the Interior (1962) 14 P.D. 2428).

One argument in the court’s decision was based on what they determined was the incompatibility of “Jew” and “Christian”:

The basic attitude that ‘Jew and ‘Christian’ are two mutually exclusive titles, is shared by all, whether it be the mass of the people or the scholars; none of these can consider an apostate as a member of the Jewish nation.

Hence, according to secular Israeli law (and in seeming contradiction to Jewish Law) Brother Daniel should not, could not, be considered a Jew. Rufeisen was subsequently granted citizenship through naturalization but the Court decided that the line on his Israeli identity card for “nationality” remain blank, meaning that he was not a “Jew” and also that he was not a non-Jew. He died in the Stella Maris Carmelite Monastery near Haifa in 1998.

Better You Should Be an Atheist than a Christian

The court, of course, did not make belief or adherence to “Judaism” a prerequisite for being a “Jew.” Being a Jewish atheist was fine for the Court. The State was, in fact, largely founded by Jewish atheists. David ben-Gurion, the first Prime Minister of Israel, once suggested printing a version of the Hebrew Bible excluding any mention of God. And it may not be accurate to say that belief in any other religion would have the same result. What about a Jew who is a Buddhist? Or a practitioner of Native American religion? The court ruled that “It is absurd to think that an apostate, who believes in another deity, could participate in a religious quorum in which the rest of the members are praying to the God of Israel.”

But what about Jewish theologians who argue that Christians and Jews do, in fact, pray to the same God? And what of many Christian theologians today who also affirm that the God they pray to is the one God of Creation, the same God the Jews pray to? And setting this vexing question this aside, does this not mean that a Jewish convert to Islam would be considered a Jew according to the court’s criteria? There is little doubt in Jewish sources and even in popular parlance that the Muslim prays to the one God of creation, the same as the Jews.

How is all this relevant to the tragedy of the Chabad Center in Mumbai? First, it highlights the ways in which the status of Jew and Israeli (“Jews who were Israelis”) is made more and not less complex by the secular politicization and nationalization of religion and peoplehood. For an Israeli to be a Jew under secular law he or she must either practice Judaism, have no religion at all, or practice some other form of religion that the court does not deem threatening to Judaism. While religious law generally determined that religion could not ultimately undermine one’s status as a Jew, secular law could (although this is a complex issue in Jewish Law and there are positions that hold an apostate is an “attenuated Jew”). To be a Jew under Israeli law is not the same as being a “Jew” in the rest of the world.

When Kasab said they were instructed to target “Jews who were Israelis,” what exactly did he, and they, mean? Did they mean, an Israeli citizen who has “Jew” on their identity card—that is, fulfills the secular criteria of the status “Jew”? Or, did Kasab and his fellow terrorists simply blur, or even erase, the distinction between Jew and Israeli, understanding their instructions to simply be “to kill Jews.” If the latter is true, this is a blatant act of anti-Semitism, even as it may be the result of a mistaken formulation which, in part, is propagated by some Zionists (as well as anti-Semites). If not, how are we to define the nature of this act?

I would suggest that even as Jews were targeted in this attack, the attack cannot be called anti-Semitic in any conventional sense (even if the terrorists happened to be anti-Semites). For one, American, Indian, British, and Canadian citizens were also targets—perhaps primary targets. But more compelling still, Kasab stated clearly that they were instructed to target “Jews who were Israelis”; that is, Israelis. The sloppy way they chose to enact this is another matter. If this were motivated by anti-Semitism, why would those giving the instructions care if the Jews were Israelis? Why not just “Jews”? If we say that anti-Semitism is the hatred of Jews qua Jews (wherever they live) this act, as horrendous as it was, was not about anti-Semitism but anti-Israelism.

From what we know it seems that Israel was deemed part of a larger conglomerate that became the target of these terrorists. This was clearly an attack against the “West,” with Israel (and India) considered part of that coalition. They may have attacked the Chabad House, as opposed to the Israeli Embassy, for several reasons: perhaps they simply erased the distinction between Jew and Israeli (and perhaps misunderstood their instructions); or, given the fact that violence doesn’t like distinctions, they figured that by killing Jews it was likely that some of them would be Israelis; or else it may have been the simple fact that the Chabad House, having little or no security, was just an easier target than the fortified Embassy. Since we do not know (and likely will never know) which of these, if any, is true, we must hold off before defining this as a pure act of anti-Semitism.

Not Guns and Tanks but Mitzvot and Acts of Kindness

This tragedy is even more complicated. While the Holtzmans understandably received the lion’s share of the publicity, another victim brings the ambiguity of “Jews who are Israelis” into sharper relief. Aryeh Leibish Teitlebaum, a 38-year-old Hasidic rabbinical student, was not only an American citizen (who lived with his family in Israel) but also an active member of an Ultra-Orthodox anti-Zionist sect whose family rejected the Jewish State’s offer to grant him a memorial ceremony at Ben Gurion airport.

Teitelbaum bears the family name of Rabbi Yoel Teitelbaum, the founder of the Satmar Hasidic sect and architect of Ultra-Orthodox anti-Zionism. In concert with his namesake, Aryeh Leib Teitelbaum legally disavowed his Israeli citizenship. One of his friends explained the family decision to reject Israel’s offer to honor Teitelbaum with a state funeral (including wrapping the coffin in an Israeli flag). “He lived as a Jew and will be buried as a Jew,” his friend said. Or, as the anti-Zionist Neturei Karta slogan goes: “A Jew not a Zionist.”

The relationship between Chabad and Zionism is quite complex. The fifth grand rabbi of Lubavitch, Shalom Dov Baer, was openly anti-Zionist and rejected Zionism’s militaristic, secular, and political agenda of bringing redemption. For him and the Chabad tradition the proper way to bring redemption is through acts of piety, kindness, good works, and maximizing Jewish observance. Rabbi Shalom Dov Baer’s successor, Rabbi Yosef Yizhak Schneershon, was avidly anti-Zionist and even encouraged his Hasidim to remain in Eastern Europe rather than emigrate to the Eretz Israel (Mandate Palestine). He went so far as to place some blame on the Zionists when writing about the Holocaust. Although the seventh rebbe Menahem Mendel Schneersohn softened somewhat, he would never have defined himself as a “Zionist,” bitterly rejecting the religious Zionist notion that the establishment of the State of Israel was “the beginning of redemption.”

In fact, one could argue that he subversively adopted militaristic nomenclature, calling his missionaries “the army of God” and referring to mitzvot (ceremonial commandments) as weapons. In Chabad the Hebrew term for weapon NeSHeK became an acronym for Ner Shabbat Kodesh (Sabbath candles) and the vans that circle cities of the world offering Jews the opportunity to perform mitzvot are called “Mitzvah Tanks.” While one could argue that this indicates Zionist influence, one could also view this adaptation in a subversively non-Zionist way. That is, the true weapons of the Jews are not guns and tanks but mitzvot and acts of kindness.

This reading is affirmed in a eulogy given by Rabbi Moshe Kotlarsky, a Chabad official from New York: “We will answer the terrorists. We will not fight them with AK-47s. We will not fight them with grenades. We will not fight them with tanks. We will fight them with torches,” he cried, referring to God’s teachings.

This is not a Zionist response to terror. The entire Chabad community pledged to respond to this tragedy not by increasing their support for Israel but by rebuilding the Mumbai Chabad House and building other Chabad Houses around the world to spread their message that redemption is a religious and not a secular or political idea. The Chabad movement may support Israel, but not necessarily for the reasons the terrorists thought.

The correlation or, as philosopher Alain Badiou prefers, “the suturing” of Jew and Israeli, is a misnomer propagated by anti-Semites and Zionists, both Israeli and diasporic. It was not how Aryeh Leib Teitelbaum saw it and I do not think it was how Rabbi Menahem Mendel Schneersohn saw it. Schneershon never visited Israel and often refused to allow his disciples to settle there, preferring that they set up Chabad Houses around the globe to help cultivate redemption by spreading their version of Jewish piety—hardly a threat to the violent politicized piety of Islamic extremists.

Not all Jews are Zionists and not all Zionists agree with Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians. Some Jews may even practice another religion. But these distinctions, important as they are, are largely lost in the politics of terror. Hatred erases distinctions, violence has no time for subtlety. Innocent civilians died; some Jews, some not. Some of the “Jews were Israelis,” one was an anti-Zionist, two may have been non-Zionists. Jew and Israeli are not synonymous. And all anti-Israelism is not anti-Semitism.

The figure of the Jew is a complex one and to flatten it by suturing it to a political reality, good or bad, is unfortunate. Maybe Schneershon was right, maybe the only real weapons to fight hatred are the weapons of mitzvot, charity, and acts of kindness. That is what the Holtzmans believed in, and that is what they died for.

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