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The Rebbe and the Land of Israel
In his most famous poem, the great Jewish Torah scholar and poet of the Middle Ages, Rabbi Yehuda Halevi says: "My heart is in the east, and I in the uttermost west." The same may be said about the Rebbe: his heart was in the east, while he himself was in the west. From "Seven-Seventy," the Rebbe directed the affairs of Jewish communities throughout the world, but his heart and thoughts were always directed toward Eretz Yisrael.

People often ask why the Rebbe did not go to Eretz Yisrael. Many try to decipher, cautiously and surreptitiously, with veneration and even fear, the meaning of this mystery. Anyone who was involved with Chabad in any fashion knew that the Rebbe's heart burned with fiery love for Israel. Those who had an opportunity to hear the reverent tone in which the Rebbe uttered the words "our sacred land" will be forever convinced that there is no Jew in the world who loves Eretz Yisrael more than the Rebbe did. How could the Rebbe, who loved the Land of Israel with such passion, stay away from it? Some even accuse the Rebbe of being "anti-Zionist."

The Rebbe's love for the Land of Israel, like every other facet of his life, is rooted in Torah and halachah. The Torah teaches that Eretz Yisrael is the Promised Land for the Chosen People, a land forever shielded by the watchful eye of the Creator. We mention this land three times a day in our Shemoneh-Esreh prayer. The Rebbe's soul is bound with unbreakable ties to the Land of Israel. This bond manifested itself in his agenda as well. He sent hundreds of his chasidim to Eretz Yisrael, who obeyed his instructions to settle permanently in the country. He established countless educational institutions, set up new settlements, aided the country's needy citizens, and so on. This was a two-way connection: hundreds of young men come from Israel to study for several years at the Lubavitch yeshivah at "Seven-Seventy,” the largest Chabad yeshivah in the world and the nucleus of all Chabad yeshivos. There is also a smicha program at the yeshivah where the students study to become ordained rabbis.

On Jewish holidays, "Seven-Seventy" would fill with thousands and thousands of chasidim from Eretz Yisrael and the entire world. Many of them spent their last penny on airfare, borrowing money wherever they could, to spend the holidays, especially Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and Sukkos, in the unforgettable atmosphere that surrounds the Rebbe. Hebrew became the common language for chasidim from Israel, France, South Africa, and other countries.

The Rebbe stayed up to date on everything that happened in Israel. During the years when the Rebbe held private audiences several nights a week, he was frequently visited by prominent figures from Israel: presidents, prime ministers, Knesset members, top army officers, writers, poets, and economists. Guests from Eretz Yisrael were always accorded preferential treatment at "Seven-Seventy." Public and religious leaders from Israel were given a place of honor for those private audiences. Those who were unable to see the Rebbe privately in his study due to his heavy schedule, came on Sunday to join the endless line of people who passed before the Rebbe to receive a blessing and a dollar for charity.

The following example demonstrates the extent to which the Rebbe was informed about the tiniest details of Israeli life. In 1987, when the Rebbe issued instructions to establish a new neighborhood for Soviet immigrants in Jerusalem, his shluchim were offered the option of several locations. They consulted the Rebbe about the available choices, naively bringing maps of Jerusalem where they had marked the possible areas. To their surprise, the Rebbe totally ignored the maps. He knew perfectly well the exact location of each area, the distance to the city center, the main roads, and the pros and cons of every suggested option, even though the Rebbe had never even been to Jerusalem.

In his mind and heart, the Rebbe was always present in Israel. The number of Chabad chasidim increased steadily in the country. At the Rebbe's instructions, Chabad centers were set up in many cities and towns throughout Israel: Holon, Kiryat Malachi, Tzfas, Jerusalem, and of course in Kfar Chabad – the Lubavitch "capital" in Eretz Yisrael. There is an extensive network of Chabad institutions in Eretz Yisrael: hundreds of Chabad Houses, the headquarters of the children's organization called Tzivos Hashem, branches of the Chabad Women's and Girls' Association, libraries and publishing houses, dozens of yeshivos and kollels, scores of schools in the Ohel Yosef Yitzchok system, secondary schools, women's colleges, and so on.

Some viewed the Rebbe as a political "hawk" because for years he urged Israel's political leaders to resist international pressure and to refrain from handing Yehuda, Shomron, and the Gaza Strip over to the Arabs. The Rebbe was adamant in his opinion that these areas were "part and parcel to the Land of Israel, and must never be given up – under any circumstances!"

The Rebbe charged his chasidim with the task of explaining his uncompromising stance on this issue. He repeatedly stated that it was not so much a matter of ideological principles, or even the sacred legacy of this land inherited from our ancestors. His position stemmed from the fact that renouncing the areas in question would endanger Jewish lives. The Rebbe agreed with the majority of military experts, who believed that these territories were vital for the defense of the country and the security of its citizens. In the Rebbe's opinion, this extremely important issue should always be at the top of the Israeli government's agenda. In fact, the Rebbe maintained that in Israel, Crown Heights, South Africa, and Russia, the Jewish people should hold the same decisive, steadfast stand against the enemy. This position is based on clear-cut directions in Shulchan Aruch, which states explicitly that if thieves sneak into a Jewish border settlement, even if only to steal some straw, is it the sacred duty of the residents to take up arms in defense of their settlement, violating the sanctity of Shabbos if need be, since laxity towards the thieves will ultimately endanger Jewish lives.

Unfortunately, Israeli leaders did not always agree with the Rebbe's opinions. The Yom Kippur War is one regrettable example. The Rebbe foresaw the war and warned the Israeli government. At a farbrengen only days before the war, the Rebbe predicted the precise sequence of impending events, urging the politicians to begin serious preparations for the coming Arab attack. However, the Israeli government dismissed the possibility of an Arab assault as "unlikely." The unfortunate results speak for themselves. Although Israel was miraculously spared from disaster, and even won a brilliant victory, the sad fact is that the heavy losses suffered by the Israeli army could have been avoided if the politicians had heeded the Rebbe's warnings. Furthermore, fear of international pressure prevented the Israeli leaders from bringing the war to its logical conclusion by crushing Egypt, occupying Damascus, and so on. As a result, the miraculously achieved military victory was transformed into a political defeat.

Along with his struggle for the security of the country, the Rebbe waged a battle for the security of the Jewish people. This battle was centered around the question, "Who is a Jew?" Numerous conversions to Judaism conducted by Reform rabbis were recognized in Israel at that time. Reform rabbis who, in fact, were not considered rabbis by the Orthodox definition – transformed a gentile into a Jew in the blink of an eye. The convert would not have the slightest notion of what it meant to be a Jew or of the spiritual significance of this act; he did not accept the Torah or its laws. Such a giyur (conversion) is usually performed to legitimize marriage between Jews and these supposedly converted gentiles. Together with Christian priests, these rabbis officiated at mixed weddings held in churches. Unfortunately, in Israel today an enormous number of people are officially recognized as Jews, though they remain what they have always been – gentiles. The Law of Return defines as Jewish anyone who has a Jewish mother or has undergone conversion. However, it does not specify who is qualified to conduct the conversion, or how it is to be conducted. If these "converts" would admit openly and honestly that they are not Jewish, they would certainly be able to continue living in Israel enjoying full rights as loyal and respectable citizens.

For dozens of years, the Rebbe called upon the lawmakers to amend the Law of Return, arguing that giyur is legitimate only when it is conducted in accordance with halachah. Such an amendment would not only benefit Israel, it would also help strengthen American Jewry. There are reasons to believe that if American Jews were to see that Israel refuses to accept Reform conversions, it would help restrain them from marrying a non-Jew.

It is difficult to even begin to describe the effort invested by the Rebbe and his chasidim in Israel on working to modify the Law of Return. Prime ministers and Knesset members gave them repeated promises, only to break them later for one political reason or another. The Rebbe warned on more than one occasion that until the Law of Return has been amended, the very existence of the Jewish state is in danger, both in the physical realm and also, G-d forbid, in the realm of vital spiritual values that cannot be perceived on the physical plane.

Chabad chasidim, following the Rebbe's instructions, never allowed themselves to become entangled in the endless feuding between Israel's political parties and factions. The only exception was the election of November 1988. Then the Rebbe directed his chasidim to lend their support to the religious camp, whose goal was to unify the Jewish people. This definition applied only to the united list of the Agudat Yisrael and Po'alei Agudat Yisrael parties. The Lubavitch chasidim living in Israel worked day and night to ensure the victory of that list. What happened was nothing short of a miracle: Agudat Yisrael, which every poll and estimate doomed to failure, clinched five Knesset seats! Presumably, the Chabad chasidim themselves were pleasantly surprised to discover the extent of their influence in Israel. Of course, they did not enter the Knesset, not wanting to become embroiled in politics.

The Rebbe refrained from passing judgment on the State of Israel even when Israeli politicians' words and actions were at total variance with the Rebbe's beliefs. Naturally, the deplorable spiritual condition of Israel and the policy of transferring parts of the Holy Land to the sworn enemy of the Jewish people caused the Rebbe deep anguish. Yet all of the Rebbe's discourses and letters contain nothing but words of encouragement and support, emphasizing the holiness and importance of Eretz Yisrael.

Let us, however, return to the reasons for the Rebbe's residence in New York rather than in Eretz Yisrael. From his own replies to this question, we know that had the Rebbe's concern been solely for himself, he would have moved to Israel. The Rebbe bore responsibility for six million American Jews and millions of Jews in other countries. The Rebbe exerted himself day and night for their sake, establishing new educational institutions whose goal was to halt the process of assimilation. We have already mentioned the vast amount of time the Rebbe devoted to Chabad Houses, yeshivod, cheders, schools, and other educational facilities. Running this network of institutions, strengthening and expanding the Chabad movement in the United States and the rest of the world in order to bring the Torah and its commandments to every Jew wherever he was – these were at the top of the Rebbe's priorities, and he would not rest until he achieved these objectives. If the Rebbe were to relocate to Eretz Yisrael, his thousands of chasidim, teachers and mentors among them, would inevitably follow him; as a result, millions of Jews in the United States and other countries would be abandoned, like a flock without its shepherd.

This raises an unavoidable question: why didn’t the Rebbe ever visit Israel? From what we know, the answer is two-fold. First, halachah forbids a Jew to leave Eretz Yisrael (except under special, clearly defined circumstances). Thus, if the Rebbe were to visit Israel, his departure would raise a serious halachic problem. Secondly, we have already seen that the Rebbe's daily load made every minute precious; the Rebbe never spent time on anything that did not benefit the Jewish people or at least an individual Jew. There is no doubt that a visit to the Holy Land would have given the Rebbe great personal joy. However, the Rebbe never let his actions be swayed by personal concerns – in fact, he had none. His deeds, his connection to the Land of Israel, and his contribution to its revival were far more profound and concrete than symbolic visits and demonstrative gestures would be.


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