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Why Israelis Love Chabad

An unusual outpouring of emotion for an unusual ultra-Orthodox sect.

Jerusalem, Israel

Gavriel and Rivkie Holtzberg, the young Israeli couple who ran the Chabad House in Mumbai and were murdered there by jihadists, died bound and helpless, like those Jewish martyrs disparaged for their quietism by the Zionist ethos. Ultra-Orthodox Jews, the Holtzbergs never served in the Israeli army--yet when they were buried on Tuesday, Israeli society mourned as though they were fallen soldiers. When their coffins arrived at Ben-Gurion Airport, they were draped in the national flag. Israeli leaders, including President Shimon Peres, who doesn't usually attend the funerals of terror victims, came to the Holtzbergs' funeral. When I came into work that morning, I found the young woman in the room beside mine weeping.

The devastating scene of the Holtzbergs' surviving two-year-old son, Moishe, calling out for his mother during a memorial service, was repeatedly shown on TV. But Israelis weren't only mourning the destruction of the Holtzberg family; they were mourning the loss of national heroes. Newspaper accounts recalled how Gavriel bribed prison guards in India to smuggle in wine for Shabbat to an Israeli inmate held on drug charges. Even after they lost a child to Tay-Sachs disease, the Holtzbergs insisted on remaining at their post--to continue, as Gavriel explained, "to do mitzvas," fulfill the commandment to help their fellow Jews.

In embracing the Holtzbergs, Israelis were restoring to the national ethos the old concept of kiddush hashem, religious martrydom--confirming a process that began with the 1973 Yom Kippur War. The iconic image of that war was a photograph of a religious soldier being led into Egyptian activity as he carried a Torah scroll. That image was so jarring precisely because it cast an Israeli soldier in the role of a pre-Zionist model of heroism. Since then, all our wars have ended inconclusively, expressions of the limitations of power. The more nuanced Israeli attitudes toward heroism are reflected in Jerusalem's renovated Yad Vashem Holocaust museum, which now not only extols the secular heroes, like partisans and ghetto fighters, but also those who responded to dehumanization by maintaining their religious dignity, running underground schools and prayer groups.

Since the Mumbai massacre, there have been calls here for the Israeli government to subsidize security at Chabad houses across the globe, seen by Israelis as extensions of home. "Our Chabad," summed up one headline on an Israeli news web site. The warmth with which so many Israelis have responded to Chabad proves--along with the growing popularity of prayer lyrics in Israeli rock music and of informal “secular” prayer groups spreading in Tel Aviv and elsewhere--that large parts of Israeli society may be entering a post-secular phase.

Still, it is doubtful the country would have reacted with the same emotional intensity had the Holtzbergs been ordinary ultra-Orthodox Jews rather than Chabadniks. Mainstream Israelis resent ultra-Orthodox Jews for separating from the state and its obligations even as they demand that it subsidize their separatism. Chabad neither separates nor demands, but gives. Israelis encounter Chabad's embrace most often abroad. When our young people just out of the army travel the most remote corners of the world (because military service doesn't provide enough dangers and thrills), they invariably encounter a Chabad house.

Israelis also love Chabadniks for their courage: Rivkie and Gavriel weren't yet buried when Rivkie's father announced his intention of taking over their work in the Mumbai Chabad house. Though few Chabadniks are drafted into the army, they don't avoid danger zones: Chabad activists rush to the front lines during war, providing religious services and dancing with soldiers to raise morale. One friend told me about her sister who was serving in a border post so sensitive that a visitor required special permission from the general in command of the front: "And then who shows up on Hanukah with jelly donuts? Chabadniks."

Contrast Chabad's embrace of the Israeli ethos with ultra-Orthodox anti-Zionists--one of whom, Leibish Teitelbaum, a member of the Satmar hasidic sect, was killed in Mumbai. Teitelbaum's family demanded that his coffin not be draped in the Israeli flag, even though his body had been retrieved and flown home by the Israeli government--a reminder that Jewish anti-Zionism is less an ideology than a character flaw, a lack of capacity for gratitude. Chabad defines itself by its love for every Jew; the anti-Zionists define themselves by the Jews they despise.

Israeli society reciprocated the Teitelbaums' contempt, barely noting that other funeral. Watching the mutual estrangement that even a common Jewish death couldn't heal, it felt like one of those moments in Jewish history when schismatic sects evolve into separate faiths.

Israelis know Chabad's flaws--the cars mounted with the late Rebbe's photograph and the words "Welcome King Messiah," the replicas built around Israel of the Rebbe's house in Brooklyn, complete with red bricks chipped in all the original places. And also Chabad's hardline politics: There was no territorial compromise, including Israel's withdrawal from Sinai in 1982, that Chabad didn't vehemently oppose. But many Israelis overlook the messianic looniness and the political rigidity because they crave a connection with a form of traditional Judaism that loves them unconditionally. And though it's rare in Israel's grudging public discourse to express gratitude, this week at least, Israelis offered Chabad that same unconditional love in return.

Yossi Klein Halevi is a contributing editor at The New Republic and a senior fellow at the Adelson Institute for Strategic Studies of the Shalem Center in Jerusalem.

By Yossi Klein Halevi