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Rebbe’s Influence Blamed for Labor’s Failure to Form Governing Coalition

Rabbi Menachem Schneerson, the 88-year-old spiritual leader of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement, has come under fire from American Jewish organizational leaders and the Israeli press for allegedly meddling in internal Israeli politics.

But Schneerson’s spokesman, Rabbi Yehuda Krinsky, claimed the Brooklyn-based Hasidic rebbe is “apolitical” and was not directly responsible for the refusal Wednesday of two ultra-Orthodox Knesset members to join fellow members of the Agudat Yisrael party in forming a coalition with the Labor Party.

The two defectors from Agudat Yisrael, Avraham Verdiger and Eliezer Mizrachi, effectively blocked Labor Party leader Shimon Peres from forming a government by denying him the votes he needed in order to win a parliamentary motion of confidence.

Krinsky denied reports that Schneerson had telephoned his disciples and instructed them to take such action.

“They did not speak to the rebbe,” Krinsky said flatly.

Instead, Krinsky said that Verdiger had called the Lubavitch headquarters in Brooklyn, asking if the rebbe still opposed ceding territory in a peace agreement with the Arabs — which the Labor Party strongly advocates.

NOT ONE INCH

Schneerson’s decades-long position has been that Israel should not surrender “one inch” of territory. The Lubavitcher rebbe’s stance is at odds not only with the Labor Party but with some of the most revered Torah sages in Israel, who uphold the primacy of saving lives over territorial sovereignty.

But Lubavitch contends that Israel must retain the administered territories in order to save lives. Though he has never seen the Jewish state himself, Schneerson preaches that he takes this position to preserve the physical well-being of the Jews who live there.

After receiving confirmation that Schneerson’s position remains the same, Verdiger and Mizrachi could “deduce that the rebbe would be opposed to a party that had on its agenda the surrender of territories,” Krinsky conceded.

But he maintained that the two Knesset members chose on their own not to join with Labor.

Whether his influence was direct or indirect, Schneerson’s pronouncements and their effect on Israeli politics has concerned many in Israel and the United States alike.

An angry editorial in the mass-circulation Israeli newspaper Yediot Achronot stated that Israel’s fate now appears to lie “in the hands of a rabbi who lives in Brooklyn, who has never set foot in Israel.”

This sentiment was echoed in comments Thursday by several American Jewish leaders.

“Rabbi Schneerson, sitting in his study on (Brooklyn’s) Eastern Parkway, decided that Agudat Yisrael would not participate in the proposed government,” Rabbi Alexander Schindler said in a statement.

Schindler, president of the Reform movement’s Union of American Hebrew Congregations, said, “One is forced to ask: How can a religious leader in good conscience reject the idea of moving toward peace when the young men in his own movement are exempted from military service so they can pursue their yeshiva studies?”

Seymour Reich, chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, refused to criticize the Lubavitcher rebbe directly. But he called it “reprehensible for anyone in the Diaspora to interfere with the Israeli political system.”

MESSAGE SENT TO FEDERATIONS

An official of the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America also expressed concern.

“While we hold Rabbi Schneerson in the highest regard, we are concerned by American Jewish involvement in Israeli internal affairs,” said William Rapfogel, executive director of the Orthodox Union’s Institute of Public Affairs.

In Israel, one group charged the Lubavitch movement with being a “covert political movement.”

Professor Hillel Shuval, chairman of Hemdat, the Coalition for Freedom of Religion in Israel, said he had “indisputable proof” that Chabad uses its organization, funds and influence to “affect the outcome of political elections in Israel and critical votes in the Knesset.”

In a cable he sent to leaders of the United Jewish Appeal and the Council of Jewish Federations, the mainstream Jewish fund-raising and philanthropic agencies in the United States, Shuval urged that they withhold funds from Lubavitch.

But Frank Strauss, a CJF spokesman, said that “very few” federations give money to Lubavitch, and in those cases, only to Lubavitch houses in their individual communities.

“Certainly no money goes to Eastern Parkway,” Strauss said.

(JTA correspondents David Landau and Gil Sedan in Jerusalem contributed to this report.)

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