Golan Heights rabbi argues against Israeli withdrawal

When Lubavitch Rabbi Israel Haber speaks in the Bay Area this weekend, he won't focus on mitzvot, tzedekah or prayer.

Instead this Golan Heights resident will relay a message he received in 1992 from Lubavitcher Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson.

"The rebbe gave us his blessing to not be afraid and to stay in our places," Haber said.

That is exactly what Haber intends to do, regardless of any potential Israeli-Syrian land-for-peace deal or any offers of compensation from the Israeli government.

"I haven't met anybody who would leave," he said.

Haber, a Brooklyn native who immigrated to Israel in 1978 after serving as a chaplain on U.S. Air Force bases in Alaska and Northern California's Solano County, is touring 30 U.S. cities to promote his autobiography.

"A Rabbi's Northern Adventures: From the Heights of Alaska to the Golan Heights," originally published in Hebrew, won't be available in English until later this year. However, Haber readily acknowledges another reason for visiting the United States besides the book tour: spreading the gospel about the Golan.

The 47-year-old rabbi, who directs Chabad activities in the southern Golan, will speak tonight, Feb. 9, at the Berkeley Hillel during a program co-sponsored by Chabad of the East Bay. On Saturday night, Feb. 10, he will speak at Chabad House of San Francisco.

The Golan Heights, which Israel captured from Syria in the 1967 Six Day War, was annexed in 1981. Nonetheless, the region is up for grabs in the renewed Israeli-Syrian peace negotiations.

Haber, who settled in the Golan in the early 1980s, said he is "incredulous" over the idea of giving up the land.

His family moved from Tiberias to Hispin, a small community of observant Jews about 1-1/2 miles from the Syrian border, for "ideological reasons."

"We felt we were needed," he said in a telephone interview just before Shabbat last week in Akron, Ohio.

Haber argues against an Israeli withdrawal for both religious and strategic reasons.

While many proponents of a land-for-peace deal say the Golan holds little religious significance for Jews, Haber disagrees.

He points out that the Golan is mentioned in the Book of Deuteronomy and that 32 synagogues from the period of the Mishna and the Talmud have been unearthed there, including one at Gamla.

Called the Masada of the North, Gamla was the mountain fortress of 9,000 Jews during the Roman occupation. In 67 C.E., these Jews threw themselves off a cliff to escape the Roman's imminent victory.

Just as crucial as its religious ties is the Golan's military value, Haber added.

"The Golan is the eyes and ears of Israel's security," he said.

Israeli peaceniks don't deny the Golan's strategic importance. But they say that modern warfare's reliance on missiles, as opposed to tanks and troops, minimize the Golan's significance. A comprehensive Middle East peace settlement, they add, best serves Israel's interests today.

But in Haber's view, peace is a relative term. His four sons play safely outside their home every day, he said.

"The Golan has been a very peaceful and quiet place for the past 27 years," he said.