Israeli journalist rips Chabad, urges caution with donations

When the passionate words settled after last week's "Israel at 50" symposium in San Francisco, it was a tie between an Israeli journalist and Palestinian protesters as to who packed the biggest surprise.

No one expected the ranting protesters to ram the doors of the mezzanine-level banquet room, where they caught attendees and the guards off guard.

And the journalist, Ze'ev Chafets, shook more than the chandeliers when he likened the fervently religious Chabad to the bloody Islamic group Hamas.

The reckless analogy raised the hackles of many who attended the daylong symposium hosted at the St. Francis Hotel by the S.F-based Jewish Community Relations Council and other Jewish organizations. Several openly challenged Chafets from the floor.

"You've painted orthodoxy with a wide brush," said a German war refugee in the crowd. "If you subtracted religion from the equation, what's left?"

The symposium — held on Thursday of last week to mark the signing of Israel's Declaration of Independence 50 years ago — was designed to provoke discussion about the anniversary as a unique moment in history.

The three speakers — Chafets, Zionist thinker Avraham Infeld and Israeli novelist Amos Oz — look backed in time at the factors that shaped Israel and gave their predictions for the future.

While their views couldn't have been more different, all three agreed that Jews in both Israel and the diaspora are poised on the precipice of a new era.

This new age, they said, will see the birth of a Palestinian state and the passing of an immigrant culture in Israel. In addition, diaspora Jews and Israelis will slowly grow apart unless changes are made, Infeld warned.

"It's like a couple who have lived together for 30 years with children. Then the children leave and [the parents] say, `What are you doing in my bed? Who are you?'" Infeld said.

Chafets, taking a historical view, suggested it might be more appropriate to celebrate Israel's second 25th anniversary than its 50th because the essential character of Israeli society changed after the 1973 Yom Kippur War.

Before 1973, he said, Israel was "ruled by a small, interwoven group of people who dictated mass culture and used the power of the state" to do so.

Pre-1973 Israel was a "sort-of democracy," the Michigan-born journalist added.

But the Yom Kippur broke open the Jewish state, after the ruling elite made tactical errors and nearly lost the war, he said.

The postwar era opened Israelis to the Arab world and to international markets. Sephardi and Mizrahi Jews began to exercise their political voices. Socialism ebbed.

The vibrant democracy of Israel today, Chafets maintained, has everything to do with that break in 1973 of the psychological hold by "Jewish WASPs," which is what he calls the Zionist, Ashkenazi founders.

He praised the Israel of today for its political debates. He did not wax lovingly for long, however, citing a laundry list of injustices that he claimed would rip the country apart before another 50 years come to pass.

"There are a million Israeli [Arabs] for whom Israel is not a democracy. We haven't treated them properly and have not given them the chance to integrate into our society."

But the biggest threat to Israeli society, the journalist said, are the fervently religious, who prefer theocracy to a democracy. He cited polls indicating more Israeli sympathy and tolerance toward Arabs than for the haredi, or fervently religious Jews.

Chafets called on American Jews to reject the idea of Jewish unity and get specific about who should receive their financial donations.

"I don't know what is more subversive today, giving money to Hamas or giving money to Chabad. I assure you that both Hamas and Chabad are in the business of trying to dismantle society."

Whispers ripped through the room.

"Yeah, that's right," he replied, adding that Chabad is not the only group that "works your sentimentality to raise funds in order to destroy your Jewish legitimacy.

"On this issue [of donations], all of us need to become more confident about who we are."

As Chafets concluded his lecture and before several protesters slipped into the hotel undetected, some 50 Palestinians from various local groups shouted angry chants in the street outside.

"U.-S.! Is-rael! End-the-occupa-tion! U.-S.! Is-rael! End-the-occupa-tion!"

"American Jews in the U.S. want pressure put on Netanyahu, but the Israeli lobby in the U.S. doesn't," said protester Nora Nasir of Castro Valley. "Americans are giving power [to the lobby] by giving their money."

Their objections did not prevent attendees from sharing warmer sentiments about Israel during small-group discussions.

"This 50th does mark a sea change in the way Jews think about themselves and Israel," said one man who called himself "Tai."

"Whenever we talk about Israel in public, it's tied up with being a Jew. If you're an assimilated Jew, you don't talk about it. `Pro-Israel' is a very ambiguous term" in this country, he noted.

Others talked wistfully about their childhoods in Israel or relatives still living there. Several diehard socialists lamented the decline of kibbutzim. Some talked of returning, and one former farmer from the Midwest plans to make aliyah when he retires.

Lori Eppstein

Lori Eppstein is a former staff writer.