New York-based Jewish sect tries to thwart Mideast peace agreement

KFAR CHABAD, ISRAEL — KFAR CHABAD, Israel -- From 6,000 miles away in Brooklyn, followers of a partly paralyzed rabbi who has never been to Israel are financing Jewish opposition to the Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement.

The Lubavitcher ultra-Orthodox sect is dedicating "big millions" of dollars to the campaign against the agreement providing limited autonomy to Palestinians, according to the head of the group here.


They are raising money for the effort partly through full-page advertisements in the New York Times soliciting "tax deductible contributions" to help "thwart this suicidal withdrawal."

"Lives are in danger"


"We really believe lives are in danger because of this" agreement, said Rabbi Yosef Aronov, director of the Chabad movement in Israel. "We are doing everything we can to oppose it."

The Lubavitchers have run dozens of full-page advertisements in Israeli newspapers, have rented a fleet of 1,000 buses for a rally at $200 a bus, have plastered billboards and printed banners with their slogan "The Land of Israel is in Danger," and have underwritten phones, cars and other logistics of the opposition campaign.

"They are the 'ready money,' " said Yisrael Medad, an official of a Jewish settlers group whose right-wing members have filled the buses rented by the Lubavitchers. He estimated the group already has spent more than $1 million, and "as far as I know, it will keep coming."

The agreement to grant limited self-government to Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip was approved by the Israeli parliament Thursday. But opponents have vowed a long-term campaign to fight its implementation.

"We believe we will spend several good million dollars to get the message across," Rabbi Aronov said in an interview yesterday.

The Lubavitch sect, which operates the Chabad network, claims to be one of the largest ultra-religious Jewish groups in the world, though in Israel they are estimated at about 10,000 followers.

Leader cannot speak

Their headquarters are in Brooklyn's Crown Heights neighborhood, where their spiritual leader, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, lives. Rabbi Schneerson, 91, suffered a stroke nearly two years ago, and does not speak. But his followers believe he still directs their political activities, including those related to Israel, where he has never visited.


They idolize the scowling, white-bearded rabbi, and many Lubavitchers believe he is the Messiah, despite his failure to reveal himself as such at a much-ballyhooed deadline last January.

Their involvement in the issue of Israel's pact with the Palestinians touches on a growing concern of officials here. The Labor Party-led government of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin fears its efforts to make peace with the Palestinians is being undermined by American Jews who accepted the right-wing philosophy of the previous Likud government.

Rabbi Aronov dismisses questions about whether the U.S.-directed Lubavitcher movement should play such a heavy role opposing a decision by the Israel government.

"Lubavitcher Israel is appealing to the American people, asking them to help us save lives," he said. "If you believed someone has a gun at your head, you would do everything you could to save your life."

But others say the prominent role of the Lubavitchers has hurt the opposition's cause.

"It's very irritating for secular Israelis that somebody who hasn't been here at all, even for a visit, wants to decide the future of Israel by remote control from New York," said Zvi Singer, who covers religious affairs for the mass-circulation Yidiot Ahronot newspaper.


"For Chabad, I think it might backfire. Israelis say its very easy to sit in New York and send Israeli youngsters to the battlefield," Mr. Singer said. "They see that [the Rabbi Schneerson] is not advising, he's not suggesting, he's trying to do it almost by force."

Rally mobilizes 100,000

The Lubavitchers organized the biggest opposition rally Sept. 7, a huge demonstration in which more than 100,000 swarmed over the hills outside the prime minister's office in Jerusalem.

Since then, the group has organized smaller rallies. They have printed slick, eight-page color brochures complete with maps depicting rockets falling on Israel and menacing Arabs. Their bold yellow and black slogan, "The Land of Israel is in Danger," is hung on sides of buildings and billboards throughout Israel.

Rabbi Aronov will not say precisely how much money has been raised or spent on the campaign. He said the majority of funds are "donated from America and Europe."

The annual operating budget of the Hasidic group, which has offices or "Chabad Houses" in 600 cities worldwide, has been estimated at $100 million to $200 million.


He insisted the Chabad sect in Israel is nonpolitical, although in 1988 it supported a religious political party in the parliamentary elections, and in 1978 it opposed the Camp David Israel-Egypt agreements.

Unlike some opponents, who claim the West Bank and Gaza Strip were deeded by the Bible to Jews, Rabbi Aronov said his group's opposition "has nothing to do with the Torah. It's purely a matter of security. Military experts who aren't affiliated with any party believe it is dangerous to give up territory."

Palestinians can move, he said: "The Arab world is big."

Israelis trying to mobilize public support for the agreement are watching closely the spending advantage of the Lubavitchers.

But they say it has not swayed public opinion.

"We don't have the money for even half of what they spent on one demonstration," said Gavri Bargil, director general of Peace Now.


But "you can't buy people," he said. "They are suspicious if you have a lot of money. The Israeli public doesn't like outsiders to tell them what to do, and they see the Lubavitchers as outsiders."

Although many Lubavitchers in Israel are Americans, the sect is much more involved in Israeli society than other ultra-orthodox sects.

From their village of white stucco houses outside Tel Aviv, the group has a vigorous outreach program in which they visit soldiers, elderly and children.

They run academic and vocational schools.

Many Lubavitcher males serve in the Israeli army, unlike other ultra-orthodox.

The sect also has brought hundreds of children to Israel from the Ukraine area near the Chernobyl nuclear plant, for medical treatment and schooling.


Awkward moments

But their involvement in the opposition movement has also caused some awkward moments.

Mr. Medad said the Lubavitchers, who believe in strict separation of women and men, balked at allowing any female speakers at the big Sept. 7 opposition rally.

"I think we've got that settled now," said Mr. Medad.

"They realize they can't dictate that."