Jewish economics, biblical archaeology, and more

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 Judaism and Economics

To the Editors:

In Yosef Yitzhak Lifshitz’s essay, “Foundations of a Jewish Economic Theory” (Azure 18, Autumn 2004), Judaism is portrayed as espousing an ultra-conservative mindset that perpetuates--indeed, demands--social inequality. This claim is based on the verse “For the poor shall never cease out of the land” (Deuteronomy 15:11). Yet Lifshitz ignores another, seemingly contradictory verse in the same chapter of Deuteronomy: “There shall be no poor among you” (Deuteronomy 15:4).

How can these verses be reconciled? “There shall be no poor among you,” we must realize, is the Jewish ideal. Of course, every ideal is, to some extent, a utopia, one that remains forever beyond man’s reach. Indeed, the effort to move towards the ideal is what propels both man and society forward. So, too, does Judaism strive for a reality in which there are no poor. Since poverty is not an absolute term, however, but rather is relative to a given socio-economic situation, a society in which there are no poor is in truth a society in which there exists no gap between rich and poor. In other words, an egalitarian society. This is the Jewish ideal.

However, as the verse “For the poor shall never cease out of the land” makes clear, socio-economic egalitarianism is an ideal that human society can never attain. We may here draw a comparison between poverty and wickedness and crime: These, too, shall never cease out of the land, but certainly no one would suggest reconciling with them. Instead, society must strive to defeat them. So, too, will gaps between rich and poor persist, and for this reason society must always try to combat them.

There is thus a very good reason why these two verses appear together in a chapter on social legislation: Such legislation is intended to confront inequality in order to minimize it, and, in so doing, to bring society closer to the ideal. Thus the laws of the Jubilee and Sabbatical years (yovel and shmita), which are the apex of progressive social policies, are aimed at overturning the existing social order and creating a new one, so that, if and when gaps reappear, a level economic playing field will again be obtained at the start of each fifty-year cycle.

Along with these radical laws, the Bible also legislated far milder legislation meant to foster a more just and equal society, such as the obligation of the rich to give to the poor. This requirement lies at the heart of the welfare state, in which taxes levied against the rich ensure universal education and health care. To be sure, it is not enough to rely solely on welfare, and there is certainly room for encouraging voluntary social work and a sense of communal responsibility. Thus, as Lifshitz points out, the Bible also legislates these obligations in the form of religious duties.

Lifshitz is correct when he refers to the rabbinic Sages as describing poverty as a curse. Yet he errs in the conclusion he draws from this fact: According to him, and in line with his capitalistic approach, the lack of an ideal of poverty in Judaism encourages the individual to strive relentlessly for wealth. Yet the real meaning of this aversion to poverty is quite the opposite of what he would have us believe. It is, in fact, the striving towards a reality in which there is no poverty. Such a reality certainly cannot be achieved through unbridled capitalism, and from what we can see in Israel today, such an extreme capitalistic policy only serves to extend and intensify the phenomenon of poverty.

Lifshitz is also correct when he quotes the rabbis as commending work and decrying dependency on others. Once again, however, it is his conclusion that is erroneous: As well as making statements such as, “Profane your Sabbath but do not become dependent on others” (Shabbat 118a; Pesahim 112a), the Sages also insist on charity and consider it a supreme value. We may conclude from this that it is not the Sages’ intention that the unemployed and the poor be left to their own devices on the grounds that they are guilty of their poverty, since they do not work; on the contrary, the Sages demand a social policy that minimizes dependency on others--in other words, a policy that reduces unemployment and poverty. The capitalist approach espoused by Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, which exacerbates unemployment and poverty, expands the circle of dependency, and whittles away support for the poor and humiliates them; it thus runs counter to the Jewish worldview.

At the heart of Lifshitz’s theory is a reliance on a Jewish outlook that esteems private ownership. Indeed, Judaism advocates private property. But modern socialism also advocates private property, even if its proponents choose to renounce this requirement by way of living a life of partnership. As a member of a kibbutz, I regard this choice as the highest social ideal. However, I am adamantly against any policy that allows for the state to dictate the usage of private property. As far as the state is concerned, the property of kibbutz members is in a sense private, but the way its members cooperate is by choosing to join their ownership of it.

However, the examples and quotations that Lifshitz introduces to prove that the obligation of private ownership is in fact an obligation consistent with extreme capitalism end up proving precisely the opposite. For in truth, the laws concerning the protection of private property are designed to protect the property of the poor from the rich and powerful. The verse “You shall not defraud your neighbor, nor rob him” (Leviticus 19:13), quoted by Lifshitz, is not meant to defend the right of a senior manager to earn a million dollars a year while thousands of his workers barely draw minimum wage, but rather to defend those same workers against the manager who would oppress them.

So, too, the moral of the verse regarding Naboth’s vineyard, also mentioned by Lifshitz, is not a prohibition on the kingdom from taking from the rich, but a prohibition on the kingdom from robbing the weak. Ahab did not want to collect a tax from Naboth in order to reduce social gaps; rather, he simply coveted the vineyard of someone weaker than himself. It is this to which the Bible is utterly opposed, and thus it takes the view that the protection of the weak must be enshrined in law.

The pursuit of social justice is at the very core of Jewish morality, beginning with the biblical laws and continuing through the visions of the prophets, talmudic, and mishnaic law, and medieval philosophy. We should expect those who observe Jewish law and culture to rise up against a social reality that is increasingly turning the State of Israel into a capitalist jungle.

Uri Heitner

Kibbutz Ortal


Yosef Yitzhak Lifshitz responds:

In my essay, I described two consequences that follow from the Jewish understanding of man’s having been created in God’s image: First, the ability to create, which requires the affirmation of human dominion and the corresponding institution of property rights; and second, a sense of responsibility towards the world, as expressed in the commandment to give charity. I made clear that both consequences are of equal importance, and indeed are complementary. Heitner takes issue with the first in a way that completely ignores the second. This half-argument is the source of his fundamental error. 

Nor does my essay advocate “extreme capitalism.” My aim was not to endorse any specific economic proposals, but rather to correct a common misconception regarding the theological sources of socialism, whose central principles of radical equality and the limitation of property rights seem to fit much better with Catholic rather than Jewish tradition; and to set out the principles of an economic theory as espoused in the Jewish sources. These include an affirmation of wealth and the right to property, alongside a view of charity as a profound religious and moral obligation, but not a civil-legal one.

Heitner attempts to ground his belief in economic equality on the verse “There shall be no poor among you.” It is true that the Tora promises that if our behavior is charitable and moral, so shall poverty be abolished. However, Heitner’s interpretation of this verse, and by extension of the Jewish view of poverty, flies in the face of both the verse’s literal meaning and the way it was read for many centuries by the tradition. According to both, it refers not to a command but to a reward; that is, it is God’s blessing to Israel, should the latter behave morally--just like similar verses promising an end to war, famine, and other evils. For this reason, it is juxtaposed with another verse, “For the poor shall never cease out of the land,” which is, the rabbis explained, the punishment Israel will receive if it fails to behave morally. (See, for example, Ritva on Shabbat 63a.)

So, too, does Heitner incorrectly assert that the Jubilee and Sabbatical years describe an ideal of economic equality. These laws have no such intention. Both in their simple reading and in the rabbinic exegetical tradition, their meaning is not social, but religious. Their aim is to affirm the Jewish people’s specific tie to the land of Israel, and the belief that all that comes from the land is owed to the divine. The land of Israel does not belong to everybody, as a socialist ideal would have it, but to nobody other than God--as the verses in context explain: “And the land shall not be sold forever, for mine is the land, and you are but strangers and sojourners with me” (Leviticus 25:23).

For this reason, these laws did not apply to Jewish communities living outside the land of Israel. Perhaps more importantly, for this reason the classic halachic literature does not use these laws to derive the laws of charity, which are instead based on the more explicit commandments in the Tora. While both charity and the agricultural calendar have an important place in Judaism, they were never perceived as connected, and any interpretation that links them is external to the rabbinic tradition.

Heitner also claims that rights of ownership are intended to protect the poor from the rich. This, too, is wrong. Rights of ownership, and all its associated commandments, are designed to protect everyone equally. For this reason, the Tora insists repeatedly that judges show preference for neither the wealthy nor the poor, but rather employ a strict and equal standard of justice: “You shall do no evil in judgment: Do not respect the person of the poor, nor honor the person of the mighty, but you shall judge your neighbor in righteousness” (Leviticus 19:15).

Heitner is right that the Tora’s laws protect the poor against exploitation. The accumulation of wealth, however, is not in itself considered exploitative, so long as it is earned honestly. On the contrary, as I showed in my essay, it is considered by both the Tora and the rabbis to be itself the expression of an ideal; for this reason, the right, and even duty, of the wealthy to affirm their wealth is emphasized in the sources just as strongly as is their obligation to support the poor through charity. For this reason, Jewish communities throughout history have encouraged their wealthier members to take care of the disadvantaged through charitable giving.

Modern theories on the distribution of charity, such as those espoused by Heitner, see it as deriving from justice. They do not depend on the compassion of the giver, but instead seek to force the individual to allow others a “piece of the pie” by limiting his right to property. As far as Jewish tradition is concerned, this is little more than state-sanctioned robbery. A state that behaves according to this principle is, according to Judaism, confiscating property without inculcating the virtues of charity and generosity upon which societal cohesion truly depends.

Judaism, as expressed in both the biblical and rabbinic traditions, aims at a society in which individuals build themselves through their own efforts, creating and taking responsibility for their communities--including for their poor. This is what is meant by man’s having been created “in the image of God”: Just as God is a creator, so should we be; and just as he takes responsibility for creation, so should we. Any economic regime that encourages the individual to build society through creative activity, on the one hand, and to show compassion and responsibility for his neighbor, on the other, is consistent with the Jewish ideal. This, and not the equality of outcomes, is the basis of a Jewish economics.


Biblical Archaeology


To the Editors:

David Hazony’s editorial “Memory in Ruins” (Azure 16, Winter 2004) makes an important point about the nature of disagreement in scholarship. Most would agree that such disagreement is both healthy and progressive; after all, dogma stultifies intellectual growth.  Yet, in the world of scholarship, disagreement is very nearly taboo. Many scholars simply cannot tolerate it. This situation is only exacerbated when scholarship intersects with social interests, as is often the case in sciences such as archaeology. 

The case of “low chronology,” advocated by Tel Aviv University professor Israel Finkelstein and a number of other archaeologists, as well as European biblical scholars, is a wonderful illustration of this principle: While the claims of the “low chronology” school were controversial within the field of archaeology, they were hardly the stuff of public discussion. Things changed dramatically, however, when journalists began to take a hand in the theory’s dissemination. That is precisely the problem: Not the scholarship itself, but the journalism about the scholarship. This sort of journalism invariably accentuates the markedly different, the exception. Research related to the documentary hypothesis, for example, only makes the news when journalists “discover” some new aspect of it, and other scholars attack it.

Perhaps, as the editorial claims, part of the reason for this state of affairs is the failure of most mainstream scholars to produce accessible syntheses of their work. Finkelstein’s The Bible Unearthed is the exception. It lays out a vision of archaeology, history, and biblical literature that demands to be addressed. Furthermore, most scholars lack the energy required to be at the center of a publicity campaign, let alone the imagination to inspire one.  The result is a sort of impasse: Those motivated to write popular syntheses are those with a new story to tell; as a result, these are the very same scholars whose work gets coverage in the press. 

Baruch Halpern

Pennsylvania State University


To the Editors:

Regarding David Hazony’s editorial “Memory in Ruins”: Disagreements among archaeologists, and specifically with regard to the study of biblical history, have always been at the center of public interest, both in Israel and the world at large. Disputes among experts in the fields of physics or medicine do not usually arouse a fraction of the emotional involvement of the public as does a debate related to the Bible and archaeology. Hazony’s emotional response, expressed by his lament that Israeli archaeology is in “ruins,” is a prime example.

It is true that a man should not be judged by what he says in a moment of sorrow, but it is impossible to absolve him completely of his irresponsible claims. There may be no arguing with feelings, but there is certainly room for argument with illegitimate assumptions, and particularly with the presentation of unreliable “facts.”

I will begin with some of the factual errors. Contrary to what Hazony says, the excavations at Shiloh did not reveal “the remains of an extensive twelfth-century b.c.e. Israelite community.” No one, moreover, has any knowledge of the “significant evidence [that] has emerged pointing to where archaeologists might find major biblical-era constructions, such as the wall Solomon built around Jerusalem and the actual palace of King David.” Thus there are no grounds for apportioning blame as if “they are systematically ignored.”

A no less serious matter is the inaccurate quotation (approaching falsification) of things that I supposedly wrote. For example, Hazony writes that, “Ben-Tor is nonetheless mystified by the idea that archaeology may have an impact on the public’s beliefs.” Anyone who knows me, has read my works, or has attended lectures I have given, knows that my opinion on this matter is the complete opposite. Moreover, Hazony “quotes” extensively things that I supposedly wrote in a book I edited, The Archaeology of Ancient Israel (Yale, 1992). Regrettably, Hazony did not append references for these “quotations,” and anyone who takes the trouble to compare what was said in my name with what I actually wrote in Introduction to the Archaeology of Israel in the Biblical Period (Tel Aviv: Open University, 1989), p. 41, will see just how far the quotation strays from the original. Moreover, it is a shame that Hazony did not bother to use another quotation from the same Introduction: “Remove the Bible from the archaeology of the land of Israel in the first and second centuries b.c.e. and you have removed its soul.”

With regard to “the many scholars who remain skeptical of the new approach,” Hazony asserts that they “seem to lack the desire or ability to engage their opponents on the level of public debate.” Nothing could be further from the truth. Among the scholars mentioned in the essay as those who “remain skeptical of the new approach” are Amihai Mazar and myself, yet both of us are on record as having given dozens of public lectures and having written countless articles in the professional and popular press in which we engage our opponents on the level of public debate, as well as having been participants in conferences in universities all over the world. Hazony is mistaken when he claims that I have neither the desire nor the ability to debate.

In addition, the argument as to what extent biblical archaeology (and it should be noted that I believe wholeheartedly in the legitimacy of such a field) supports biblical historiography is first and foremost a matter for archaeology and archaeologists. I am convinced that Hazony would not have presumed to take a position in an argument among doctors, physicists, or astronomers, because they represent “professional” fields, and thus only someone well versed in their principles has the right to engage in them. Archaeology, one would gather, is not such a field. Rather, it belongs to everyone, and everyone has the right to his opinion on the matter. And thus Hazony considers himself entitled to state that “[Adam] Zertal uncovered on Mount Eval a raised structure about 25 feet square…” and then later on in the sentence to claim that this square structure is an “enormous sacrificial altar” with “tools dating to the twelfth century b.c.e., around the time the Israelites are said to have entered the land.”  Hazony goes on to say that “despite the fact that significant evidence has emerged”--to which “evidence” is he alluding?--“the reaction of leading archaeologists [in Israel] ranged from dismissal to tepid agnosticism.” Why is it that Hazony assumes the right to interfere in what should be a purely professional argument? What makes him capable of judging why Zertal’s interpretation was greeted with “tepid agnosticism” by his archaeological colleagues?

Hazony’s statement to the effect that the dramatic slowdown in the pace of uncovering biblical-era discoveries is a result of archaeologists themselves having “called off the search” is also far from the truth of what is happening in the field. In the last few years, sites in Israel such as Megiddo, Tel Rehov, Gat (Philistine), Bet Shemesh, and Hazor have all been excavated, to mention only the major “biblical” sites being investigated by Israeli archaeologists. This research is even more extensive than that undertaken in the supposed golden age of “the renowned Israeli archaeologists Yigael Yadin, Benjamin Mazar, and Yohanan Aharoni.” The lament for the “ruins” of Israeli archaeology is therefore premature.

Finally, I concur with Hazony’s complaints that archaeology is no longer a “national pastime,” that there are no “private foundations, universities, and government agencies joined in the effort,” and that the whole country is no longer “a classroom for the study of ancient Jewish history.” This is certainly regrettable. But, then again, these are not the only things that are not what they used to be.

Amnon Ben-Tor

The Hebrew University of Jerusalem


David Hazony responds:

Amnon Ben-Tor’s critique boils down to three claims: (i) That I misled the reader through factual inaccuracies; (ii) that I falsified or distorted Ben-Tor’s views; and (iii) that as a non-archaeologist, I should not express opinions on contentious issues in the field. I will address each in turn.

(i) It is important to stress that everything I cited has appeared in the published writings of respected archaeologists. In some cases, the facts are so striking that it is difficult to know what to make of his objection, other than to say that in a field so full of details, that which is memorable often is a function of whatever stands out in the light of one’s overall approach.

For example, his assessment of Shiloh as not being important during the period of the Judges is inconsistent with mainstream archaeological scholarship. While it was certainly not the thriving hub it had been several centuries earlier, the Iron Age I (twelfth and eleventh centuries b.c.e.) findings at Shiloh reveal what the esteemed archaeologist Amihai Mazar has called “the main Israelite cultic center in this period” (Archaeology of the Land of the Bible, 1992, p. 335). In the Oxford Encyclopedia of Archaeology of the Near East, the entry on Shiloh (which is, incidentally, “based on material submitted by Israel Finkelstein”) describes “significant Iron Age remains… over virtually the entire area of excavation…. The area of the Iron I site has been estimated at between 2.5 and 3 acres.”

No less surprising is Ben-Tor’s assessment that “nobody” has heard of the proposed location of David’s palace in the City of David, or of Solomonic walls in Jerusalem. These have both been discussed in respected publications. The former, for example, was published in a major article by Eilat Mazar, a colleague of Ben-Tor’s at the Hebrew University, which appeared in Biblical Archaeology Review (January/February 1997). Mazar, a student of her grandfather Benjamin, and one of the principal excavators at the City of David, has argued on the basis of both textual and archaeological evidence that the palace of Israel’s most celebrated king is likely to be found on an undeveloped ridge just north of the Jebusite citadel--a prospect which probably would, in an earlier day, have become a major research priority for the field. The same is true for the Solomonic wall, which can be accessed along the road outside the southeast corner of the Temple Mount compound. Originally excavated by Benjamin Mazar and then by Eilat Mazar, the excavation of the wall is described in detail in Kedem 29 (1989). Mainstream archaeology’s disregard for these excavations’ findings is as great a proof as any of its systemic disinterest in the First Temple period.

(ii) As for Ben-Tor’s claim that I distorted his views: Nowhere did I claim that he rejects the biblical history in toto or the term “biblical archaeology”; nor did I suggest that he is on the same side of this debate as Tel Aviv University’s Israel Finkelstein. Rather, I suggested that Ben-Tor, like other mainstream Israeli archaeologists, has adopted an approach to archaeology that amounts to a rejection of the original vision of the field as set out by scholars such as William F. Albright, Yigael Yadin, and Benjamin Mazar. In their ambition to prove the objective and scientific nature of a field that is in truth dependent heavily on conjecture and historical perspective, today’s scholars have left themselves unprepared for the broadside of revisionism that we have seen in the last few years. Ben-Tor, in particular, has suggested that even if the Bible possesses profound meaning as a moral text, it is of little value as a source of historical self-understanding, for Jews and non-Jews alike--and that the question of whether the kingdom of David and Solomon was a wholesale fiction or part of our real past is therefore unimportant.

He says these things explicitly. The passages I quoted appear in his introduction to The Archaeology of Ancient Israel, on pp. 8-9. His paradigmatic case is the Committee of the Palestine Exploration Society, founded in New York in 1870, which defined its aim as “the illustration and defense of the Bible,” and which saw in its exploration of the Holy Land “a sacred service for science and for religion.” Adopting the stereotype of religion as the tenement of the intellectually feeble, Ben-Tor takes issue with the idea that questions of the historicity of the biblical narrative may have an important effect on wider questions of culture or faith:

The viewpoint here adopted by the founders of the American Society [i.e., the Palestine Exploration Society] is, in this author’s opinion, the root of all evil as far as the discipline of biblical archaeology is concerned: Terms such as “defense” and “verification” of the Bible, all in the service of religion… are completely out of place. Does religion need to be defended? Can biblical truths be proven? What has all this to do with religious belief?

Further on, Ben-Tor continues his critique:

It would be nigh impossible to estimate the amounts of money and human energy wasted in futile efforts such as the searches for Noah’s Ark on Mount Ararat, the tomb of Moses at Mount Nebo, Pharaoh’s hordes in the Sea of Reeds, or the remains of Sodom and Gomorrah in the Dead Sea, all fueled by an irrational impulse to prove the historical authenticity of the biblical narrative. Surely the substance of a tale such as that of Sodom and Gomorrah lies in the punishment of the wicked, the reward of the righteous, and Abraham’s negotiation with God to prevent the punishment of the just with the wicked; the Bible uses the tale of Sodom and Gomorrah to transmit this eternal message. Can it be in any way impaired should it transpire that Sodom and Gomorrah never existed but were invented as a parable, or even that Abraham himself is not a historical figure? Or, alternatively, would the message be clearer if those cities were to be found and proof discovered of Abraham’s physical existence?

Ben-Tor misunderstands the foundations of biblical religion and, by extension, of both Jewish and Western self-understanding. The core of biblical faith is not the infallibility of the text, but the historical truth of what it describes. For this reason, biblical history has had an impact that begins with religion but goes well beyond it. Indeed, a large part of our identity as Westerners or as Jews derives from a belief in a basic, de-mythologized version of biblical history. Scholars like Albright and Yadin were not driven by a need to prove the literal accuracy of the text, and for this reason they were more than willing to admit the text’s fallibility when the evidence in the field was clearly against it.

Rather, their goal was to understand, and tell the story of, their own civilization--in Albright’s case, that of Western man; in Yadin’s case, that of the Jewish people. They sought, moreover, to defend that story against the fusillade of scholarship, mostly in Europe, which insisted that there is no such story, and that our origins are thus completely obscured by the unreliability of the text.

Ben-Tor’s assertion that biblical history needs no “defense,” therefore, completely ignores the wider context of the debate--one which continues to be relevant to our own day. It is a debate in which collective memory, which can never survive without defense, is under continuous assault from new theories. As long as revisionism carries intrinsic appeal, regardless of its merits, memory will require both defense and vindication. Until now, such a defense has not been to science’s detriment, but rather has produced the only major alternative to regnant academic fashion.

(iii) Finally, Ben-Tor argues that as a non-archaeologist, I do not have the credentials to enter the debate over archaeological finds. This is misleading. In terms of accessibility, archaeology is not particle physics. At its best, it is a lot more like history or anthropology--fields which are far more accessible to the educated layman than are the more obscure sciences. Moreover, it is legitimate to wonder whether, on issues of such great moment to the life, spirit, or policies of the greater public, it is in anyone’s best interest that such debates take place without input from scholars and educated people from other fields. Indeed, there are times when an important field of inquiry has become so ensconced in its habits of mind that external criticism offers the only hope for substantive improvement. In light of their failure to respond to the challenge of the new revisionist trend, it would seem that Israeli archaeologists are very much in need of such criticism from without.


The Soviet Jewry Movement

To the Editors:

Contrary to the claim made by Yossi Klein Halevi in his essay, “Jacob Birnbaum and the Struggle for Soviet Jewry” (Azure 17, Spring 2004), the “strident opposition” of the Lubavitcher Rebbe to the confrontational style of Jacob Birnbaum and others like him was not rooted in an aversion to activism.

As Klein Halevi points out, the Rebbe maintained the only Jewish underground inside the ussr since the onset of Communism in the early twenties. Indeed, many of his Hasidim faced death and imprisonment for their efforts. As former Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir recalled at a public gathering in Tel Aviv ten years ago, when the Mossad decided in the early 1950s to begin operations in the Soviet Union with the aim of establishing relations with Russian Jews, “We found to our surprise there was already an organization there run by Lubavitch.”

This organization ran schools, synagogues, and mikvas, effectively keeping Jewish life alive. And, perhaps more important, thousands of Jews escaped Russia in the post World War II years by means of false papers, passports, and money smuggled from Jews in the West as part of an ingenious, Lubavitch-run underground railroad.

In the 1950s, moreover, the Mossad and Lubavitch secretly worked hand in hand in Russia, with the Israelis serving as conduits for communication between the Rebbe in New York and Hasidim in Russia. Mossad agents also had weekly meetings with Chabad members in public bathhouses, where documents and letters were exchanged. Shaul Avigur, former head of the Nativ Liaison Bureau, once said that the Lubavitcher network was the only one free of informers.

When the campaign for public demonstrations began, the Rebbe first expressed his dismay to the Mossad. In response, Avigur dispatched Nehemia Levanon, who had been expelled from Russia for coordinating Mossad activities and was now stationed in Washington for the purpose of coordinating Mossad efforts on behalf of public demonstrations, to meet with the Rebbe. According to Levanon’s account of the meeting, the Rebbe told him that thousands of Jews were waiting to leave Russia, and that the demonstrations would cause the Soviets to withhold their exit visas. Levanon refused the Rebbe’s request for restraint, however, and the demonstrations continued. Nonetheless, the Rebbe persisted in private pleadings with Jewish organizations to cool the public demonstrations.

In February 1971, the Rebbe went public at one of the largest farbrengens held annually, broadcast to Hasidim around the world. The following is an excerpt from the Rebbe’s speech:

Less than three years ago, I had information that a group of a few hundred families [in Russia] were going to receive visas to leave. Not only did I know this, but also those who organized the demonstrations knew this, too.… I said to them, it’s two months before Pesah. Even if you do not agree with me, push off your demonstration to Shavuos. They refused to listen…. All of those who had exit visas are still in the Soviet Union. Also, their situation is now worse: Until then, they lived quietly, but now the authorities think that they were connected to the demonstrations. Some lost their jobs, and some left their homes, since they could not continue to live in their communities.

The next year, they made demonstrations again, even though they knew that hundreds of families lost their exit visas as a result. From this we learn that the Russians are not alarmed by the demonstrations… their organizers are playing with the welfare of three million Jews.

There is no question that those in the United States such as Birnbaum and the thousands that supported his efforts had noble intentions. Nevertheless, they lacked the Rebbe’s network of connections that went back decades. They thought they understood what was happening there, but the refuseniks they depended on for information in Moscow and other cities had little real knowledge of the policies deep inside the Kremlin. Moreover, the Mossad was prompted to action not just by a desire to help Jews leave Russia, but, as the Rebbe told Levanon in his meeting, “to cause tension between Moscow and Nixon.”

The Rebbe was interested in one thing: The salvation of Soviet Jewry. Thus in the early 1970s, when shipments of matza and other religious items from the groups advocating public confrontations failed to get to Russia, Lubavitch sent tons of matza to Russian Jews. There were no press releases, nor any publicity. Just action.

David Eliezrie

Yorba Linda, California


Yossi Klein Halevi responds:

Rabbi Eliezrie correctly notes that Chabad maintained an active, extensive, and heroic underground in the former Soviet Union, providing vital spiritual support for Soviet Jews.

I don’t know about the case cited by Eliezrie concerning Nehemia Levanon, or whether several hundred families lost visas because of protests. I do know that, as the public protests in the West intensified, the number of exit visas steadily rose. But the issue over the effectiveness of protests was resolved by Soviet Jews themselves: When they began going public within the Soviet Union, first through protest letters and then through sit-ins at Soviet government offices, most Jews around the world realized that there was no choice but to join them and focus media attention on their plight.

Claiming in 2004 that demonstrations endangered Soviet Jews is no more sensible than insisting that the Zionist movement was wrong to create a Jewish state. True, there are Jews among us who still passionately negate Zionism. But why argue with success?


American Empire

To the Editors:

I quite agree with Liel Leibovitz’s affirmation of Niall Ferguson’s argument that “the world needs an effective liberal empire and that the U.S. is the best candidate for the job” (“Lax Americana,” Azure 18, Autumn 2004). But I also know that this outlook is hopelessly out of place in the modern world and amounts to no more than sentiment. Not only does the United States “lack the imperial cast of mind,” so do those peoples who could benefit from American rule, however benign; they would make most ungrateful and violently unruly subjects. Ferguson’s thesis is, therefore, a non-starter.

Douglas Bolick

Newburyport, Massachusetts




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