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Yes, Ḥasidic Succession Struggles Are about Power—but Not Only about Power

Jan. 22 2018

In most ḥasidic sects, the position of rebbe has been passed down from father to son (or from father-in-law to son-in-law) for several generations, and this pattern is expected to continue. Given the importance of the rebbe—without parallel in other Jewish denominations—conflicts over who is next in line can be intense. In his book Who Will Lead Us?, Samuel Heilman examines succession struggles among five ḥasidic groups in America, along with their European antecedents. Reviewing the book, Zalman Rothschild questions Heilman’s decision to examine these stories without reference to ideology or religious thought:

Heilman shows how rebbes seek to obtain positions that will afford them control over extensive assets that grant them economic security, power, and influence. Saintly as they are reputed to be, rebbes are human beings vying for what is essentially political power. This does indeed seem to be the case among, say, [contemporary] Satmar Ḥasidim. When Moshe Teitelbaum, the third rebbe of Satmar, died in 2006, Aaron and Zalman Leib, his two sons, battled for control of the dynasty. With more than $50 million of assets at stake, the fighting was fierce. As Heilman reports, defenders of Aaron used verbal and physical violence, even going so far as to hire nightclub bouncers to beat up their rival’s followers.

But what is true of the Satmars today was not necessarily true of their sect at all times. Heilman believes that the very first Satmar rebbe, Yoel Teitelbaum, engaged from the start in self-serving behavior. As the youngest child of the rebbe of Sighet, knowing full well that there was little to no chance that he would inherit his father’s position, he conspired, in Heilman’s account, to gain control of a ḥasidic crown by unconventional means. But Yoel was [also] well known for his piety, as demonstrated by his practice of barely sleeping, fasting regularly, and studying for long hours in seclusion. According to Heilman, however, Yoel’s pious practices were deliberate maneuvers to gain distinction and stand out in order to secure for himself the mantle of rebbe. . . .

Heilman’s cynical assessment of Yoel Teitelbaum and [likewise of the last Chabad-Lubavitch rebbe], Menachem Mendel Schneerson, is not preposterous. It is surely possible that these leading ḥasidic lights did vie for their positions and craftily sought to gain control of them. Yet of all the possible explanations for their motives, one wonders why Heilman generally opts to assume the worst. . . .

Still, Who Will Lead Us? includes many great stories, all of them sharply and engagingly told. Heilman’s account of the fight over the leadership of the Bobovers (resolved by the New York State Supreme Court after years of infighting) is worth the price of the hardcover volume alone. By zeroing in, however, on only the most material aspects of his subject, he has made some of the all-too-human leaders of Ḥasidism look more ordinary than they really are.

Read more at Jewish Review of Books

More about: Hasidism, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, Religion & Holidays, Satmar

How Lebanon—and Hizballah—Conned and Humiliated Rex Tillerson

Feb. 21 2018

Last Thursday, the American secretary of state arrived in Beirut to express Washington’s continued support for the country’s government, which is now entirely aligned with Hizballah. His visit came shortly after Israel’s showdown with Hizballah’s Iranian protectors in Syria and amid repeated warnings from Jerusalem about the terrorist organization’s growing threat to Israeli security. To Tony Badran, Tillerson’s pronouncements regarding Lebanon have demonstrated the incoherence of the Trump administration’s policy:

[In Beirut], Tillerson was made to sit alone in a room with no American flag in sight and wait—as photographers took pictures and video—before Hizballah’s chief allies in Lebanon’s government, President Michel Aoun and his son-in-law the foreign minister, finally came out to greet him. Images of the U.S. secretary of state fidgeting in front of an empty chair were then broadcast across the Middle East to symbolize American impotence at a fateful moment for the region. . . .

Prior to heading to Beirut, Tillerson gave an interview to the American Arabic-language station al-Hurra, in which he emphasized that Hizballah was a terrorist organization, and that the United States expected cooperation from the “Lebanon government to deal very clearly and firmly with those activities undertaken by Lebanese Hizballah that are unacceptable to the rest of the world.” . . . But then, while in Jordan, Tillerson undermined any potential hints of firmness by reading from an entirely different script—one that encapsulates the confused nonsense that is U.S. Lebanon policy. Hizballah is “influenced by Iran,” Tillerson said. But, he added, “We also have to acknowledge the reality that they also are part of the political process in Lebanon”—which apparently makes being “influenced by Iran” and being a terrorist group OK. . . .

The reality on the ground in Lebanon, [however], is [that] Hizballah is not only a part of the Lebanese government, it controls it—along with all of the country’s illustrious “institutions,” including the Lebanese Armed Forces. . . .

[Meanwhile], Israel’s tactical Syria-focused approach to the growing threat on its borders has kept the peace so far, but it has come at a cost. For one thing, it does not address the broader strategic factor of Iran’s growing position in Syria, and it leaves Iran’s other regional headquarters in Lebanon untouched. Also, it sets a pace that is more suitable to Iran’s interests. The Iranians can absorb tactical strikes so long as they are able to consolidate their strategic position in Syria and Lebanon. Not only have the Iranians been able to fly a drone into Israel but also their allies and assets have made gains on the ground near the northern Golan and in Mount Hermon. As Iran’s position strengthens, and as Israel’s military and political hand weakens, the Israelis will soon be left with little choice other than to launch a devastating war.

To avoid that outcome, the United States needs to adjust its policy—and fast. Rather than leaving Israel to navigate around the Russians and go after Iran’s assets in Syria and Lebanon on its own, it should endorse Israel’s red lines regarding Iran in Syria, and amplify its campaign against Iranian assets. In addition, it should revise its Lebanon policy and end its investment in the Hizballah-controlled order there.

Read more at Tablet

More about: Hizballah, Israeli Security, Lebanon, Politics & Current Affairs, Rex Tillerson, U.S. Foreign policy