The Rebbe and the General

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Israeli historian Arie Morgenstern tells of a fascinating difference of opinion between the Lubavitcher Rebbe, z”l, and Moshe Dayan in the current (Winter) issue of Azure.
The setting is the Yom Kippur War. Morgenstern, in NY as as emissary of the World Zionist Organization, and Menachem Levin, the Israeli Consul, came to 770 for Simchas Torah. The Rebbe asked that his very strong views on the conduct of the war be conveyed back to Israel. It is no small testimony to the respect that he commanded that his opinion was quickly dispatched to the highest levels of the Israeli command, even if rejected.

Morgenstern’s thesis regarding the Rebbe’s self-perception as “an emissary of Divine Providence and the supreme commander of the armies of the Jewish people in the imminent era of redemption” need not be accepted to find the exchange intriguing. The Rebbe was a respected voice, and he had every right and responsibility to weigh in on a matter that affected Klal Yisrael.

Many decades later, we can perhaps look for answers as to who was correct back then – the Rebbe, or Moshe Dayan?

Levin and I arrived at the Rebbe’s beit midrash in Crown Heights just before the ark was opened for the traditional dancing with the Torah scrolls. Suddenly, the sea of black hats parted to clear a path for us to reach the Rebbe’s dais. The two of us stood at his side, and for an hour before the dancing began, the Rebbe spoke with us as the entire congregation stood still, wondering at the delay. They must have known the conversation dealt with the war then being fought in the Jewish state.

The Rebbe spoke with us about the significance of the war, focusing on its part in the process of redemption. I do not recall whether he referred specifically to the war of Gog and Magog, but the inference was all too clear. He asked—and later demanded to know—why the military campaign had halted in the Golan Heights, and why IDF forces, which had already rebuffed the Syrian army, refrained from advancing to capture Damascus. At the time, IDF forces had withdrawn from their defensive posture and had gone on the offensive, arriving within 34 kilometers of the Syrian capital. From a practical standpoint, the capture of Damascus was possible, and would unquestionably have decided the outcome of the war.

We tried to justify Israel’s decision to the Rebbe, attributing it to concerns that Russia would carry out its threat of intervention if the IDF advanced toward the Syrian capital, with likely horrific results. We also said that it appeared as though Israel wanted to concentrate heavy forces on the southern front in order to drive the Egyptian army definitively toward the Suez Canal.

The Rebbe rejected our arguments one by one. He claimed that entering Egyptian territory was a strategic error, since it would not alter the balance of power in Israel’s favor. He also said that the State of Israel’s most serious problem was the battle with Syria, and that until that front was won decisively, the Arab war against the Jewish state would never end. Damascus, he explained, as a city with an ancient history, symbolized the stability of the Muslim world, and therefore the threat Islam posed to the Jewish people. A blow to such a symbol would thus destroy the confidence of the Arabs. Moreover, he insisted, Russia was all talk, and American opposition to a sound defeat of Syria was only for the sake of appearances. In reality, the United States was eager for Israel to vanquish Syria. Regarding the issue of Israeli casualties, he claimed that if we did not win the battle decisively at this propitious time, in the future far more blood would be spilled in the course of subsequent wars the Arabs would impose upon us.

At the end of our conversation, the Rebbe had asked us to go back home immediately after the dancing and phone Israel to convey his urgent message to the heads of state. They must, he insisted, instruct the IDF to conquer Damascus, and fear no one. Menachem Levin promised to bring his remarks to the attention of Prime Minister Golda Meir, and I assured him I would contact the heads of the National Religious Party to convey his message in detail.

The trip home to Far Rockaway seemed to last forever. I felt the urgency of the task the Rebbe had assigned to me in every fiber of my being. He had made me feel as if I were carrying the fate of the Jewish people on my narrow shoulders. That night, I managed to reach the late MK Zevulun Hammer, who was summoned from a meeting of the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee being held in Tel Aviv. I conveyed my conversation with the Rebbe to him, along with the latter’s explicit demands.

About half an hour later, I received a call from the late MK Yitzhak Raphael, who wanted to hear exactly what the Rebbe had said, and how he had dismissed the concerns of military failure and unnecessary bloodshed. In reply, Raphael confirmed that Defense Minister Moshe Dayan was indeed worried about Russian intervention, and had therefore commanded the IDF not to advance beyond the lines Israel held on the eve of the Yom Kippur War, on the Golan Heights front.

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11 Responses

  1. dr. bill says:

    Raymond, questioning one’s status as a halakhist (i.e. posek) is vastly different than questionsing one’s status as a talmid chacham or even a gadol batorah. RAK and RYH ztl, both contemporary gedolai hador, also had limited credentials as a halakhist. Your arguments are debatable but hardly halakhic. Bezemanainu, for example, ROY, a recognized halakhist, permits returning land.

  2. L. Oberstein says:

    iT SEEMS THAT THE ONES WHO CARED WHAT THE REBBE THOUGHT WERE THE NATIONAL RELIGIOUS LEADERS MENTIONED.DAYAN MADE MANY DECISIONS ON HIS ON, SUCH AS GIVING THE WAQF CONTROL OF THE TEMPLE MOUNT, GIVING HEBRON BACK IN ITS ENTIRETY ,AND HIS INITIAL OPPOSITION TO CONQUERING THE OLD CITY, WHICH HE CALLED “THIS VATICAN”. DAYAN DIDN’T WANT TO FIGHT FOR THE GOLAN, HE DIDN’T WANT JERUSALEM,HE WAS A ONE MAN DICTATOR AT THAT CRUCIAL MOMENT AND WE SUFFER TODAY BECAUSE OF IT. DAYAN WAS TOTALLY SECULAR AND LEHAVDIL THE LUBVITCHER REBBE WAS OPERATING IN A DIFFERENT REALILTY. GOLDA MEIR WAS TOTALLY SECULAR. ISRAEL’S CAPTURE OF THE OLD CITY WAS NEVER IN THE WAR PLANS AND DAYAN CERTAINLY WAS AGAINST EXPANDING THE WAR.43 YEARS LATER WE ARE TRYING TO FIGURE OUT WHAT TO DO WITH ALL THESE ARABS WE HAVE CONQUERED. THEY ARE LIKE A “TROJAN HORSE’ AND WE HAVE NO IDEA WHAT TO DO.

  3. Ori says:

    Nachum, the Rebbe’s argument that Damascus is a powerful symbol, and that conquering it would be more likely to result in the Arab world giving up the dream of taking back Israel than the Suez Canal, is a reasonable argument. Of course, so is the reverse argument that Egypt cannot afford to continue losing the revenue from the Suez Canal, so proving it cannot be taken back by force will make the Egyptian government come to the negotiating table.

    This isn’t a military argument, but a political and cultural one. One needn’t assume the the Rebbe was making it from a Messianic viewpoint.

  4. L. Oberstein says:

    Ok,fine. The rebbe had his reasons and who knows what whould have happened if the Israelis would have listened to him from day one. Now, we are in a big mess and we need to figure out how to get Israel back on track before world pressure forces much worse concessions. Question number one, what to do with the Irish ship on its way to break the blockade. Should Israel again stop it or is there some way to compromise and make this problem less severe. The words of the Turks are so hate filled that one wonders how much longer they will have diplomatic ties with Israel.Erdogan has decided to abandon Israel in the same way De Gaull abandoned Israel, for his own interests. Am Levadoad Yishkon, We have become a people who dwell alone.This is not what Herzl said would happen if there would ever be a Jewish State.Now the UN Human Rights Council is going to do a “Goldstone” on Israel. Are we content to be treated like Rhodesia. You know what happened there.

  5. Nachum says:

    The letter doesn’t state this, but it seems pretty clear to me that the Rebbe was motivated by the fact that most if not all of Lebanon and a good portion of Syria are halakhically part of Eretz Yisrael while only a portion of the Sinai (likely) is. I can sympathize with his position completely, while at the same time pointing out that one does not make on-the-ground military decisions in the middle of a war based on such considerations, and the Rebbe, I’m sad to say, was either not grounded in reality when he was giving his advice and/or was speaking (as the author of the original piece stated) from a Messianic viewpoint that seems to have had him at the center. (To further buttress this point, we need look no further than the “Tzivos Hashem” with their uniforms, ranks, and military terminology. This seems an open way to get around the Rambam’s clear requirements for Mashiach, and always seemed odd to me when there’s a real, you know, *army* operating in the State of Israel, which happens to fulfill the Rambam’s requirements a bit better than Chabad, which remains headquartered in…) That the letter writer doesn’t make this clear, and that there were people in the Israeli government who seemed to think the Rebbe had something to contribute here, is also troubling.

  6. Raymond says:

    Dr Bill, the circumstances faced by Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakai were nothing at all like the situation that Israel faces today. Back in the Roman days, Jewish political control over Israel was done for. Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakai knew this, and attempted to save the most valuable remnant of Israel, namely our collective Torah study. In doing so, he also saved many Jewish lives from being lost as well.

    But in the case of the Modern State of Israel, it has been shown over and over again that every time we surrender land to our islamofascist enemies, that it only works to our detriment, giving our enemies the exact encouragement they need to murder more and more of our people. The Rebbe understood this, because he was not only a genius, but had an abundance of common sense and down-to-Earth realism.

    By the way, just for your information, I never considered the Rebbe to be Moshiach, nor do I consider myself Chassidic. At the same time, though, I would not be so presumptuous so as to question his Torah scholarship.

  7. Bob Miller says:

    I don’t see what lesson we can draw from this account. It discusses advice that was not taken. We know what did happen, but we don’t know what taking the advice would have caused.

  8. dr. bill says:

    Raymond, the rebbe ztl was a true manhig yisroel, complete with the messianic fervor that has had an interesting history since the earliest days of chassidism. that said, his credentials as a halakhist are hardly as demonstrated. Many halakhists across the orthodox spectrum dispute his largely unsourced position that one cannot abandon even one inch of the land of Israel. It may not be dispositive or remotely comparable to our current situation, but the most famous appeal of R. Yochanon ben Zakai – tein li Yavneh ve’Khakhameha – bespeaks compromise against the zealots of his day.

    In any case, his perhaps sage advice on the war’s execution, given the fall of the Soviet union a decade later, must be weighed against his various position on peace with the palestianians and other neighbors. Klal yisroel suffers needlessly from the attempt to depict him in super-human terms.

    and BTW, I got to see the Rebbe a few times. as a young teen-ager i got to lead bentching in his succah and got to accompany R. Goren ztl in full military attire to a fahrbrengen a few years later. i also attended the only fully co-ed lubavitch cheder, all way through the eighth grade, that I know of.

  9. lawrence kaplan says:

    If we can trust Arie Morgenstern’s description, the Rebbe was not just “weighing in,” as Rabbi Adlerstein would have it, not just making suggestions and expressing his opinions, but demanding and instructing. “Sounds like a “supreme commander” to me.

    Ultimately, it was Golda Meir and Moshe Dayan and NOT the rebbe who were responsible for the troops. The buck stopoed with them. Let us say that Dayan had followed the Rebbge’s advice or demands or whatever you want to call them, and, chas veshalom, a disaster would have occured. Whom would we have blamed and held resposible? Dayan or the Rebbe?

  10. rachel w says:

    Not for nothing are our gedolim called “Einei HaEdah” (The eyes of the people.)

  11. Raymond says:

    Fascinating reading, but I wanted to read more about this. This cannot be where the story ends, can it?

    In any case, I heard long ago that the Rebbe’s position regarding Israel is that we are not to surrender even one inch of our Holy Land. The Rebbe was absolutely right, and is just one more reason to admire that very great man. I regret that I never did get to meet him in person.