“But the Lord said to me, ‘Do not say, “I am only a youth”’; for to all to whom I send you, you shall go, and whatever I command you, you shall speak.’” (Jeremiah 1:7)
The recent horrifying wave of violence that is crashing across Israel is being overwhelmingly driven by young Arabs stabbing Israelis. However, this is not a new phenomenon.
Thirty-five years ago, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, also known as the Lubavitcher Rebbe and the leader of the Hassidic Chabad movement, recognized the roots of this trend and began working against it within his own group of followers. His response to fanatical Arab hatred was countering this evil by deepening love for Torah. Today, this plan is bearing fruit as religious Jewish youth in Jerusalem are responding with an increasingly overwhelming devotion to Torah study.
The Lubavitcher Rebbe was one of the most inspirational and influential spiritual leaders of the 20th century. One of his major goals was the establishment of institutions and activities for young people. He was so successful in this that, in 1978, the US Congress designated his birthday National Education Day and, in 1994, he was posthumously awarded the Congressional Gold Medal for his “outstanding and lasting contributions toward improvements in world education, morality, and acts of charity.”
One such contribution was holding large rallies for children, which were joyous events bringing together hundreds and sometimes even thousands of Jewish youth. In 1980, the Lubavitcher Rebbe was asked by journalist Motti Eden why the children’s rallies were so important. Eden asked this question after noting that after every time the Rebbe called for such a rally, a critical and unanticipated event followed, seeming to indicate that the Rebbe had called for the rally to counter the impending crisis. The Rebbe answered him at length, in a manner still relevant today.
“There is a trend growing daily among the Arabs. Thirty or fourty ago, for just a few liras or dollars, it was possible to bribe the most senior sheikh,” Schneerson explained, referring to the 1940s and 50s. “Even more so the younger ones, and the younger ones obeyed. They did nothing on their own without asking the sheikh. You could bribe him with a car or something like that, and he would do anything you wanted.”
The rabbi then spoke about the dramatic changes that had taken place in Arab society, changes whose consequences continue to this day. “Now, the situation has changed to the opposite extreme. The young generation of Arabs is more fanatical, and more zealous for religion and for independence than all the sheikhs, or anyone in that (previous) generation,” the Rebbe said in 1980. “The younger the Arab, the more zealous he is. And he can’t be bought, not with money and not with honor. For him, this is Allah, and this is his self-sacrifice. There is nothing more glorified in his eyes than this.”
Schneerson compared this to Israeli youth in an analysis that may be even more relevant today than it was 35 years ago. “Painfully and unfortunately, in regard to our own Jewish youth, the direction is just the opposite. Thirty years ago, ‘pioneering’ was good currency. No one needed convincing to be a pioneer. He came on his own and demanded, ‘Give me a plot of land in a settlement, in the Negev Desert’, where he would prove his self-sacrifice,” he said.
“Now they’re saying, ‘Enough already! We’ve lived under pressure for 32 years. Now we deserve to live a peaceful life, a fun life.’”
WATCH: The Lubavitcher Rebbe on Arab and Israeli Youth
Schneerson went on to argue that the best defense against this shift away from ideological Jewish roots was to return modern-day society to its Biblical and religious past. “All these explanations are simple, but a young boy or girl has no patience for theoretical concepts. They need something concrete they can actually participate in,” he explained.
“When they are told that there is a verse in the Torah, ‘Hear, O Israel, the Lord is God, the Lord is one,’ and that this wasn’t just addressed to someone named Israel, who stood at Sinai 3,000 years ago, but that it was meant for this particular ‘Avraham’, ‘Moshe’, and ‘Shlomo’, who lives in Tel Aviv at such-and-such an address on such-and-such a street, and that it was specifically them that God had in mind when he said ‘Hear, O, Israel’, they would connect once more with their religious origins,” Shneerson predicted.
According to the Lubavitcher Rebbe, the best way to fight an existential crisis was to rile up the youth of Israel with love of God, fighting their apathy in order to counter the fanaticism of the Arab youth. Today, faced with Arab youths running wild in the streets of Jerusalem, wielding knives and burning with hatred, it would be reasonable to expect their Jewish counterparts to hide in fear, or to lash out in anger and hatred. There are few negative outbursts. Instead, Jewish youth are choosing to bond together in positive ways, often in prayer and Torah study.