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The ‘tunnel’ controversy at Chabad’s Brooklyn headquarters, explained

(New York Jewish Week) – On Tuesday, a group of Jewish men gathered to pray under a leaky white tent in the drizzling rain outside the Chabad-Lubavitch movement’s world headquarters in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, draping their wet jackets over portable bookshelves and talking about what had happened there the previous afternoon.

As for the building itself, it was closed off. Outside the entrance to the complex’s main synagogue, a line formed in the rain, with Chabadniks waiting patiently to retrieve personal belongings from a storage room. They chatted with police officers — trying to explain to them what tefillin is — who were standing behind metal barricades and blue and yellow tape, letting the men and boys in one at a time.

The headquarters at 770 Eastern Parkway — a symbol of Chabad that is usually bustling with prayer and Jewish study — has been shuttered for nearly two days and counting. On Monday, a small group from the Hasidic movement, acting independently, attempted to break through a synagogue wall — a last-ditch attempt to connect part of the sanctuary to a building next door in order to expand the complex. The incident ended with shouting, scuffles and arrests, as well as concern about the building’s structural integrity.

Leading Chabad officials condemned the tunneling effort as the work of an extremist fringe. But the saga has spread far beyond Brooklyn — drawing global attention to internal Chabad disputes, generating international headlines and turning into fodder for antisemitic conspiracies.

“The Chabad-Lubavitch community is pained by the vandalism of a group of young agitators who damaged the synagogue,” said Rabbi Yehuda Krinsky, a prominent community leader, in a public statement. “These odious actions will be investigated, and the sanctity of the synagogue will be restored.”

Here’s what you need to know about the chaos in Crown Heights this week and its aftermath.

Police block the entrance to the main synagogue of Chabad headquarters due to safety concerns, Jan. 9, 2024. (Luke Tress)

What exactly happened at Chabad’s headquarters on Monday?

Last month, reports surfaced about unauthorized attempts to “tunnel” into a synagogue housed at the 770 complex from a Chabad-linked office building next door. By Monday, said witnesses to the day’s events and a Chabad spokesperson, the construction project had broken through the basement walls of the office building, and a cement truck was called in to repair the damage.

When the group responsible for the unauthorized construction realized the cement would block their attempt to gain access to the 770 complex, they ripped down wood paneling in the crowded subterranean floor of the synagogue. Videos from the scene showed a chaotic crowd of young men shouting, arguing with police, being handcuffed and being removed from the building. Several had retreated into a dark, concrete cavity that had been exposed behind the wood panels.

Around 3:30 p.m., police were called to the synagogue to deal with what an NYPD spokesperson called “a disorderly group” at the synagogue “who unlawfully entered the premises and damaged a wall.”

The NYPD spokesperson said police arrested 12 people and that there were no injuries. Charges include criminal mischief, reckless endangerment, disorderly conduct and attempted hate crimes — though the spokesperson did not have further information on the nature of the alleged hate crimes. The suspects were all between 19 and 22 years old.

The city’s Department of Buildings, which is inspecting the damage, told the New York Jewish Week on Tuesday that “forensic engineers remain on site at 770 Eastern Parkway, and their investigation is ongoing.”

Chabad Headquarters at 770 Eastern Parkway in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, Jan. 9, 2024. (Luke Tress)

What is 770 Eastern Parkway and why is it important to Chabad?

The construction project that came to light Monday is the latest in a number of controversial battles over Chabad’s headquarters at 770 Eastern Parkway. Known to Chabadniks simply as “770,” the building and its address have taken on symbolic significance for the movement and its worldwide network of emissaries.

Replicas of the stately brick three-gabled building can be found across the globe, from Australia to Argentina to a rural Chabad village in Israel. In 2022, a digital version went up in the metaverse. The number “770” has likewise become a calling card of the movement, sometimes literally — it is featured in some Chabad emissaries’ phone numbers.

The building holds meaning for Chabad Hasidim because it served as the office of the late, deeply revered Chabad leader Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, known as the Rebbe. Previously, it was the home of Schneerson’s father-in-law and predecessor, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn. Today, 770 is connected with adjoining buildings on its block and houses a synagogue, spaces for Jewish study, offices and a library.

Since Schneerson’s death in 1994, the movement has been without a leader, and authority over his former office has come under dispute. For more than a decade, two different Chabad organizations have battled in court over who controls 770 — with one side appearing to win only for the legal proceedings to continue.

Police block the entrance to the Chabad headquarter’s main synagogue due to safety concerns, Jan. 9, 2024. (Luke Tress)

Part of the Chabad movement has been pushing to “expand 770.”

Monday’s incident is one of a number of efforts to enlarge the building that is not part of the legal disputes detailed above. An initiative founded about a year ago called Expand 770 aims to drum up support to augment the building, citing a call by Schneerson in 1991 regarding the “need and duty to expand and broaden” the movement’s headquarters.

A rendering of the proposed expansion on the initiative’s website shows the original 770 flanked by two large conference center-style halls.

“Everyone wants to come daven, learn and visit in 770, but 770 is way too small for what it needs to be,” the initiative’s founder, Levi Jacobson, said in a video message posted last February. “The Rebbe urged that each and every Jew should participate physically and monetarily with expanding 770.”

Jacobson did not reply to a request for comment and there was no indication that he was connected to the unauthorized construction.

But on Tuesday, standing outside of 770, members of Chabad continued to argue over whether the building should be enlarged. Based on videos of Monday’s incident, the group involved in the construction effort appear to come from a faction of Chabadniks who believe Schneerson is the messiah, known as “meshichists.” A sign with a slogan declaring Schneerson to be the messiah hung on the wall of the synagogue, and multiple people involved were wearing kippahs bearing the same slogan.

Zalmy Grossman, a student from the United Kingdom who lives in Israel, said he had been in the synagogue during Monday’s incident and supported the effort. Grossman did not identify as a meshichist but was wearing a yellow badge associated with that group.

Worshippers line up to retrieve items from a storage room outside the main synagogue at Chabad headquarters, Jan. 9, 2024. (Luke Tress)

“As the holiest place in the world, we have to expand,” Grossman told the New York Jewish Week, saying that he had not been a part of the group that broke down the walls. “The Rebbe, the words of the rabbi, says they need to expand it. The Rebbe is the one in charge. He is Chabad.”

He added, “He’s the only one we listen to, nobody else. The Rebbe’s Chabad and what the Rebbe says — that’s what we do.”

A passerby, holding a black umbrella against the rain, stopped to vehemently disagree.

“What these people did was a travesty. It does not represent Chabad on any single level whatsoever,” shouted the man, who identified himself as Sholom and declined to give his full name, adding that he was at the sanctuary during the incident. “Attacking cops is not endorsed by Judaism. They took holy, sacred Jewish text books, threw them at cops.”

Indicating Grossman, he said, “This guy doesn’t represent anybody.”

Rabbi Yaacov Behrman, who lives in Crown Heights and works in public relations for the movement, said that the vandalism was carried out by a fringe group and applauded the NYPD’s handling of the incident.

“We appreciate the incredible sensitivity shown by the New York Police Department and their response,” he said. “This is really an example of good police community relations.”

The entrance to a building adjacent to Chabad headquarters that was used for unauthorized excavations, Jan. 9, 2024. A man was seen fleeing from the metal grating to the left of the door during the incident. The grating has since been patched up. (Luke Tress)

The fracas has sparked a wave of antisemitic conspiracies online.

While Chabad representatives have stressed that the construction was the work of a renegade fringe of the movement, the fracas at 770, and false rumors of a “tunnel” network underneath the synagogue, have fed into a ream of jokes — as well as antisemitic conspiracy theories online.

The false claims include baseless allegations that the tunnels were used for trafficking children, echoing centuries-old antisemitic blood libels. In one widely circulated video, a Jewish man seen emerging from a sidewalk grate is said to be part of a secret tunnel network. On Tuesday, the grate had been resealed, and a look inside revealed a well-lit basement filled with stacks of blue plastic crates and wooden planks.

More broadly, the closure of the synagogue and the resulting antisemitism have caused anguish in the Chabad community.

“This is, obviously, deeply distressing to the Lubavitch movement, and the Jewish community worldwide,” said Motti Seligson, a Chabad spokesperson, wrote in a post on X.

“The police department and the city recognizes that this is a fringe group of people that don’t represent the vast majority of the community,” Behrman said. “We’re all pained that we have to deal with this.”

The post The ‘tunnel’ controversy at Chabad’s Brooklyn headquarters, explained appeared first on Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

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Texas University Plans to Close Qatar Campus Amid Scrutiny of Hamas Ties

A Qatar 2022 logo is seen in front of the skyline of the West Bay in Doha. Photo: REUTERS/John Sibley/File Photo

On Thursday, the Texas A&M University System Board of Regents voted 7-1 to end its contract with the Qatar Foundation, which will result in the college’s Qatar campus shutting down over the next four years.

Texas A&M said it decided to reassess its relationship with Qatar after Hamas’s October 7 attack on Israel, in which the terrorist group murdered 1,200 Israelis and took more than 240 more hostage. It cites regional instability as one of the reasons for its decision. The Qatari government also has extensive ties with Hamas’ political and military leadership.

The Qatar Foundation for Education, Science and Community Development is funded by the Qatari government and is the institution that funds Texas A&M’s Qatar campus.

The Chair of the university’s Board of Regents said it “has decided that the core mission of Texas A&M should be advanced primarily within Texas and the United States.” He continued, explaining that “By the middle of the 21st century, the university will not necessarily need a campus infrastructure 8,000 miles away to support education and research collaborations.”

The decision also comes amid heightened scrutiny of Qatar’s role in American higher education — as it spent almost $5 billion on American universities between 2001 and 2021 — as well as its role in funding terrorist groups such as Hamas. 

In an article for The Free Press in October, Eli Lake outlined what he saw as the significant influence Qatar is having on American higher education. He lists the universities that have gotten significant donations from Qatar, such as Cornell, Carnegie Mellon, Georgetown, and Northwestern. He also notes that Qatar’s influence goes beyond money, affecting policies and programs within specific academic departments as well. For example, the Qatar campus of Northwestern, which is home to the U.S.’s best journalism program, had an agreement with the terrorist-sympathetic Al-Jazeera that it would help train its students.

The significant attention paid to these relationships is likely driven by the steep increase in anti-Israel and pro-terrorist sentiment in the U.S., particularly on college campuses. 

A 2023 report from the Study of Global Antisemitism and Policy also concluded that concealed donations from foreign governments to U.S. educational institutions are associated with an increase in antisemitic incidents on campus and the erosion of liberal norms. 

However, the Qatar Foundation believes the decision was made for political reasons. In a statement, it wrote: “It is deeply disappointing that a globally respected academic institution like Texas A&M University has fallen victim to such a campaign and allowed politics to infiltrate its decision-making processes. At no point did the Board attempt to seek out the truth from Qatar Foundation before making this misguided decision.”

There have been no indications thus far that other universities that receive a significant amount of Qatari funding, or operate campuses in Qatar, are reconsidering their relationship.

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Antisemitic Vandals Strike Hillel Building at University of Leeds in UK

Antisemitic message graffitied on Hillel House of University of Leeds. Photo: Union of Jewish Students/X

The Hillel House of University of Leeds was vandalized on Thursday night, raising further concerns about a hateful campus climate and rising antisemitism across the United Kingdom, particularly since Hamas’ October 7 attacks.

The vandals, according to pictures shared online, graffitied “FREE PALESTINE” on the building and additional scribble on two window panes.

“We are heartbroken and angry that after an uplifting and inspiring Challah Bake, our JSoc Hillel House was defaced with antisemitic graffiti,” Leeds JSoc, which uses the building for club meetings, said in a statement also signed by the Union of Jewish Students, an advocacy group. “It is shocking and outrageous that those who hate us would stoop to this level.”

The groups noted that a University of Leeds professor may be responsible for leading anti-Zionist to the building, alleging that he shared its address “for the sole purpose of intimidating Jewish students on campus.”

“We are working with CST and the police to ensure that those who committed this crime get the consequences they deserve,” the group added.

Anti-Zionists extremists struck elsewhere on Thursday, storming University of Birmingham with socialists and other far-left groups while holding signs that said, “Zionists off our campus” and “75 years of illegal occupation!” Many concealed their faces, covering them with keffiyeh.

“Jewish students are feeling less and less safe at university because of these vile antisemitic acts,” National Jewish Assembly (NJA), a Jewish civil rights nonprofit, said in a statement about the incidents. “It’s time we say enough. Jewish students deserve and must feel safe on campus.”

Thursday’s incidents followed a set-back for the academic Jewish community. Earlier this week, it was announced that a UK government agency which arbitrates disputes over employment law ruled that University of Bristol lacked standing to fire sociologist David Miller, an extreme anti-Zionist who was accused of harassing Jewish students and promoting antisemitic tropes, and said his “anti-Zionist beliefs qualified as a philosophical belief and as a protected characteristic.”

Pervasive antisemitism and anti-Zionism at UK universities is forcing members of the Jewish academic community to conceal their identities on campus, according to a June 2023 report issued by the Parliamentary Task Force on Antisemitism in Higher Education, a committee of lawmakers and established by former Prime Minister Boris Johnson in 2022 in response to complaints of anti-Jewish racism and discrimination.

“We were told it was commonplace for Jewish students to choose not to wear certain clothing or jewelry around campus because it would make them visibly identifiable as Jewish,” the Task Force wrote in the report, titled Understanding Jewish Experience in Higher Education, noting that academic staff “also raised important comparable concerns about negativity surrounding their Jewish identity.”

The Task Force recommended that all universities adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism, which, it said, has not, contrary to the claims of its many opponents, diminished free speech and academic freedom.

Dion J. Pierre @DionJPierre.

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US House Committee Threatens Harvard University With Subpoena for Antisemitism Documents

Illustrative Harvard University students displaying a pro-Palestinian sign at their May 2022 graduation ceremony. Photo: Reuters/Brian Snyder

Harvard University on Wednesday was given a “final warning” to fully cooperate with the US House Committee on Education and the Workforce’s investigation of antisemitism on its campus.

In January, Chairwoman Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-NC) gave the school, which spent the fall semester under fire for allegedly ignoring rampant antisemitic harassment and intimidation, two weeks to deliver documents relevant to the committee’s investigation. Harvard never did, and now Rep. Foxx is threatening to subpoena the material she requested.

“The committee has sought to obtain information regarding Harvard’s response to the numerous incidents of antisemitism on its campus and steps taken to protect Jewish students, faculty and staff,” Foxx wrote in a letter to Harvard University interim president Alan Garber and Harvard Corporation senior fellow Penny Pritzker.

“Harvard’s responses have been grossly insufficient,” she continued. “If Harvard continues to fail to comply with the committee’s requests in a timely manner, the committee will proceed with compulsory process.”

Foxx has requested a trove of documents, including “all reports of antisemitic acts or incidents” and “related communications” going back to 2021 that were sent to Harvard’s offices of the president, general counsel, dean of students, police department, human resources, and diversity, equity, and inclusion, among others. She also requested documentation on Harvard Kennedy School professor Marshall Ganz, who, the school determined during an investigation, “denigrated” several students for being “Israeli Jews.” Originally, Foxx gave Harvard a deadline of Jan. 23 by which to comply.

The House Committee on Education and the Workforce is also investigating other top universities, including the University of Pennsylvania (Penn) and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), to determine whether administrators at those schools ignored antisemitic discrimination. The probes were announced after the committee grilled the presidents of Harvard, Penn, and MIT about their plans to respond to rising anti-Jewish hate in their communities. During the hearing, Gay of Harvard and Elizabeth Magill of Penn — both of whom have since resigned from their positions — as well as Sally Kornbluth of MIT largely evaded lawmakers’ questions, infamously equivocating on whether calling for the genocide of Jews contravenes school rules.

For Harvard, America’s oldest institution of higher education and arguably its most prestigious, the presence of radical anti-Zionists on  campus has been a persistent issue. At the start of this academic year, a student and anti-Israel activist interrupted a convocation ceremony held by the school, shouting at Harvard College Dean Rakesh Khurana, “Here’s the real truth — Harvard supports, upholds, and invests in Israeli apartheid, and the oppression of Palestinians!”

However, the broader public largely did not take notice until Hamas’ Oct. 7 massacre in Israel. As scenes of Hamas terrorists abducting children and desecrating dead bodies circulated worldwide, 31 student groups at Harvard issued a statement blaming Israel for the attack and accusing the Jewish state of operating an “open air prison” in Gaza, despite that the Israeli military withdrew from the territory in 2005.

For her part, Gay waited several days to condemn the Hamas atrocities, and when she did, her statement said nothing about antisemitism. When she resigned at the beginning of the new year, she accused her critics of racism.

Follow Dion J. Pierre @DionJPierre.

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