For ten years, University of Montreal Professor Yakov Rabkin has been studying the Hasidic anti-Zionist group Lev Tahor. The group fled Quebec on November 19 in order to avoid a youth court hearing to have children removed from their families.
The Toronto Star reported on Dec 8 2013: “On November 27, a Quebec youth court judge gave the order to seize the children, who range in age from 2 months to 16 years. The judge ruled there was a ‘serious risk of harm' to the children. To date, the order has not been carried out by the Chatham-Kent Children's Aid Society.”
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Question: How are Lev Tahor members different from other Hasidic Jews?
Y.R.: The main difference is that they almost all grew up in an irreligious environment. It was not until adulthood that they drew closer to Judaism and began practicing religion. While most of Lev Tahor children were born in Quebec, the majority of adult members, about 50 persons, came from Israel where they had been raised with the ideology of Zionism. Some are former officers of the Israeli army who embraced Hasidic Judaism, left the army, and then the State of Israel. Lev Tahor stands out by its unusually strict practice of Judaic law regarding food, clothing, and prayer.
Question: Are the children in danger?
Y.R.: I don't know whether or not there has been abuse, but the times I went to visit the community, sometimes without notice, I didn't see any violence. The boys appeared similar to other Hasidic boys. However, in recent years, the girls and women started to wear veils and came to look different from women in other Hasidic communities
A few years ago in the framework of a film project, I videotaped interviews with several members of the community, both men and women –unveiled- about their background and their motivations to join Lev Tahor, but I didn't talk with the children.
To avoid controls stipulated in the Quebec Public Education Act, they began planning a move to Ontario several months ago. They spoke to me about this when I visited them last summer with a PhD student in anthropology from Brazil.
Question: Some argue that members of Lev Tahor are backward. Are they?
Y.R.: Their opposition to Zionism led them to learn Yiddish, spoken by Hasidic Jews, so they would no longer use modern Hebrew, even though it is the mother tongue for most of them. They deliberately reversed the Zionist project, the efforts Zionist pioneers made more than a century ago when they abandoned Russia, their homeland, and settled in Palestine. They also rejected Yiddish, their mother tongue, and desacralized Hebrew, the language of prayer and Torah study, turning it into a vernacular.
While some consider Hasidic Jews ignorant of the modern world, members of Lev Tahor used to be immersed in secular Israeli society. This is why their rejection of Zionism is more of a provocation than that of other Hasidic Jews, who have inherited anti-Zionism, along with other values, from their ancestors.
Not surprisingly, Zionists in Israel and elsewhere are very upset with Lev Tahor. In a television report, an Israeli parliamentarian accused them of wanting to kill all nonbelievers in Israel. A reporter from Haaretz, a daily often considered to be anti-religious, spent a few days among the Lev Tahor. His informative articles are available online [www.haaretz.com/weekend/magazine/lev-tahor-pure-as-the-driven-snow-or-hearts-of-darkness-1.417553].
Question: How do you explain the attention given to Lev Tahor?
Y.R.: I understand the antagonism Lev Tahor generates in Israel. The relatives of those who joined Lev Tahor are almost all secular Zionists. They are horrified by the new lifestyle of their children and by the education given to their grandchildren. Based on the testimonies of those who rebelled against Lev Tahor, including a son of the group's leader, Rabbi Shlomo Helbrans, these relatives alleged child abuse. They protested outside the Canadian Embassy in Tel Aviv and mobilized Israeli authorities, which put pressure on child protection agencies in Canada.
Hence the recent attention of the Quebec Directorate of Youth Protection to the Hasidim of Sainte-Agathe. For several months children were checked for signs of beatings, and homes, including refrigerators, were inspected almost daily. Last week, Lev Tahor was discussed by an Israeli parliamentary commission for the protection of children. So far the testimony before the commission came from critics of this Hasidic group. I suppose Lev Tahor members will be heard in the future even though the commission must have many other priorities: in Israel, one in four children lives below the poverty line.