Israeli Government Public Relations and Chillul Shabbat - An Updated Perspective of an American Rabbi and a Call to Action to American Jews[1] – Part Two by Rabbi Chaim Jachter


Last week we raised the important question as to whether maintaining Israel’s image justifies the violation of Shabbat. We presented a discussion of this issue that appears in “Techumin,” volume 30. The consensus of opinion was that in certain circumstances, violation of rabbinic prohibitions could be countenanced for this purpose.

Two Justifications to Tilt towards Permitting Biblical Level Prohibitions

Two more considerations might justify violating Biblical level prohibitions on Shabbat. Rav Shlomo Levy, the Rosh Kollel of Yeshivat Har Etzion, notes that severe anti-Israel propaganda may incite Jew/Israel haters to commit acts of violence against us. This is especially dangerous in locations outside of Israel with large anti-Jewish/Israel populations, such as France and Great Britain. The Jews who reside in these countries do not have Tzahal to protect them. A timely response by the office of the Israeli army spokesman to false accusations might prevent violent actions against Jews residing in the Galut in response to severe anti-Israel propaganda.

A critical consideration not fully addressed in the “Techumin” article is the importance of maintaining Israel’s strong alliance with the United States government. This alliance is essential to Israel’s survival, which is why anti-Israel activists work so hard to undermine this relationship. When the office of Tzahal’s spokesman deals with an issue which impacts the American-Israeli alliance, its impact is vital for Israeli security. Yielding on Shabbat and Yom Tov to the anti-Israel propaganda machine could negatively impinge on the special relationship between the United States and Israel which is based on broad American support for the Jewish State due to shared values.

The American government in recent decades has allocated more than three billion dollars annually to Israel’s security needs. Moreover, the American government financed the Iron Dome missile defense system with hundreds of millions of dollars in aid, which has saved hundreds if not thousands of lives. In 2016, the Israeli government has pressed the American government to dramatically increase this aid, and the American government committed to a ten year, thirty eight billion dollar package. Maintaining Israel’s image is critical to maintaining this level of military support. This military support is designed to maintain Israel’s qualitative edge in the Middle East, which is critical to Israel’s survival in the face of the overwhelming numerical superiority of its enemies.

Moreover, Israel has recently enhanced its relationship with Turkey, Egypt and even Saudi Arabia. Proper public relations responses are critical to maintaining these highly sensitive and very important alliances. Popular outrage in response to a severe anti-Israel accusation could undermine these governments’ abilities to maintain close ties with the Jewish State.

An enlightening interaction of religious Israeli diplomat Yehuda Avner with Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach

Ambassador Yehuda Avner[2], in an interview with the Orthodox Union’s “Jewish Action” (May 2011), relates his experiences regarding violation of Shabbat for the purpose of furthering Israel diplomacy:

I recall an occasion in 1975 when US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger was engaged in shuttle diplomacy, negotiating with Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Egyptian President Anwar Sadat in an attempt to bring about an interim agreement in Sinai. The negotiations broke down because Rabin was not satisfied with proposals which impinged on Israel’s security. Kissinger went off in a huff, readying to place the failure of his mission on Israel. This showdown occurred just before Shabbat and Rabin asked me to immediately prepare our case for worldwide broadcast before Kissinger had a chance to brief the pressmen accompanying him on his flight back to Washington. A battle for public opinion was on, not least to win over Congress and the American public at large to accept our version of things, and I was the only one on the premier’s staff who was not only familiar with all the facts but also had the language competence to promptly make our case. But I told Rabin that Shabbat was upon us, and what he was asking me to do was not a matter of vital policy but of Hasbarah (public diplomacy or advocacy), and for that I was not willing to violate Shabbat. Well, do I remember the look of contempt on his face as I left. The next day, Shabbat afternoon, after davening Minchah at the Gra shul in the neighborhood of Sha’arei Chessed, I happened upon Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach. He knew what I was engaged in, and he asked me in Yiddish what was new. I told him what had happened, and he said to me in Hebrew, “Are you sure you had all the information to make the right decision?” I took this to mean that I might not have made the right decision after all, and immediately started to walk back to the prime minister’s office. When I got there it was already Motza’ei Shabbat. Rabin was in the midst of an emergency Cabinet session, and as I walked in, he spat at me, “Now you come? It’s too late,” and he showed me the briefing that Kissinger had given the journalists accompanying him on his flight back to Washington, in which he placed all the blame for the crisis on Israel’s shoulders. This had the most serious consequences. President Gerald Ford declared a reassessment of the whole Israeli-US relationship, beginning with a partial arms embargo[3]. To this day I do not know if I did the right thing, and whether following Rabin’s instructions would have made a difference or not.

Mr. Avner’s experience teaches that public relations might have Pikuach Nefesh ramifications and that Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach considered violating Shabbat for its sake. While this incident involved public relations on a far grander scale than the scenarios described at the beginning of last week’s discussion, it nonetheless teaches the importance and highly impactful nature of Israel diplomacy. The “Techumin” article does not mention this story with its critical insight from Rav Auerbach. This story must be brought to the attention of the Israeli army rabbinate for its consideration in formulating its Halachic policy regarding Shabbat violation for the sake of preserving Israel’s image.

An important ramification of this story is that individual soldiers should obey directives from superiors. It is undoubtedly a judgment call if a situation truly warrants Chillul Shabbat. However, we see from the incident in which Yehuda Avner was involved that Prime Minister Rabin correctly diagnosed the situation, and Ambassador Avner’s refusal to heed Rabin’s directive placed Israel’s security in serious jeopardy. This incident teaches that the superior might have more information and greater experience to better evaluate as to whether a situation is truly one of Pikuach Nefesh.

In the years since the “Techumin” article was written in 2010, the urgency of maintaining Israel’s positive image has grown. Elements that are not understanding of and sympathetic to Israel’s defense needs now constitute a significant constituency in both the Democratic and Republican parties. The distancing from Israel is most pronounced among younger Americans. Maintaining Israel’s image has assumed greater importance as Israel’s security needs have grown and American support for Israel needs to be strengthened.


Posekim[4] have accepted the ruling of Rav Yechezkeil Landau (Teshuvot Noda BeYehudah 2: Yoreh Dei’ah 210) that violation of Shabbat for Pikuach Nefesh is permitted only for a “Choleh Lefaneinu,” a present and clear danger. However, Rav Yechi’eil Ya’akov Weinberg (author of the famed Teshuvot Seridei Eish, in an essay published in “Techumin” 12:382-384) writes that for a Tzibbur, an entire country, the definition of “Choleh Lefaneinu” should be expanded. Similarly, Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach (cited by Rav Moshe Mordechai Farbstein, Assia 9:164, and Rav David Lau, “Techumin” 35:76) rules that leadership must responsibly address even a very tiny chance of danger to the entire community, even though an individual would reasonably tolerate such a miniscule risk. Based on this point, Rav Shlomo Zalman permitted a soldier to decode communications from an enemy country to Medinat Yisrael, despite the very small chance it posed a security threat.

Thus, as an American rabbi who has attended nearly every NORPAC mission to Washington, D.C., since 1997 to lobby members of Congress to strengthen the American-Israeli alliance[5], I wish to contribute to this discussion by arguing that maintaining Israel’s positive public image has definite Pikuach Nefesh ramifications in terms of its relationship with the American government and other governments as well. This is a point not emphasized in the “Techumin” article but is critical in order to determine the importance and ramifications of the degree of Pikuach Nefesh involved. Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach did not agree with Yehuda Avner’s initial assessment of dismissing the maintaining of Israel’s image as simply an exercise in Hasbarah (public relations) that does not justify violation of Shabbat.

This issue also has major ramifications for American Jews. As we prepare for the upcoming Yamim Nora’im, we should consider our role in advancing Israel’s security through public relations. Every Jew should have the basic knowledge to know how to properly respond to anti-Israel propaganda which seeks to delegitimize and ultimately destroy the State of Israel. Chazal teach, “Know how to respond to a heretic” (Avot 2:19). In our times this includes playing a role in ensuring security by knowing how to respond to those who seek to undermine the State of Israel by defaming it[6]. If preserving Israel’s image possibly justifies Chillul Shabbat, it certainly behooves us to play our part in the battle and be ready to make our contribution to maintaining Israel’s positive image.

The “Techumin” article cites Rav Avigdor Neventzhal, whose reaction to the question as to whether Israeli public relations warrants Chillul Shabbat was, “I do not know[7].” This humble response of a giant Torah scholar and Poseik underscores the difficulty in resolving this challenging dilemma. May Hashem grant us the wisdom to properly resolve this issue. In the spirit of the Aseret Yemei Teshuvah, we conclude with the plea, “Avinu Malkeinu, Setom Piyot Mastineinu UMekatrigeinu,” “our Father and our King, silence the mouths of those who defame and slander us.”

[1] A special thank you to Kesher Israel of Washington, D.C. where I delivered a Shiur on this topic on Parashat Pinechas 5776. The many insights of the participants in the Shiur, many of whom hold responsible position in government and political think tanks, have greatly enriched our discussion.

[2] British born Yehuda Avner was a religious Jew who served as a close aide to many Israeli leaders, from Levi Eshkol to Menachem Begin. His diplomatic career was crowned with a post as Israel’s ambassador to Great Britain, Ireland and Australia.

[3] Fortunately, President Ford rescinded this reassessment under pressure from both houses of Congress, which were actively lobbied by AIPAC, the organization that promotes the alliance between The United States and Israel (Dr. Michael Oren, Power, Faith and Fantasy: The United States in the Middle East, 1776 to 2006, p. 536). However, miracles do not, as noted by the Gemara (Megillah 7b), occur at every hour.

[4] Such as the Chatam Sofer (Teshuvot Y.D. 336), the Maharam Schick (Teshuvot Maharam Schick Y.D. 347-348), the Chazon Ish (Y.D 208:7) and Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach (Teshuvot Minchat Shlomo 2:83 in the Machon Otzarot Shlomo edition).

[5] Rav Hershel Schachter told this author that the Minhag to refrain from shaving during the Omer is waived for those attending the NORPAC mission to Washington, as they must make a dignified presentation to members of Congress on behalf of the American-Israeli alliance. He compared this to a ruling of Rav Moshe Soloveitchik, who permitted a mourner in Shiv’ah to shave when he went to government offices in attempt to obtain a visa to enter the United States for relatives trapped in Europe during the Second World War.

[6] It is important to recall that those who wish to eliminate us, such as the ancient Egyptians and the Nazis, first defame us (see Shemot 1:10) to lay the groundwork for their efforts to destroy us.

[7] It is certain, though, that individual efforts to protect Israel’s image in the media, while very important, do not warrant Chillul Shabbat. Even violations of rabbinic prohibitions are not waived for this purpose. Only government responses rise to the level of Pikuach Nefesh. 

The Se’ir HaMishtalei’ach, Rav Soloveitchik and The Other Wes Moore by Rabbi Chaim Jachter

Israeli Government Public Relations and Chillul Shabbat – An Updated Perspective of an American Rabbi and a Call to Action to American Jews[1] – Part One by Rabbi Chaim Jachter