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Pizza, blood libels and the mystery of NY’s secret Chabad tunnel

In the weirdest story of the week, 12 Lubavitchers were arrested after trying to prevent construction crews filling in a mysterious illegal tunnel, providing a gift to both conspiracy theorists and meme-makers.
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Men behind a gap in a brick wall

Chabad students sit behind a breach in the wall of a synagogue that led to a tunnel dug by the students (Bruce Schaff via AP)

Published: 10 January 2024

Last updated: 5 March 2024

In the weirdest story of the week, 12 Lubavitchers were arrested after trying to prevent construction crews filling in a mysterious illegal tunnel, providing a gift to both conspiracy theorists and meme-makers.

The headquarters of Chabad in Crown Heights, Brooklyn became the scene of an extraordinary melee this week when structural engineers attempted to fill in a secret tunnel discovered under the synagogue. It was built illegally and runs from the synagogue at the iconic Chabad headquarters at 770 Eastern Parkway to a defunct mikvah around the corner.

The tunnel was dug by a group of messianic yeshiva students who used it to dump debris from an unauthorised expansion of the synagogue onto an unused property next door, in preparation for the supposed resurrection of their rebbe.

Chabad spokesperson Rabbi Motti Seligson described the vandals as “extremist students” who broke through walls from the synagogue. "A cement truck was brought in to repair those walls. Those efforts were disrupted by the extremists who broke through the wall to the synagogue, vandalising the sanctuary, in an effort to preserve their unauthorised access. They have since been arrested and the building closed pending a structural safety review," he said.

Twelve men were arrested when they attempted to stop structural engineers filling in the tunnels. Nine — between the ages of 19 and 22 — were arrested, and were charged with criminal mischief, reckless endangerment, and, in one case, obstruction of governmental administration. Another three were charged with disorderly conduct.

Chabad Lubavitch has formally dissociated itself from the students who built the tunnel. "The Chabad-Lubavitch community is pained by the vandalism of a group of young agitators who damaged the synagogue below Chabad Headquarters at 770 Eastern Parkway Monday night. These odious actions will be investigated, and the sanctity of the synagogue will be restored. Our thanks to the NYPD for their professionalism and sensitivity," said Chairman Rabbi Yehuda Krinsky in a statement.

Blood libels, baby carriages and pizza

The incident was a gift to both humourists and antisemitic conspiracy theorists.

"The story went viral because it was, objectively, bizarre: A small sect of Hasidic Jews had built an elaborate system of underground tunnels beneath the streets of Brooklyn, for no immediately clear reason. But it also sparked an onslaught of antisemitic conspiracy theories, with some well-known far-right personalities suggesting the tunnels were being used for nefarious trafficking purposes, playing into notorious anti-Jewish tropes, or drawing comparisons to tunnels made by the terrorist group Hamas, referring to them as “Jewish tunnels” or “Zionist tunnels,” observed Rolling Stone.

The Jewish Independent

Some posts were humourous, linking the case to the equally bizzare "pizzagate" allegations during the 2016 US presidential election or creating memes that captured the absurdity of the events.

But many others were filled with hate and conspiracies. There were claims that the tunnel was used for everything from child abuse to helping Israel in Gaza. Claims spread that the tunnel was connected to the mansion of convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein or to a children's museum. A baby carriage — ubiquitous in the fecund world of Chabad — was used as evidence of child abuse and a dirty mattress seen on video of the tunnels was described as "blood-stained" and used as evidence of human sacrifice.

“They’re all pedophiles. Once they’re caught they go to Israel,” read one response.

“They already control everyone,” read another, accompanied by a picture of Hasidic Jews.

Stories of actual abuse in the Chabad community were dug up as further “proof” for these fabricated claims. Some tweets falsely claimed that the tunnels were connected to “secret Satanic groups and 4,000 ritual human sacrifices are performed in New York City every year”.

Writing in The Forward, Elad Nehorai showed how this isolated and bizzare event was quickly woven in to the standing discourse of white supremacists, antisemites and conspiracy theorists.

"Tunnel conspiracy theories about secret child abuse rings have abounded for decades. Combine that with an ancient blood libel and fabricated claims of ritual abuse, and you have a toxic combination... In a matter of hours, these conspiracy theories were spread to tens of millions of people. White nationalist and neo-Nazi accounts like “Gentile News Network” and the Groyper movement — newly fashioned “pro-Palestinian activists” — spread the images, abuse articles and other conspiracies to their networks.


Twitter explodes with antisemitic misinfo after secret tunnels found under NYC synagogue (Rolling Stone)

Arrests at Chabad’s iconic headquarters after students thwart attempt to fill secret tunnel (Forward)

So why were those yeshiva students digging a tunnel at Chabad headquarters? (Forward)

How Twitter activists turned a viral story about Orthodox Jews into a modern blood libel (Forward)

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

I thought 2024 would be grim and predictable, then I saw the words ‘secret illegal tunnel under Brooklyn’ (Guardian)

The Jewish Independent acknowledges Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the Traditional Owners and Custodians of Country throughout Australia. We pay our respects to Elders past and present, and strive to honour their rich history of storytelling in our work and mission.

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