Jews against Israel

Neturei Karta, a Zionism-denouncing, Palestinian-embracing subculture within ultra-Orthodox Judaism, is suddenly sharing the spotlight in the antiwar movement.

Published March 13, 2003 8:23PM (EST)

On Saturday, when thousands of antiwar activists converge on the White House, there will be a small, silent group of Hassidic rabbis in black hats and curling sidelocks among them. Because it's the Jewish Sabbath, a day when Orthodox Jews abstain from all work, the rabbis can't take to the podium. If they could, though, their message would mirror that of ANSWER, the zealously anti-Zionist group that called the march. Israel, the rabbis believe, is the source of all the world's suffering, as well as the catalyst for a war driving the world toward catastrophe. America, says Rabbi Chaim Sofer, has been "hijacked by Zionists. This whole war is to secure the assets of the Israeli occupation. We, as Jews, have an obligation to tell the truth about this war."

Sofer and the other rabbis are part of Neturei Karta, a strongly anti-Israel subculture within ultra-Orthodox Judaism. They're bound by a conviction, once shared by most Orthodox Jews, that Zionism is an affront to God and that peace won't prevail until the state of Israel is dismantled. The group, which claims thousands of members worldwide, was founded in Jerusalem around 1940 by rabbis opposed to attempts to create a Jewish state. There are branches of Neturei Karta in Israel, Europe and New York, where members make appearances from time to time to burn Israeli flags on Israeli Independence Day, which Neturei Karta's spiritual leader, the late Grand Rabbi Joel Teitelbaum, called "the terrible Day of Blasphemy."

A thin, sharp-featured man with a black beard, flashing dark eyes and a Yiddish accent, Sofer lives with his wife and eight children in Monsey, an ultra-Orthodox enclave in upstate New York. Private buses regularly make the hour-long trip between the town and the Hassidic section of Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Sheets run down the buses' center aisles, separating the bearded, black-clad men from the women, most of whom, in the ultra-Orthodox manner, keep their hair covered with wigs.

Except for the profusion of synagogues and all the signs in Hebrew, Monsey looks like an average East Coast suburb. Sofer keeps an office in a boardinghouse on Saddle River Road, a few yards from the ramshackle white home of Rabbi Yisroel Dovid Weiss. Rabbi Hilel Deutsch, a 50-year-old who was born in Jerusalem and who emigrated to New York because he was unwilling to live under Zionists, is almost constantly by Sofer's side, and various other rabbis and rabbinical students drift in and out. While most of Monsey's rabbis shut out the secular world, Sofer is constantly online, printing out articles from publications like Alexander Cockburn's far-left, aggressively pro-Palestinian publication, Counterpunch, and newspapers from as far away as Pakistan. "We need to communicate globally," he says. "We can't sit in our basements anymore."

Neturei Karta garnered some publicity in 1999, when the group held a conciliatory meeting with the Nation of Islam's Louis Farrakhan. Yet coming from a community that holds its insularity sacred, the rabbis, some of whom speak only Yiddish, have consistently felt frustrated by their inability to get their message out. Now, as the bloody tensions between Israel and the Palestinians, and the impending war with Iraq, galvanize a global protest movement, Neturei Karta has suddenly found people willing to give them a platform and an audience.

Last April, Neturei Karta shocked many in the Jewish community by marching at the head of ANSWER's pro-Palestinian march on Washington. They had a table at ANSWER's antiwar rally on Jan. 18, the seven or eight men in long black coats forming a somber contrast to the carnival atmosphere that prevailed throughout the protest. On Feb.15, a day of global antiwar demonstrations, they marched in New York. Last week, a delegation from Neturei Karta went on a speaking tour of Europe, addressing the Institute of Islamic Studies in London, as well as crowds at Birmingham and Warwick universities.

This participation in the antiwar movement is something new for Neturei Karta. Until recently, the group has limited its protests to issues directly involving Israel and the Palestinians, with whom the rabbis express unreserved sympathy. When it comes to other domestic issues, the rabbis have generally felt bound to silence by a religious mandate that Jews in exile be loyal to their host countries.

Weiss, a 46-year-old Neturei Karta activist, offers a Jewish legend to explain the group's stance: "In the Book of the Prophets, the king threw the Jews into a fire. God created a miracle and they were not burnt. Their hands were tied, and the rope was burnt, but they were not burnt. They didn't leave the fire, though, until the king gave them permission to leave. They could have just walked out, but they didn't. Why? They still gave respect to the king." Thus even when demonstrating with the Palestinians, the rabbis have been careful to distance themselves from anti-Bush rhetoric. Weiss has avoided antiwar demonstrations because he fears even the appearance of disloyalty.

But like many on the left, some of the rabbis of Neturei Karta have grown convinced that the impending war is all about Israel, and that belief has led to them to act. Sofer translates for Deutsch, a kindly, gray-haired man who speaks only Yiddish. "Our part in demonstrating was out of loyalty to our country," Deutsch says. "It's like when a son sees his father doing something ridiculous that will hurt his future -- he's obligated to come and speak and scream."

Sofer has been closely following the debate about the role of pro-Israel neoconservatives like Richard Perle and Paul Wolfowitz in planning for the war with Iraq. He has devoured articles about a 1996 document that Bush administration hawks Perle, Douglas Feith and David Wurmser wrote for former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, titled "A Clean Break: A New Strategy for Securing the Realm." The report, which argued in favor of overthrowing Saddam Hussein as the first step in a plan to radically refashion the Middle East, has been widely distributed in the past few months and is frequently cited by those who believe American foreign policy is dominated by Israel.

That belief is becoming increasingly mainstream. As New York Times columnist Bill Keller wrote on Sunday: "You hear lowbrow versions of the it's-really-about-Israel theory at protest rallies, especially in Europe, where selective sympathy for the Palestinians runs high. You can hear more sophisticated versions, sometimes whispered or oblique, among scholars, op-ed writers and politicians." Some are doing more than whispering -- on March 3, Rep. James Moran, D-Va., told an antiwar forum at Saint Anne's Episcopal Church in Reston, Va., "If it were not for the strong support of the Jewish community for this war with Iraq, we would not be doing this." He apologized after an outcry from Jewish leaders.

Sofer, who is inclined to see Zionist conspiracies wreaking their mischief on the world, sees comments like Moran's as confirmation of his suspicions. "Something behind this war is related to Israel and to the pro-Israel movement that in essence has captured the Bush administration," he says. "Since this issue is directly related to Jews and Jewish interests, we as representatives of true Judaism have a moral and religious obligation to use all means to say that we are against this war."

Sofer believes this is the only way to save the Jews from a savage backlash if the war goes badly. "We are very afraid that there will come a day when this whole war issue will explode," he says. "The whole world will see it was a tragic mistake and the burden will fall upon Jews as a whole."

Indeed, one of the cornerstones of Neturei Karta's ideology is that most of the world's anti-Semitism is a reaction to Zionism, and that Jews will find real acceptance in the world only when Israel is dismantled. "Zionism is a factory for anti-Semitism worldwide," says Weiss. Deutsch insists that before the Zionists went to Jerusalem, Jews and Arabs lived in peace. Through Sofer, he adds: "My grandmother lived with Arabs. They were babysitting each other's children. They had the best relationship." According to the rabbis, Zionism alone is responsible for destroying that harmony. Now, they fear, a similar chasm is about to open between Jews and gentiles worldwide.

This contention fits into Neturei Karta's stark analysis of recent Jewish history, which they see as a series of punishments for the Jewish rejection of Neturei Karta's beliefs. Some Neturei Karta rabbis even suggest that the Holocaust was God's punishment for the Jews' failure to combat Zionism. Asked about suicide bombings, Weiss, a small man with light brown hair and pale blue eyes, grows vehement. "Every drop of blood I point my finger at the Zionists," he says. "Of course it hurts us, every drop of Jewish blood. It hurts us tremendously. That is one of the reasons we want to take away anti-Semitism and hopefully to save Jewish lives by going out there and telling the Arab world that Zionism and Judaism are not one and the same."

Neturei Karta's insistence on blaming Jews for their own suffering is a big part of what makes them seem so outrageous to mainstream Jewish groups. "Their position tends to scandalize most Jews," says David Biale, a professor of Jewish history at UC-Davis and the editor of "Cultures of the Jews: A New History," a monumental 1,200-page survey published last year. "They tend to see forces like the PLO as more congenial than a Jewish state. Their declared positions are so extreme, they've largely discredited themselves." A Neturei Karta bumper sticker shows a Hassidic boy waving a Palestinian flag with the slogan, "Surrender Is the Torah Solution!" It's hard to imagine a position with less resonance in the Jewish world.

At the same time, says Biale, the rabbis aren't entirely wrong to see themselves as the last remnant of traditional Judaism, preserving an ancient religion from the spiritual transformations occasioned by the shock of the Holocaust. "If you go back a hundred years, the position Neturei Karta is articulating was the position of most Orthodox authorities," he says. Nor has this position disappeared from all Jewish communities. J.J. Goldberg, the editor in chief of the Forward, America's preeminent Jewish newspaper, identifies the Satmars as the largest Hassidic sect in America, numbering between 35,000 and 50,000. Their Grand Rebbe was Neturei Karta's Joel Teitelbaum, who died in 1978. "A very substantial proportion of the ultra-Orthodox community shares the rejection of the Zionist notion," Goldberg says.

Part of the reason this isn't well known to casual observers is that sloppy journalism identifies religious settlers in the occupied territories as ultra-Orthodox. In fact, religious Zionists are overwhelmingly modern Orthodox, a sect of Judaism that accepts a great deal more assimilation into the wider world than the ultra-Orthodox do.

"There's constant reference in the American press to ultra-Orthodox settlers, which is contradiction in terms," says Goldberg. "The term 'ultra-Orthodox' was coined by the Jerusalem Post in 1950s to connote the black hats," the Jews who wear traditional religious garb. "It's been picked up by outsiders to mean anybody who seems really Orthodox."

In fact, Goldberg says, "The ultra-Orthodox, unlike the modern orthodox, have never favored settlements and have never opposed territorial compromise on religious grounds."

Zionism, after all, was initially a secular, socialist movement founded by the journalist Theodor Herzl; it explicitly rejected the passivity of religious Judaism. Orthodox Jews believed that exile was a punishment from God for their insufficient faith and that only God could end the exile and bring the Jews back to the Holy Land. According to this theology, to try to force the end of exile is both futile and sinful. Zionism traded the metaphysical for the material, attributing Jewish oppression to a lack of political and military power and claiming that the Jews could save themselves.

At the core of Orthodox anti-Zionism is an acceptance of suffering. Weiss explains: "Jewish people have gone through tremendous suffering through the years in exile, and there have been times when people have asked the rabbis, 'Do we have a right to try to leave exile? Do we have a right to form our own countries and take up arms against the nations?' This has been questioned through the generations, and the rabbinical authorities always came back to stating that the exile is from God and there is no way to fight the hand of God." He compares Jewish travails to "bitter medicine" meant to show the Jews where they've transgressed.

This once common view withered after the Holocaust, which created a psychic break in religious Judaism. Only the most single-minded could cleave tightly enough to the old doctrine to accept the slaughter of 6 million as God's chastisement. In the wake of World War II, "just sort of continuing on with the old theology is pretty hard to do," says Biale.

That's not to say that Zionism won religious legitimacy overnight or that that legitimacy is universal. Officially, Hassidic theology hasn't changed. Although members of Neturei Karta admit they're a minority in Monsey, most other residents are anti-Zionist to lesser degrees. Last July, when Netanyahu was invited to Monsey to speak, rabbis from 12 local synagogues and rabbinical schools signed a letter saying, "We were astonished to learn that one of the leaders of the Zionist State of Israel was invited to attend a party in our community, and gave a speech there. This entity, which our rabbis have taught us is in opposition to our Torah, and which uproots our religion under the banner of nationalism, is the source of mischief, and is the root cause of all types of suffering experienced by our brethren in the Holy Land, exactly as predicted by our ancient prophets and by our rabbis."

Despite doctrinal anti-Zionism, though, most individual ultra-Orthodox Jews have reached an accommodation with the Jewish state. Even the Satmars, under the leadership of Joel Teitelbaum's nephew Moshe Teitelbaum, have become far less belligerent toward Israel. "The bulk of the ultra-Orthodox community never accepted Zionism in an intellectual sense and still consider themselves non-Zionist," says Goldberg. "But within the ultra-Orthodox community, an overwhelming majority have come to accept Israel as a practical matter." He says they've even come to love it.

Indeed, a kind of cognitive dissonance prevails, with many orthodox Jews deeply attached to Israel even as their rabbis continue to oppose it spiritually. "At the emotional level, the ultra-Orthodox community has been Zionized, even if their leadership hasn't caught up," says Goldberg.

This has left Neturei Karta increasingly marginalized. "They've become a very minor force," Goldberg says. Still, he adds, "they've got some support at the rabbinical level because in a sense they do express a pure ideology of Satmar Hassidism."

Isolation has only increased Neturei Karta's desperate sense of itself as the embattled defender of uncorrupted Judaism. Says Sofer: "A time will come when evil plots will fall apart, and it should be written in history that within this chaos, there were Jews loyal to their faith and to their tradition, and loyal to humanity and justice, and they spoke openly against the mainstream, even though they were labeled self-hating Jews and accused of collaborating with terrorists. We are collaborating with faith, justice and humanity."

Cut off from mainstream Judaism, Neturei Karta has found an ally in the pro-Palestinian movement. The rabbis have had a relationship with the Palestinians for decades -- a member of Neturei Karta, Rabbi Moshe Hirsh, even serves as the official Jewish representative in the Palestinian Authority. In the past few years, as Palestinians and their supporters have become increasingly vocal in the West, Neturei Karta's profile has risen.

"Until now, the Palestinians didn't make any demonstrations," says Weiss. "We would make demonstrations that didn't get covered. When we go together with Palestinians, that may be why it gets covered a lot more. Lately Muslims are getting together more and growing in their power. When they started demonstrating, we went with them."

Initially, the association was one of convenience, based on a mutual antipathy for Israel. As they've grown closer to the Palestinians, though, the rabbis also have developed an intense sympathy for the suffering in the West Bank and Gaza. "Three or four generations already are growing up in this squalor," says Weiss. "If you're going to subjugate a people, sit on top of them for over 50 years, it's just a powder keg waiting to explode."

A human rights critique has thus blended with Neturei Karta's theological opposition to Israel. "It's against God to be non-compassionate," Weiss says. "It says in the Torah you have to emulate God. Just like he's compassionate, you must be compassionate. All the actions that the Zionists are doing, the oppression of the people, all in the name of Judaism, it's false."

Not surprisingly, the Palestinians are happy to support this version of Judaism. After all, the rabbis endorse the most radical of Palestinian demands while seeming to neutralize charges of anti-Semitism. Neturei Karta Rabbi Ahron Cohen was invited to Birmingham University on Feb. 26 by the school's Palestinian Society. He told the crowd of 120, "According to the Torah and Jewish faith, the present Palestinian Arab claim to rule in Palestine is right and just. The Zionist claim is wrong and criminal. Our attitude to Israel is that the whole concept is flawed and illegitimate  The Zionist state known as 'Israel' is a regime that has no right to exist. Its continuing existence is the underlying cause of the strife in Palestine."

Such attitudes, articulated by non-Jews, are often considered anti-Semitic. The Jews of Neturei Karta provide Israel's most vociferous critics with an easy rebuke to those who would challenge their obsessive and singular focus on Israeli human rights abuses. An article in Counterpunch uses Neturei Karta to slam those who accuse the Workers World Party and its front group, ANSWER, of anti-Semitism, saying, "Ask NK [Neturei Karta] if the WWP [Workers World Party] is anti-Semitic and they'll laugh in your face."

To many mainstream Jews, the embrace of these rabbis by Arabs and the anti-Zionist left is meaningless as an expression of tolerance. "People love to find Jews who agree with them, especially Jews who look like legitimate representatives of the Jewish people," says Goldberg. "But the idea that you invite [Neturei Karta] in and therefore you've somehow made an alliance with an element of Judaism  they don't represent much of anything. They don't even represent the Satmars anymore."

Yet Neturei Karta, buoyed by the antiwar movement, remains convinced that it can show the world that peace is possible between Jews and Arabs. Sofer says that at protests the rabbis have attended, Arabs have chanted, "Judaism yes, Zionism no."

"It's a direct outcome of our participation," he says proudly. "Our message is getting stronger and stronger."

By Michelle Goldberg

Michelle Goldberg is a frequent contributor to Salon and the author of "Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism" (WW Norton).

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