Issue 2 - Spring 2006 - The Fight Issue
WE DO NOT BELIEVE. WE WILL NOT FOLLOW
They support the nuclearization of Iran, they march alongside Hamas, and they believe Zionism is what sparked the Holocaust. Members of the ultra-Orthodox sect Neturai Karta have long been in conflict with other Jews, but now they are also at war with eac
BY MICHA ODENHEIMER
The Jerusalem neighborhood of Meah Shearim, since the Holocaust the undisputed center of ultra-Orthodox Jewish life, is a bulwark against modernity’s seductions. The Internet and television are forbidden here. There are no flashing neon lights or billboards, and brand names don’t adorn the gray exteriors of the cluttered stores selling holy books, the single drab restaurant offering kugel and cholent, or the old-fashioned tailor’s and shoemaker’s shops. With its women chatting in Yiddish as they hang laundry out to dry in the inner stone courtyards, Meah Shearim may seem like a tranquil pool of still water that has somehow escaped the onrushing river of time.
Yet a glance at the one form of mass communication permissible in Meah Shearim — posters printed in stark Hebrew letters, like silent screams on the walls that rise above the narrow streets — reveals a different story. The posters’ headlines speak of imminent disaster. “The Brink of the Abyss” shouts one; “Driven Mad by What Our Eyes Have Seen” shrieks another; “Gird Yourself with Swords for All-Out Battle!”; “They Seek to Uproot Everything”; “A Decree That Will Destroy Judaism.” The message is delivered in a hundred different ways: that there is an ongoing war waged by ruthless enemies who wish to defile and destroy the last remnants of faithful and authentic Jewish life.
The reason for the conflict becomes clearer when you enter Meah Shearim Market, the heart of the neighborhood, reached via an arched stone gate leading to a promenade that is closed to traffic. Graffiti scrawled on these walls (“Palestinian Territory — Zionists Forbidden”) defiantly declares the market enclave’s autonomy from the rule of the state of Israel. This is where the ultra-Orthodox Jewish group Neturai Karta (Aramaic for “Guardians of the City”) makes its home.
Neturai Karta has a reputation that far surpasses the size of its population. The core Karta community has never numbered more than a few hundred members, but it has long provided the spiritual shock troops in defense of the radical Orthodox world. In Israel and beyond, Karta’s members are willing to risk injury and imprisonment to fight what they see as the evil hegemony of the Zionist movement and the state of Israel. The group, which also has factions in Europe and the United States, views any cooperation with Zionism as a betrayal of the core values of Judaism. This belief has partial foundations in a Talmudic passage that suggests that God made the Jewish people swear they would not try to end their long exile prematurely by rebelling against the nations of the world and endeavoring to conquer the land of Israel by force.
As an idea, ultra-Orthodoxy can be traced to the nineteenth-century attempts of the rabbinic leadership of Central and Eastern Europe to construct a cultural fire wall that would keep out the heretical notions and permissive behaviors of an increasingly secular world. In the twentieth century, as mass movements such as Zionism and Socialism gained major currency in a Jewish diaspora seeking solutions to poverty and oppression, the ultra-Orthodox leadership organized politically as well. It was in this era — 1937 to be precise — that Neturai Karta was founded by rabbis Amram Blau and Aharon Katzenelbogen.
There are other ultra-Orthodox groups that do not support the creation of the state of Israel, but Neturai Karta is by far the most radical. The main ultra-Orthodox anti-Zionist group, Edah Haharedit (loosely translatable as “the community that fears Him”), is run by a communal organization and rabbinic judicial system. Political activism is left to Neturai Karta, whose members are not Hasidic (they are instead descendants of the students of the Vilna Gaon, the arch Lithuanian anti-Hasid) although many of their allies in Edah Haharedit are Hasids. In the 1950s, chapters of Neturai Karta were created by ultra-Orthodox Holocaust survivors in the United States, France, and England, where they still flourish. Meah Shearim, however, remains the center of the group’s activities, as well as the home of its institutions: an elementary school, a high school, a yeshiva, and a synagogue, called, collectively, Torah v’Yirah (Torah and Fear of God).
For those in the know, every corner of Meah Shearim is imbued with the memory of battle against the forces of secular Zionism. In 1924, Jacob Dehan, the ultra-Orthodox community’s chief spokesman, was assassinated outside a synagogue by the Haganah, the Zionist movement’s military wing. Dehan had met with Arab and Western leaders in pursuit of an independent ultra-Orthodox foreign policy, an activity believed by some to endanger the Zionist enterprise. In 1947, a Neturai Karta demonstration in favor of prolonging the British Mandate was broken up by rifle shots fired by the Haganah. During the War of Independence, yeshiva students took refuge from the draft in a Meah Shearim synagogue while Neturai Karta activists linked around them to protect them from the police.
After the state of Israel was founded, Neturai Karta (aided by much of the ultra-Orthodox community) battled police for decades, ultimately successfully, to prevent traffic from moving through its streets on the Sabbath. In the 1950s, during one of these demonstrations, Neturai Karta co-founder Blau suffered a blow to his testicles that rendered him sterile. Violence against ultra-Orthodox demonstrators continues into the present: last fall, footage was all over Israeli television of private security guards, hired by the Trans Israel Highway Company, beating and shocking with electric prods the Neturai Karta activists who were protesting the imminent overpavement of an ancient grave site. Neturai Karta itself does not embrace violence as a tactic. And while its ultimate goal is the dismantling of the Jewish state, it has no long-term strategic plan to achieve it, concentrating rather on keeping alive what it calls “authentic Judaism,” spreading the word among non-Jews that there is a difference between Jews and Zionists, and pressuring other ultra-Orthodox Jews to refrain from further compromises with both modernity and the state of Israel, including taking funds from its government.
Hirsch, now in his seventies, wears a glass eye, blue like his good one. About ten years ago, he was attacked just after leaving the sunrise quorum where he prays daily. Eyewitnesses claim the still-unknown assailant, who splashed acid on Hirsch’s face, was dressed in a manner common to settlers from the religious Zionist movement. The violence in no way intimidated Hirsch, who continued to publicly show his support for Arafat, notwithstanding the irate Israelis who regularly spat on him when he ventured outside Meah Shearim.
Hirsch is today reportedly suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. His eldest son, Rabbi Yisrael Meir Hirsch, in his early fifties, has taken over duties as one of Neturai Karta’s most central figures. Exuding serenity and boundless patience, with a disarming smile and wild, brown side-curls that spring from each side of his face at right angles, the younger Hirsch speaks openly and willingly. I interview him about a week before this past January’s Palestinian election, and there seems to be no question he is reluctant to answer. He takes credit for the idea of making contact with Arafat; he says the brainwave occurred in 1973, after a bus exploded in Geula, an ultra-Orthodox neighborhood bordering Meah Shearim.
“I told my father then that we needed to clarify that we were not part of the conflict between the Zionists and the Palestinians,” he says.
“But didn’t they send a suicide bomber to Meah Shearim a couple of years ago?” I ask.
“That was Hamas.” Hirsch Jr. answers. “I called up [then Hamas political leader Dr. Abdel Aziz] Rantisi after it happened. He said it was a terrible sin, a mistake. He said that he didn’t mean to do this to the Jews.”
“You have contacts in Hamas?” I ask.
“Yes,” he answers. “Although lately, there doesn’t seem to be anybody in charge.” Then, Hirsch Jr. pauses for a moment. “If I had been alive at the time, I would have gone to Hitler. He got enraged when the Zionist leaders called for a boycott of him. He banged on the table and said, ‘I’ll show those Jews!’ What if we had tried to appease him, instead?”
Weiss has traveled widely, spreading the anti-Zionist message. He’s been to, among other places, Iran, Yemen, and Venezuela. Recently, he was in Lebanon, where, dressed in full ultra-Orthodox garb and hosted by the Hezbollah, he toured a refugee camp and then lit memorial candles for the victims of the Sabra and Shatila massacre. Weiss is convinced that the current resurgence of international anti-Semitism is the result of the Zionist “rebellion against the nations of the world.” Faithful Jews, Weiss explained, must hold fast to an exilic Jewish ethos. Jews should accept exile as God’s punishment and humble themselves before the gentiles. A bumper sticker produced by the Israeli branch of Neturai Karta shows an ultra-Orthodox child carrying a Palestinian flag, with the caption “Surrender — the Jewish Way,” and, in smaller letters, “No Zionism — No Bloodshed,” a twist on the popular Israeli far-right slogan “No Arabs, No Terror Attacks.”
When it comes to other Jews, however, Neturai Karta’s policy is anything but submissive, and it is especially uncompromising when it comes to Zionism. Neturai Karta theology is based partly on the perception of Zionism as a satanic attempt to derail the Jews’ understanding of themselves as a unique people charged with a godly mission. This seems incomprehensible until one realizes that Zionism is viewed by Neturai Karta as the central idolatrous temptation facing Jews today, a heresy that has succeeded in secularizing Jews and flattening them into just another nation among nations. In Neturai Karta’s view, the Zionist idea of return to the land of Israel is a brilliant ruse, an abandonment of the divine covenant fueled by the exploitation of the sacred Jewish hope for redemption, an insidious force aiming for complete co-option of the Jewish people.
Neturai Karta’s struggles have often had a familial dimension. Karta was itself founded by Blau and Katzenelbogen as a split-off from Agudat Yisrael, the large, mainstream ultra-Orthodox organization led by Blau’s brother Moshe, who Blau and Katzenelbogen claimed had sold out to the Zionist movement. When it was founded in 1912, Agudat Yisrael was vehemently anti-Zionist, but in Palestine in the 1930s, as the strength of the Zionist movement and the growing dangers for Jews in Europe became equally evident, the group began relaxing its original tenets. Agudat Yisrael even began cooperating with the Zionist establishment in promoting Jewish immigration to the Holy Land. With the creation of their splinter group, Blau and Katzenelbogen found they held sway with a substantial minority of the ultra-Orthodox movement.
In 1961, a further split occurred after Blau, a widower, announced his intention to marry Ruth Ben David, a beautiful French convert to Judaism who had been an actress and a resistance fighter against the Nazis. Blau’s two grown sons opposed the match, as did the rabbinical judicial body of Edah Haharedit, which argued that such a marriage — to a foreigner who was also an actress — was inappropriate for a public figure. At the time of the debate, Hirsch Sr. said that Blau actually had to marry a convert because of the testicular injury he had incurred. There is, he said, a biblical commandment that forbids a man with permanent damage to his genitals to marry a daughter of Israel, but marriage to a convert is permissible. The real story, says Hirsch Jr. — although it seems almost too bizarre to be true — is that a prominent Edah Haharedit rabbinic figure with a similar injury had hoped to wed Ruth Ben David himself. Blau went ahead with the wedding and was excommunicated. The couple endured humiliations and even stonings, and were forced to take refuge in the city of Bnai Beraq for a year until tempers cooled. Blau’s sons never accepted the marriage and switched their allegiance from Neturai Karta to Edah Haharedit. Ruth Blau continued to act as her own independent wing of Neturai Karta even after her husband’s eventual death, cultivating a relationship with the Ayatollah Khomeini, among others.
From the time of the marriage, Edah Haharedit, while in many ways an ally to Neturai Karta, has also been a target of frequent attacks by the group. In recent years, these attacks have focused on Edah Haharedit’s remunerative kashruth business, which rakes in millions of dollars a year providing kosher stamps for Israeli food products, including those of Tnuva, the food cooperative owned by the Histadrut, the Zionist Labor Federation. For Neturai Karta, this is a sure sign that Edah Haharedit has been corrupted by the Zionist Moloch. Financial support from the state given to ultra-Orthodox institutions, along with the recent willingness of some ultra-Orthodox authorities to cooperate in creating a special shortened army service and job training for Orthodox men, are the incendiary issues sparking many of the strident posters adorning the walls of Meah Shearim today.
Concerns about cooperation with Zionists, says the younger Hirsch, is what led to this year’s rupture within Neturai Karta. Two years ago, he says, he discovered the community school’s administration, headed by Zelig Reuven Katzenelbogen, had asked parents for their children’s Israeli identity card numbers. The only possible reason for this request, Hirsch Jr. says, is that Torah v’Yirah, which runs the school, was plotting to receive government funds provided by the ministry of education for each Israeli child. Hirsch Jr. says his investigations revealed that the ID numbers were “lent” to another school, run by a sympathetic group of Hasidic Jews, which then funneled the money received back to Neturai Karta. Hirsch says that Israeli ministry of education officials will not confirm his allegations because they have received monetary kickbacks for their cooperation. He also says that his cousin has longed for some time to rid Neturai Karta of its extremist element, especially after the spate of suicide bombings in Israel, which has made Karta’s open support of Palestinians anathema to moderates within Neturai Karta, and to long-time Neturai Karta contributors in the United States.
Zelig Reuven Katzenelbogen denies receiving funds from the ministry of education. From his office in Torah v’Yirah’s three-story campus in the heart of the Meah Shearim Market — about fifty yards from the building that houses Neturai Karta’s brand new yeshiva — he tells me about the two hellish years that followed Hirsch’s accusation, surprising me, the same way his cousin did, with the ease with which he agrees to speak.
“You want the dirt?” Zelig Reuven Katzenelbogen asks. He goes on to describe combat ultra-Orthodox–style: extremists grabbing the synagogue podium on Sabbath eve so that their supporters can deliver the traditional Friday-night Torah homily and violently taking charge of services on the Sabbath day to honor members of their own faction. Half-irate and half-bemused, Zelig Reuven Katzenelbogen says the extremists once doused him with water thrown from a second-story window as he walked home from synagogue on the Sabbath. He upbraided them for violating the Sabbath prohibition against washing clothes; the next Sabbath, they soaked him with Coca-Cola. Hirsch’s faction has also scrawled graffiti inside the school building, vandalized the administrative office, and harassed Zelig Reuven Katzenelbogen with lawsuits.
The conflict has slashed through family lines: Zelig Reuven Katzenelbogen’s father, a notable leader of Neturai Karta who is confined to a wheelchair, supports his son, but the elder rabbi’s son-in-law sides with the extremists and openly humiliated his father-in-law in synagogue a year and a half ago, preventing him from receiving the “Bridegroom of the Torah” honor on Simchat Torah, a distinction that had been awarded him every year for the previous forty years. Another important Neturai Karta elder has remained with the moderates while his wife supports the radical faction.
Zelig Reuven Katzenelbogen says the split is based not on ideology but on hurt feelings and family dynamics, but moments after saying this, he hands me a book published last year by a Neturai Karta scholar named Daniel Biton. Biton attacks the extremists for their deep involvement in “the Internet and the international media,” secular media they use to advance their message, and more importantly, for their “partnership and connection to Arab, Muslim, and Palestinian politics which involves serious transgressions,” including tacit or open approval of the murder of Jews.
The counterclaim of the extremist camp is that their outreach efforts are aimed at saving Jewish lives. Weiss takes credit for keeping from death thirteen Iranian Jews accused of spying for Israel in Iran. “We passed a note to the judge saying that if he condemned these people to death, he would be playing into the hands of the Zionists,” who, said Weiss, wanted the Iranian Jews to flee to Israel.
Weiss, who at points sounds like a more innocent and less cranky version of Woody Allen, appeared last year on the television channel Al-Jazeera, in front of a prime-time Arab audience of millions. “The interviewer, the Arab Ted Koppel, asked me how [one can] tell the difference between a Zionist and a Jew,” says Weiss, defensively. “I could have told him. I could have said, for example, that if he is wearing a knit yarmulke, he is a Zionist. But I didn’t. I said it was impossible to tell the difference!” Weiss, who also spent four hours several years ago explaining to Louis Farrakhan that Judaism and Zionism are diametrically opposed, says that Farrakhan never maligned Judaism publicly again. Perhaps in return, chapters of Neturai Karta have staged protests in the U.S. against critics of Farrakhan.
Weiss is careful in his journeys never to embarrass America, which, as a gentile power, must be respected. Invited to speak at Tehran University in 2004, Weiss says he stopped short of stepping on a U.S. flag that was painted conspicuously on the sidewalk right in his pathway. “I didn’t know what to do. There were television cameras waiting to film me. ‘I can’t step on the American flag,’ I told them. Suddenly, I saw an Israeli flag painted alongside the American one. ‘This flag,’ I said, ‘I don’t have any problem stepping on.’” Still, Neturai Karta extremists have aligned themselves not with the “gentile” United States, but with America’s fiercest international opponents. “We say they are an autonomous state; why shouldn’t they be a nuclear power?” says Hirsch Jr. about Iran. “Why is it permissible for France and not for them?”
Within Israel, Neturai Karta’s message, long a marginal one even among the ultra-Orthodox, is suddenly gaining a new cachet in the most unexpected of circles — namely, the far-right religious, the same group that probably splashed Hirsch Sr.’s eye with acid. That group’s messianic agenda of settling all of the biblical land of Israel is now in conflict with the stated intentions of the government of Israel, which has declared that maintaining a Jewish majority is more important than retaining sacred land. Hirsch Jr. said he first became aware of the changing winds when he received an urgent phone call some three weeks before the Gaza disengagement from the leader of a prominent yeshiva in Gush Katif. “He asked if I could mediate for them with the Palestinian authority,” says Hirsch Jr. “They wanted to stay in Gaza, under Palestinian rule, and were willing to parade through Gush Katif with a Palestinian flag. I called the Palestinian Authority, but [the Palestinians] said it was too late in the game. If they had thought of the idea a few months earlier, it would have been possible.”
For a substantial portion of the religious right, the Gaza disengagement and the imminent threat of the further dismantling of settlements in the West Bank has been defining. For these people, Neturai Karta’s notion of the Jewish state as being in direct opposition to the Jewish religion has acquired a new resonance. Recently, at the Western Wall, several “hilltop youth,” the religious Zionist (and anarchistic) progeny of West Bank settlers, were seen wearing T-shirts printed with the words of Neturai Karta’s theme song. “After the disengagement from Gaza,” a spokesperson for one religious-right group told me, “we saw that it wasn’t the Arabs that are our enemy, but the state.”
It’s an increasingly widespread sentiment. During the past two decades, as the enthusiasm of the secular population for army duty has waned, the religious Zionist camp has pushed excellence in military service as both a religious and patriotic value. More religious youngsters than ever before have volunteered for elite special units, signed on for officers’ courses, and made the army a chosen career. Now, in the aftermath of the Gaza pullout, some members of the religious right are openly advocating draft resistance. One religious mother with a son about to enter an elite army unit told me of an irate phone call she received from her brother, a settler on the extreme right. “How can you think of turning him into a soldier who will serve the state that is tearing down the holy settlements?” he screamed into the phone. In February, as the Amona outpost in the Gush Etzion block of the West Bank was torn down after bloody confrontations between the army and Jewish protesters, some demonstrators burned Israeli flags.
“The state of Israel is the new bin Laden,” says Rabbi Dov Wolpe, a prominent Chabad Lubavitch rabbi who organized a rally in November in support of the displaced Gaza settlers titled “We Will Not Forgive and We Will Not Forget.” This is strong stuff for Lubavitch, a group that has for decades been perceived as the Hasidic faction most sympathetic to Zionism. Wolpe now echoes Neturai Karta in calling Zionism a false messiah. “Belief in the false messiah is preventing the real messiah from coming,” he says.
Wolpe wrote a book, Between Light and Darkness, which he says he began to compose while sitting on the ruins of one of the synagogues destroyed by the Israeli army before it handed the Gaza Strip to the Palestinians. The book’s cover is a photo of Israel’s parliament building shrouded in darkness, with an illustration of the Third Temple drenched in light, hovering above, ready to supplant it. The book purports to prove that the Lubavitcher Rebbe, usually labeled a Zionist, was actually sympathetic to Neturai Karta and the anti-Zionist Satmar. It has lately been selling like hotcakes among the far right.
The “We Will Not Forgive” rally organized by Wolpe was attended by 7,000 people. In its final hours, the Israeli pop star Ariel Zilber, whose politics have shifted gradually to the right over the past few years, took the stage. To the audience’s great surprise, he belted out a syncopated, trance-dance version of the Neturai Karta anthem: “In the government of the heretics, we do not believe, we do not believe,” he sang. “And their laws, we will not follow, no, we will not follow.” &