Neturei Karta - The unorthodox Hasidim

September 27, 2002

The Unorthodox Hasidim

For Chaim Tzvi Freimann, Saturday, April 20, 2002, began like most Sabbath mornings do for fervently Orthodox Jews. A visitor that weekend to Washington, D.C., Freimann got up in his hotel room in the morning, put on his Sabbath clothes, and left for a nearby prayer service that his friends had organized.

Then he and his Hasidic buddies headed downtown to join the largest pro-Palestinian rally in U.S. history.

When viewers turned on their television sets later that day, a seemingly incongruous picture appeared on their screens: A group of what appeared to be Hasidic Jews standing alongside the podium, loudly and publicly denouncing the Jewish state to the cheers of demonstrators waving Palestinian flags and carrying placards comparing Israel's Defense Forces to Hitler's Nazi legions.

"I felt very good about the rally," Freimann said recently. "It helped people become aware of what Zionist heresy involves."

Freimann is an adherent of Neturei Karta, a small anti-Zionist Orthodox Jewish movement whose supporters steadfastly oppose the existence of the State of Israel. The group's advocates stage demonstrations against the Jewish state, publicly burn Israeli flags, team up with anti-Israel organizations, and serve as representatives in Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Authority government.

Though the movement remains very small, its devotees' high-profile appearances at rallies like the one in Washington are a source of great anger for Jews across the religious and political spectrum, and an irritant for Zionist-oriented fervently Orthodox Jews who feel misrepresented by the anti-Zionist activists. They are also downright puzzling to those accustomed to associating Jews uniformly with pro-Israel causes.

"Jews across the spectrum have always found these people to be kind of repulsive and mystifying," said Prof. Allen Nadler, professor of religious studies at Drew University and chairman of the school's Jewish studies program. "Now I'd say the repulsion is even more aggravated. That demonstration in Washington was an all-time low for Neturei Karta. Even I was stunned. They came in their shtreimels and their bekishes and their tallisim"-the hats, long coats and prayer shawls that are hallmarks of Hasidic garb.

Neturei Karta represents a particular ideology; it is not a formal organization or Hasidic sect in the traditional sense. The group does not have a membership base or principal leader in the figure of a president or grand rebbe, and precise numbers of those who identify themselves as Neturei Karta are extremely hard to come by. Instead, the group has a nucleus of activists that publicly associate with and advocate on behalf of Neturei Karta ideology, and a much broader base of silent supporters who condone the group's views, if not their activities.

The movement's supporters believe that the Jewish exile-begun when the Second Temple was destroyed some 2,000 years ago-exists by Divine decree and can be reversed only through Divine intervention. Any human efforts to end the Jewish exile are attempts to subvert God's will, and the movement's adherents interpret them as acts of religious heresy. Zionism, therefore, is a supreme sin.

"Zionism has transformed Judaism completely away from faith and belief to be totally secular and materialistic, as a nation among other nations," said Chaim Sofer, a Neturei Karta spokesman from Monsey, New York. "Judaism is not a nationalist movement that came into existence through human means. One of the basic tenets of Judaism is the Jewish exile. What Neturei Karta is all about is to keep up the true authentic and genuine picture of what Judaism is."

That picture of Judaism is one many Jews find repugnant.

After Freimann's appearance at the Arab rally in Washington, he was ostracized by his local Jewish community in Manhattan's Washington Heights neighborhood. "There was a tremendous backlash," he said. "I lost my summer job, and I personally was thrown out of shuls and a mikvah in Washington Heights."

The local synagogue posted Freimann's photograph with an admonition to congregants not to associate with him, and Freimann said he was declared by community leaders to be a mosser-a traitor to the Jewish people.

Hostile reaction from fellow Jews is regular fare for adherents of Neturei Karta ideology, which is why sympathizers tend to express their support for the cause quietly. It's also why the more perfervid Neturei Karta figures in America tend to live clustered together in one or two particular communities, where they can rely on each other for support and where they feel the local Jewish community isn't wholly unsympathetic to their activities. In the United States, those places are Monsey and Williamsburg, Brooklyn.

A Munkatcher hasid from Brooklyn, Mark Grunfeld, said that Neturei Karta adherents generally are hard to spot in his neighborhood-they dress in the same traditional garb as do most haredim-but when they stage public demonstrations, people take notice.

"I saw them doing small protests on 13th Avenue, in Boro Park, and people throwing eggs at them and they keep on talking with the eggs running down their nose," Grunfeld said. "What they are doing is against what everybody wants. It's a desecration of God's name. They're making us haredim look like fools."

In the political context, the appellation Neturei Karta-Aramaic for "guardians of the city"-first appeared in 1938, when a group of haredi anti-Zionists who refused to pay a defense tax levied to protect the Jewish residents of pre-state Palestine from Arab attacks signed a condemnatory petition under that name.

"What they argued was, that had the Zionists not striven to become 'like all the nations,' the Arabs would not have mounted attacks on Jews in Palestine, just as the Germans would not have become radical anti-Semites," said Prof. Menachem Friedman, a sociologist at Bar-Ilan University and one of the world's foremost experts on haredi life.

The petition's signers came from the fervently Orthodox World Agudat Israel movement, which in principle opposed the establishment of a Jewish state ruled by anything other than Jewish law. But as Arab attacks against Jews in pre-state Palestine grew in frequency and intensity, Agudat Israel toned down its criticism of the Zionist enterprise-which, after all, had afforded Jews safe refuge from the killing in Europe and from Arab violence in Palestine-and the extreme anti-Zionists among the fervently Orthodox group found themselves marginalized.

While most of Agudat Israel's adherents continued in principle to oppose the establishment of the State of Israel, even after its founding, only a small fraction went so far as to actively advocate an alliance with the Arabs against the Zionists. This small group, which eventually split off from Agudat Israel, became known as Neturei Karta.

Today, Neturei Karta remains on the sidelines of the ultra-Orthodox Jewish debate on Zionism. Of all the haredi factions, Zionist and non-Zionist, there is only one of note that is anti-Zionist: Satmar. Yet even Satmar, like Agudat Israel half a century ago, has toned down its anti-Zionist rhetoric and activities over the last several years, particularly since the outbreak of the second intifada two years ago.

"There was a time when Neturei Karta was a child of the Satmar community," said Rabbi Hertz Frankel, a Satmar community leader and spokesman in Brooklyn. "Philosophically-ideologically-there may not be a difference between Satmar and Neturei Karta. But in terms of activity there certainly is a difference. Satmar would not go to demonstrate with the Arabs."

Frankel said Neturei Karta members are not considered part of the general haredi community. "They are crazy," he said of the group's activists, who join with pro-Palestinian groups against the Jewish state. "They're totally nuts. And no respectful leader within the Satmar community-nobody, without exception-would ever approve of their activities."

After the appearance of Neturei Karta activists at the pro-Palestinian demonstration in April in Washington, editorialists at the Yiddish-language Der Blatt, the American Satmar community's most widely read newspaper, felt compelled to publish a column disavowing any connection between Satmar and those who appeared at the Arab rally. "Recent events affecting the entire world Jewish community and the response of one small particular group of individuals, has necessitated our writing this editorial in English," read the editorial in the newspaper's April 26 number. "The Satmar Rebbe [the late Joel Teitelbaum] fearfully predicted that the Zionists will bring a catastrophe upon the entire Jewish Disapora, and they will eventually fail in their enterprise. At the same time, our Rebbe was adamant in not joining any sort of alliance with those who terrorize and murder."

Prof. Nadler said that while Neturei Karta enjoys the ideological support of many within the Satmar community, most Satmar hasidim find Neturei Karta's tactics abhorrent. And with the outbreak of renewed Palestinian Arab violence against Jews in Israel, the gap between Zionists and non-Zionist haredim has narrowed.

"The haredi world has changed a lot when it comes to Israel, even in the last 10 years," Nadler said. "Without embracing the ideology of Zionism, they've actually become quite hawkish on the politics of Israel. They're staunchly pro-right wing Israel-somewhere to the right of Bibi Netanyahu on politics-but they're not Zionists. It's very baffling. There is a dissonance on what they believe in theory and what they practice."

For their part, Neturei Karta adherents sound many of the same arguments that Israel's most vociferous opponents regularly propound. They blame Arab violence against Israel on the Jews, and they say that Jewish behavior is the cause of worldwide anti-Semitism.

"You need to condemn those who brought the chaos around," said Sofer. "We feel that instead of shooting and bombing and attacking and defending, we need to go into the mind and soul of those people who wait on line to commit suicide attacks. They are so humiliated and oppressed and occupied, that it is the only thing they can achieve."

As far as Neturei Karta's position on groups like Hamas and Islamic Jihad, Yisroel Dovid Weiss, a Neturei Karta spokesman, said, "We're not out to give them mussar"-to preach to such groups. "With the pressure they're under, who would expect them to listen to us anyway? I'm not going to go out there and tell them how to go about their struggle. We don't get involved in their politics at all. We plead with them that we are not their enemies and they should not have animosity on the Jewish people."

Moshe Hirsch, Minister of Jewish Affairs in the Palestinian Authority and dean of Torah Veyirah yeshiva in Jerusalem, was somewhat more circumspect. "Arafat is against all these groups who are hurting his position or his aims," he maintained. "This violence does not help anybody. Once the Palestinians receive their independence, there will not be any reason for friction."

When asked about the legitimacy of such measures as Arafat's attempted smuggling of terrorist-bound arms shipments from Iran, Hirsch said simply: "All's fair in love and war."

On Palestinian terrorism against Israel, Sofer said, "It's not an issue of who is doing now right or wrong. The issue is the conflict. Who is the right and who is the wrong in the conflict? The right is on the Palestinian side, not on the Jewish side and the Zionist side."

Neturei Karta adherents believe that if the Jews in Israel dismantled the state and instead lived under Arab rule, Jews in the Middle East would be safer and Jews around the world would suffer less anti-Semitism.

The movement's devotees seem to have a sanguine yet rather improbable view of the form Jewish-Arab relations would take in a Middle East without Israel to fend for the Jews. They reason that the region's Arabs hate Israel because Jewish immigrants to the region over the last 100 years have sought to disenfranchise and subjugate the local Arab population. Therefore, if the Jews cede control to the local Arab population, Arab antagonism toward the Jews will subside.

"The state should belong to the indigenous population that lives there, the Palestinians," said Weiss. "Of course, it has to be done through the U.N. and the U.S., and it should be given back to them with a very clear apology from the Jewish people to the Palestinian people-with compensation, etc."

When asked about the likelihood of Arab violence against former Israelis in such a scenario, Weiss demurred. "You may tell me there will be retribution, that they will wipe out the Jewish people, but I think that is propaganda," he said. "We would get the head of the army units out of the country. The general Jewish populace I believe most probably would be allowed to live there."

Hirsch, who lives in Israel, said he envisions a non-sectarian Palestinian state of all its citizens.

Few though they are, Neturei Karta members have been building bridges to many Arab and Muslim groups. Hirsch is a minister in Arafat's government, Weiss appeared recently on Al Jazeera satellite television, and Sofer and others are in contact with myriad American Arab associations. But while Neturei Karta associates with Arab groups, including some the Israeli government has labeled terrorist organizations, the movement considers fraternizing with leftist Israelis or secular Jewish groups anathema.

"We are going together with Arabs to let them know that we are anti-Zionist, but to be together with Jews-we can be affected by them," explained Weiss. "We do not have any ties with Israeli leftist groups because we are very strictly commanded not to do things when they're with non-religious groups, even if it is for a just cause."

For all their bark, Neturei Karta adherents have limited bite. There are not that many of them, and they don't have much money.

"Neturei Karta is today a group that is relatively small and isolated," said Friedman, the Bar-Ilan sociologist. "Today they have very little influence, particularly because of their pro-Palestinian tendencies. But it upsets people, which is why they know that Neturei Karta exists."

Neturei Karta claims that its anti-nationalist ideology enjoys far more support among Orthodox Jews than may appear. "The ideology of Neturei Karta is not only for Neturei Karta," said Sofer, speaking in Yiddish-inflected English. "Neturei Karta are the people who are active. It is a name representing people with an anti-Zionist ideology."

If it seems that nearly every public adherent of Neturei Karta ideology describes himself as a spokesman for the group, that's because to be Neturei Karta is to be a public advocate for the cause. Since many of those who espouse Neturei Karta ideology do not speak fluent English-Yiddish is their native tongue-their number may appear to be deceptively small.

Freimann said that the same 40 or 50 people usually show up to the group's public events. In North America, there is a nucleus of about 10 activists in "a leadership role" in Monsey, and there are another few activists in Williamsburg and in Montreal, Quebec, according to Freimann.

"There is a nucleus of activists, then there are sympathizers, then there are passive supporters," Freimann said. "The Neturei Karta sentiment is held by a large number of religious Jews, just that they're not ready to jeopardize their livelihood and their status in the community by taking on a role where they come under public scrutiny."

"Active members there are not so much, because it is very difficult to be an active member," said Sofer. "They will throw you out of your school, your grocery store. They believe we are doing something bad for the Jews. It takes real mesirus nefesh"-soulful dedication-"to be Neturei Karta."

Consistently Inconsistent

As a Jewish anti-Zionist movement, Neturei Karta does not win very many ideological friends in the Jewish community. But the movement's devotees don't seem to mind too much, since in any case they can't abide most of the Jewish world's prevailing viewpoints on politics, history, or Jewish philosophy.

Perhaps more than anything else, Neturei Karta adherents find the modern Jewish approach of self-reliance and resistance to authoritarian oppression-embodied in Zionism-objectionable. God sentenced the Jews to exile, they argue, so Jewish resistance of that exile, even when it is tyrannically oppressive, is nothing less than an affront to God. Moreover, they say, it is the cause of worldwide anti-Semitism.

That's why they blame the Holocaust on the Jews.

"If the Jewish people would have gone to Hitler and fell to his feet and promised him loyalty, we could have in a huge amount reduced the hatred and the bloodshed that was the outcome of this war," said Chaim Sofer, a Neturei Karta spokesman. "The Holocaust was a Divine punishment for a rebellion against God."

Neturei Karta's Moshe Hirsch, Minister of Jewish Affairs in the Palestinian Authority, was more explicit. "The Holocaust was the result of Zionism," he said. "The Holocaust was God's punishment for the Jewish settlement of Palestine."

Aside from the aversion they may inspire in other Jews for expressing such viewpoints, Neturei Karta adherents run into philosophical problems of their own making by following such lines of reasoning.

For example, they argue that regardless of whether or not Europe's Jews could have avoided the Holocaust by kowtowing to Hitler, once the genocide campaign began, it was the Jews' religious duty to go like lambs to the slaughter. "I'm not only saying it was right, it's called a kiddush Hashem"-a sanctification of God's name," explained Sofer. "That's part of the cleansing system. We put ourselves like a child in its mother's hands. It was totally in God's hands."

Because the Nazis were executing the systematic mass murder of the Jewish people in Europe, it must have been Divinely decreed and therefore should not have been resisted at all. This circular line of reasoning-problematic in its own right-raises other philosophical quandaries for its believers.

If resistance to the Nazi killing was tantamount to challenging God, why can a Jew resist a potential murderer on a New York City street-isn't that, too, a challenge of Divine decree? Furthermore, why are Jews permitted to seek medical treatment for potentially deadly illnesses, like cancer? Is that not also a rebellion against God' will?

In answering such questions, Neturei Karta adherents must grapple both with common sense and with explicit Biblical commandments that require Jews to preserve life.

Sofer tries to draw a distinction between the attempted murder of individual Jews, which he said is permissible to resist, and attempted genocide or violence against the Jewish people, which he insisted is Divinely decreed. So where does one draw the line between individual and collective dying? At three Jews? Four Jews? Ten Jews?

"To draw a thin line is sometimes difficult and you need to have an experienced rabbi to know exactly where to draw the thin line," Sofer said, not elaborating on how one should go about consulting a rabbi if happened upon suddenly by a killing squad or terrorist gang.

Neturei Karta's anti-nationalist ideology doesn't always square with what its members actually do, either. Hirsch, who is one of the movement's most outspoken advocates in Israel, is an American who moved to Israel. Yet Hirsch condemns those who leave the Jewish diaspora-exile-for Israel.

"We're in exile until God decides to terminate the exile," he said. "The people who move to Israel are challenging God."

But what about you?

"Me, personally, that's because of my personal preference," he said. Explaining that he felt he could raise his children as better Jews in Israel than in his native New York, Hirsch said, "I set up in Israel in order so that my children should have an environment that is more Yiddish. They"-other Jews-"are all here to strengthen the Zionist idol."

Yisroel Dovid Weiss, a Neturei Karta spokesman, acknowledged that Hirsch's immigration to the Jewish state flies in the face of his own ideology. "It's a good question," he said of the seeming contradiction between Hirsch's beliefs and practices. "Maybe it's not so possible to be there in Israel."

The anti-nationalist movement also argues that Jews should be loyal citizens of their host countries, even in the case of Nazi Germany.

"I am always clear to say that a Jewish person has to be a loyal citizen. That is a commandment of God," said Weiss. "I am a loyal American citizen. We are not going to criticize the U.S. We do like to clarify to the president of the United States that supporting Israel is not in the Jewish interests because it causes anti-Semitism throughout the world."

When it comes to loyalty to the Israeli government by Israeli citizens, however, Weiss said, "Definitely no. Emphatically no. We hold that the Israeli government is against God."

Perhaps as an expression of this ideology-or maybe just to save some money-Hirsch, who lives in Israel, hinted that he avoids paying taxes to the Jewish state. Pushed for an unequivocal affirmation of his position on taxes, he offered, "I would say, if we can get away with it, why pay taxes?"

Prof. Allen Nadler, professor of religious studies at Drew University, said the philosophical inconsistencies in Neturei Karta's ideology are baffling, but not entirely surprising. "Consistency is not a virtue in the religious world," he said.