On a freezing Saturday afternoon in New York City, a delegation of about 25 ultra-Orthodox – also known as Haredi – Jews walked 10 miles to Bayridge in Brooklyn to participate in a solidarity rally for Palestinian prisoners. The rally was organized by Al-Awda New York, a few other organizations, and the ultra-Orthodox delegation itself (including children as young as nine or ten), which made up about one-third of the rally’s participants.
Established in the mid-1930s, Neturei Karta, which is Aramaic for Guardians of the City, has been at the forefront of the struggle against Zionism and the Zionist occupation of Palestine. The name Neturei Karta originates from a story about two well-known rabbis who went to tour a city. They had asked to see the “guardians of the city,” and the city guard was paraded before them.
However, the rabbis said that these were not the guardians of the city but its destroyers. Who, then, could be considered the guardians? the citizens asked. The rabbis answered, “The scribes and the scholars.” Orthodox Judaism looks with disdain at anything remotely related to weapons and violence and places learning and scholarship of the Torah above all else.
Historically, Neturei Karta have been allies to Palestinians and always had strong ties with the Palestinian leadership both in Palestine and in the diaspora. The rabbis of Neturei Karta have made it clear that, in their eyes, only Palestinians have a right to sovereignty in the Holy Land.
One such rabbi was the late Amram Blau. He was a fierce anti-Zionist and was just as fiercely hated by Zionists. He was asked once in an interview what he would do in Palestine had he been in charge. “First of all,” he replied, “I would ask the Arabs to return.” The interviewer, a young Haredi man, asked, “But if they return, won’t they kill all the Jews?” Rabbi Amram expressed disdain for this absurd comment. “Until the Zionists came with their intentions to conquer and occupy, we – Jews and Arabs – lived together without any fear,” the rabbi replied.
“They hate women!”
Many secular Jews, particularly Zionists, look with disdain and even hatred at ultra-Orthodox Jews. One supposedly very intelligent Jewish activist once said to me, “They hate women!” Surprisingly, it is not uncommon to hear progressive Jews say that about the Haredi Jewish community. One would think that intelligent people would know that there is no such thing as “they” and that generalizations like that are never acceptable.
These sentiments go back to the early days of Zionism. The very founders of this racist ideology used such vile and racist epithets to describe Jews that one can hardly repeat them. Zionists believed Jews should be muscular and handsome, while the “common” orthodox Jews were pale and ugly.
An example of this hatred of Jews can be seen in the writings of Vladimir Jabotinsky, the father of right-wing Zionism and today’s Israeli Likud Party. Jabotinsky wrote that “[t]he Jews are very nasty people and their neighbors hate them, and they are right.” It was yet another Zionist spiritual leader, Uri Zvi Greenberg, who wrote: “Those loathsome Jews are vomited by any healthy collective and state not because they are Jews but because of their Jewish repulsiveness.”
One can understand why Zionists would hate a Jewish community that has been decidedly anti-Zionist from the very beginning. However, sadly, even in some anti-Zionist secular Jewish circles, it seems that these sentiments towards ultra-Orthodox Jews live on.
Why do they care?
Not all ultra-Orthodox communities are Neturei Karta, but Neturei Karta people can be found in many ultra-Orthodox communities. Be it in Jerusalem, London or New York, one can find them burning the Israeli flag, rejecting the Israeli military draft, and marching in solidarity with Palestinians whenever solidarity is called for. Furthermore, even though, by and large, Haredi Judaism is synonymous with the rejection of Zionism, not all ultra-Orthodox Jews feel that Palestine is an issue they need to care about.
Rabbi Yaakov Shapiro, whose 1500-page book “The Empty Wagon” is the most complete work on Zionism versus Judaism, argues that Jews have no connection to Israel and therefore have no reason to be involved with Palestine. Still, he states quite clearly in his book that Zionism contributed to the rise of antisemitism, particularly during the first half of the twentieth century.
However, many in the Haredi community do care. “That such horrendous crimes will take place, such brutality against innocent people will be perpetrated in our name, and we remain silent?” That is the response I received from a renowned Neturei Karta rabbi in London. The wife of a rabbi in Brooklyn looked at me with piercing eyes and demanded an answer: “Why do these Zionists think they can murder Palestinians like this? Who do they think they are?”
During an interview, Rabbi Elhonon Beck was once asked, “Does the State of Israel break any of the Ten Commandments?” He replied, “The Sixth, don’t kill; the Eighth, don’t steal.” Rabbi Beck and many other Neturei Karta and other anti-Zionist Haredi Jews are often compared to violent, extremist fundamentalists. However, they never have, and never will, carry arms. A relatively new phenomenon has emerged in recent decades of Haredi-looking Jews who are Zionist. They must not be confused or seen as representing Haredi Judaism.
“They tell me Jews are safe in Israel, more than I am safe here,” Rabbi Beck once told me. “I’ve lived in London for 35 years; I have never seen an English soldier. My children have never seen a gun.” Yet, Israeli children see soldiers, learn to admire the army, and are exposed to guns and heavy weaponry from a very young age. “We have Arab and Muslim neighbors and we send our children to school in cabs driven by Arabs and Muslims. We never think about it and we have never had any problems with our Arab and Muslim Neighbors,” Rabbi Beck continued.
On the other hand, Israelis live in constant fear. For example, it would be unthinkable for Israeli parents to send an Israeli child in a car driven by an Arab. Having stolen the land, displaced its people, and killed so many, it is obvious why Israelis feel they have to fear for their lives. But as Rabbi Amram said, until the Zionists came, “we lived together without any fear.”
Feature photo | Members of the Jewish anti-Zionist Neturei Karta group demonstrate against the Israeli General Elections outside a polling station in Jerusalem. Sebastian Scheiner | AP