The unorthodox orthodox

They strictly follow the tenets of the Torah. They also burn Israeli flags. Alex Klaushofer meets the members of Neturei Karta in north London – the Jewish world’s most outspoken critics of Zionism
The Observer (England), July 21, 2002,11913,758997,00.htmlOff-site Link

It’s a sunny Saturday in May, and Trafalgar Square is rammed. Thousands of people have marched from Hyde Park Corner to show their support for the Palestinians. For months, the Palestinian population of the West Bank and Gaza have been living a shrunken existence, confined to their homes by ever-tightening blockades and curfews imposed by the Israeli army. Ten days earlier, a Palestinian suicide bomber killed 15 Israelis in a snooker club near Tel Aviv. But despite these signs that the Middle East conflict is worse than ever, the protestors are in festive mood, waving the demonstration’s official placards which call for an end to the Israeli occupation. The wall in front of the National Gallery blazes with the red, green and black of a giant Palestinian flag.

From the base of Nelson’s Column, one speaker after another rallies the crowd. There’s maverick MPs George Galloway and Jeremy Corbyn, the Palestinian delegate Afif Safieh and Palestinian QC Michel Massih and Iqbal Sacranie from the Muslim Council of Great Britain. They call on Sharon, Bush and Blair to support the Palestinian cause, and urge the protestors to boycott Israeli goods. Beside them on the platform sit four Orthodox Jews in long black coats, wide-brimmed hats and ringlets. They strike a surreal note.

The group is part of Neturei Karta, an anti-Zionist sect of the Orthodox Jewish community which is passionately opposed to the state of Israel and its government’s treatment of the Palestinian population. Since they are forbidden to use transport on the Sabbath, a few of its younger, fitter members have made the two-hour journey from Stamford Hill on foot in their Saturday dress of prayer shawls and fur-rimmed hats. Despite their prominent position in full view of the thousands below, they seem perfectly composed, holding a Palestinian flag and a placard bearing the slogan ‘End the occupation’. They don’t want to speak, so one of the organisers reads a statement on their behalf. It condemns, in no uncertain terms, the ‘atrocities committed by the Zionist regime’, lamenting ‘the plight of the Palestinian people’.

Coming out is a big step for the members of a self-sufficient, Yiddish-speaking and deeply religious community who normally have little contact with the outside world. But with the Middle East at boiling point, the Neturei Karta, whose position is well known within the Orthodox community, feel a new obligation to take their views to a wider public. Their open protest carries risks, since many Jews regard their condemnation of Israel as a betrayal. One member of the group, Abraham Grohman, was assaulted when he attended a counter-demonstration at Britain’s largest ever pro-Israel rally in Trafalgar Square in May. Another, who cannot be named, is receiving police protection following a spate of death threats. Beck, 36, maintains that fear of the consequences will not prevent him from following the dictates of his religious education. But he adds, with less certainty: ‘At the moment it’s not so serious. I can’t say what I will do, but I hope even if it’s serious I will do what I need to do.’

The Neturei Karta in New York have long experience in handling public protest and controversy. Based in the city’s Monsey area, the bigger, more established group has been organising anti-Zionist protests since 1948, some of which, they say, have attracted up to 30,000 Orthodox Jews. Their leader, Rabbi Moshe Beck, visiting his sons in London and speaking through a Yiddish interpreter, tells me that the heightened tension of the past year has caused some supporters to fall off and provoked threats against him and other activists. But many remain steadfast. ‘Those that do it are prepared for whatever consequences,’ he insists, adding: ‘All our actions are no more or less than proclaiming the truth – it’s not a political idea.’

In Israel, Neturei Karta’s position is very different. Part of the ultra-Orthodox community in the Mea Shearim quarter of Jerusalem, the group denies the legitimacy of the government, refusing to pay taxes and avoiding military conscription into the Israeli Defence Forces. In the 60s and 70s they fought an often violent campaign for observing the Sabbath, finally persuading the authorities to close some of Jerusalem’s streets on the holy day.

Its leader and self-styled foreign minister, Rabbi Moshe Hirsh, who considers himself a Palestinian Jew, ran a high-profile campaign in the 80s to be appointed as Neturei Karta’s representative in the PLO. In 1994, Arafat endorsed his position as the Palestinian National Authority’s Minister for Jewish Affairs but, as a non-Arabic speaker and unable to deal directly with Israeli representatives because of Neturei Karta’s refusal to recognise the Israeli government, Hirsh has had a more advisory than ministerial role in the Palestinian adminis tration. He has used his position as a platform for campaigning, in 2000 urging Arafat to unilaterally declare an independent Palestinian state.

But for the most part, Neturei Karta’s activities are fairly low key. Hirsh, who claims 10,000 supporters in Jerusalem, says that the group is so well established that taking to the streets is felt to be unnecessary. ‘We don’t recognise the government; everyone knows that. We don’t see the need,’ he says.

But Professor Menachem Friedman, an expert on the ultra Orthodox at Bar Ilan University near Tel Aviv, says that recently tensions within the anti-Zionist Orthodox movement about making political alliances with the Palestinians have reduced Neturei Karta’s numbers. ‘Neturei Karta is a very small group in Israel,’ he says. ‘Because of the Palestinian terror, it is very difficult to find support. Even so, they are very tolerated, and that’s part of the bizarre world of Jerusalem now.’

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Religion News Blog posted this on Sunday July 21, 2002.
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