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Anti-Zionist Neturei Karta are no friend of the Palestinian national struggle

Neturei Karta, a small ultra-Orthodox sect that rejects the existence of a Jewish national movement, is embraced by Palestinians because of its opposition to Zionism. However, its radical approach does not serve Palestinians in their national struggle.

By Eldad Levy

Neturei Karta protesting at an Israel day parade (David Galalis CC BY NC-ND 2.0)

Throughout the last round of violence in Gaza and the south of Israel, Facebook was flooded with Palestinian and Israeli support campaigns. The campaign of Neturei Karta, the most famous Hassidic sect that opposes Zionism, was among the most interesting ones. Facebook users often share pictures of Neturei Karta in their traditional black clothing, often wearing a keffiyeh decorated with Palestinian flags; by being both unquestionably Jewish and fervent supporters of the Palestinian national movement, Neturei Karta has become one of the most iconic allies of the Palestinian struggle. Many find surprising the existence of a group of Hassidic Jews who stand firmly with the Palestinians against the state of Israel.

In order to understand why Neturei Karta support the Palestinians struggle we need to examine their roots: historically, Neturei Karta had split from Agudas Yisrael, a much larger Ashkenazi Orthodox organization from the late 1930s, which was then a major opponent of Zionism that would ultimately reassess its opposition to the state of Israel. Neturei Karta however, remains a zealous opponent of the Zionist movement since it believes the exile of the Jews can only be redeemed with the arrival of the Messiah and that any attempt to establish a Jewish state is an affront to God’s will.

Therefore, it claims, the state of Israel and all its institutions should be resisted or at the very least ignored. Today there are only a few thousand Neturei Karta members around the world. The vast majority of them take minimal or no part in the daily life of Israeli society and only a handful takes an actual part in the struggle against the existence of Israel. Those who do however, are very vocal about it: it’s easy to recall Moshe Hirsch, the leader of the radical branch of Neturei Karta who served in Yasser Arafat’s cabinet as “Minister of Jewish affairs.”  The most renowned action of the group was probably the participation of members of Neturei Karta in the “International Conference to Review the Global Vision of the Holocaust,” hosted by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

The popularity of Neturei Karta among Palestinians is based on this fundamental resistance to Zionism. They don’t just oppose Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands or Israeli policies – they oppose the mere existence of Israel or the idea that Jews should even have a national movement. That stance places them among the “purest” and most radical opponents of Zionism. Moreover, the fact that a rigorous Jewish sect officially denounces the existence of Israel and joins efforts with the Palestinian national struggle has a symbolic political gain that exceeds the actual efforts of the group towards the Palestinian struggle. The use of Neturei Karta as “Jews opposing Israel” is heavily tokenized to achieve a political goal.

There are only about 100 members of Neturei Karta that actually take part in the political struggle. There are probably many more thousands of secular Jews around the world who sympathize with the Palestinian struggle – Jews who look much more like secular Muslim and Christian Palestinians and therefore cannot be tokenized by their appearance. Indeed, regardless of the “Jewish image” Palestinians have of Neturei Karta, the vast majority of Israelis or Jews around the world would find it impossible to identify with their fundamentalist, radical message.

The fact that most Jews or Israelis don’t feel Neturei Karta represents them is of course not a good enough reason to disqualify them. However, the reasons for which Naturei Karta so passionately join the Palestinian nation struggle are. For Palestinians who support them, the enemy of their enemy is naturally their friend, but they don’t seem to question the reasons why Neturei Karta joins their struggle. Neturei Karta’s worldview is shaped by their opposition to Jewish self-determination, not support for Palestinian self-determination. Similar to Evangelical Christian support of radical right-wing Israeli groups, Neturei Karta’s support of Palestinians is based on fundamentalist views and not on actual ideological identification with the Palestinian struggle. Both of these Messianic forces will take on any type of ideological form to promote their own fatalistic worldview.

In a sense, Neturei Karta is the equivalent of Palestinians in Israel who define themselves as Zionist – like the recently published story of IDF Major Alaa’ Wahib, a Muslim Zionist. The fact that a few Palestinians align themselves fully with Israel teaches us little of the complexity of the Palestinian position. While acknowledging their stance is important, the political discourse tokenizes them to exempt the larger Israeli public from grappling with why Palestinians reject Zionism. By the same token, Neturei Karta members are presented as model Jews: without national ambitions and fully aligned with the Palestinian struggle.

In the political arena, Palestinians could probably find better and more effective allies within the Israeli secular and even religious society, or within Jewish communities around the world. These allies may not be radical opponents of Zionism, but they will better reflect the fact that Israel’s existence has wide support among Jewish communities, even if Israel’s policies don’t always enjoy the same support. This would mark a positive change, from shifting the alliance of the Palestinian struggle with fundamentalist forces, to one with democratic and ideological ones.

Eldad J. Levy is director of Seeds of Peace in Israel and a Master’s student in the political sociology department at Haifa University. The opinions expressed here are his own. 

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  • COMMENTS

    1. hodan

      Well of course thats the case!! Why dont you talk about the much bigger marriage of convenience between the American evangelicals and the State and the State of Israel?

      Reply to Comment
    2. rico

      the title of the article is careless. there are plenty of nonreligious “anti-zionist jews” who are not neturei karta. there are even religious jews who are opposed to the jewish state, BOTH because of their religious beliefs AND because of their sense of justice and earnest sympathy with the palestinian cause.

      Reply to Comment
    3. Palestinians, like others, take the cards they are dealt. Why disrespect Jews who wear orthodox uniform? They NK may be a bit overzealous to an Israeli Jews, particularly one who was never orthodox and never learned the rule “not even to pray for the ingathering of Jews to Palestine” — but compared to the zealous human-rights-trashing settlers, I much prefer NK.

      Reply to Comment
    4. Richard Witty

      The view of the majority of orthodox and ultra-orthodox is that the majority of law of secular states is acceptable and not conflicting with Torah, and as such must be followed. An ultra-orthodox rabbi recently told me that if Torah doesn’t explicitly conflict with any secular law, that then the secular law IS Torah. (It came up in a discussion of halacha regarding business practices, which the rabbi described as only practical in the absence of other law, even where they were different, but not opposed, halachic law).

      Most of the ultra-orthodox regard the law of Israel in that light, as the law of a secular state, and as such, unless directly conflicting with Torah, is to be obeyed.

      And, they particularly enjoy the protection of Jews under the state of Israel particularly. Even the Neturai Karta, in Measharim in Jerusalem, enjoy and most appreciate the protection that the Israeli state affords them.

      Their views are uniquely inconsistent, in declaring that the Jewish state is NOT the messianic setting, but somehow is not treated as a secular state per Jewish law.

      Contrasting with the view that Israel is only a secular state of the majority of orthodox and ultra-orthodox.

      Reply to Comment
    5. XYZ

      (1) Neturei Karta is not a “Hassidic sect”. Yes, many of its members are Hasidim, but many aren’t. Moshe Hirsch was not Hasidic. The large majority of Hasidim are “Pro-Zionist” in a Haredi sense. Even the main groups of anti-Zionist Haredim, like the “Eidah HaHaredit” are bitterly opposed to Neturei Karta because their opposition to Zionism is ideological, but not political, as is NK’s.

      (2) It is correct to say that official Palestinian adoption of NK as “their Jews” is tokenism. They want them there because they photograph well as “real Jews”. I have a feeling that large parts of the organized Palestinian movement want non-NK Jews to be active in their struggle and to have a prominent place in their hierarchy, and I think the reason is obvious.

      Reply to Comment
      • XYZ

        Oops- I meant to say that the mainstream Palestinian groups DON’T want Jews active in positions of influence in the Palestinian movement. This is parallel to the Jewish role in the 1960′s Civil Rights movements. At first, Jews played a significant role with the NAACP and with Martin Luther King’s movement, but by the mid-1960′s, the Jews were excluded from the new, more militant organizations like SNCC. See:

        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/African-American%E2%80%93Jewish_relations

        Reply to Comment
    6. Meir Abramov

      This article is imprecise in its characterization of Neutrei Karta. I can recommend a more reliable and balanced source: Yakov Rabkin, A Threat from Within: A Century of Jewish Opposition to Zionism (Palgrave Macmillan). It has been translated into a lot of languages but I am not sure a Hebrew version exists.

      Reply to Comment
      • Hanni Barnea

        So for the sake of preciseness you’re recommending to read a book instead of a short article? mmm…. very interesting.

        Reply to Comment
    7. Yoel

      There are approx. 150,000 members of the satmar hasidic sect that also oppose the existential state of israel, they are not so vocal, but still firm with their believe check it out at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Satmar_(Hasidic_dynasty)

      Reply to Comment
    8. sh

      Look, the Neturei Karta’s views regarding the Holy Land were actually those of mainstream Judaism until approx. the 19th century. Jewish belief was that the Messiah would come when conditions were right, to unite and lead the scattered Jews (even the dead) back to the land they had been promised to rebuild the Temple and live happily ever after. Jews who came to live here over the centuries were mainly poets, mystics, dreamers and false messiahs without political designs or military prowess. Agudas Yisroel became Agudat Yisrael when religious Jews had begun to accept the necessity of a state for the Jews even if it was not going to be a religious one. How to deal with it halakhically became a subject of increasingly acrimonious debate that peaked in the wake of WWII. Neturei Karta was formed in opposition to Zionism but as more and more religious people resigned themselves to it, NK’s adherents came to be objects of incredulity and later ridicule in religious circles. Google their late, controversial, charismatic founder and leader, Rabbi Amram Blau (I promise you won’t be bored!).

      For Palestinians, NK’s views on the State of Israel are very attractive. They explain why so many Palestinians generally lived alongside Jews peaceably for so many years. Israeli Jewish supporters of Palestine needn’t be offended by what they have in common with NK just because the morals of one seem to be dictated by religion and of the other by conscience. The State of Israel would not be in this region at all if not for the Jewish religion, from which the seculars who founded it were only one or two generations away. Altogether, the coexistence of secularism with religion is a riveting challenge to explore – one that we have in common with Palestinian, Egyptian, Syrian, Lebanese, etc., society today.

      Reply to Comment
      • XYZ

        NK always struck me as not being serious in their beliefs. If they were, before 1967 they would have announced that they were going to petition King Hussein of Jordan for permission to set up NK Jewish communities in the then Jordanian-controlled Jewish Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem or Hevron, both of which are viewed as especially holy in Jewish tradition, and they would live in these places as good Jewish citizens of Jordan, thus staying away from the cursed Zionists and giving the Arab side the ability to prove in a concrete way “that they honor and respect Jews and Judaism, it is only the with Zionists they have a problem”.
        Instead the NK people decided to stay and live with the accursed Zionists. This all leads me to agree with the person who wrote this column in that all the NK wants to do is make a lot of noise and get attention but they have no intention of putting their money where their mouth is.

        As as aside, I have come to realize that even many vocal Jewish anti-Zionists or pro-Palestinian activists who are not religious wave their views around, not so much out of any real love or concern for the Palestinians, but simply out of disgust with Israel and the rest of the Jewish community.

        Reply to Comment
    9. I have some qualms about Eldad Levy’s article. I have myself written about a recent incident when a Neturei Karta rabbi was reported to have spoken at a fascist meeting in Britain http://azvsas.blogspot.co.uk/2012/06/idiots-and-fools-of-neturei-karta.html and there is of course the Tehran conference.

      But for better or worse NK have identified and taken a lot of flack over their opposition to Zionism. In that sense they find themselves, even for the most reactionary reasons, as opponents of colonialism and imperialism in Palestine. Christian Zionists however are foremost amongst imperialism’s backers and warriors. So the context is different.

      I see NK as being on the far-right of the Palestine Solidarity movement, with no real political analysis beyond a hatred of Zionism on religious grounds.

      But I agree that they are largely a symbolic nuisance and have been overtaken by secular Jewish opposition to Zionism and the Israeli state.

      Reply to Comment
    10. Rachamim Dwek

      The author made a made a huge mistake in labeling the Neteuri Karta as “Hassidic” [sic]. They are the antithesis of Chassidic Jewry, a group known popular as “Litvak.” When Chassidic Judaism began in the 18th Century the Litvak violently opposed and even excommunicated many Chassidim.

      As for why Neuteuri Karta oppose Israel, it isnt because of the Messiah- although they DO believe that the Jewish Nation should only be goverened as a Messianic Theocracy but their opposition to Zionism itself relates to a Talmudic Dictum known in English as the “3 Oaths,” specically two of them with represent 1) “Storming the Wall”- meaning Israel going against world opinion to re-establish a Jewish State, while most Jews believe that the League of Nations and UN ratification shows that Jews didnt go against the world.

      2) That Jews shouldnt return to their homeland en masse, but wait for the appointed time as is foretold in Jewish Scriptures. Most Jews believe thatt Jews returned from 1882 until the present.

      Reply to Comment

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