For the Jews there is no such thing as a new story. For every triumph or travail you face, there will be an inevitable tale of a prophet or king or judge who confronted a somehow analogous crisis in the Bronze Age Levant. Or, if biblical parallels prove a stretch too far, rest assured you will be offered a Shtetl elder with a majestic beard, melancholy eyes and a cryptic aphorism about how you should consider the story of Shmulik the Goatherd.
Naturally this dynamic extends from the personal to the political, from the life of the individual to the fate of the people as a whole. And nowhere does it play out more noisily than when discussing the modern state of Israel and its myriad conflicts and complexities. For every rocket fired, settlement approved, or rag-tag Knesset coalition cobbled together, there is a 3,000-year weight of echoes, resonances and competing narratives.
Which brings us to one of the more bizarre intellectual outgrowths on the gnarled tree of the Middle East conflict: Neturei Karta.
Chances are you have seen these guys. At any major pro-Palestinian rally, BDS protest or Khomeinist Quds Day march you can’t miss them: that group of ultra-orthodox Jews, replete with black hats and side curls, always at the frontline and always among those shouting the loudest.
This in itself isn’t newsworthy. Plenty of Jews throughout Israel and the diaspora actively campaign for Palestinian rights. What marks Neturei Karta out, and earns them so much controversy, is their savagely extremist tone, and the lengths they are willing to go to spread the anti-Zionist message.
Most Western pro-Palestinians operate somewhere between vague support of a two-state solution and actively boycotting Sabra Hummus, but they would (or perhaps should) balk at marching alongside openly racist, genocidal organizations like Hamas or Hezbollah. Neturei Karta, on the other hand, traveled to Gaza in person to hang out with Ismail Haniyeh and offer Hamas material and moral support. When Mahmoud Ahmadinejad hosted his “Review of the Holocaust” conference in Tehran, featuring keynotes from Ku Klux Klan grandee David Duke and Holocaust deniers Robert Faurisson and Michele Renouf, Neturei Karta were there front and centre. Nor do they confine themselves to fascists in the Middle East. Neturei Karta rabbis have spoken alongside the out-and-out anti-semites of Hungary’s Jobbik party as well as British far-right groups.
Meanwhile, they even managed to put in a star turn at the launch of former MP George Galloway's bid to become mayor of London.
This seemingly perverse incongruity has earned the sect bewilderment from liberal activists and observers, and loathing, revulsion and anathema from broad swathes of mainstream Jewry.
So, what makes a group of ultra-orthodox Jews utterly dedicate their lives to bringing down the world’s one Jewish state? What drives them to ally with Hamas, which in the past has described their people as, “the most despicable and contemptible nation to crawl upon the face of the Earth”? And pressingly, are these figures with whom any right-minded humanitarian should be making common cause? I met Rabbi Dovid Feldman, visiting London from the Neturei Karta community in New York, to find out.
Rabbi Feldman cuts a figure both imposing and charming. Speaking with a classic East European yiddisher lilt, he holds forth with wit, erudition and a ready laugh, but holds your gaze in the way that only those with an utterly unyielding belief in their own convictions can manage. We are joined by another rabbi from the Stamford Hill community, who prefers to remain anonymous. When they speak to each other, they do so in Yiddish. The Neturei Karta will not speak modern conversational Hebrew. For them, Hebrew is a biblical idiom of prayer and study; the modern language of the Zionists will not pass their lips.
Neturei Karta’s foundational theological precept is that the Jews are forbidden by God from returning to Zion until the Messiah comes. With the destruction of the Second Temple and their subsequent dispersal in 70 AD, the Jews were set in exile by God, and only God may end it. Any attempt to do so by their own hands represents a violation of this defining commandment. Exile is not a misfortune, but a divine mandate. Diaspora is not circumstantial, but intrinsic to Jewish identity.
Curiously, this makes Neturei Karta the mirror image of those Christian fundamentalists who dogmatically support Israel because their Messiah will only come after all the Jews have been gathered in Zion (at which point two thirds of them will be slaughtered and damned, the remnant converted and saved). The gentiles just get the order of events mixed up and throw in some genocide.
Rabbi Feldman and his companion are soon pulling books down from their library to support their position.“They shall be carried to Babylon, and there they shall be, until the day that I remember them”, from the Kethuboth of the Babylonian Talmud, is backed by lines from foundational Jewish daily prayers like the Shema and the Aleinu. Quotes from law and commentary pour forth, emphatically underscoring that every action Neturei Karta undertake, from the minutiae of their daily lives to grand acts of public activism, is mandated in scripture.
And here’s the thing that is difficult, perhaps impossible, for outsiders to fully grasp. Neturei Karta are a millenarian religious sect. Though they mix themselves up in the humanitarian crises and geopolitical machinations of the modern Middle East, these are at most tangential concerns. Rabbi Feldman is clear that though as a human being he feels for the suffering of the Palestinians, “even if Israel was at perfect peace with all its neighbours, we would still be utterly against it. This is a religious duty.”
Neturei Karta are playing a game entirely their own. They may stand shoulder to shoulder with everyone from well-meaning students to raging Mullahs, but they share the concerns of neither. All Neturei Karta are doing is compulsively and insularly rehearsing age-old questions in the history of Jewish thought. There are no new stories.
Take the concept of exile and return, of what “redemption” for the Jewish people means. Since the emergence of Zionism, its partisans have strenuously elaborated and amplified the Jewish connection to the Holy Land. One constant refrain is that every year Jews across the world conclude their Passover ritual with the lines, “next year in Jerusalem”.
Rabbi Feldman offers a radically different take on this. “If they wanted to go to Jerusalem why didn’t they just buy a ticket? When we talk about Jerusalem what we are praying for is not a state, we are talking about a spiritual happening”.
The tension between Jerusalem as a municipal entity with traffic jams and rubbish collection schedules, versus Jerusalem as a speculative plane of spiritual oneness with God is a central vein in Jewish theology. It is also cardinal to Neturei Karta, which translates from Aramaic as “the Guardians of the City”, with “the city” standing in for “the faith”.
And, like all fundamentalists, Neturei Karta see themselves as defenders of the true faith, holding out against innovation and backsliding. Again and again Rabbi Feldman returns to the argument that throughout the 19th Century, all orthodox Jewish religious leaders were vehemently opposed to the nascent Zionist project. If there is one key point the rabbis hammer home, it is that Neturei Karta are simply adhering strictly to age-old religious authority, which others have perverted.
This goes right back to the sect’s founding. In Mandate Palestine, the religious anti-Zionist position was represented by the Agudat Yisrael party. However, during the 1930s the Agudat began to reach a modus vivendi with the secular Zionist movements, and after 1948, actively participated in Israeli politics. These compromises enraged Rabbi Amram Blau, who split from his brother Moshe, leader of the Agudat, to found Neturei Karta. To this day, Neturei Karta reserves its sharpest venom for other ultra-orthodox Jews who make accommodations with secular Zionism, including the Haredi community within Israel, which accepts vast subsidies from the state.
Even in this, Neturei Karta is playing out well-worn Jewish tropes (and not simply in setting a theological schism in an argument between two brothers). Since the ancient wars of the Maccabees and the Zealots, the Jewish world has been wracked with internecine conflict over who gets to call themselves the purest of the pure, as well as the perennial question of whether the Jews can become Hellenised, secular-minded and outward looking, or can they only remain Jews by maintaining the absolute purity and insularity of their faith?
Rabbi Feldman is crystal clear on Neturei Karta’s position. Jews are defined only by the observance of Judaism. The religion determines the tribe, not the other way around. One of the words that crops up most in our conversation is transformation. For Neturei Karta, what Zionism did was to fundamentally transform the Jewish people from a spiritual category to a corporeal, political entity. Resisting this transformation is the sect’s raison d’etre. And in this we come to the oldest of all the old stories in Judaism,and to the essence of what Neturei Karta really stands for: the unending arguments over who may call themselves a Jew.
I put forward the classic counter-argument, that even in the Torah the Jews are referred to as “the children”, “the people”, and even “the nation” of Israel. I am batted away. For Neturei Karta Judaism means only the connection to God. It is a spiritual classification carried in prayers, not DNA.
Things get interesting when I try the more modern proposition that the Jews, like the Palestinians, are recognised as a people in international law, and thus attain the right to self-determination as enshrined in Article 1 of the UN Charter. Rabbi Feldman gives me a “you’re just not getting it yet, huh?” look, and patiently repeats, “A Jewish State is a contradiction in terms…it is forbidden. It cannot exist for the same reasons I don’t work on a Saturday…we cannot accept this in our religion.”
So for Neturei Karta, where earthly jurisprudence contradicts a divine commandment that the Jews are uniquely chosen to abrogate self-determination, then international law be damned. This is almost stirring in the strength of its conviction. But it is also an expression of Jewish exceptionalism, if not outright chauvinism. In one stroke Neturei Karta manage the neat trick of simultaneously confirming the prejudices of gun-wielding religious settlers on the West Bank, and of anti-semites from Tehran to Budapest to the backwoods militias of the American mid-west.
I am left with no choice but to wheel out the heavy artillery of Zionist polemic: that no one on the train to Bergen Belsen could make an on-the-spot conversion to Catholicism and be let off; that when one is persecuted as a people, one reserves the right to defend oneself as a people, with a nation state and an army.
And here we move from the oldest question in Judaism to the most painful, how are Jews commanded to react when they are attacked or persecuted?
At the mention of Belsen, Rabbi Feldman’s English companion cuts in. “The Holocaust came as a punishment from God…because of our sins. No army, no air force and no State of Israel will help us from another Holocaust. It has nothing to do with material defense – going against God will only bring another Holocaust”.
This stops me in my tracks. Two religious Jews, who have previously mentioned they are descended from Holocaust survivors, have just told me the Jews brought their annihilation on themselves. But then I realise this is the only position available to them. In a moral universe in which exile is divinely mandated, so too must be liquidation. The inevitable question then follows: is this a moral universe anyone would wish to share?
The rabbi continues: “There are commandments for how Jews should approach their enemies. We can become better in our religious observance and commitment to God, or we can humble ourselves before them, explain ourselves and offer gifts”.
And in this, as in all else, Neturei Karta are following tradition. The orthodox religious authorities in 1930s Europe also ordered humility and appeasement in accordance with Jewish writ. However, that air of pious martyrdom is severely undercut by the memory that many of those leading rebbes managed to get themselves and their families out just in time, while their flocks were marched into the Nazi charnel house.
A supposed religious insistence on non-resistance and self-abasement is also obviously at odds with the violence that many ultra-orthodox show towards their Arab neighbors, as well as raising questions around the occasional brutality of Neturei Karta’s own “modesty patrols” in policing their own community, or throwing stones at those daring to break the Sabbath. Then there is the case of Yitzak Bergel, a Neturei Karta devotee who was last year convicted in Israel of offering to spy for Iranian intelligence. Taking up arms for a hostile power does not speak to a commandment towards pacifism.
But, to return to the rabbis’ chief argument, Neturei Karta are, in a sense, correct. They are simply adhering to a strict reading of Jewish law, as handed down by religious authorities over the past few hundred years. To which a Zionist, or perhaps even a humanist, retort might be to note that the rebbes of the shtetles wielded temporal as well as religious authority. Perhaps the Zionist movement represented an emancipation of the Jews not just from exile, but also from their own clerical-aristocratic class?
It would be easy to dismiss Neturei Karta out of hand as crazy religious fanatics. That would be churlish and facile. They are a thoughtful lot, with subtle reasoning and a feel for human suffering. But, nonetheless, fanatics they definitely are. They may march alongside people shouting about human rights and international law, but their agenda is utterly alien to these concepts.
At its most basic level Neturei Karta, simply represents yet another intertwining of politics and theology. The mixture of the two is noxious. Perhaps that is the oldest story of all, it never ends well.