Why Are Fringe Rabbis on the Front Page?
By: Chaim Steinmetz
No news story about an anti-Israel protest would be complete without a quote from a member of the Neutrei Karta, a group of Ultra- Orthodox Jews who oppose Israel. Indeed, at a recent anti-Israel rally, the Montreal Gazette, put a picture of a Hassid holding a placard on its front page. But who are the Neturei Karta, and are they truly newsworthy?
In the early 1900’s, before the State of Israel existed, Zionism was debated among Orthodox Jews. A significant group supported Mizrachi, a religious Zionist organization that worked together with secular Zionists. However, many Orthodox Jews rejected Zionism. Some, part of a coalition called Agudath Israel, were concerned by the lack of religiosity in the secular Zionist leadership. A much smaller group, coalescing around ultra-Orthodox groups in Hungary and the Edah Hacharedis organization in Jerusalem, took the extreme view Zionism was a heresy. In their view, Jewish belief in a Messiah obliged loyal Jews to wait for the Messianic redemption, rather than take matters into their own hands. The group most prominent in contemporary demonstrations, the Neturei Karta, was formed in the mid-1930’s as a radical breakaway from the Edah Hacharedis.
The Holocaust and the establishment of the State of Israel transformed Orthodox views on Zionism. Rabbi Issacher Shlomo Teichtal, a prominent anti-Zionist, became a religious Zionist because of the Holocaust. Formerly anti-Zionist groups, such as the Hassidic communities of Belz, Klausenberg, and Lubavitch, adopted a more positive and pragmatic view toward the new Jewish state. Indeed, Agudath Israel had its representatives sign Israel’s Declaration of Independence. For most Orthodox Jews, rejectionist anti-Zionism was a matter of the past. Even many of those who have retained an anti-Zionist stance, such as Satmar Hassidim, currently value Israel as place where Jews can live in safety, and refuse to make any common cause with Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas.
Today, the Neturei Karta have about 1,000 supporters. Finding themselves more isolated than ever, the Neturei Karta’s theology has grown even more radical, and the behavior of its leaders is increasingly bizarre. For example, a leader of a Neturei Karta affiliated group currently living in St. Agathe, Rabbi Shlomo Elbarnes, spent time in a U.S. jail for kidnapping a teenager. For today’s Neturei Karta, anti-Zionism is the focus of their theology, and as a consequence, they demonize all Zionists as disciples of Satan.
Indeed, the Neturei Karta are enamored of Israel’s enemies and even anti-Semites. Rabbi Moshe Hirsch, the group’s elder statesman, has close ties to the Palestinian leadership, and was on Yasser Arafat’s payroll. These Neturei Karta maintain close ties to Iran’s radical regime as well. In June 2000, Rabbi Yisroel David Weiss supported Iran’s accusations that 13 Jews had spied for Israel; this, while governments around the world protested these false arrests. Neturei Karta’s leaders have also cultivated relationships with Louis Farrakhan, an American preacher known for his anti-Semitism, and Abu Hamza, a radical British cleric later imprisoned under Britain’s Terrorism Act. Because of their bizarre views and behavior, they have been condemned multiple times by other ultra-Orthodox groups, and they are viewed as infuriating oddities. Frankly, the Neturei Karta are a fringe group, even less relevant than the Amish or the Raelians.
Yet, despite being a marginal phenomena, the Neturei Karta receive a lot of media attention. Certainly, the Neturei Karta work tirelessly at public relations, issuing press releases, buying the occasional advertisement, and traveling all over North America to join with any anti-Israel group they can find. Due to sympathetic journalists, they manage to get a lot of media attention.
Of course, the Neturei Karta seem made for media. People are fascinated by Hassidic Jews in general, as exotic figures who seem to have stepped straight out of the 18th century. For journalists, the caftan wearing extremists of the Neturei Karta are an exotic “man bites dog” story, with very Jewish-looking Jews denouncing Israel. Indeed, Jewish solidarity with Israel puzzles many journalists, and leaves them searching in vain for some sort of internal Jewish discord. The Neturei Karta offer a story of internal debate unavailable elsewhere.
Contemporary media, much like pro wrestling, thrives on conflict. In that regard, the Neturei Karta are the “Andre the Giant” of pro-Israel events, protesting in order to irritate and annoy, hoping this will initiate conflict with supporters of Zionism. Sadly, when journalists give the Neturei Karta prominent coverage, they have taken a circus sideshow and put it on the front page. There are many important debates about the Middle East, but instead of those, these journalists have chosen to focus on a fringe phenomenon and consider it newsworthy.
It’s a shame the media seems to make this journalistic mistake, over and over again.