Neturei Karta are not your allies

Neturei Karta have become the poster children of Jewish anti-Zionism. But under the surface lie some uncomfortable truths.

Neturei Karta are not your allies
Members of Neturei Karta attending a pro-Palestine protest, London, 7 April, 2018. Credit: Alisdare Hickson (CC-BY-SA-2.0)

Halfway along the route of the mass Palestine solidarity demonstrations that have regularly filled central London’s streets since Israel’s latest bombardment of Gaza began, about a dozen ultra-Orthodox Jewish men line up, donning full-body placards proclaiming anti-Zionism a “true Torah demand”. With their large furry streimels, shoulder-length payot and long black coats, they certainly stand out in the crowd. Many marchers stop to shake their hands, thank them for coming and take selfies with them. 

Though they represent only a fraction of the Jews who attend these demos and organise for Palestinian liberation, they seem to have become the poster children for Jewish anti-Zionism. In some ways this is understandable: their Jewishness is far more visible than that of most, and for those who have become accustomed to seeing images of kippah-wearing men assaulting Palestinians in the occupied West Bank, or taking to the Knesset podium to call for another Nakba, their presence is likely a breath of fresh air. Yet there is more to their ideology than meets the eye.

The men in question are members of Neturei Karta, a fringe Haredi group mainly found in the US and Jerusalem, but with a small UK contingent. While they have long been derided as extremists by the mainstream Jewish community for their staunch anti-Zionism and their unsavoury beliefs about the Holocaust, their attendance at pro-Palestine protests has often been used by anti-Zionists to dispel the myth that opposition to Israel necessarily equals antisemitism. The particularities of their stance toward Palestine-Israel, however, remain poorly understood among both their supporters and detractors. 

So how should those of us who support Palestinian liberation – Jews and non-Jews alike – make sense of Neturei Karta and their anti-Zionism? 

To better understand the group, I spoke to one of their spokespeople in the UK, Rabbi Ahron Cohen. Polite and softly spoken, Cohen was clearly well-versed in answering the kinds of questions I put to him. His answers, though, were rather void of substance. He was often light on detail and heavy on scripture, and though he made valiant attempts to persuade me otherwise, I left the conversation unconvinced that Neturei Karta’s beliefs rest on anything more than exclusionary theological preachings based on a very specific reading of the Torah. 

Rightful masters

Descended predominantly from Hungarian and Lithuanian Jews who settled in Jerusalem in the early 19th century, Neturei Karta (“Guardians of the City”) have always been outspoken in their opposition to Zionism. They take the Three Oaths that appear in the Talmudic Midrash as evidence for why a Jewish state can only be established in the biblical Land of Israel once the Messiah comes, and denounce the current state of Israel as sinfully secular. 

Neturei Karta were not always alone in these views. In the late 19th and early 20th century, the majority of Haredi Jews in Palestine and around the world opposed Zionism and the establishment of the state of Israel on these terms. Over the subsequent decades, however, many have come to accommodate the state’s existence, moving further to the right and, in recent years, embracing the most radical forms of territorial maximalism. Today, staunch anti-Zionists are a minority even among Haredim, with Neturei Karta sharing that mantle only with members of the larger Satmar dynasty.

In our conversation, Cohen elaborated on the theology behind the group’s position. “When the Jewish religion first started 3,500 years ago, we were told [by God] we would go to the Holy Land, but it was subject to conditions,” he said. “The conditions as written in our scriptures were that we had to maintain a certain high level of spiritual[ity] and moral[ity]. If those levels were not reached, the Jewish people would descend into a divinely decreed exile.” 

Under the surface of this explanation lies an uncomfortable truth: that even though Neturei Karta oppose the current state of Israel, they still believe that the land will one day be in Jewish hands. The key distinction with political Zionism seems only to be the timeframe – and perhaps the methods. When the time does come, Cohen explained, the Jewish state should not come about by force and violence as in the case of Zionism; rather, Jewish people will inevitably become “masters” of the land. 

In the meantime, Palestinians are seen as the rightful owners, but their status as such is only temporary. “At the moment, they can carry on,” Cohen continued, then adding that Palestinians’ presence “would not be any different after [the coming of the Messiah] because [Jewish sovereignty] will be based on peace and brotherhood.” 

This, it seems, is as specific as Neturei Karta gets on the issue. “We don’t know how it will come about,” Cohen said – a refrain repeated throughout our conversation. “We only know that it will be gained by divine decree, and it will be peaceful and to the acceptance of the whole world.” 

While it is not unusual to hear devoutly religious people refer to unknowns in God’s plans for us, rooting one’s political beliefs in such uncertainty feels a bit like a cop out – an easy way to circumvent the difficult question of what exactly Neturei Karta’s vision for the future of Israel-Palestine looks like. 

‘Practical’ alliances

For Neturei Karta, the Jewish people’s failure to maintain a sufficient level of spirituality and morality doesn’t only explain why they should not yet have a sovereign state in the Holy Land. It also accounts for some of the worst atrocities experienced in their history – including the Holocaust. 

“Even if you’re harmed by someone else, as far as the victim is concerned, it’s the will of the Almighty,” Cohen said. “The victim has to ask himself, why is the Almighty doing this to me? And he has to repent on anything which he finds as a possible reason.” Seen in this light, Neturei Karta believe that the Holocaust was essentially God punishing the Jewish people for not being sufficiently devout.

In response to the idea that this concept is, to many, innately offensive, Cohen insisted: “We are not in any way able to conceive the workings of the Almighty. Our job is to accept the ruling of the Almighty and accept that he knows best. We cannot begin to argue with it. Although it may seem punitive, the Almighty is not punitive, He’s corrective.”

Neturei Karta’s flirtation with Holocaust revisionism does not end there. The group – and Cohen himself – were heavily criticised for participating in a conference in Tehran in 2006 that openly questioned whether the Holocaust happened. Among other attendees were the former Iranian president and well-known Holocaust denier Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, as well as former KKK head David Duke.

Maintaining at the time that his attendance did not signify agreement with Holocaust denial or minimisation, Cohen asserted that members of Neturei Karta went simply “to put [forward] the Orthodox Jewish viewpoint. We certainly say there was a Holocaust … But in no way can it be used as a justification for perpetrating unjust acts against the Palestinians.” On this many of us may agree, but we also know it is wrong to blame the Holocaust on its victims – not least because Jews weren’t the only people murdered, and a number of the Jews killed were themselves devout and from Haredi communities. 

Neturei Karta also caused outrage in 2014 when they met with Gábor Vona, the then-leader of Hungary’s far-right Jobbik party described by the European Jewish Congress as “unashamedly neo-Nazi”. To Cohen, the reason for such alliances is simple. “We’re being practical,” he explained. “In order to prevent them having the wrong idea about Jewish people and our teachings, you have to be at peace with them and explain that we do not accept the Zionist idea.”

It might be tempting to cast Neturei Karta as the “good Jews”, but there are countless others showing up on the streets of London and around the world to demand a free Palestine, many of whom are prepared to simultaneously stand against all forms of oppression and discrimination – including antisemitism and white supremacy. 

We should be careful to recognise Neturei Karta for what they are: a reactionary group that allies with anyone who will amplify their sole message, regardless of the other beliefs and policies they may hold; whose anti-Zionism is conditional, transient and theological, rather than rooted in any moral concern for human rights and liberation. The left – and Palestinians – can find better allies elsewhere.▼

Molly Lipson is a freelance writer and an organiser based in the UK.