"When you’re at a Holocaust-deniers convention, you don’t want to be the guy ordering the kosher meal," host Jon Stewart joked on his "Daily Show." But the Orthodox world is hardly laughing at the participation of a fringe Chasidic group, the Neturei Karta, in a Holocaust-denial convention in Tehran last week.
The group drew immediate censure when video footage from the conference showed several members of the group in fervently Orthodox garb, long beards and side-locks embracing and kissing the conference’s host, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
The Orthodox Union and Agudath Israel of America, two Orthodox groups, both distanced themselves from the Neturei Karta, emphasizing that Orthodox Judaism in no way condones Holocaust denial or the political stance of Ahmadinejad, who has called repeatedly for the destruction of Israel.
"They are not on our radar screen, not any part of our constituency or the constituency of any Orthodox organization, including Agudath Israel to our right," the O.U.’s executive vice president, Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb, told JTA. "They are a small group that is often very vocal. They are embarrassing."
The Neturei Karta, Hebrew for "guardians of the city," believe that a Jewish state should be formed only when the messianic age arrives. Thus they consider the Israeli government heretical and believe the Israeli rabbinate is used only to "ornament their state with a clerical image," according to the Neturei Karta’s Web site.
The group has no official central office and no supreme leader. But it has synagogues and yeshivas in Jerusalem, Brooklyn, England and upstate New York, spokesman Chaim Soffer told JTA.
Soffer said the Neturei Karta understand that there was a "euphoria" after the creation of the State of Israel, but "political sovereignty has been a disaster. The wars didn’t end. The bloodshed didn’t end."
According to Neturei Karta philosophy, after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem two millennia ago, Jews lived well under Arab and Muslim rule. The creation of the State of Israel created an anti-Semitic movement within the Arab and Muslim world because Jews became oppressors of the Palestinians, Soffer said.
By meeting with the likes of Ahmadinejad, the Neturei Karta say they are working toward a peaceful solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict. That solution includes a non-Jewish state in place of Israel, where Jews can live under Arab rule, he said.
"We are trying to establish a dialogue with those who are the enemies of the Jewish people," Soffer said. "We want to undo some of the damage that was done."
The Neturei Karta, which has a membership estimated at up to 5,000, aren’t the only religious Jews who are anti-Zionist. One of the largest Chasidic sects, the Satmar, takes that stance.
Agudath Israel was against the formation of the State of Israel before 1948, according to the group’s spokesman, Rabbi Avi Shafran, but gave up that position after the country was founded and decided to work within the political system to make it a more religious state, he said.
The Neturei Karta routinely make common cause with noted anti-Semites and anti-Zionists, and appear at pro-Palestinian rallies. The Israel Defense Forces found that the late PLO leader Yasser Arafat paid the group, whose support helped blunt accusations that the PLO was anti-Semitic, more than $50,000.
Most felt the Neturei Karta went too far in taking part in the Holocaust-denial conference.
Agudath Israel typically just ignores the group, which tends to garner press coverage because the image of Chasidic Jews embracing anti-Semites is so striking, Shafran said. But he called the Neturei Karta’s public display of affection for Ahmadinejad "graphic and disgusting."
"They have given legitimacy to Holocaust denial, and generally it is the parents and grandparents of these people who suffered the most," he said. "They have given aid to and abetted the enemy."
The Satmars, with whom the Neturei Karta most closely associate, issued a harsh statement that didn’t name the Neturei Karta, but clearly was directed toward them.
"We call and warn all to whom the honor of God and the holy Torah are precious in His eyes to distance themselves from them and to condemn their actions, and not to give them any encouragement, because by doing this you are helping desecrate the name of Heaven, and in the future will be held to account," the Hebrew-language statement said.
Yisroel Dovid Weiss, one of five Neturei Karta rabbis who took part in the Tehran conference, said the Jewish world had misunderstood their actions.
Speaking to JTA from the Iranian capital on Monday, Weiss said his grandparents had been killed in the Holocaust. He was not in Tehran to give credence to Holocaust denial, he said, but to draw a distinction between Zionists and Jews.
Prestate Zionists set themselves up as the enemies of Hitler, and in doing so helped push Hitler to kill millions of Jews, Weiss said.
"If you’re going to spit at people, what do you think is going to happen?" he asked.
Weiss said his group was trying to make sure that the same thing didn’t happen with Ahmadinejad.
"He is not an enemy of the Jews. He never was," Weiss said. "He is a God-fearing man, as far as we saw. He respects the Jewish people and he protects them in Iran."
But if the Zionists keep painting Ahmadinejad as an enemy, he warned, "eventually, God forbid, he could become an enemy."
U.S. Jewish groups were outraged by the Neturei Karta appearing at the conference.
On Wednesday, a number of Jewish groups will gather outside the Holocaust Museum and Study Center in Spring Valley, N.Y., near Monsey, to protest the Tehran conference and express their displeasure with the Neturei Karta. The militant Jewish Defense Organization called a protest outside Weiss’ Monsey home for Jan. 7.
The Neturei Karta are relatively low-key in Monsey, mostly blending in with the large fervently Orthodox population, according to Rabbi Yaakov Spivak, head of Kolel Ayshel Avraham, a fervently Orthodox yeshiva in Monsey. They occasionally boycott Jewish bookstores that sell Israeli products or Israeli history books, but most of their work is done in New York City, he said.
Now, though, the group has struck a nerve with the several hundred Holocaust survivors in town.
"They are going to learn that the Jewish people and Holocaust survivors are not going to stomach this," Mordechai Levy, national director of the Jewish Defense Organization, told JTA. "There is a real line. They crossed it a billion times."