In a state over Israel

The Guardian/November 25, 2002
By Simon Rocker

In their rabbinical garb, they look unlikely participants in a pro-Palestinian demonstration: sometimes, they protest in their shtreimels, the round sabbath hats worn by many Chasidic Jews, which the late Peter Cook described as "furry frisbees". No group could be more opposed to the state of Israel than the Neturei Karta - "the Guardians of the City" - for whom Israel is an abomination, its very creation the antithesis of faith. They are a propaganda godsend to anti-Zionists, who argue that opposition to the existence of the state cannot possibly be anti-semitic if it is a view shared by some religious Jews.

But it is not that simple. Even among Charedi, or ultra-Orthodox circles, the Neturei Karta are regarded as a wild fringe. After some of them took part in an anti-Israel rally in the United States earlier this year, an advertisement in the Orthodox press excoriated those who had joined "the enemies of our people". It is significant that the denunciation was endorsed by most of the major Charedi groupings in New York, including some with a staunchly anti-Zionist theology, such as the powerful Satmar Chasidic sect.

Charedi anti-Zionism, in fact, goes back almost to the birth of the Jewish nationalist movement. The fact that the movement was largely secular-led - although a religious stream of Zionism did emerge - alarmed many leading eastern European rabbis in the early 20th century, who saw Zionism as an attempt to supplant faith with nationalism.

They also saw the new movement as presumptuously trying to pre-empt the hand of providence by wanting to cast off "the yoke of exile" before the divinely appointed time of redemption. In particular, the rabbis cited a Talmudic passage referring to "three oaths" - based on a rather imaginative interpretation of verses in the Song of Songs - governing the children of Israel in exile. The Jews had undertaken not to return to the land of Israel en masse, or to "rebel against the nations"; while the nations had agreed not to oppress the Jews too severely.

While anti-Zionism may have been widespread among the strictly Orthodox in prewar Europe, it subsided after the Holocaust and the establishment of the state of Israel. For an important group, such as Agudat Israel, founded in 1912 precisely to combat Zionism, pragmatism overtook ideology and reached a modus vivendi with the new state.

The Agudists' primary mission was to rebuild the seats of rabbinic learning that the Nazis had extinguished, and they concentrated on such things as securing state aid for their school system or exemption from army service for their Talmudic students. They have had ministers in various Israeli governments. Such compromises, of course, were anathema to the Neturei Karta, who regard themselves as the sacred remnant, while others have supped with the devil.

Today, many Charedim would be more accurately described as "non-" rather than "anti-" Zionist in the strict sense. Some would call themselves anti-Zionist in that they remain opposed to secular nationalism, at the same time as they tacitly accept the existence of the state. Many go from other countries to study in the Torah academies that have proliferated in Israel.

I once witnessed, at a Chasidic steibl (or house-synagogue) in London, an altercation over whether to recite a prayer for the "state of Israel" - the usual formula in mainstream synagogues - or for "those who live in the land of Israel"; the congregation eventually split into different rooms for the remainder of the service, but the incident illustrates that not all strictly Orthodox Jews think alike.

Writing more than a century ago, the leader of the Lubavitch Chasidic sect appealed to the Almighty to "frustrate" the Zionists. Almost a century later, a successor could argue against any land-for-peace deal with the Arabs on the grounds of security. So piety walks hand-in-hand with paradox.

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