The Neturei Karta, a fringe group of charedi Jews bitterly opposed to Zionist ideology in general and to Jewish sovereignty in Eretz Yisrael in particular, was founded in British Mandatory Palestine in 1938 after the sect split off from Agudat Israel because of the latter’s adoption of a more conciliatory and cooperative approach to the Zionist movement.
Its guiding ideology is a belief that Jews are forbidden to have their own state until the arrival of the Jewish Messiah, who will establish a complete theocracy; that any human attempt to recapture land in Eretz Yisrael is a violation of divine will; that any advocacy for Jewish sovereignty constitutes rank heresy because it usurps the messianic prerogative and is a radical rebellion against G-d and his Torah; and that Zionism invokes the duty of yehoreg v’al yaavor (one must die a martyr’s death rather than transgress by supporting Zionism or Israel).
Moreover, it believes that the very existence of Israel as a nation-state is actually an obstacle to the Messianic era because it brings more non-observant, Torah-denying Jews and their associated perversions and depravities into the Holy Land. Its problem with Israel isn’t merely that it fails to conduct itself in accordance with Torah law; even were the entire government composed of saints and sages, the problem is that Israel exists at all.
The group is known not only for its anti-Israel activism, but also for its alignment with antisemites and Islamic extremists and for its warm and public embrace of Israel’s greatest enemies, including Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Yasser Arafat, and Louis Farrakhan. It is known to the public through its polemical pamphlets, shrill posters, strident public protests, and conspicuous attendance at pro-Palestinian demonstrations and “Israeli Apartheid Week” rallies, where its followers proudly wave Palestinian flags.
Perhaps most horrendously, it preaches that the Holocaust was not due to Naziism and antisemitism but, rather, because it was G-d’s divine collective punishment of the Jewish people for the sin of Zionism. Worse, they publicly proclaimed – and continue to do so – that rather than permitting European Jews to escape the crematoria by emigrating for destinations other than Eretz Yisrael, the Zionists cooperated with the Nazis in the murder of Jews to further their claim that a Zionist state is necessary for Jewish survival. The group compares the Zionist response to the Holocaust to criminal arsonists who light the fire and burn the building to the ground, killing most of its occupants, and then expect to be hailed as heroes for saving the few survivors. They also lend support to Holocaust deniers, provided that they join in seeking Israel’s destruction, including attending a Holocaust-denying conference in Iran in 2006 as honored guests. Its vitriolic anti-Israel rhetoric frequently includes characterizing Israelis as Nazis.
The name Neturei Karta, which literally means “Guardians of the City” in Aramaic, has its source in Tractate Chagigah, where the Jerusalem Talmud explains that the true guardians of a city are not its military or police forces, who are actually destroyers of the city, but, rather, its scribes and scholars. Best current estimates put the number of devotees of the extremist group at about 5,000 members.
Founded by Rabbis Amram Blau and Aharon Katzenelbogen, the group’s origins are from within the Lithuanian charedi branch, not the Chassidic branch as many people erroneously believe. In fact, there is considerable religious diversity within the charedi camp and, because Neturei Karta followers dress in similar distinctive garb, the two groups are often mistakenly intertwined in the public consciousness.
Before the birth of Israel, Agudat Israel was firmly against a Jewish state to the point that it asked the United Nations General Assembly to vote against partition. However, seeing the writing on the wall immediately before the establishment of Israel in 1948, Agudat Israel reconsidered its position, narrowly supported the Partition Plan, and decided that it could best promote its interests through having its representatives elected to the Knesset. In marked contrast, the Neturei Karta was and remains anti-Zionist purists; even to this day, it refuses to have any relationship, formal or otherwise, with Zionist institutions and the Zionist State, even to the point of refusing to accept any government support for its yeshivot and for the needs of its community.
Agudat Israel’s “betrayal” enraged the Neturei Karta, which responded by increasing its insularity from other Orthodox groups and escalating its confrontation with Zionism which, if possible, became even more extreme. Even today, it reserves its greatest venom for the Agudists and other charedi organizations, whom it regards as traitors for any cooperation with Israel. Mere philosophical and religious anti-Israel discourse was no longer sufficient; concrete action, including broad public demonstrations and collaboration with Israel’s arch enemies, became essential to the utter destruction of the very existence of this allegedly “Jewish” state.
The Neturei Karta’s hatred for Zionism and its determination to prevent the birth of Israel at all costs reached its zenith immediately after the November 29, 1947, United Nations partition plan resolution, when the British determined to end their Mandate and to extract themselves from the mess that they had helped to create in Eretz Yisrael. With the British now focused on effecting an orderly evacuation and having lost interest in the fate of the Jewish residents still under their rule – to whatever extent they may have arguably ever had any interest at all – a dangerous power vacuum developed. With the implicit, if not explicit, support of the supposedly neutral British, the Arabs commenced attacks on Jewish areas and began murdering Jews.
In particular, the Arabs took control of the arteries leading to Jerusalem, thereby cutting off supplies of electricity and preventing the supply of food, water, and medicine to the city’s Jews, and in February 1948, they planted three bombs that killed 70 Jews and terrified the city. Following the heavy bloodshed, the Israel’s defense forces – including the Hagganah, Etzel, and LEHI – launched a series of revenge operations, which only hastened the British sense of urgency to get out of Eretz Yisrael. The Neturei Karta, who urged an immediate and complete Jewish surrender to the Arabs, blamed the bloodshed on the “Tzionistas” (Zionists) and the nationalist institutions of the Yishuv and accused them not only of bloodshed but also of forcibly taking over the country and holding them as hostages under the Zionist conquest. Alarmed about their fate at the hands of the Zionists, they sought protection from the British authorities that, at least on paper, were still responsible for safeguarding them.
In the unique March 8, 1948, original correspondence exhibited here – arguably the single most important letter relating to the Neturei Karta movement and the State of Israel – the sect, led by Rabbi Amram Blau, assures the British Mandate that charedi Jews played no role in the violent uprising. It protests against the Zionist takeover of nationalist institutions and requests that the Mandate Government save them from the Zionists:
Today, the protesting charedi Jews address the following remarks to the Honor of our Government [i.e., the British Mandate in Eretz Yisrael].
When our Government accepted the appointment to supervise our Holy Land, contained within the scope of its authority was a large Yishuv of Jewish charedim, keepers of the Torah and the commandments, peaceful citizens who had no intentions or policy interest in their political situation in the Holy Land, other than to live and to keep the mitzvot of the Creator and to derive pleasure from its holiness, and for there to be life and peace amongst all the dwellers of the land, and to remain loyal to the Government and who know nothing about acts of violence.
And now, our Government is about to remove its leadership from our Holy Land, which will leave these peaceful citizens abandoned, with their faith, their souls, and their bodies, to fall before those who clutch control of the Yishuv through the power of the fist and the rifle to lead them astray to follow their ideas that are in opposition to our Holy Torah, and which strives for the cause of a State and ruling power.
We plead and beseech before our Government to have mercy upon us and do not cause the peaceful and loyal Jewish charedim to be devoured, G-d forbid, at the hands of those who are taking control over us and who are sweeping away by force our future, which we fear will be terrible and frightful.
If our Government does not find a way to calm the spirits and extinguish the fire immediately, and to bring peace to the land within which to protect also the existence of the Jewish charedim, in its faith, soul, and body, we supplicate and beseech before Your Majesty, that he will have mercy on the souls of its grieving citizens, these Jewish charedim, to rescue them in any possible way, whether by way of the security establishment or through any other means fitting in your eyes.
We are certain on your merciful soul that you will have compassion for our souls and the souls of our infants and children and that you will find the proper path to save us in due time.
With hope for the fulfillment of our request in the greatest possible haste, we hereby sign with thanks and blessings.
Your loyal citizens, in the name of the protestors
Rabbi Blau (1894-1974) was an active member of the Agudat Israel movement in Eretz Yisrael during the British Mandate, including editing its newspaper, Kol Israel, but, as discussed above, he led the break away from Agudat Israel because of what he perceived to be its sell-out to the Zionists. Even amongst the Neturei Karta, he was an extremist who was imprisoned many times for demonstrating against public violations of Shabbat, the conscription of religious women, the opening of a mixed-gender swimming pool, and other government policies.
His decades-long campaign for the modesty of Jewish woman evokes comparisons to the Taliban and the Mullahs in Iran, as he established dress codes and “modesty patrols” to brutally enforce them, beginning in charedi communities and later expanding into other neighborhoods. His campaigns against mixed-gender sporting and cultural activities in non-observant areas in Jerusalem led to mass arrests of his followers, and he rejected every reasonable solution proposed by the municipal government, including erecting a wall between Meah Shearim, the oldest and perhaps largest charedi community in Jerusalem, and the mixed-gender sports clubs.
Neturei Karata’s anti-Israel advocacy and action continue unabated today and, if anything, has grown even more extreme. Its leaders have met with high-ranking Hezbollah officials on several occasions; they participated in a Global March to Jerusalem, at the conclusion of which they laid a wreath at the tomb of Hezbollah terrorist Imad Mugniyeh; and they met with Hezbollah leader Sheikh Nabil al-Kauk during a conference in Lebanon about the Israeli “mistreatment” of Palestinians.
In October 2005, Neturei Karta leader Rabbi Yisroel Dovid Weiss issued a formal statement criticizing Jewish attacks on Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad who, after all, was merely “yearning for a better, more peaceful world” as he echoed the peaceful beliefs of the Ayatollah Khomeini “who always emphasized and practiced the respect and protection of Jews and Judaism.” The following year, several members participated in the Teheran Holocaust Conference, where they praised Ahmadinejad to the assembled Holocaust-deniers for his call to wipe the Zionist regime off the face of the earth and told Iranian television reporters that the Zionists had collaborated with the Nazis, thwarted efforts to save Jews, and used the Jews murdered in the Holocaust to promote their own nefarious political scheme. The group embraced – indeed, kissed (see exhibit) – Ahmadinejad during his UN visit in 2012.
Moshe Hirsch, leader of an activist branch of Neturei Karta, served in Yasser Arafat’s cabinet as “Minister for Jewish Affairs.” In 2004, members of the sect participated in a prayer vigil in Paris for a mortally ill Arafat and a sizable group of its followers attended his funeral in Ramallah. Leaders publicly urge support for Hamas and, as part of a “Gaza Freedom March,” they celebrated a Shabbat in Gaza to demonstrate their strong support for the terrorist group.
The Neturei Karta, strong supporters of the Nation of Islam, met with Minister Louis Farrakhan while participating in the International Islamic Conference in Chicago (2000). During a press conference, the group defended Farrakhan, arguing that his characterization of Judaism as “a gutter religion” and calling Hitler “a great man” were purposely misconstrued by the Zionists and their supporters. A contingent of the sect participated in the Madrid Peace Conference (1991) – as Palestinian delegates.
The Neturei Karta uses these notorious enemies of Israel for propaganda purposes every bit as much as they are used by them for the same reason. Dressed in traditional Chassidic garb and referring to themselves as “Jewish Rabbis,” they always make certain that these meetings are photographed for dissemination in the mass media. Their leaders frequently appear for interviews on Al-Jazeera and Press TV (Iran’s government-run English language satellite news network), during which they explain that even the Jews do not support Israel in general and its usurpation of Arab and Palestinian land in particular.
In the wake of the horrific attack on the Chabad House in Mumbai in 2008, the Neturei Karta issued a leaflet suggested that the attack was divine retribution for Chabad’s maintaining relations with Zionists and the Zionist State, and it criticized Israeli officials for attending the funerals of the victims.
Today, the Neturei Karta is a transnational organization with branch offices in New York, London, and Vienna, although their numbers are still very low. It continues its strong advocacy of a “one-state solution” – a Palestinian state – and it refuses all indicia of Israeli citizenship, including boycotting Israeli products and refusing to use Israeli coins and stamps; some even go so far as to carry pseudo-passports to prove their identities without suggesting any possible association with the “Zionist Entity.” They hold annual ceremonies on Israel’s Independence Day, which they consider a greater tragedy than the Holocaust, and they regularly participate in Palestinian Nakba Day processions. On Purim, group members conduct celebratory public burnings of Israeli flags in cities throughout Europe and Israel, and they attend the annual Salute to Israel parade in New York only for the purpose of setting Israeli flags afire and holding up signs such as “Israel is a cancer for the Jews” and “Free Gaza.”
Some argue that the Neturei Karta acts in what it perceives to be the Jews’ best interests and that, even if its followers are mistaken, they should be respected for their uncompromising ideological integrity in the face of almost monolithic Jewish opposition. However, as Norman Lamm cogently argued, that “integrity” is not matched by intellectual honesty, as the sect, which refuses to recognize that Jewish tradition embraces divergent views, supports its positions by misapplying halachic methodology to non-legal aggadic texts.
Jews should always handle disputes amongst themselves internally and not air their dirty laundry in public and, indeed, while other anti-Zionist charedi sects generally limit their fundamental disagreements with Zionism and Israel to their own communities, the Neturei Karta is conspicuous with its “in your face” approach, as it takes every step to publicly draw attention to their belief in the illegitimacy of Israel to the world. At the end of the day, although it is still a fringe group small in number, its anti-Israel advocacy and its prominent public embrace of the Jews’ greatest enemies does great harm to the Jews that they profess to love.