While Duvid Feldman was attending a conference in Tehran last week that questioned the reality of the Holocaust, back home in Monsey, his 10 children were “suffering” at the hands of other ultra-Orthodox children thanks to “foolish” media coverage of the event, his wife said Tuesday.
In Manchester, England, Aharon Cohen, another conference attendee, returned home to find his house besieged by other, mostly Orthodox Jews outraged by his participation in the same gathering.Meanwhile, as of last Sunday, Rabbi Moishe Arye Friedman was still in Tehran, afraid to return home at all. He feared that Austria, his home country, might prosecute him for attending the conference under a law that makes it a crime to deny the Holocaust, punishable by up to 10 years in prison.
“He was worried,” Feldman related, though he hastened to add: “I don’t think it’s serious, because he did not deny the Holocaust.”
It is a fact that the six black-garbed, ultra-traditionalist Jews who so visibly attended the conference — sponsored by Iran’s Foreign Ministry to “review” the Holocaust — described its terrible reality last week pointedly and poignantly. It was, they said, Nazi Germany’s ruthless genocide of European Jewry. They did so before an audience that included former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke, Holocaust denier Robert Faurisson and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who has questioned the Holocaust and called for Israel’s liquidation, even as Iranian scientists work feverishly to develop nuclear capabilities.
“It would be a terrible affront to the memory of those who perished to belittle the guilt of the crime in any way,” Cohen told this crowd, as reported by media at the event.
But it is also true that these Orthodox speakers denounced Israel’s existence as an absolute evil and blamed Zionism, in the words of one, “as the foremost reason for the Holocaust itself.” In his own speech, Cohen charged that Zionists have used the Holocaust to “give legitimacy to their illegitimate project” — the creation of Israel.
The six publicly embraced Ahmadinejad for the cameras of world media as the Iranian president hailed them — visual “proof” he was not, as the West proclaimed, an anti-Semite. After the conference, he granted them a private meeting.
Now, the reaction has set in. And for the first time since its founding in 1935, some questioned the continuing viability of Neturei Karta, the tiny, uncompromising splinter group with the in-your-face style of anti-Zionist activism.
“I think it’s a fatal error,” said Rabbi Norman Lamm, the former president of Yeshiva University and author of a monograph on the group. “They went so far out that any rational Neturei Karta member or anti-Zionist would be repulsed”
It was to be sure, far from the first time that activists of Neturei Karta — a loosely organized affiliation of anti-Zionist, ultra-traditionalist Jews — had been criticized by other Jews for their highly public anti-Israel activism.
The group originally splintered off from Agudath Israel, another ultra-traditionalist Orthodox organization whose anti-Zionist zeal it found wanting some 70 years ago. Its adherents view the founding of Israel as a Jewish state as a desecration of Judaism — even after the Holocaust. Citing their (hotly disputed) interpretations of certain texts from the Song of Songs, the Talmud and Maimonides, they hold that Jews are bound by oath to God not to return by their own efforts to their spiritual homeland as sovereign rulers. They are, instead, to wait patiently for the coming of the Messiah, who will redeem them. Meanwhile, say Neturei followers, Jews must bear any and all oppression from non-Jews in the diaspora as a mark of and purge for their sins, and live peaceably with all. Except followers of Zionism, the ultimate apostasy, which must be fought fiercely. Over the years, Neturei protests in front of Israeli consulates and embassies decrying what they view as Zionist atrocities against the Palestinians have offered the news media a highly visual man-bites-dog story. The group also forged a strong bond with Yasir Arafat, the late leader of the Palestinian Liberation Organization, who appointed one its leaders, Rabbi Moshe Hirsch, his minister of Jewish affairs.
An Israeli intelligence Web site, the Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center, has highlighted PLO documents purporting to show that Hirsch received some $55,000 from Arafat in 2002.
Other anti-Zionist Orthodox groups have shrunk from making common cause with armed and violent enemies of Israel, who were after all, killing fellow Jews, albeit Zionist ones. Nevertheless, Neturei Karta benefited from a certain degree of stoic indulgence from such groups — until this week. Since Tehran, the outcry from other anti-Zionist hareidi Jews has been deafening.
In Williamsburg, Brooklyn, two factions of the large Satmar chasidic sect, locked in a long-running war against each other, paused to separately condemn Neturei Karta’s latest escapade.
Their condemnations were especially notable because the Satmars’ late, hallowed leader, Rabbi Joel Teitelbaum, was Neturei Karta’s long-time hero for his own fierce anti-Zionism — even after he himself was rescued from the Nazis as part of a deal brokered by the Hungarian Zionist leader Rudolf Kastner. Even deeper in the Orthodox world’s far right, the ultra-traditionalist, zealously anti-Zionist Eda Haredit in Jerusalem — a coalition of various chasidic courts and haredi groups in which Neturei Karta itself sits —attacked the Tehran six.
“That tiny group of weirdos is liable to incite hatred against haredim,” warned an editorial in Ha’edah, the community’s newspaper. Editor Shmuel Popenheim, who wrote the editorial, told The Jerusalem Post: “Regardless of what they said at that conference, the very fact that they participated gave Ahmadinejad the justification to say: ‘Look, the haredim feel the same way we do about the Holocaust.’ ”
With reviews like this from ideological soul mates, the storm of condemnation raining down from more mainstream Orthodox groups, such as Agudath Israel and the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations, just added volume to the outcry. The denunciations of non-Orthodox mainstream groups, such as the Anti-Defamation League, seemed superfluous.
“We definitely are in agreement here,” said Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, sounding a rare note of unity with his haredi counterparts. “This was an abomination. There are lines you simply don’t cross.”
The Tehran six and their supporters were unapologetic and unbowed. Feldman, who returned from Tehran Monday, insisted that reaching out to Israel’s most powerful and violent enemy — a sponsor of anti-Israel terrorist groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah — with Neturei’s militant anti-Zionist message would, in the end, save Jewish lives.
“We present to these so-called enemies of Jews that Jews are not against them,” he said, “that Jews are willing to work with them, to get along with them. We refuse political Zionism, and we see them put hate aside.” Feldman claimed to have found in Ahmadinejad a man who hated Zionism, not Jews. At the conference, he said, the Iranian president did not speak of a desire to “wipe Israel off the face of the map,” as he was quoted saying earlier this year. The translation of that quote was under dispute, in any event, he said. More importantly, Ahmadinejad did not mean by the statement that he would kill Israel’s Jews or throw them into the sea:
“He meant the Zionist regime will end similar to what happened in the Soviet Union, where it ended in a very peaceful way,” said Feldman.
Another Neturei activist argued that even if Ahmadinejad were a Jew hater, there was in Jewish history a long and respected tradition of reaching out even to such leaders to save Jewish lives, or, at least, reduce hatred of Jews. Asked in that vein if he had brought up with Ahmadinejad the captivity of three Israeli soldiers kidnapped last July by Hezbollah, which Iran sponsors, Feldman replied, “We felt this was not the right time” since the relationship was still new. In a possible reference to Iranian Jews jailed by Iran, he said, “We did bring up other issues regarding individual Jewish suffering where we thought the president could help.”
Feldman extolled Ahmadinejad’s vision of a de-Zionized Palestine in which Jews could live — as a minority — in one state together with West Bank and Gaza Palestinian Muslims and Christians, and Palestinian refugees now living elsewhere. He dismissed the notion they might be oppressed under such a regime, noting the peaceful coexistence that broadly characterized much of Jewish history in Muslim lands, albeit with Jews accepting their role as second-class citizens.
“Jews are, unfortunately, in exile,” he said. “And exile is meant to be second-class citizenship.”