ahmadinejad and haredi j.
(photo credit: AP)
For decades, the Jewish community just barely tolerated a small, fiercely anti-Zionist sect as its members traveled the world, denouncing Israel's existence and embracing its enemies.
But when a delegation from Neturei Karta hugged Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad at a conference questioning the Holocaust last month, that was too much.
Now, the ultra-Orthodox group is being ostracized on three continents, denounced by rabbis, banned from synagogues and harassed in the streets.
"They brought shame on the Jewish people," said Rabbi Shimon Weiss, a leader of the Eida Haredit, an umbrella group of ultra-Orthodox Jews based in Israel. "If they come to a synagogue, they will be kicked out. They disgust us."
In telephone interviews from their home cities in England, the US, and Israel, members of the group say they were misunderstood, never denied the Holocaust and were simply trying to protect Jews from Iranian attack if war breaks out in the Middle East.
"We know what we have done, we know the value of what we have done, and we think that in the course of time that will come out clearly," said Rabbi Ahron Cohen, a Neturei Karta member from Manchester, England.
When Cohen returned from Iran, he needed police protection. His house was barraged by hundreds of eggs, his window smashed by a brick and a billiard ball, and he continues to be pelted with pebbles, eggs and insults in the street, he said.
Last week, two tires on his Volvo were slashed, he said, and his synagogue has closed its doors to him.
Neturei Karta (Aramaic for "Guardians of the City") was founded nearly 70 years ago in Jerusalem by Jews who opposed the drive to establish the state of Israel, believing only the Messiah could do that. Estimates of the group's size range from a few hundred to a few thousand.
In recent decades, its members have shown up to protest at international conferences and pro-Israel rallies, capitalizing on the guaranteed publicity of religious Jews in black hats and beards denouncing Israel.
One acted as Yasser Arafat's adviser on Jewish affairs, and a delegation traveled to Paris in 2004 to pray for the Palestinian leader's health as he lay dying in a hospital. Months later, a group participated in a conference in Lebanon with Hamas and Hizbullah.
For years, mainstream Jewish groups, religious and other, tended to dismiss Neturei Karta as eccentrics. Then came the Holocaust conference, where five members of the group rubbed shoulders with delegates who deny the Nazi slaughter of 6 million Jews.
In photos published around the world, they were shown hugging Ahmadinejad, who has described the Holocaust as a "myth" and called for Israel to be wiped off the map.
Neturei Karta say they never denied the Holocaust or its proportions. They believe Ahmadinejad has been unfairly vilified and that they should be praised for persuading him that his anger should be directed at Israel, not the Jewish people.
"We feel that we have to do what we have to do to save Jewish lives, to protect the Jewish people from, God forbid, catastrophe ... so we have to ignore the unfortunate side effects that happened here," said Yisroel Dovid Weiss, a Neturei Karta rabbi from the New York area who was part of the delegation.
Jewish communities around the world were furious.
An Israeli chief rabbi called for banning Neturei Karta from synagogues. In New York, where several members of the delegation live, hundreds protested against them and they were repeatedly harassed with prank phone calls.
The Satmars, a Hasidic, anti-Zionist group seen by some as their spiritual cousins, lamented in a statement that "the unavenged blood of the millions of Jewish victims cries out in pain and abhorrence, to these reckless outcasts, 'How can you sink so low?"'
The Jewish community in Vienna expelled Moishe Arye Friedman, who traveled with the Teheran delegation, but does not belong to Neturei Karta.
"Most Orthodox Jews in the world lost relatives in the Holocaust," said Jonathan Rosenblum, a Jerusalem-based analyst of the religious community. Neturei Karta's action "touches a really, really raw nerve."
Rabbi Avi Shafran, director of public affairs for the ultra-Orthodox Agudath Israel of America, said Neturei Karta's trip to Teheran was the last straw.
"They have overstayed their welcome in the community. No one has patience for them," he said. "Their actions are beyond the pale."
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