Ahmadinejad's allies in black

When Natorei Karta members turn up, the press reports a serious Jewish group rooting for Ahmadinejad.

ahmadinejad and haredi j (photo credit: AP)
ahmadinejad and haredi j
(photo credit: AP)
It seems almost a waste of newspaper space and ink to try and explain the actions and motives of a tiny esoteric group, representing no more than a tenth of a percent of worldwide haredi Jewry. But every time a handful of black-coated Natorei Karta members turn up at anti-Israel demonstrations, saying Psalms at Yasser Arafat's deathbed and this week at the front row of the Holocaust denial conference in Teheran, the international press reports in a typical man-bites-dog fashion in the belief that there is a serious Jewish group rooting for Ahmadinejad. So does part of the Israeli media that has trouble differentiating between bearded men in black, and harbors the suspicion that this might not actually be as marginal a group as haredi politicians have been busy claiming. Perhaps the best way to explain how out of tune Natorei Karta is with the rest of the haredi community is to start with the major crisis afflicting religious-secular relations this week, the haredi boycott of El Al over its flying on Shabbat. Many are asking how come the rabbis are instructing their followers to stop flying El Al for a one-off occurrence and allowing them to fly with other carriers that routinely operate seven days a week. The simple halachic reason is that other carriers are owned by and employ non-Jews, and are therefore not obliged to observe Shabbat, but there is a deeper explanation. The haredim see El Al, even in newly private hands, as the national airline, the only one allowed to fly the Israeli flag and as such insist that it has to comply with Jewish law. The Natorei Karta couldn't give a damn when El Al flies - they wouldn't be caught dead anyway on a blue-and-white Zionist Boeing. This doesn't mean that the haredi community has overnight accepted the teachings of Herzl and Jabotinsky - they still see Zionism as a secular and therefore negative phenomenon. But the great majority of the haredim, including most of the mainstream leaders, see themselves as an integral part of the state. It took them three generations to realize this, but after first believing that Israel was a passing phase and would soon be forced to accept some form of Gentile control and become a vassal-state, 19 years later they were astonished by the Six Day War, when the state not only decimated its goyishe enemies but liberated the ancient Jewish shrines and homelands. Most of the haredim today identify themselves with the UTJ and Shas which both take an active part in the political game, and while they still live in separate neighborhoods and towns and largely don't serve in the IDF, they regard themselves as Israelis. The younger haredim are even more patriotic, many of them holding hawkish views and are currently exploring ways of carrying out national service in emergency services like MDA and ZAKA. Some are even enlisting. Those still holding out are the members of the Eda Haredit (Haredi congregation), a term often erroneously applied to the entire community but actually referring only to less than ten percent. Those belonging to the Eda, who live mainly in Jerusalem in and around Mea She'arim and in Ramat Beit Shemesh, continue to reject the historical compromise of the haredi leadership to cooperate with the state. They don't vote in the elections and educate their children in schools and yeshivot that don't accept state funds. But even they have made their compromises. They belong to Israeli health funds, their kashrut organization, the original Badatz, is a powerful player in the national food industry and whereas in the past they fought spirited street battles with the police, relations now are cordial and they won't stage a large demonstration without a permit. Natorei Karta (Guardians of the Town) were originally the ideological and activist vanguard of the Eda. The group was founded almost 70 years ago in reaction to what they saw as a worrying ideological weakness in their community. The haredi leadership had originally been united in its adamant opposition to Zionism, demanding from the British mandate and the UN a separate representative as the original Jewish community in Palestine. But by the late 1930s, the more pragmatic leaders were already seeking accommodations with the Jewish Agency. From its inception, Natorei Karta was much more concerned with making their haredi neighbors toe the line rather than with the heretical Zionists. This was just a pre-taste of the big break in the community which came about after the founding of the state. Most of the senior rabbis and hassidic leaders opted for reluctant cooperation with the state, while the zealots stood fast to their principles. The Eda, spearheaded by Natorei Karta, found its guiding light in Rabbi Yoel Teitelbaum, who set out a comprehensive anti-Zionist ideology. At its base was an unswerving prohibition on Jews "rebelling" against the goyim and forming an independent government before the coming of the Messiah. But the decades passed, Israel was an immovable fact, accepted by most haredim, and the founding generation died out - including Rabbi Teitelbaum - and the most fanatical of the Guardians were cast out of the Eda. Riven by succession battles, they split into tiny splinter groups of only a few dozen families each, living on a couple of streets in Mea She'arim, competing in their fanaticism. Other similar sized groups exist in the haredi enclaves of upper New York State and a few others live in haredi communities in Europe. Their number is estimated at no higher than 200 families worldwide. Despite their anti-Zionism, rooting for Israel's enemies was not an original feature of the original Natorei Karta. They were much too busy with fighting the police and internal haredi rivalries. There were a number of isolated incidents, though the story of how a group of haredim tried to march with a white flag to the Arab lines at the height of the War of Independence is most likely a myth. Even the most fanatical Eda rabbi realized that an Arab victory would mean bloodshed for hundreds of thousands of Jews. At times of war, they announced days of fasting and prayers, beseeching God if not to send victory to the IDF, at least to have mercy on his people. The pro-Arab policy of Natorei Karta was mainly the invention of the self-styled foreign minister of the Eda Haredit, Moshe Hirsch, who found a way of regaining some of his group's lost stature by courting the PLO. Hirsch relentlessly sent letters and representations to foreign diplomats and journalists in the name of the "Jewish autonomy in Mea She'arim" in which he accused Israel of every possible evil. In his frequent visits to Yasser Arafat, he looked forward to the day when the Palestinians would supplant the Zionists. When Arafat formed his government-in-exile, he appointed Hirsch as his minister for Jewish affairs, though Hirsch was never to attend a cabinet meeting since they took place on Shabbat. Hirsch received the media interest he was looking for, but also was the target of great deal of hostility within his own community. He was officially disowned by the Eda and the Satmar Hassidim, who claimed that he had no right to use the Natorei Karta name. At one stage he even had acid thrown in his face by a haredi activist. Hirsch and his small band weren't dissuaded and continued paying homage to Arafat and every other anti-Israel leader in the news, from Saddam Hussein to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and turning up as permanent fixtures at every pro-Palestinian demonstration, from The Hague to Durban. It was also worth their while - according to Palestinian documents captured in the 2002 Operation Defensive Shield, Arafat had ordered the payment of tens of thousands of dollars to Hirsch. Various Israeli government agencies have kept tabs on Natorei Karta in the past and even discreetly tried to interfere with their activities, but generally the view has been that they're not worth the bother. This week's Teheran performance, however, warrants more serious attention from Israeli and Jewish organizations and not just because of any marginal PR damage that Hirsch's son and his friends might have caused. There are much more sinister implications. Even those familiar with Natorei Karta's antics were surprised by their turning up at the Holocaust conference. Unlike other participants, they don't deny the historical facts. But Ahmadinejad, Natorei Karta and other Holocaust deniers, especially those in the Muslim world, are perfect bedfellows. Not only did their presence allow the Iranians to claim that they were holding the conference "out of respect for the Jewish religion," Natorei Karta also offers a unique answer to the revisionists' problem: How do you deny an event that has been so thoroughly documented and research over 60 years? Natorei Karta doesn't deny that many Jews were murdered by the Nazis, it just rejects the accepted historical account as Zionist propaganda. Its members apportion part of the blame to the Zionists and other Jewish secular movements for "provoking" the Germans, and dispute the accepted death toll. They claim that "six million" originated in a speech by Herzl, decades before the war, and that the numbers are much smaller. Anyway, most of the dead weren't really Jewish in their eyes. Most damaging of all, they accuse Israel of inflating the Holocaust for its own narrow political interests and victimizing the Palestinians to atone for a tragedy the Zionists brought on themselves. Until now, this theory was held only by Arab propagandists and a small group of recognizably anti-Semitic supporters of the Palestinians in the West. In a world where a former US president is accusing Israel of apartheid, wider acceptance of this linkage might not be so far off, especially now that it has received a kashrut certificate from the Natorei Karta rabbis.