Shoah was God's punishment against the Jews for Zionism. But how do you get from that ideology to Iran's Holocaust deniers' fest? Sitting at the oilcloth-covered dining room table in his Mea She'arim home, Yisrael Hirsch, leader of the Israeli branch of Natorei Karta, says he is in favor of Iran's drive to become a nuclear power. "Certainly I'm in favor of it. [President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad needs nuclear weapons to create a balance of power with Israel and the other countries in the region," says Hirsch, 51, looking like a bearded haredi version of Scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz with his frizzy peyot, or sidecurls, sticking out of the sides of his head.
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So the thought of a nuclear Iran doesn't worry him?
"No, I'm only worried Israel will use something like a nuclear bomb to attack Iran's facilities, and then we'll get hit back," says American-born Hirsch, wearing old-fashioned plastic-frame glasses, an unbuttoned white shirt under a dark blue sweater, and black, three-quarter-length gabardine pants meant to be tucked into long black stockings.
Hirsch, whose ailing father, Moshe, bequeathed him the role of Natorei Karta's unofficial "foreign minister," was not able to join the seven Natorei Karta delegates from England, the US and Austria who attended the recent Holocaust denial conference in Teheran, because Iran does not grant visas to Israelis.
But Hirsch spoke to the delegates frequently by telephone, and the reports he got were excellent. "They were very impressed by Ahmadinejad," he says. "They say he is a very, very, very wise man."
During our interview, Hirsch's manner is genial, and he brings me tea and tissues for my cold. Though he is a native speaker, he says he doesn't like to give interviews to the Hebrew-language media because "they always twist what I say." Otherwise, he takes every opportunity to talk to the media "to further our campaign to reduce the world's hatred for the Jews, which exists because of the crimes of the Zionists."
But he won't let me accompany him on his daily rounds - which he says he spends "praying, researching, distributing the books we publish, collecting for charity" - because he doesn't want to be seen in the company of a reporter or photographer, as followers of Natorei Karta "hate the media."
Hirsch is very practiced at talking to reporters. At first he gestures easily with his hands, but as my questions become more pointed, he folds them across his chest, and his expression says he's growing tired of this latest public relations exercise.
I ask him if he or any other Natorei Karta member would accept an invitation to a conference sponsored by Meretz ("no"), Likud ("no"), the National Religious Party ("no") or even United Torah Judaism ("no"). "These are all Jews who deny what a Jew is," he says, "so we cannot cooperate with them."
But when asked if he would like to meet and talk things over with Osama bin Laden, he smiles and says, "The whole world wants to find him and nobody has yet. It's hard for me to say what his intentions are, but certainly, yes, I'd like to explain our views to him, and I believe that if I could talk to him, I could make him understand."
NATOREI KARTA'S followers in Israel "certainly number in the thousands," Hirsch says, adding that there are additional thousands in London, Antwerp, Vienna, outside Montreal and in New York's haredi enclaves of Williamsburg, Monsey and Monroe.
But Bar-Ilan University Prof. Menachem Friedman, a leading expert on haredi society, puts the number of Natorei Karta adherents at somewhere between 200 and 300 worldwide. And even a majority of them, while still being fiercely anti-Zionist, keep their distance from the likes of Hirsch and the delegates to Teheran.
These furthest-out Natorei Karta types, says Friedman, number "only a few dozen" in Israel, living in Mea She'arim and other haredi sections of Jerusalem, Bnei Brak, Ramat Beit Shemesh and Ashdod. In the whole world, there are "fewer than 100" of them, he says.
Few as they are, they've achieved a mighty high profile, carving out a unique niche in the international oddball file: The Jews whose best friends, and maybe only friends, are the world's most notorious anti-Semites.
For the last quarter-century, a shifting line-up of a half-dozen to a dozen Natorei Karta "notables" have been meeting with Palestinian leaders. Hirsch's father Moshe even got to be "minister of Jewish affairs" in Yasser Arafat's cabinet. And the sect's connection with Iran, says Friedman, goes back to the regime of Ayatollah Khomeini, who conquered the country for Islam in 1979.
But the pilgrimage to the Holocaust denial conference in Teheran was probably the most outrageous move Natorei Karta has ever made. It's bad enough to side with Israel's enemies in the name of anti-Zionism, but to take part in a conference dedicated to showing up the "myth" of the Holocaust, as Ahmadinejad puts it - that goes beyond anti-Zionism or even collaboration with Israel's enemies. Lending a hand to Holocaust denial - and a Jewish hand at that - is helping to do Hitler's work.
Natorei Karta was condemned throughout the haredi world. Rabbi Aharon Cohen, one of the delegates, required police protection upon returning home to Manchester after his mainly Orthodox Jewish neighbors threw hundreds of eggs at his house. In Jerusalem, the haredi Badatz, or religious court, distributed flyers reading: "We strongly denounce the participation of people calling themselves ultra-Orthodox Jews... who joined Jew-hating gentiles to commit an awful desecration of God throughout the world."
The radically anti-Zionist Satmar sect, which is closest on the haredi map to Natorei Karta, pronounced a herem, or excommunication, on the delegates to the Teheran conference, accusing them of "acts of insanity," of "walking hand in hand with the Arabs and giving the certificate of approval to those who spill Jewish blood."
NEVERTHELESS, HIRSCH says that neither he nor any other Natorei Karta follower in Mea She'arim has been harassed either physically or verbally since the conference.
Not even a threatening telephone call?
"Nothing," he says. "It was a bigger deal for the Israeli media than it was for anybody around here."
He lives with his wife and six children on Rehov Honi Hama'agel, just inside one of the stone tunnels, or "gates," that leads from Rehov Slonim into the narrow, impoverished alleys of Mea She'arim. Mounted above the tunnel on the Slonim side is a sign that reads, "Jews are not Zionists. Zionists are not Jews, only racists. We pray to God for an immediate end of Zionism and their occupation." The sign, which Hirsch takes credit for, is painted in red, black, green and white - the colors of the Palestinian flag.
A few blocks into Mea She'arim, where the grimy walls are covered with layers of pashkovilim, or haredi denunciation posters, the graffiti across from Natorei Karta's two tiny synagogues, Ohel Sarah and Beit Baruch, read "Palestinian territory," and "Death to the Zionists."
When I found Hirsch's address, I went up to the open front door on the ground floor and asked for him. Without looking at me, a bundled-up, visibly burdened woman standing in the doorway replied dryly, "Who is he?" I asked a young man standing inside the apartment where I could find Hirsch, and he glanced at me quickly, turned away and pointed his finger upward. Hirsch was right - on Natorei Karta's turf, the people aren't very forthcoming to reporters.
Glued to the door of Hirsch's second-floor apartment is a sticker that reads: "A Jew, not a Zionist" - which is the same sticker, only in Hebrew, that the Natorei Karta delegates in Teheran wore for the cameras.
The exterior of his apartment, with its gleaming new stone tiles and wood awning, presents a sharp contrast to most of the shabby surrounding homes. The dining room looks old-fashioned European, but the walls appear newly and elaborately textured; there is no trace of poverty here.
Money is a touchy subject with Natorei Karta. When the IDF confiscated Yasser Arafat's documents in a 2002 raid, they found records of payments totalling $55,000 from the Palestinian Authority to Moshe Hirsch, minister of Jewish affairs.
Some of Natorei Karta's critics assume Iran is paying off the sect's "notables," too. Yisrael Hirsch, however, denies that his father ever got money from Arafat, or that anybody in Natorei Karta receives money from Iran. He dismisses such talk as "incitement." Asked how he and his fellow sect members support themselves, he replies, "Contributions."
In fact, Natorei Karta did once receive contributions from an anonymous "Jewish millionaire," Friedman says, but that source has dried up.
NATOREI KARTA, Aramaic for "Guardians of the City," first surfaced in the late 1930s when a group of Jerusalem haredim identified themselves by that name in a petition against the Zionist leadership's tax on city residents for protection against Arab assailants. The movement argued that Zionism was bringing the Arabs' wrath down on them, which remains the heart of Natorei Karta's politics today.
The movement made the leap from virulent anti-Zionism to high-profile conscription into the ranks of Israel's leading enemies, as well as the world's most outspoken anti-Semites, around 1980. Friedman attributes the escalation to the void in leadership left by the deaths of Natorei Karta's two dominant figures, Rabbis Amram Blau and Aharon Katznelbogen, in the 1970s. "This touched off an internal leadership battle, and one of the factions, mainly the younger people, went toward the extreme trend," he says.
But why would these haredim disgrace themselves in the eyes of the whole Jewish world by enlisting not only in the cause of terror-driven Palestinian nationalism, not only behind the most violent, anti-Semitic kinds of Islamism, but even in the service of Holocaust denial?
"They realize they are so marginal, so negligible that they have no other way of getting noticed except through outrage and sensationalism. Otherwise nobody would know they exist," Friedman says.
Hirsch, of course, traces the development of Natorei Karta's foreign policy differently. "About 30 years ago there were buses in Jerusalem being blown up [by Palestinian terrorists] and among those getting killed were haredim. The situation was terrible, and people felt helpless. So my father got the idea - which I also agreed with - that the Palestinians weren't distinguishing between Jews, so we should go to their leaders and explain to them that we [haredim] are not part of the conflict, that we're not Zionists."
He hastens to add that Natorei Karta did not tell the Palestinians that it was all right to kill non-haredi Jews, saying, "We have always spoken against it."
Soon Hirsch's father was Arafat's court Jew, and Natorei Karta became the PLO's Jewish rejectionist front, arguing not for a Palestinian state alongside Israel but for a Palestinian state in Israel's place.
Hirsch remembers meeting the late Palestinian leader several times. "He was a very wise, thoughtful, polished statesman," he recalls. "He had the Palestinian national interest at heart, of course, but he also understood our concerns."
Hirsch says he has also met with various prominent Hamas figures, including Abdel Aziz Rantisi before he was killed in a 2004 Israeli air strike.
In New York, Natorei Karta members have met with Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, who, before he started watching his tongue, incited huge audiences with the crudest, most incendiary sort of Jew-baiting.
Still, Hirsch maintains that "Farrakhan is not an anti-Semite. He talks about Jews, but he means Zionists. It's the battle between Jews and Palestinians that's caused the problem."
EARLY THIS year in London, Natorei Karta Rabbi Yosef Goldstein testified in defense of a local mosque preacher, Abu Hamza al-Masri, who was ultimately sentenced to seven years in prison for inciting his congregation to murder non-Muslims. During the trial, Masri testified that Jews were "blasphemous, treacherous and dirty" and were the reason "why Hitler was sent into the world." Goldstein, taking the stand on Masri's behalf, testified to their "friendly and cordial relationship."
I asked Hirsch: If Ahmadinejad isn't an anti-Semite, and Louis Farrakhan isn't an anti-Semite, and none of the other militant Islamists in the Middle East or the West are anti-Semites, then who, other than the Zionists and their gentile supporters, of course, is an anti-Semite?
"I can't name a single one," he replies.
What about neo-Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan?
"They're influenced only by the Zionists' crimes, not because of hatred of the Jews. In this generation, the only anti-Semitism that exists was caused by Zionist crimes against the Palestinians," he says.
It is part of Natorei Karta's doctrine that the Holocaust was God's punishment against the Jews for Zionism. To Hirsch's credit, he did use the expression "may his name be erased" after mentioning Hitler.
It also must be understood that the adherents of Natorei Karta are not themselves Holocaust deniers. Rabbi Aharon Cohen, the one from Manchester, was quoted in Teheran as saying the facts of the Holocaust are not in doubt, and that it would be "a terrible affront to the memory of those who perished to belittle the guilt [sic] of the crime in any way."
The delegation's purpose at the conference, said Rabbi Yisrael David Weiss of Monsey, was "to reveal to the world the use that the Zionists make of the Holocaust." Furthermore, said Cohen, the Zionist idea that the Jews must depend on themselves to prevent a second Holocaust, and not necessarily on God, is heretical to Judaism.
But while they are not Holocaust deniers, the Natorei Karta delegates in Teheran and their colleagues, like Hirsch, are obviously collaborators with Holocaust denial. When I suggest this to Hirsch, he acknowledges that the Teheran conference hall was filled with people who claim the Holocaust is a figment of Jewish propaganda.
"But that's not my affair," he maintains. "If they want to deny the Holocaust, the Torah does not require me to change their minds. If they want to accept it, they can accept it; if they want to deny it, they can deny it."
Inside the conference hall, the Natorei Karta delegates and the Holocaust deniers chatted with each other. "We told them," says Hirsch, "that the Zionists cynically exploit the Holocaust."
Representatives of the sect first met Ahmadinejad in Iran in March. They renewed their acquaintance in September when they visited him at his hotel in New York when he was there for the UN General Assembly. Hirsch wasn't part of the New York delegation, but again, he was filled in on the details.
"The meeting lasted about an hour," he says. "Ahmadinejad's aides kept telling him his plane was waiting, but he would say, 'I'm in no rush.'"
And if that's not proof enough of Ahmadinejad's sincere regard for Natorei Karta, Hirsch goes on to tell a little story about the gold plant the New York delegation gave the Iranian leader as a gift. When some of those New York delegates met Ahmadinejad again in his Teheran office during the Holocaust denial conference, Hirsch says, "they saw that he had all these gifts from different heads of state and other important people lined up on display - and the gold plant we gave him was third from the front."
IN THE SAGA of Natorei Karta's hook-ups with the likes of Ahmadinejad, Farrakhan, Arafat and Rantisi, there is one little conundrum: These Muslim leaders are not so ignorant as to think their Jewish admirers represent any larger body of Jewish opinion. They must know that Natorei Karta is the lunatic fringe of the fringe.
Hirsch, however, maintains that he, his father, the seven fellows who went to Teheran and the various other Natorei Karta emissaries have won their hosts' respect for being authentic religious leaders.
"The Arabs are convinced," he says. "They know that we are the ones who represent true Judaism."
In Friedman's view, though, the Islamic warriors, Holocaust deniers and other anti-Semites who host Natorei Karta have no regard for these Jews whatsoever, but they realize what this minuscule sect has to offer them. After all, how many people out there know that these grinning haredim, who were swarmed over by the media in Teheran, represent no more than a few dozen of the world's 13 million Jews? How many people know that the informed Jewish world considers them anathema?
"The Iranians know what a valuable asset they are," says Friedman. "There are a lot of idiots in the world, and Ahmadinejad can use Natorei Karta when he denies the Holocaust to say, 'You see? Even the Jews admit it.' And in the end, a lot of people will believe him." n