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‘A Jew, Not A Zionist': Interview with Rabbi Meir Hirsch, leader of Neturei Karta Palestine

reprinted from my MondoWeiss article here

(image from http://www.palestinemonitor.org/?p=1652)

Last week I interviewed Rabbi Meir Hirsch, leader of Neturei Karta Palestine, at his home in the Orthodox neighborhood of Mea Sharim in Jerusalem. Mea Sharim is a tight, crowded maze of a neighborhood with windy, dirty, dimly lit streets. Walking down a cobblestone pathway at night, with Orthodox men, women and children hurrying by on all sides, with cats scurrying in and out of dumpsters, with a yeshiva to the left and a kosher slaughterhouse to the right, one can sometimes get a flashback to a past life in an 18th-century Russian shtetl.

In the few blocks around Rabbi Hirsch’s home, the Neturei Karta stronghold in the center of Mea Sharim, one starts to see Palestinian flags scrawled on the walls, with slogans like ‘No Zionists Allowed’, ‘Zionism is Dying’ and ‘Arabs are Good’ graffiti’d in Yiddish, then crossed out, then graffiti’d again. Rabbi Hirsch’s doorbell reads ‘A Jew Not a Zionist’.

An excellent interview detailing Rabbi Hirsch and Neturei Karta’s political views can be found here-http://www.palestinemonitor.org/?p=1652. Also be sure to visit Neturei Karta’s website, www.nkusa.org!

When did your family come here?

Meir Hirsch: I am the fifth generation in this land. My family came 150 years ago from Russia. Then, Aliyah as a term, like Zionism, did not exist. People outside of Israel aspired to get to Israel in order to better worship God. When Mea Sharim was made 145 years ago, it was a wilderness at first! There were animals roaming around, people had to lock their doors!

When the Orthodox community saw waves of European secular Zionists coming, how did they feel?

The Balfour Declaration of 1918 made the people here, especially the orthodox families, very upset. There was an objection from the ultra Orthodox community, which was the majority, specifically in Jerusalem but in other parts as well. Jacob Israel de Haan was a secular Jew who became religious, and came here from Poland. He came to Palestine and at first he went to the Mizrahi movement, but was not content with their version of religion and connected with [WHO] the Chief Rabbi of the ultra-Orthodox. Because of his diplomatic connections he almost got the Balfour Declaration canceled- he had connections with Arabic leaders and British leaders. The Zionist leaders, because they saw that he was about to succeed, decided to assassinate him. When he was coming back from Maariv (evening) prayer, they shot and killed him. That led to the foundation of the Neturei Karta movement to continue to resist the Zionist movement.

De Haan was trying to make a bi-national state?

He was trying to undo Zionist aspirations towards statehood. The Zionists were progressing with their project and the Arabs were very much worried that the Zionists were trying to take their land. He met with King Abdallah of Jordan who promised him that Jews would have no problems living in Jordan or wherever he may rule, as long as they didn’t have any aspirations for political dominance.

Could you call de Haan a cultural, rather than a political Zionist?

He was anti-Zionist! He was completely detached from Zionism. All along Neturei Karta has been completely detached from Zionism in any form.

Where does the name come from?

Neturei Karta means ‘Guardians of the City’, it is an Aramaic term from the Talmud. It basically means to guard the city from Zionism entering the culture.

I lied to you, I actually know where the name comes from! [Taken from www.nkusa.org- Neturei-Karta is the Aramaic term for "Guardians of the City. The name Neturei-Karta originates from an incident in which R. Yehudah Ha-Nassi (Rabbi Judah the Prince) sent R. Hiyya and R. Ashi on a pastoral tour of inspection. In one town they asked to see the "guardians of the city" and the city guard was paraded before them. They said that these were not the guardians of the city but its destroyers, which prompted the citizens to ask who, then, could be considered the guardians. The rabbis answered, "The scribes and the scholars," referring them to Tehillim (Psalms) Chap. 127. (Jerusalem Talmud, Tractate Hagiga. 76c).] So the Zionists in this metaphor are the armed guards of the city, and Neturei Karta represents the scribes and scholars who keep the truth alive?

Well in the passage, the armed guards were the Romans who had conquered Jerusalem, so they actually were the ‘destroyers’.

A (Hirsch’s wife, who wished not to be named): This passage is referring to the time of the destruction of the Second Temple. Then, the scribes and the scholars literally were the guardians of the city in that, through the merit of their Torah learning, they watched over the city. But the name ‘Neturei Karta’ does not mean they are guarding over the city physically, but ideologically- they are guarding the city of Jerusalem from the ideas of Zionism.

MH: There were also ‘destroyers’ of the city who were not Roman. In the time of the 2nd temple’s destruction, there were a group of Jews called Beriyonim, the ‘Bullies’, the family of Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai. They resisted the Romans, they decided not to surrender to the Romans at all. They were called Haruvei Karta, the Destroyers of the City. While everyone else accepted the Romans, they were adamant about not surrendering. And that is why the Romans destroyed the Temple, because of this resistance.

There’s a growing movement of reform and secular Jewish opposition to Zionism, in Israel and around the world. What is the relationship between this movement and Neturei Karta’s Orthodox opposition to Zionism?

The difference is that secular Jews are opposed to Zionism for humanitarian ideals which are basically Gentile, while Neturei Karta’s objection to Zionism, though it is also because of the humanitarian ideas, is drawn from religious commands. This is why our objection is much stronger, because it is based on religion.

The secular and reform anti-Zionist movement shares with Orthodox opposition a valorization of diasporic Judaism, but for different reasons- secular Jews feel happy and productive in their various countries, whereas for the Orthodoxy diaspora is our God-given lot until the coming of Messiah….

There is a similarity, but there is a fundamental difference because again, the Orthodox argument is based on a divine command to stay in the diaspora, while the secular Jewish ideas are based on humanitarian values.

What’s the difference between humanitarian moral ideas and divinely commanded moral ideas?

In Syria people are resisting the totalitarian regime. A humanitarian person would object to what’s going on, and would care about what’s going on there. However, in Israel the state is using religious symbols to justify oppression. For example its name, Israel, is the name given to Jacob in the Torah. Whereas anyone would care about humanitarian catastrophes going on in Syria, this is the basis of Neturei Karta’s objection to the religious aspect of Israel’s crimes.

Would you compare the State of Israel to the Jewish people’s sin of worshipping the Golden Calf?

It is much worse than worshipping idols, because while you are worshipping the Golden Calf, you are a Jew who worships wrongly, who worships other Gods. But Zionism comes in order to fundamentally remove the roots of Judaism, it aims to destroy the Jewish people.

A: Zionism claims the Jews need a nationalistic state, they need a land and a language like all other countries. Jews are not based on a land and a language, they are based on following God’s commandments, whether they live in Russia or England or anywhere.

I want to ask about the Three Oaths. (Talmudic passage cited by religious Jews as forbidding a Jewish state in Palestine)

One of them is ‘do not rebel against the nations of the world’- when the Jewish people are in diaspora, they should not rebel against the powers-that-be. The second one is ‘do not go up the wall’. ‘Go up’ is ‘aliyah’. There is no problem with living in the land of Israel, but Jews should not make a pilgrimage, we should not go there en masse. The third one is do not hurry the end- there should be redemption at the end of days, but there is nothing we can do to rush it.

I am curious- one of the Three Oaths is that Jews should not rebel against the nations of the world. Many revolutionary Communists, socialists, anarchists, etc. of the 19th and 20th centuries were Jewish. Were they violating the Oath by rebelling against states?

That is true, but the ones who did that were not Jews. They were fully secular, and therefore not part of the Jewish people anymore. So it was not against the divine command anymore, because they did not do it as Jews.

It is often said that the Messiah will come only and exactly when the world falls completely to pieces. Is the existence of Israel and its effects upon the world a sign that, because things are getting so bad, the Messiah will come soon?

We are not prophets, so we do not know! According to the Torah, the Zionist State of Israel should not exist, so it will be unmade.

The Book of Joshua details the migration of the Jewish people out of the desert into the land of Israel, and their slaughter and expulsion of the land’s inhabitants. What do you think of those who justify the modern-day creation of the state of Israel by citing this biblical precedent?

Because Zionism is coming to destroy the Jewish people, they have no right to do this. Attempting to come and use a Biblical ideal to justify their actions is blasphemous, it is like mixing light and dark.

Some religious Zionists say that Palestinians are descended from Amalek, the so-called eternal enemy of the Jewish people. What do you say to this? [Deuteronomy 25.17-19- "Remember what Amalek did to you on the way as you came out of Egypt, how he attacked you on the way when you were faint and weary, and cut off your tail, those who were lagging behind you, and he did not fear God. Therefore when the Lord your God has given you rest from all your enemies around you, in the land that the Lord your God is giving you for an inheritance to possess, you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven; you shall not forget."]

This is brainwashing propaganda by the Israeli Zionist media machine. It has nothing to do with Torah. Zionists are actually Amalek! The Chofetz Chaim said that he who goes against Judaism is from the seed of Amalek! And so therefore Zionists are from the seed of Amalek.

Something else I’ve heard is that the Arab world hates the state of Israel because of a deep-seated Muslim hatred of Jews, turning the Israel-Palestine conflict into a ‘holy war’ between Islam and Judaism.

This is a very big distortion of history. If you go throughout 3000 years of history, the big persecutions of Jews were always in Christian, not in Muslim countries. The classic example is the deportation from Spain, where Jews, deported from Christian Spain, found refuge in Muslim countries. But you don’t have to go that far- in the Holocaust time, Jews found safe havens in many Muslim countries.

How is Neturei Karta received by the rest of the Orthodox community?

Almost all Orthodox Jews reject Zionism, and this is why almost none of them enlist in the army. Although many receive funds from the government and involve themselves in the politics of the Zionist state, they reject Zionism’s ideals. The impression is that Orthodoxy supports Zionism but this is not true. They cooperate, they go hand in hand with it but they do not agree with it ideologically. They have gotten used to it. But the difference between them and Neturei Karta is that we desire to have contact with Muslim people and Palestinian leaders.

How old were you when your father visited Yasser Arafat in Ramallah? What was it like?

I was 15 or 16. Even when Arafat was living in Tunisia my father went to him and explained that Judaism and Zionism are two opposite ideas, and that Neturei Karta aims to support the right of Palestinians to receive their national home in Palestine. I met Arafat in Ramallah and the Gaza Strip. It was very important for me, and a few days later, when Arafat spoke at the UN, he said he knew the difference between Judaism and Zionism. This was very important for me.

Were you or your father condemned by the Jewish community for this?

Of course there were objections, by settlers for example, to these meetings, but of course we don’t really care.

So you are carrying on your father’s message!

Yes.

Why is this important for you?

Zionist actions are creating a lot of hatred against the Jews, and it is important for us to make it very clear to Palestinian leaders that true Jews are anti-Zionist, to try to prevent as much as possible this misunderstanding.

There are some Orthodox Jews who simply ignore the State of Israel, refuse to pay taxes, etc. but Neturei Karta actively vocalizes and demonstrates opposition. What is the importance of this?

It is very important to be active against Zionist actions, because they are harming both Jews and the rest of the world. So it is important to maintain vocal opposition, to dispute the Zionist agenda and make it understood that the Zionists are not really the Jewish voice.

Do you go to the Kotel (Western Wall)?

Never.

Why not?

Because it has been occupied by the Zionist state, and I do not recognize this occupation.

It must be difficult for you, because it is one of the holiest places in Jerusalem!

It is hard, because it is only five minutes away from here by foot!

What do you think of international Neturei Karta members who refuse to even set foot in Israel for the same reason?

It is equally important, I believe, to be able to declare opposition from within here, to speak out against Zionist actions.

Do you think that the State of Israel will disappear and become another stain in Jewish history, like Sabbatai Tzevi or any other idol worship in the past?

Exactly.

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Occupy Wall Street AND Free Palestine

As pro-Palestinian discourse begins to make its voice heard in the worldwide Occupy Wall Street movement, right-wing organizations and individuals in the United States, including the Republican National Committee and the Emergency Committee for Israel, have denounced the protests as anti-Semitic and anti-Israel.

As the people-powered movement for social justice and democratic equality, which began in New York City in September, has spread to more than 900 cities in 82 countries worldwide, it has generated a global discourse critical of the economic and political powers and privileges of the world’s richest 1%, and has opened a space for the 99% of humanity to come together in solidarity, united by a common struggle for freedom. As it gains momentum, its message of protest has broadened to target injustices committed not merely on Wall Street but all over the world, including the Israeli occupation of Palestine.

Among the myriad posters of protest can be seen messages like ‘End Military Aid to Israel’, ‘Gaza Supports the Occupation of Wall Street’, and, from Palestine, ‘Occupy Wall St., Not Palestine- Freedom for Palestinian Political Prisoners!’ There have also been many organized events in support of Palestinian rights- to give just two of many examples, on Tuesday October 18, Jewish Women for Justice in Israel/Palestine held an event in Boston entitled ‘Occupy Boston, not Palestine’; on October 8, at an anti-war rally at Occupy Chicago, speaker Hatem Abudayyeh, executive director of the Arab American Action Network, discussed the links between Israeli occupation and American imperialism.

As the voice of Occupy Wall Street grows louder and more compelling, right-wing voices have, predictably, risen to attack the movement in any way they can. Pointing out, among the innumerable signs and posters of Occupy Wall Street, a few deplorable manifestations of anti-Semitism, and conflating these with many more genuine criticisms of the State of Israel, conservative Zionist organizations- such as the Emergency Committee for Israel, who released a video on the 13th insisting that ‘hate is not an American value’ (days before board member Rachel Abrams would use her blog, following the release of Gilad Shalit, to call Palestinians “death-worshiping, innocent-butchering, child-sacrificing savages’, ‘devil’s spawn’, and ‘unmanned animals’)- have used the moment to kill two birds with one stone. On the one hand, they can repeat their familiar mantra that ‘to question Israel is to persecute the Jewish people’, thereby shielding Israel, in the thick of this storm of popular revolt, from legitimate criticism; simultaneously, they can smear Occupy Wall Street as a hateful movement, defending their class interests as card-carrying members of the 1% by seeking to delegitimize a mass uprising which questions their power.

To be sure, Occupy Wall Street has shown the world a few instances of genuine anti-Semitism. When a protester insists that “the smallest group in America controls the money, media and all other things. The fingerprints belong to the Jewish bankers. I am against Jews who rob America. They are one percent who control America. President Obama is a Jewish puppet. The entire economy is Jewish. Every federal judge in the East Coast is Jewish”, we can discern an irreducibly anti-Semitic leap of logic that, by positing Judaism as the root cause of 21st century corporate and political dominance, blindly swipes at economic, judicial and ideological power structures, ignorantly and erroneously reducing their complexity to a single ethnic explanation- ‘it’s the Jews’. “From the 13th century expulsion of England’s Jews”, says Ryan Jones in Israel Today magazine on Sunday, October 16th, “to the 19th century Russian pogroms to the Nazi Holocaust, sour economic conditions have historically formed the backdrop of rising anti-Semitism”, and it is pitiful that, 100 years after ‘The Protocols of the Elders of Zion’, such superstitious belief still bubbles up, obscuring clear comprehension of the real enemies.

Yet many of those who have spoken out against anti-Semitism in Occupy Wall Street employ a no less nefarious method of ideological obscurity when, in the same breath, they attack those who speak out against the Israeli occupation of Palestine. Consider this paragraph from the Israeli news outlet Ynet- “Among the signs that could be seen in the protest were, ‘Gaza supports the occupation of Wall Street’, ‘Hitler’s Bankers’, and a sign urging people to Google the following: Wall St. Jews, Jewish billionaires, Jews & Federal Reserve Bank. In addition, the anti-Israel group Code Pink: Women for Peace was spotted as well as other Arab groups.”

A statement like ‘Gaza supports the occupation of Wall Street’ is not an ignorant racist slur aimed at the Jewish people as an ethnic group, but a cogent political critique of the state of Israel as an occupying power. By claiming that this statement, or that the anti-war group CODEPINK, is anti-Semitic, pro-Israel forces are using a favorite time-tested tactic- shooting down legitimate political criticism of Israel the militarized nation-state, by falsely portraying such criticism as racism aimed at the Jewish people.

The day after the Emergency Committee for Israel published their political ad- which juxtaposed footage of Democrats Barack Obama and Nancy Pelosi expressing support for Occupy Wall Street, footage of a few harsh-anti-Semitic outbursts that regrettably occurred on the streets, and photos of pro-Palestinian signs like ‘Gaza supports the occupation of Wall Street’, ending by reminding the viewing public that ‘hate is not an American value’- columnist MJ Rosenberg correctly identified in an opinion piece for Al Jazeera that “the Emergency Committee for Israel is not concerned about anti-Semitism or Israel. It is, rather, dedicated to defeating Democrats and promoting its billionaire donors’ economic interests…[using] Israel and Jews as devices to direct money and votes toward the Republicans.”

By super-imposing anti-Semitism upon Occupy Wall Street and the pro-Palestinian struggle, it seeks to stain the left and portray the right as the guardian both of Israel and ‘American’ values. The insistence of right-wing political groups to attack Occupy Wall Street and defend Israel shows to what extent the corporate interests of the American 1% desire a strong Israel to safeguard their imperial programme. By portraying Occupy Wall Street as both anti-Israel and anti-American, then, their actions reveal the very American-Israeli ideological, corporate and military power network they seek to obscure, and highlight, for those who can see past this smokescreen, the common struggle shared between those fighting the occupation of Palestine, and those supporting the occupation of Wall Street. Implying that a strong Israel wants a weak Occupy Wall Street, then, it pits the Occupy Wall Street 99% on the side of Palestinian freedom, and the 1% on the side of Israeli occupation, thereby revealing the contours of battle lines that have already been drawn.

The Occupy Wall Street protesters are clearly realizing that there is a direct economic, political and ideological link between the corporate power they confront on Wall Street, and the Israeli occupation that the Palestinian people confront on a daily basis. As John J. Mearsheimer and Stephen M. Walt said in their 2007 book ‘The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy’, “American taxpayers’ money has subsidized Israel’s economic development and rescued it during periods of financial crisis. American military assistance has strengthened Israel in wartime and helped preserve its military dominance in the Middle East…as of 2005, direct U.S. economic and military assistance to Israel amounted to nearly $154 billion (in 2005 dollars), the bulk of it comprising direct grants rather than loans…remarkably, Israel is the only recipient of U.S. economic aid that does not have to account for how it is spent. Aid to other countries is allocated for specific development projects…but Israel receives a direct lump-sum cash transfer…another form of U.S. support is loan guarantees that permit Israel to borrow from commercial banks at lower rates, thereby saving millions of dollars in interest payments.” (23-28)

Now more than ever, America pours economic and military support in Israel’s direction for political reasons. “The problems that the United States and Israel face in [the Middle East],” Mearsheimer and Walt remind us, “have not lessened….indeed, they may well have grown worse. Iraq is a fiasco, Israelis and Palestinians remain locked in conflict, Hamas and Fatah are battling for dominance within the Palestinian community, and Hezbollah’s role in Lebanon is deeply troubling. Iran is still seeking to acquire full control of the nuclear fuel cycle, groups like al Qaeda remain active and dangerous, and the industrial world is still dependent on Persian Gulf oil. These are all vexing problems, and the United States will not be able to address any or all of them effectively if Americans cannot have a civilized conversation about our interests in the region and the role of all the factors that shape U.S. foreign policy, including the Israel lobby.” (Preface, xi)

By beginning to link a critique of American corporate domination with a critique of American foreign policy in Israel, Occupy Wall Street seeks to initiate such a civilized conversation. The difficulty of speaking about Wall Street’s influence on the American-Israel relationship, however, lies between the signs ‘Zionists control Wall Street’ and ‘Google Wall St. Jews’-  both found at Occupy Wall Street- where a delicate and slippery slope separates a significant and objective factual trend (that the rise of neoconservative economic and political hegemony favors a strong Israel) from a dangerous anti-Semitic generalization (that ‘Jews control Wall Street’).

As Phillip Weiss correctly pointed out on October 21, “the neoconservatives who arose…to justify the military occupation of Palestine and American military support for it have helped to corrupt American politics. The neoconservative rise was aided…by the Israel lobby. I don’t think any analysis of our foreign policy can get anywhere without dealing with these facts.” Two equally dangerous Fascisms confront level-headed analysis of this neoconservative Zionism- the anti-Semitic Fascism of pointing the finger at an ethno-religious group rather than a concrete neoconservative interest group, and the pro-Israel Fascism of threatening anyone who dares point a finger at American-Israeli imperialism with charges of anti-Semitism.

The Arab Spring, where it sprung up, sought to throw off the yoke of dictatorship within a single country; Occupy Wall Street seeks to disentangle the American dream from a diffuse and all-pervasive system of economic, corporate, and ideological oppression; the Palestinian people seek to liberate themselves from a foreign occupier of their soil. What unites these diverse movements is the struggle for collective liberation. As the BDS movement said in their statement ‘Occupy Wall Street, not Palestine’, released October 13, the same day as the Emergency Committee for Israel’s video- “Our aspirations overlap; our struggles converge. Our oppressors, whether greedy corporations or military occupations, are united in profiting from wars, pillage, environmental destruction, repression and impoverishment. We must unite in our common quest for freedoms, equal rights, social and economic justice, environmental sanity, and world peace. We can no longer afford to be splintered and divided; we can no longer ignore our obligations to join hands in the struggle against wars and corporate exploitation and for a human-friendly world community not a profit-maximizing jungle.”

    The paranoid racism of the few Occupy Wall Street protesters who blame Jews for capitalist corporate domination is deplorable. No less deplorable, however, is the effort by right-wing Zionist power groups to use the specter of anti-Semitism to squash criticism of Israel as an oppressive occupying power. The sparks of pro-Palestinian solidarity that flare up at Occupy Wall Street should be fanned into a flame, as part of the struggle to secure ‘liberty and justice for all’ in the 21st century.

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