new york | “When you’re at a Holocaust-deniers convention, you don’t want to be the guy ordering the kosher meal,” host Jon Stewart joked on “The Daily Show.” But the Orthodox world is hardly laughing at the participation of a fringe Chassidic group, the Neturei Karta, in a Holocaust-denial convention in Tehran last week.
The group drew immediate censure when video footage from the conference showed several members of the group in fervently religious garb, long beards and side-locks embracing and kissing the conference’s host, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
The Orthodox Union and Agudath Israel of America, two Orthodox groups, both distanced themselves from the Neturei Karta, emphasizing that Orthodox Judaism in no way condones Holocaust denial or the political stance of Ahmadinejad, who has called repeatedly for the destruction of Israel.
The O.U.’s executive vice president, Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb, told JTA, “They [Neturei Karta] are a small group that is often very vocal. They are embarrassing.”
The Neturei Karta, Hebrew for “guardians of the city,” believe that a Jewish state should be formed only when the messianic age arrives. Thus they consider the Israeli government heretical and believe the Israeli rabbinate is used only to “ornament their state with a clerical image,” according to the Neturei Karta’s Web site.
The group has no official central office and no supreme leader. But it has synagogues and yeshivas in Jerusalem, Brooklyn, England and upstate New York, spokesman Chaim Soffer said.
According to Neturei Karta philosophy, after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem two millennia ago, Jews lived well under Arab and Muslim rule. The creation of the state of Israel created an anti-Semitic movement within the Arab and Muslim world because Jews became oppressors of the Palestinians, Soffer said.
By meeting with the likes of Ahmadinejad, the Neturei Karta say they are working toward a peaceful solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict. That solution includes a non-Jewish state in place of Israel, where Jews can live under Arab rule, he said.
“We want to undo some of the damage that was done,” Soffer said.
The Neturei Karta, which has a membership estimated at up to 5,000, aren’t the only religious Jews who are anti-Zionist. One of the largest Chassidic sects, the Satmar, takes that stance.
The Neturei Karta routinely make common cause with noted anti-Semites and anti-Zionists, and appear at pro-Palestinian rallies. The Israel Defense Forces found that the late PLO leader Yasser Arafat paid the group, whose support helped blunt accusations that the PLO was anti-Semitic, more than $50,000.
Most felt the Neturei Karta went too far in taking part in the Holocaust denial conference.
Rabbi Avi Shafran of haredi organization Agudath Israel said his organization typically ignores the group, which tends to garner press coverage because the image of Chassidic Jews embracing anti-Semites is so striking. But Shafran called the Neturei Karta’s public display of affection for Ahmadinejad “graphic and disgusting.”
“They have given legitimacy to Holocaust denial, and generally it is the parents and grandparents of these people who suffered the most,” he said. “They have given aid to and abetted the enemy.”
Yisroel Dovid Weiss, one of five Neturei Karta rabbis who took part in the Tehran conference, said the Jewish world had misunderstood their actions.
Speaking from the Iranian capital on Monday, Dec. 18, Weiss said his grandparents had been killed in the Holocaust. He was not in Tehran to give credence to Holocaust denial, he said, but to draw a distinction between Zionists and Jews.
As far as Ahmadinejad is concerned, Weiss said, “He is not an enemy of the Jews. He never was. He is a God-fearing man, as far as we saw. He respects the Jewish people and he protects them in Iran.”
But if the Zionists keep painting Ahmadinejad as an enemy, he warned, “eventually, God forbid, he could become an enemy.”