04 April '12..
Last Thursday evening I received a phone call from a rurally-located Jewish friend who told me that on Sunday evening, 1st April, he would be coming to town. He'd just read in the regional newspaper that a rabbi from Neturei Karta (see here for that group's latest despicable stunt) would be addressing the local Palestine Solidarity Campaign branch on the topic "Judaism vs. Zionism". The talk was advertised as open to all and admission free.
My friend was curious to hear what the man had to say, but the venue of the talk was unfamiliar to him. Could I give him directions? Better than that, I announced rashly, though with some misgivings – I'd accompany him.
And so it was that on Sunday evening I found myself in enemy territory. Not for the first time, for I attended one of their Israel-demonising spectaculars some eighteen months ago, causng uproar and drawing howls of derision when during question time I threw the speaker on that occasion a couple of curly ones that revealed me as a cuckoo in the nest, a devotee of the Zionist Entity.
I informed my friend of this as we waited for the Neturei Karta representative's talk to begin. "I intend to ask this rabbi some questions, but I fear the chair will refuse to call on me." Visions of that earlier meeting, and of the casual altercations I'd since had with some of the local PSC all-female leadership coven on their regular pickets of local supermarkets stocking Israeli peppers and potatoes flooded into my mind.
I fingered the "Palestine Solidarity Campaign" badge I'd souvenired from the large tables at the entrance, which displayed all sorts of goodies of the Israel-demonising kind, and contemplated wearing it on my jacket. "That way," I thought, "they might be fooled into thinking I'm someone else entirely, and will call on me when I raise my hand."
After a few "shall-I-or-shan't-I?" moments I pinned the badge to my jacket, and made sure it faced the platform prominently. But in a little while, feeling ashamed of myself and soiled by its presence, I unfastened the wretched thing and thrust it into my pocket.
The elderly, venerable-looking,white-bearded rabbi who addressed the meeting is a prominent and seasoned representative of Neturei Karta, aptly described as "the poster boys of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign". He spoke at the Teheran Holocaust conference in 2006, for instance, and appears in photographs of an "Al Quds Day" parade in London here. As he stepped to the microphone following a gushing introduction from the plummy-voiced PSC branch chairwoman, there was thunderous applause in which. to my horror, my friend courteously joined. "How could you!" I hissed, giving him a couple of well-placed jabs of my elbow. "That's disgusting!"
My friend looked slightly crestfallen but continued to clap. I assume he thought that by not doing likewise I was forgetting my manners. Now, I'm all for being polite, but there are limits
Having invoked the Almighty and trusted to the fact that only the truth would be forthcoming that evening, the rabbi, in clear British tones, and cutting a dignified figure, embarked upon his predictable spiel. Neturei Karta is not really a formal movement, he informed the gathered PSC faithful, but rather
"the name given to what we consider Orthodox Judaism in opposition to Zionism.... Basically any Orthodox Jew who expresses opposition to Zionism can be termed Neturei Karta."
By contrast, he explained, the founders of Zionism were "people of Jewish extraction": their forebears had been authentic Jews, living their lives according to age-old Judaic tenets, but they themselves were not because they did not. The heads of the PSC faithful bobbed up and down as they eagerly gobbled this up.
When talking of the "authentic Jews" who, since the Exile from the Holy Land was "divinely decreed", consider Israel "an illegitimate State", "sympathise completely with the Palestinian cause". and "would not shed a tear if the Zionist State was dismantled", the rabbi smilingly used the phrase "Jews who look like me" several times. The PSC faithful smiled back and cooed with delight. A genuine real live long-bearded Jew, in black hat and jacket, had come among them to confirm their antipathy towards Israel and to proclaim that anti-Zionism was not antisemitism; no, not at all. (Needless to say, of Yehuda Alkalai and A. I. Kook they were told not a word.)
"Judaism and Zionism are two diametrically opposed concepts," he informed them. "We wish to remove a stain on the image of the Jewish People which the Zionists have provoked" with their "horrible crimes and profanation of G-d's Name." Zionism was a "pure colonial exercise" and "the root cause of strife in the Middle East". Jewish communities had been "thriving" in Arab countries until this "recipe for disaster" emerged.
Zionists have "created a new form of identity for people of Jewish extraction" (there's that phrase again!). Judaism entails "peace, compassion and consideration for one's fellow-man, ethics, morals." Zionism is "devoid of all this". Zionists have "demonstrated that they have no compassion". Neturei Karta's "view is that the entity known as the State of Israel should be totally but peacefully dismantled". (Here the rabbi cited as hopeful signs the disappearances from the world stage of such seemingly permanently entrenched regimes as Apartheid-era South Africa and the USSR.) Again, heads bobbed up and down as all this was gobbled up.
(Midway through the talk a rather scruffy PSC hanger-on startled speaker and audience alike by jumping to his feet muttering "Apologist!" He stormed from the hall shouting "When the last Palestinian dies, that's when it will end!" Inebriated, he had somehow managed to interpret the rabbi's speech as supportive of Israel!)
During question time I was the first person called upon by the chairwoman (and most cordially to boot!). Clearly, a new hairstyle and seldom-worn jacket had worked wonders; I was not recognised until I was on my feet and talking. I informed the rabbi that I knew a thing or two about Jewish history, that I am proud to call myself a supporter of Israel, that he represented an extremist cult (the cue for a collective sharp intake of breath from PSC officials, clearly scandalised by such dissent and disrespect for their trophy Jew) and that there were many points I could raise with him but that I would restrict myself to just two questions.
The first was whether he dissociated himself from an appalling leaflet issued under the auspices of Neturei Karta in 2008, justifying in abhorrent language the murders by Islamist terrorists of Gavriel Holtzberg, the young rabbi of the Chabad House in Mumbai, and his five-months-pregnant rebbetzin (parents of a toddler thereby orphaned) together with their guests. (As I spoke I was aware of what I took to be rumblings of disapproval from people sitting in the same row as myself, but it turned out that they were gentile Zionists and they afterwards congratulated me on my question; there were, however, murmurings of displeasure from elsewhere in the room, and one middle-aged male later complained to the audience that my question showed that I was more concerned with what he clearly regarded as a trivial number of murders in Mumbai than the slaughter of thousands in Libya! Go figure.)
The second was whether Neturei Karta receives funding from the PSC and from Arab governments and/or the Iranian regime.
To the first he answered that the Mumbai killings were deplorable, as are killings that have taken place "in the other direction". He did not condone the language of the leaflet, but I had to understand that such killings were the inevitable consequence of the establishment of Israel. He likened the situation to "a robber taking over a house and having his family killed". (The PSC faithful, heads bobbing knowingly and making murmurs of agreement, reacted to that analogy as if to the pearls of wisdom of a sage.)
To the second, he emphatically denied that Neturei Karta receives such funding, apart from (as is common practice) expenses paid when he or another Neturei Karta representative attends a conference, or gives a talk.
Of about 40 people who attended the rabbi's talk, only a few asked questions, and the fact that, besides me, three spoke in support of the Zionist Entity, palpably flustered and irritated the hosts. (On the previous occasion, I'd been the only pro-Israel attendee, so this was a welcome turn of events.)
"I have been to Israel" announced a woman in the row behind me as she rose to ask a question. PSC jaws dropped as, instead of going on to lambast Israel as expected, she added "and I love them dearly." She made the point that "if G-d can take away the Land [from the Jews] He can give it back again" which needless to say was ill-received.
Another non-Jewish supporter of Israel referred to the existential threat Iran poses to Israel. But the rabbi was instantly dismissive. He had met Ahmadinejad on a number of occasions, he explained, and despite "Zionist propaganda", Ahmadinejad has no intention of having a nuclear bomb. It's said that Ahmadinejad wants "to wipe Israel off the map", the rabbi remarked, but that's not so. What Ahmadinejad actually said, he insisted to the mainly receptive room, was that Israel should disappear from the pages of history. What Ahmadinejad wants is what Neturei Karta wants: a One State Solution.
Ahmadinejad has been accused of denying the Holocaust, but "anyone who denies the Holocaust is not so much a criminal as a fool". Ahmadinejad did so "to annoy the Zionists because the Zionists use the Holocaust to justify Zionism". (Again, those PSC heads bobbed up and down as their owners gobbled all this up.)
I came away from the meeting with a feeling of cognitive dissonance. I had expected the speaker to be disagreeable in personality, and perhaps overtly male chauvinistic. In fact he was genuinely likeable and invariably civil. I warmed to him on a personal level, while abhorring his views. No doubt his attractive personality makes him all the more effective as an anti-Israel spokesman, and all the more dangerous.
While the rabbi was talking my friend sketched him, and afterwards presented him with the result. I don't know what its fate was, but could not help thinking that if reviving Jewish sovereignty by human agency transgresses "authentic" Judaism as Neturei Karta maintains, then so does any truck with "a graven image" ...
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