In an unassuming corner-house in the maze of terraces in Stamford Hill lives a man who, despite his sombre dress and quiet courtesy, knows how to make the headlines. On December 27th, to mark the third anniversary of attacks on Gaza, he joined others gathered outside London’s Israeli Embassy to protest against the acts – and the very existence – of the state of Israel.
He wishes to remain anonymous, but once inside the house introduces Rabbi Elhanan Beck, a small, serious man dressed in the same, sombre dress: a long black coat over formal clothing, sidelocks curling down from beneath a black fedora that hides his kippah. These two men are part of the Neturei Karta, an ultra-orthodox Jewish collective that actively opposes Zionism.
As conflict flared up again in Palestine and Israel last autumn, photographs began to circulate on social media and mainstream press of the burning of Israeli flags in Stamford Hill and elsewhere. Dismissed by some on Twitter as “heavily tokenized nutjobs” and embraced by others as “ethical activists”, there is a lot of confusion about what this strand of ultra-Orthodox Judaism stands for, and why.
Eastlondonlines met with some of the men behind the flag burning rituals in Hackney to find out more.
Neturei Karta translates as ‘Guardians of the City’ or, less literally, ‘Guardians of Judaism’. “There is no such thing as a Jew without Judaism. Judaism is not a nation, it’s a religion” says the unnamed man, “Everything we’re going to talk about from here onwards is based on this”.
“Zionism is a secular movement. Imagine if a group of people came along claiming to be Muslim, but they didn’t follow the Qu’ran, they didn’t pray, they didn’t believe in God. And they said they wanted to lead the Muslim people and speak for the Muslim people of the world. It would not be accepted.”
“Our religion has been hijacked. Neturei Karta is just a group of people who feel they have to publicize this.”
The room around them is lined, wall-to-wall, with books of Jewish scripture and learning. “Religious people don’t want power or politics – their one purpose in life is to be close to God,” he goes on, “But we have to fight against political people, powerful people. We are fighting an uphill struggle”.
So how many members of the Neturei Karta are there? “We’re definitely growing. Very much so,” says the unnamed man, “It’s hard to measure in numbers – people don’t sign on the dotted line” he smiles, ducking the question. “We don’t have ‘members’ and ‘leaders’.”
What do they say to the criticism from within the Hasidic community that their ideology represents very few? Here, Rabbi Beck, who has been silent with his eyes cast downward until now, joins in: “All Orthodox Jews are basically anti-Zionists. You never see an Israeli flag in Stamford Hill, do you? If they’re not anti-Zionist, they are ‘non-Zionist’ – they don’t care.”
The two men reminisce about a man who, on the evening of Israeli Independence Day, walked into a café on Oldhill Street (a heavily Hasidic shopping street in Stamford Hill) with an Israeli flag. “People were crying, shouting, wanting to break his car” Rabbi Beck says, animatedly, “Hundreds of [Hasidic Jewish] people chased him out. Really, hundreds. These things are not welcome here”.
They describe the Israeli flag as “the most hated thing that any Jew can stand for” and Rabbi Beck, a teacher at an Orthodox Jewish school in the area explains that a few times a year the flags are burned, on the streets by adults, and in some schoolyards by supervised children. He says it is gestures like this that set them apart from other anti-Zionists in the community. “Burning a flag looks a bit too extreme. Even if they [other anti-Zionist, Orthodox Jews in Stamford Hill] agree with the principles behind it, they may not always agree with everything we do.”
The Neturei Karta make no bones about the fact that these rejections of Israel are on religious grounds, above any principles of politics or human rights.
“Every Jewish person should be horrified by what is happening. But I don’t want to give the wrong impression,” says Rabbi Beck, “We are here for human rights also, but mainly for religious reasons”. His companion adds, “Human rights are part of our religion. We have to be peace loving people. But this is about the desecration of God’s name.”
The two men take turns in explaining the deeper, scriptural issues they have with Zionism. They say the Jewish people were exiled from the Holy Land by God for sinning and an oath was sworn not to take back Israel until the Messiah comes.
Possibly the strongest criticism of the Neturei Karta is that they attended a 2006 “Holocaust Denial Conference” in Tehran, which many say was an act of alliance with anti-Semites. The pair deny any allegiance.
“We all lost our families in the holocaust. We are horrified at anyone who denies it,” says the unnamed man. Beck adds that his late father – one of the most active figures in the history of the Neturei Karta – was imprisoned in a bunker for two years during the Holocaust in Budapest. “It is impossible for people who have been through this to deny it”.
They say the Neturei Karta attended the conference in acknowledgement of the Holocaust, but in rejection of its links to the State of Israel. “The Zionists have built up their whole state on the basis of the holocaust and the guilt that came out across the world because of it,” says the unnamed man. “They say, ‘because of what the Germans did to us, what was allowed to happen, we’re going to throw out all these Palestinian people. We’re going to kill people.’ What’s one got to do with the other? Why do the Palestinian people have to pay for what the Germans did?”
Neturei Karta have groups across Israel, the United States, Canada and Britain. For more information, and news about upcoming activity in Hackney and worldwide, visit their website.