A cadre of Orthodox Jews with brimmed hats and long sidelocks greeted Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during his visit to the White House earlier this week, carrying a banner telling the premier to go back home. Some of the demonstrators wore cards pinned to their lapels with the Israeli flag crossed out in thick red as they stood quietly, raising signs with the phrase “Judaism Rejects Zionism.” It was a bewildering sight for passersby: observant Jews, some draped with black-and-white checkered Arab scarves, standing side-by-side with pro-Palestine activists railing against the Jewish State.
The religious movement known as Neturei Karta demands Palestinian statehood, calls for the “peaceful dismantling” of Israel and has forged friendships with Israel’s top enemies, including the leadership of Iran. They're a decentralized group with just a few thousand supporters worldwide and are considered extremists by most of the Jewish community. But as violence has spiraled in Israel in recent months, the movement has grown increasingly visible and has found new supporters in Orthodox communities, ruffling feathers in the Jewish establishment.
Founded in the early 20th century to counter the Zionist movement that wanted to establish a Jewish state in Palestine -- and ultimately succeeded -- Neturei Karta has held firm to its belief that Jews were expelled from the Holy Land by God, and are forbidden from ruling again until the messiah arrives. Many ultra-Orthodox Jews share their theological belief, but have distanced themselves from Neturei Karta [which literally translates as “Guardians of the City” in Aramaic], as the movement has promoted controversial views and has adopted a long list of Palestinian grievances.
"The Zionists say the final word is not in the hand of God but in the hand of their law system," Rabbi Moshe Dov Beck, a leading religious scholar in the movement, said, his comments translated from Yiddish. "Fundamentally, they're turning their back on the Almighty, so they have no right to carry on themselves the name Israel. Their land is not a Jewish land, it's a Zionist land."
As violence has spiraled in Israel in recent months, some analysts say the group is attracting more supporters. Much of the violence has focused around the al-Aqsa mosque, the site of ancient biblical Jewish temples, where some right-wing Jewish activists wish to pray. Palestinians widely insist there are plans to divide the mosque -- a belief rejected by Israel -- and have staged protests across Israel and the West Bank over the last two months against what they consider incitement.
The demonstrations have seen thousands of people injured and dozens killed in clashes with Israeli security forces. Israel has seen sporadic knife attacks by Palestinians, and a number of Israelis have been killed. Traditional Orthodox Judaism opposes prayer at the site on theological grounds, and Neturei Karta has become a loud opponent of those calling for prayer at the contested site, staging at least 10 protests in the U.S. in October.
Beck, an aging religious scholar with a scraggly white beard, who often wears a pinstriped garment, is today a symbol of the movement. He grew up in Budapest, Hungary, and remembers as an adolescent hiding with his brother and sister in a bunker with 25 other Jews for about half a year to avoid being taken by the Nazis. His mother was killed in Auschwitz, and after the war, he said he found refuge in the newly established state of Israel. There, he studied in religious schools that were opposed to the secularism of the new state, and ended up close with leading anti-Zionists in Neturei Karta.
Beck left Israel in 1970, and now lives in the quiet upstate New York town of Monsey, home to one of the largest communities of Orthodox Jews in the U.S. The largest group of Neturei Karta's supporters are believed to live in religious neighborhoods of Jerusalem, but they are also scattered throughout religious Jewish communities across the world. They lead insular lives, frowning upon secular education, and discourage leisurely watching television or using the Internet.
Those features make Neturei Karta similar to other ultra-Orthodox communities. But it's the group's connections with the outside world, and its penchant for protest, that has stirred uproar in a wider community that usually shuns direct political involvement.
Beck and other leaders of the movement have been hosted by Hamas in Gaza, have met with the popular pro-Muslim Brotherhood cleric Yusuf al-Qaradawi in Qatar and consider the fervently anti-Israel former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad a personal friend. Rabbi Yisroel Dovid Weiss, a spokesman for the movement, has a shelf in his dining room dedicated to gifts from Muslim leaders, including an opulent pen case offered to him by the head of Iran's parliament, with whom he said he and five other rabbis met during the United Nations General Assembly in September.
"Whoever we’ve met with, and I’ve met with tens and tens of top government officials, top religious officials in [Iran], and they all, as one, are very clear they respect the Jewish people, and they respect Judaism," Weiss said. "But even if it's true they are anti-Semitic, the proper approach is to meet with the people of this land and try and bring peace."
But some Jewish civil rights organizations insist something sinister lies behind Neturei Karta's popularity. The rabbis have become fixtures of pro-Palestine events, and opponents of Israel have pointed to the group as proof that they have no problem with Jews, just Israel.
"One of the disturbing parts of Neturei Karta is they offer a shield for a lot of anti-Israel advocates, and even anti-Semites in their ranks, because they point to Neturei Karta and say, 'Look these Jews are with us so we can't be anti-Semitic'," said Oren Segal, director of the Anti-Defemation League's Center on Extremism. "Their presence and their views enable others to be more extreme."
Samuel Heilman, a professor of sociology at Queens College of the City University of New York and an expert on Orthodox Judaism, said the group attempts to bloat its numbers, and survives more on media coverage than support. "They're a little bit like the Westboro Baptist Church, which turns out to be a single family, and it's lifeblood is the news we hear about them, and the extreme protests they carry out -- Neturei Karta is the Jewish version of that," Heilman said. "They're a symbol and they're very picturesque and they go against what most people think about Hasidim and what Jews are."
As for Beck, who is now 81 years old and noticeably growing frail, he plans to continue protesting against Zionism. "I'll continue for as long as God gives me the strength," he said.