Wednesday, April 22, 2009

What motivates Neturei Karta's anti-Zionism?

I recently watched Jonathan Hoffman debate Aron Cohen - the Neturei Karta representative notorious for standing loud and proud with Israel's worst enemies - on Iranian government controlled Press TV.

What was striking about the interview was Aron Cohen being challenged on his own turf, a message being sent to those watching, that he does not stand for Jews, he is not the proud ambassador his Iranian sponsors make him out to be.

So hats (or should I say fur hats) off to Jonathan Hoffman for challenging Aron Cohen on his own turf. Ethics of the Fathers teaches that "in a place where there is no man - be a man". Jonathan Hoffman is stepping up to the plate - he is leading the fight. We should all be grateful - and follow his lead.

But there's more going on here, the debate really got me thinking, and I wanted to try and collect some of those thoughts here:

The arguments expressed in this debate represented deeply opposing world views - and in the few minutes the participants were given - these views were not explored.

Aron Cohen became part of Neturei Karta Judaism through independent choice - he was born into a mainstream Orthodox Jewish family - and it is presumable that he was attracted to the spiritual purity that Hassidic Judaism strives for. Through their separate clothes, extreme dedication to Torah study and observance, Neturei Karta achieve what they strive for - life in a vacuum - as far away as possible from any possible hint of distraction or spiritual compromise.

Part of this religious attitude, I think, fundamentally involves resisting change and idealizing the past. For example, the fur hats (streimels) worn by Aron Cohen and other Hassidm are only recent additions to Hassidic Jewish culture. In fact, there is very little that is Jewish about these hats in their origins - and contrary to what some might say - Jews did not wear them at the splitting of the Red Sea. Originally worn by aristocratic non-Jewish Poles, these fur hats were adopted by the Hassidic communities in Eastern Europe and only recently came to be considered essential religious items in these communities.

Before I get carried away and criticize an attitude that is fundamentally backwards looking and not forwards looking, I should say that, being an Orthodox Jew, I am sympathetic to this backwards looking world-view. Passing values onto children is difficult without some kind of fondness for what was. Whether it was Psalmist remembering Zion by the rivers of Babylon, or the Hassid making sure he has the right type of fur hat, a people in exile longs for the past. When it ceases to do that, it is no longer in exile. On an individual level too, religion seeks comfort and inspiration in what is. Never mind that God reveled himself to Moses for the first time as "I will be as I will be" (Exodus 3:14 - a statement inherently dedicated to eternal evolution in the future). Many look to God for comfort. What is new, what threatens the status quo, is uncomfortable. It should be shunned.

Aron Cohen and Neturei Karta's attitude to Zionism should be seen through this lens. Zionism represents a breaking with the past, a refusal to accept historical fate and an attempt to shape a destiny through human action. This emphasis on human action is the polar opposite emphasis of what is Neturei Karta's focus - inertia accompanied by blind faith. This is why they can't stand Zionists.

So Aron Cohen would be right if he said that he represents an Orthodox Jewish world-view. He certainly does. But he actually represents one particular form of an Orthodox Jewish view, and one that is certainly not exclusively Jewish - it can be found all over the place - certainly in Islam and Christianity.

So the claim to represent the only Orthodox Jewish world-view needs to be exposed for what it is - elitist and misguided. He needs to accept that not all Orthodoxies are backwards looking, and that change does not necessarily mean loss.

Apparently he refuses to travel to Israel, but if he did I would be happy to take my cousin on a tour of the country's Hesder seminaries, institutions designed to allow male soldiers to combine Torah study with their compulsory military service. These boys have a love for Torah study he would want for his own grandchildren, but by refusing to come here - he refuses to acknowledge this. There are plenty of other examples of Orthodox Jewish Zionism that refute Aron Cohen's claim to be the only Orthodox Jewish world view. But I will leave him with one thought, if he is reading, which I hope he is.

When the Jews left Egypt they found themselves in a difficult situation. Up ahead was a sea - right behind them was an Egyptian army going for the kill. Moses prayed. And what did God say?
Why do you cry out to me? Tell the Israelites to go forwards! (Exodus 14:16)
The miracle at the Red Sea happened after human effort.

The holocaust - in which Aron Cohen and I lost family members - is the most recent historically relevant event to the Exodus story. Zionism, which was a response to the antisemitism that was to cause that tragedy, is a human effort that echoes Exodus 14:16.

1 comment:

David Rosenstark said...

Equating Neturei Karta with other sects of Chasidic Judaism is an insult to Chasidic Judaism as a whole. This sect does not show extreme dedication to torah study, since they are very active in protesting and being "out there" and making themselves heard instead of poring over their study books. What great scholarship has this group produced? Had his goals been as you wrote, there would have been other more appropriate sects for him to join.