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Just ten minutes’ walk from bustling downtown Jerusalem is the district of Meah She’arim, home to the most inaccessible ultra Orthodox Jewish community in the world. It is a labyrinth of narrow, winding alleyways, and the apartment blocks are rickety, cramped and overcrowded. This is a poor community where life is dominated by religious conservatism and a dislike for outsiders. Enter this neighbourhood improperly dressed, and you risk being pelted with rubbish or stones, or even attacked with mace gas.
In the heart of this labyrinth is a prominent building with a large black flag hanging horizontally from the roof, symbolising a state of perpetual mourning. On the walls are signs in Hebrew, English and occasionally Arabic: “Zionists are not Jews, only racists,” says one. “Arabs yes, Zionists no,” says another. “Zionism is the holocaust of the Jewish nation,” says a third, and finally: “we mourn the 62-year existence of the state of Israel.”
This is the headquarters of the Neturei Karta, or “Guardians of the City,” one of Israel’s most controversial radical sects. Their male followers look no different from other Ultra Orthodox Jews, wearing black coats and hats, and bushy beards and ringlets. They live in Jerusalem and have been there since before Israel was established, but they have always maintained that the State has no right to exist.
Inside the building, amidst the sound of chanting from a distant room, and surrounded by bookshelves that strain under the weight of leather-bound scriptures, sits Rabbi Meir Hirsh, the leader of this organisation. A diminutive man in his late forties, he conducts himself with an air of considerable gravity. “God exiled us from our land two thousand years ago because of our sins,” he tells me in a surprisingly sonorous voice, “and He forbade us to return until the Messiah comes. The Zionists have rebelled against God’s will, captured Israel and turned it into a secular state, destroying the very root of Judaism. For as long as the State of Israel exists, “ he continues, “I will be telling the world that true Jews hate Zionism and everything it stands for. This is my life’s mission, like my father before me.”
It is significant that Rabbi Hirsh mentioned his father; he has recently died, leaving his son to shoulder the burden of leadership alone. Moshe Hirsh was a legendary figure, who led the Neturei Karta to prominence over a decade ago when he accepted a position in Yasser Arafat’s Palestinian cabinet, as Minister for Jewish Affairs. In this role, Moshe Hirsh argued consistently that Jews should be living as minority religious communities within an Arab-controlled state of Palestine. “For thirty years I never left my father’s side,” says Rabbi Hirsh as the sound of chanting rises and falls in the background. “He was a righteous man, and a close friend of Arafat. During the intifadas we met Arafat every two weeks. Arafat was a wise leader, and very genial.” And, the Rabbi insisted, absolutely not corrupt.
It is the substantial links between the Neturei Karta and the Palestinian factions that alienates them from mainstream Orthodox opinion. Although some Orthodox groups have a degree of sympathy with their rejection of the secular Israeli state, consorting with the enemy is one step too far. In recent years, representatives of the Neturei Karta have been ramping up their high-profile relationship with Israel’s most hostile neighbours. In 2006 they were welcomed with open arms by President Ahmadinejad in Iran, and this year they spent the Sabbath as honoured guests of Hamas, after entering the Gaza Strip with an aid convoy. The photographs from events such as these are striking. The sight of black-clad Ultra Orthodox Jews being embraced by Ahmadinejad and Hamas leaders can only stick in the throat of the vast majority of Jews around the world.
“Our Arab friends have never shown us any anti-Semitism,” says Rabbi Hirsh, “because we have no quarrels with them. Through using our influence with Hamas and Fateh, we have been able to stop many suicide attacks. We tell them they should be targeting soldiers, not ordinary people.”
I put to him that it is a tribute to Israel’s democracy that the Neturei Karta is tolerated at all. He shrugs. “We exist because God wills it,” he says simply.
I find it a relief to leave Meah She’arim and rejoin modernity. With the aid of an Arabic coffee, I sit in a café and reflect. The existence of the Neturei Karta is symptomatic of the complexity that surrounds one of the most intractable conflicts in the world. This is a region where politics is as tangled as the Gordian Knot, and resists all attempts at simplification.