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Monday, January 15, 2007

New York Rabbi Finds Friends in Iran and Enemies at Home

http://zionism-israel.com/israel_news/2007/01/new-york-rabbi-finds-friends-in-iran.html

New York Rabbi Finds Friends in Iran and Enemies at Home
FERNANDA SANTOS
Published: January 15, 2007

MONSEY, N.Y. — It was a bizarre sight: a cadre of Orthodox Jews, with their distinctive hats, beards and sidelocks, standing alongside President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran last month at a conference in Tehran debating the Holocaust.

Among them was Rabbi Yisroel Dovid Weiss, spokesman and assistant director of a small anti-Zionist group with a foothold in this town in Rockland County, home to one of the nation's largest communities of Hasidic Jews.

Unlike Mr. Ahmadinejad and most of the others present, including the former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke, Rabbi Weiss does not deny or question the Holocaust; his grandparents died at Auschwitz, as did several of his aunts and uncles, he said. What he and the Iranian president have in common, he explained, is their belief that the Holocaust has been exploited to justify the existence of Israel.

"We went to Iran because we had to let the world know, especially the Arab world and the Muslim world, that we are not their enemies," he said in an interview, a Palestinian flag with the phrase "A Jew Not a Zionist," written in Hebrew, English and Arabic pinned to the lapel of his coat. Below the Palestinian flag was an Israeli flag with a red line across it.

Rabbi Weiss and four other members of his group, Neturei Karta, received a warm reception in Iran, he said, dining with state officials and posing for photographs with Mr. Ahmadinejad, whom Rabbi Weiss had met at least twice before.

Back home, Rabbi Weiss and the others were met with anger and scorn. Since their return, they have been ostracized by synagogues, denied service at kosher stores and vilified in Jewish discussion boards on the Web. Posters have surfaced in the Satmar Hasidic enclaves of Brooklyn, calling the members of Neturei Karta "rebels" and "outcasts" and asking Orthodox Jews to "totally cut off ties with this gang."

On Jan. 7, about 300 people, most of them Orthodox Jews, including several Holocaust survivors, protested outside Neturei Karta's base on Saddle River Road here, chanting and holding signs that read, "Neturei Crackpots, Leave Monsey." A much smaller contingent of Rabbi Weiss's supporters held a counterprotest nearby.

"In some ways, I feel odd; this is about Jew against Jew, after all," said one of the protesters, Rabbi Herbert W. Bomzer, a professor of Talmudic law at Yeshiva University and the president of the rabbinical board of Flatbush, which represents about 200,000 Orthodox Jews who live in Brooklyn. "But to join together and shake hands with the mad leader of Iran is unacceptable."

He added, "If you shake hands with a Holocaust denier, you're on his team."

Mordechai Levy, the national director of the Jewish Defense Organization, a militant group that helped organize the protest, said other demonstrations were being planned, with the goal of "running Neturei Karta out of town and out of America."

Founded in the 1930s to counter the Zionist movement in what was then Palestine, Neturei Karta, which translates to "guardians of the city" in the ancient language Aramaic, has a few thousand members — in New York, the United Kingdom, Canada and in Jewish settlements in the West Bank, among other places. They believe that according to the Torah, Jews were exiled from Israel because they sinned and that God has forbidden the formation of a Jewish state until the Messiah arrives.

Many Jews who back the state of Israel abhor the group, and even ultra-Orthodox Jews who share its theological views have distanced themselves from Neturei Karta because of its vocal support of Middle Eastern leaders like Mr. Ahmadinejad, who has expressed in numerous pronouncements his disdain for Jews.

"I think they're crazy," said Ed Devir, founder of the online newsletter MonseyNY.com and chief executive of HireIsrael.com, a nonprofit group that finds technical jobs for United States citizens living in Israel. Mr. Devir said he supports the state of Israel. "For too long, we tried to ignore them, but that was a big mistake.

"Everyone knows that they're a joke," Mr. Devir added. "But the bottom line is, they support groups that want to kill Jews."

Rabbi Weiss, 54, grew up in the Orthodox neighborhood of Borough Park, Brooklyn, the son of Hungarians who fled Eastern Europe before Hitler's troops closed its borders to Jews. He married 18 years ago and has six children. The family moved to Monsey seven years ago, solidifying Neturei Karta's presence in the town.

During the group's first trip to Tehran, last March, Rabbi Weiss released a statement to Iran's official IRIB radio in defense of Mr. Ahmadinejad, saying that "it is dangerous deviation to pretend that the Iranian president is anti-Jewish and anti-Semitic." Rabbi Weiss also met with Mr. Ahmadinejad when he visited New York last year to speak to the United Nations General Assembly.

"He is extremely friendly and he understands the difference between the Zionists and the Jews who do not embrace the state of Israel," Rabbi Weiss said in an interview last week.

"We don't look at him as an enemy," he said. "But is he a potential enemy? Well, every person who continues to be incited is one, but even when we're dealing with an enemy, we're supposed to approach them with dialogue and try to placate them. Aggression is not going to be successful."

Rabbi Weiss and his group are no stranger to controversy. He traveled to France in October 2004 to take flowers to the ailing Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, who died the next month. In the past, Neturei Karta members have attended the annual Salute to Israel parade in Manhattan, burning the Israeli flag and holding signs with messages like "Authentic Jews will never recognize the state of Israel" and "Israel is a cancer for Jews."

About 200 people protested outside the Park House Hotel in Borough Park late Saturday, demanding the departure of one of its guests, Moshe Ayre Friedman, Neturei Karta's leader in Austria and one of the participants at the conference in Iran. Mr. Friedman, who at the conference questioned the number of deaths during the Holocaust, left the hotel under police escort.

"We're constantly disparaged, belittled, but we're the ones trying to make peace with the Arabs," Rabbi Weiss said. "But we don't look at the Zionists with animosity. We just wished they would give us a chance."


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