By far the most popular people at this week's Durban Review Conference were three ultra-Orthodox Jewish men who belong to the Hassidic sect of Neturei Karta. With their long beards and peyos (ear locks), dressed in the traditional garb of black coats and fedoras, they certainly stood out amongst the throngs of cookie-cutter diplomats. Though some of the other Jewish delegates refrained from wearing their yarmulkes at the risk of provoking anti-Semitic violence, these men walked the halls of the conference undaunted. There was something else that differentiated them from the other Jewish activists: the Palestinian flag pins they wore on their lapels, and the "Zionism = Racism" signs hung on their chests.
You see, the Neturei Karta are a fringe sect who describes themselves as "the Torah-true Jews who out of loyalty to the Jewish faith strongly oppose Zionism and its outcome." Established in 1938, the sect is solely defined by their belief that Jews should only establish a sovereign state in the land of Israel when the Messiah comes, and thus any attempt to do so prematurely is a violation of divine will. Their opposition to Zionism has made them strange bed-fellows with other Israel haters, popping up at Holocaust denial conferences in Iran or protesting on the streets of Washington outside AIPAC's annual conference.
Of course they wouldn't miss an Israel-bashing opportunity like this week's conference, which they attended as part of an Iranian NGO delegation. The sight of them walking the halls with bearded Iranian men and black-cloaked women was quite dissonant, to say the least. But there they were, at any panel or event at which Israel might possibly be discussed, sitting in the audience, waiting to give Jewish credence to anti-Zionist views. (They are unabashed in claiming that their views represent the real Jewish perspective on Zionism.)
At one panel, I watched as an elderly Iranian woman, clad in a face-hugging hijab, leapt out of her seat when Rabbi Ahron Cohen, the group's leader, entered the room, eagerly offering him her seat; at another panel, the Iranian delegation saved a seat for him, and excitedly waved him over when he came in. At the Islamophobia panel I wrote about yesterday, when one of the Iranian questioners asked the panel to confirm that Zionism is a racist ideology, Rabbi Cohen raised his hand and responded in the affirmative, and voiced his support for Ahmedinejad's speech.
It should come as no surprise then that when Ahmedinejad spoke at a private dinner after his speech to a group of Iranian NGO activists and academics, the Neturei Karta representatives were at the front of the room, right next to the man who has promised to wipe Israel off the map. According to a Hungarian journalist friend who snuck into the event, when Ahmedinejad finished speaking, everyone clamored to pose for pictures with Cohen and his two cohorts.
And as much as the hundreds of Jewish activists fanned out across the Durban Review Conference to offer their opinion to journalists, the Neturei Karta were the most sought-after media spectacle, rarely walking the halls without a reporter or a camera in tow. "More than the Iranians, more than any of the other Israel haters, those Neturei Karta guys just make my blood boil," one Jewish activist told me after he was rebuffed by a journalist who instead chased after the three men.
Not one to miss out on the fun, I caught up with Cohen as he and his Iranian colleagues were making their way back to their hotel. "We are here to stress the difference between Zionism and Judaism, and the fact that Zionism is by its very nature a racist concept," says the UK-based Cohen in a surprisingly genteel British accent. "It's totally against our Jewish belief, and totally against the ideals of Jewish humanitarianism. And [Ahmedinejad] brought that home to the public."
Though Cohen seems to be agnostic about the need for a Jewish homeland, "that is not for us to decide," he says. "Our Jewish teaching is that we have to live as loyal citizens in whatever country we find ourselves, and to go against that is considered by us ... that is a very serious rebellion against the wish of the Almighty."
Cohen actually has spiritual motivations for his positions as well. "There is a natural attraction to nationalism, particularly for Jews who are no longer interested in keeping their religion," he says. "Zionism brought a possibility for people to what they thought would be a Jewish identity without the obligation of living their lives according to the Jewish religion." Thus, in Cohen's perspective, if Zionism has actually taken people away from Jewish observance, then eradicating it would help bring people back into the fold.
I ask Cohen if he feels like a patsy for people who actually hold anti-Semitic views. "We don't get that impression," he responds. In fact, he believes he is fighting anti-Semitism. "Because of the deeds and the wrong-doings of the Zionists," he says, "those who are basically inclined to anti-Semitism have said, 'Look, look what the Zionists are doing. If that is what Jews do, then our old, bigoted anti-Semitism is correct after all.'"
And at that, one of Cohen's Iranian colleagues ended the interview. "We have work to do," he said, smiling.