(Mark Kerrison/In Pictures via Getty Images)

March 12, 2024   5 mins

At London’s weekly anti-Israel protests each Saturday, one can often find a small group of strictly Orthodox Jewish men — always men or boys, never women. Generally no more than a dozen, they hold signs with wording such as “Judaism: Godly and Compassionate. Zionism: Godless and Merciless”, or “Authentic Jewry Worldwide Never Recognised the State of Israel or Jerusalem as its Capital”. At the bottom of the placards, there is inevitably a mention of either “NKEurope” or “NKUSA”. “NK” stands for “Neturei Karta”, Aramaic for “Guardians of the City”, the name of the group the men belong to.

The Neturei Karta are around 5,000-strong, at most 0.03% of the world’s Jewish population, although only a fraction of the group attend such rallies. They are not the only anti-Zionist Jews to join these protests, but it is their presence which seems to attract the most support in anti-Israel circles. The reason is obvious. People who are not part of a specific minority often seek to paint an easy picture of what that minority “looks like” — and, to the non-Jewish eye, the Neturei Karta look like stereotypical Jews. Male members will wear a shtreimel, the round fur hat worn on the Sabbath and Festival days, and a bekishe, the black frock coat. They will grow beards and peyos — long sidelocks. The message they propagate also chimes closely with what many extreme anti-Israel ideologues believe: that they are against Zionism, not Judaism, and that the two things are not simply unconnected, but antithetical.

For these reasons, pictures of the Neturei Karta are widely shared, with the suggestion — openly encouraged by the signs they carry — that they are “real” Jews, and the majority of the world’s Jews who support Zionism are in fact fake. When, for instance, someone shared a picture on X of the Neturei Karta at a London protest, William Dalrymple, historian, podcaster and co-founder of the Jaipur Festival, responded saying “They are heroes” (a statement he later deleted). Dr Shola Mos-Shogbamimu, the lawyer and academic, shared a video of a Muslim man thanking this group at a New York protest “for condemning Israel [sic] genocide of the Palestinians”.

It seems highly likely that many of those who believe this group deserves praise do not understand the underpinning of their beliefs or are aware of the full range of their actions. It seems a worthwhile task, then, to clarify who the Neturei Karta are and what they believe.

Perhaps we should begin with a news report from last month, citing the anti-fascist magazine Searchlight. It detailed how one “Aharon Cohen”, a Neturei Karta member, addressed the extreme Nationalist “New Right” group in London, led by former National Front member Troy Southgate. Lady Michelle Renouf, best known for strident support for some of the world’s most infamous Holocaust deniers, including David Irving, was reportedly also present.

One member of the New Right group subsequently described the meeting, saying: “While the Zionists use antisemitism as a big club to batter the goyim over their heads, for the devout Torah-true Jews it is a sign that they are doing something wrong. The Rabbi [sic] differentiated what he said was the ancient bigotry of antisemitism with the response particularly in the Muslim world to Zionist atrocities, and said the actions of the Zionists endanger Jews everywhere.”

If that sort of language sounds familiar, that is because — apart from the word “Goyim”, a Hebrew term describing non-Jews which the far-Right sometimes refer to themselves as — you could hear it word-for-word from “anti-imperialist” fans of the Neturei Karta as well.

At its heart, the group’s worldview is that if someone expresses strong opposition to Israel — no matter what else they may believe — they are natural allies. In 2006, for example, members of the Neturei Karta flew to Tehran as guests of the regime to participate in what was euphemistically termed a “Holocaust Review” conference, attended by an international array of Holocaust deniers. The Anti-Defamation League, America’s foremost organisation confronting antisemitism, noted that representatives of the group attended a similar 2017 conference in which Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei called the Jewish state a “fake country”, “a dirty chapter in history”, and a “cancerous tumour” that should be confronted “step by step” in order to achieve “the full liberation of Palestine”. In the past, Neturei Karta representatives have also met with senior Hezbollah and Hamas leaders. US-based representatives of the group have regularly appeared on Al Jazeera and Iran’s Press TV, where they have been presented as authentic Jewish voices opposing Israel and Zionism.

“Neturei Karta representatives have also met with senior Hezbollah and Hamas leaders.”

This is, however, not quite the reality. Today, while an overwhelming majority of the world’s Jewish population can be said to be Zionist, approximately 15% of the global Jewish community falls into the grouping often described as “strictly orthodox” — and support for Modern Political Zionism among strictly orthodox Jews has never been strong. The Neturei Karta was established in 1938 as an offshoot of the strictly orthodox Agudas Israel movement, which was seen as warming to the idea of

Zionism. Perhaps the best-known opponent of Zionism from within the strictly Orthodox sub-section of the Jewish community was Rabbi Joel Teitelbaum, the Grand Rabbi of the Satmar Hassidic sect, which was based in Eastern Europe prior to the Second World War. While Rabbi Teitelbaum managed to escape the Nazis, his followers were decimated by the Holocaust. Emigrating to New York in 1946, he rebuilt Satmar to such an extent that, today, it is the largest of all Hassidic sects. It is still hostile towards Zionism, which is why people often incorrectly associate Neturei Karta with Satmar.

Yet last November, one of Satmar’s religious leaders, Rabbi Zalman Teitelbaum (the great-nephew of Rabbi Joel) made it clear how wrong such an association is. He described the Neturei Karta as “those who do not have any ancestral tradition… we see how far they have strayed from the path. They are walking around the world together… in broad daylight with the Shtreimel and the Hasidic clothes and shout together with the haters of Israel and murderers of souls. This is a terrible desecration of the name of heaven, to strengthen murderers in the name of the Holy Torah and in the name of heaven.”

The grim irony is that the Neturei Karta are very much in favour of a Jewish state in the Holy Land. They believe, however, that such a state can only be established once the Messiah comes. Their bitter opposition to Israel (most of its members actually live in Israel, although there are also communities in the US and UK) is rooted both in its premature nature and because it falls far short of the theocratic paradise they wish to see instituted.

In this, in their extreme religious views, in their willingness to associate with some of the world’s worst antisemites and in their happiness to wave signs around, they are sometimes referred to as “the Westboro Baptist Church of the Jewish community”. It may seem a crude comparison, but it captures a truth: the Neturei Karta do not stand for everyday Jews. They are an assortment of unsavoury characters — and those who wish to tokenise them could soon come to regret it.

Daniel Sugarman is the Director of Public Affairs for the Board of Deputies of British Jews.