The pro-Palestinian organization Students for Justice for Palestine released a statement together with other groups condemning the controversial ultra-Orthodox sect Lev Tahor’s “colonizing efforts” in Guatemala. It also insisted that the group is Zionist, despite the sect’s own self-description of rejecting the Jewish state.
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“We recognize that any and all anti-Zionist work must also be anti-colonial, and that the community of Lev Tahor cannot be anti-Zionist, due to their threatening of and lack of respect for indigenous peoples” the statement reads. Those signed on to the statement, including several SJP chapters, “recognize the connections between the system of settler-colonialism that displaces, disenfranchises, and kills Palestinians and the ongoing genocide of the indigenous peoples of Abya Yala,” using an indigenous term for Latin America.
Lev Tahor was founded by an Israeli, Shlomo Helbrans, in the 1980s and is in fact fiercely anti-Zionist, rejecting the State of Israel and preaching that the Jewish promised land can only be established by God, not men. The group shuns technology and its female members wear black robes from head to toe, leaving only their faces exposed, leading the sect to be nicknamed the “Jewish Taliban.” It is estimated to be comprised of 500 members, many of them children.
The April 27 statement, circulated on social media inviting additional groups and individuals to sign, declares that “indigenous people” have the “right to defend their land against any form of invasion, settler-colonialism, capitalism, neocolonialism, or any other exploitative and violent practices that infringe upon their rights.”
It continues: “We reject the violent and colonizing influence and presence of Zionism in Guatemala and in any and all indigenous land. We denounce the one-year sentence of ex-mayor, Rodolfo Pérez y Pérez by the judge Miguel Ángel Matta Guardia and call for an immediate end to further investigation and potential charges.”
The statement refers to a court ruling on April 3, when the former mayor of the small town San Juan La Laguna in western Guatemala was sentenced to a year in prison for using “coercion” to forcibly expel Lev Tahor members from his town.
The Haredi sect was forced out of the village in 2014 following religiously tainted disputes with Catholic Mayan residents. The residents resented the behavior of members of the sect, who refused to greet or have physical contact with anyone outside their community. Lev Tahor had maintained a small presence in San Juan La Laguna, a village about 90 miles west of Guatemala City, for about six years, but it expanded considerably after a large contingent arrived from Quebec complaining of persecution by Canadian authorities, which accused the sect of child abuse and neglect. The tensions reached a boiling point after Lev Tahor reportedly attempted to impose some of its practices on locals. After the expulsion, the group then moved to Oratorio, a village 30 miles east of Guatemala City.
Lev Tahor leaders have charged that their treatment by Guatemalan authorities is due to anti-Semitism.
The SJP statement rejects this claim, saying that “these false accusations not only perpetuate settler-colonialism and genocide against Pueblos Originarios, but are particularly dangerous at a time when the convergence of white nationalism and Zionism simultaneously endangers indigenous populations in Mesoamerica and across the world and removes the support and attention necessary to defend Jewry around the world from real anti-Semitic violence.
"We encourage a reaffirmed solidarity and the building of an international decolonial movement that supports indigenous peoples and seeks to deconstruct all forms of settler power.”
In order to counter the accusations and defend itself, the fiercely anti-technological Lev Tahor group opened a Twitter account to rebut the SJP statement, taking greatest offense at being called Zionist.
“Hi, the Jewish community of Lev Tahor is one of the strongest Jewish opposition to Zionism (not by their number of followers, but by their religious beliefs).They are real exile Jews, peace full with their neighbors. The source of all the persecutions against them are the same Zionist entity that fight Palestinian. As you can see in their rescue website and you will find out that the Zionist entity are behind their deportation from place to place Lev Tahor members participate in many rallies to denounce the action of the Zionist against Arabs and against the True Religious Jews.
The Israeli government recently took a strong legal position against Lev Tahor.
On April 25, a ruling by an Israeli court declared that the sect was a “dangerous cult” that is abusing children. The court petition was made by families of Lev Tahor members in an attempt to increase pressure on the Israeli government to repatriate Israeli children living abroad with the sect and try to prevent others from being taken out of the country.
Judge Rivka Makayes wrote in her decision that evidence showed "the Lev Tahor community treats the children of the community ... with severe physical punishment, with underage marriage ... with spouses who sometimes have age differences of up to 20 years, according to the Ynet news site.
“In addition there is a punitive policy toward members of the community that includes the separation of children from their parents – even in infancy – and the transfer of children to be raised in another family; preventing formal education and isolation from the outside world and all external sources of information."
JTA contributed to this report.