Opinion

Why the Most Fiercely anti-Zionist Rabbi in the World Just Visited Israel

The tens of thousands who thronged to welcome the head of the Satmar Hasidic court weren't really celebrating his 'triumph' over the Jewish state at all

The Satmar rebbe, Zalman Leib Teitelbaum, at a mass gathering of followers in his honor. Ramat Beit Shemesh, 19 Nov 2019
Gil Cohen-Magen

The visit to Israel of Zalman Teitelbaum, one of the two men claiming the title of third "Satmar Rebbe," the other being his older brother Aaron, has stirred much attention.

He was greeted by throngs of his ultra-Orthodox followers as he entered Jerusalem, the city from which the first Satmar Rebbe, Yoelish Teitelbaum, his granduncle, ignominiously left in 1946. He had left Jerusalem only a year after he had arrived, having failed to build and sustain a small yeshiva in the ultra-Orthodox Mea Shearim quarter. 

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Intense anti-Zionism characterized Yoelish Teitelbaum, despite having been saved from the Nazi death camps by the efforts of the pre-state Jewish Agency’s Rudolf Kastner. The fact that so many of his Hasidim were trapped in Nazi-occupied Hungary and sent to die meant his efforts to rebuild a following in the Zionist yishuv were a failure. Instead, he went to New York - and in Brooklyn managed to build what would become the largest Hasidic group in America.

That first Satmar Rebbe refused to compromise on his opposition to Zionism, and not only thrived in America but even founded his own shtetl in a New York suburb, which he named after himself: Kiryas Yoel. Although his three daughters had all married, by the time he died in 1979 at the age of 92, he had outlived all his possible son-in-law successors and his Hasidim were forced to turn to his nephew, Moshe Teitelbaum, crowning him the second Satmar Rebbe. 

That led to tensions within the Hasidic court. Not all the Hasidim endorsed this choice, and the most prominent opponent was Yoelish’s surviving second wife, Feige, who had effectively headed the group during her husband’s last years during which he was in declining health. She wanted to retain her leadership role even after her husband's demise. 

But despite amassing supporters, she was ultimately supplanted by Moshe, the new rebbe, and his oldest son and apparent heir, Aaron, who took over the leadership of Kiryas Yoel, where the widow was headquartered. The dowager rebbetzin tried to use her control of the Satmars' by now ample funds, which she dispensed to needy organizations and individual Hasidim, to buttress her position. But in the end, Moshe Teitelbaum inherited the leadership and full control of its resources.

Moshe held fast to the anti-Zionism of his uncle. Despite his initially contested reign, under him Satmar grew in numbers, expanding in its Williamsburg, Brooklyn capitol and also in Kiryas Yoel. The latter's population grew by about 25 percent every ten years. In Williamsburg alone, the Satmar yeshiva now has close to 60,000 students, up from a mere 800 in 1959. 

Yet ironically, despite the movement's institutional wealth, and as the number of his Hasidim grew, the per capita income of those Hasidim has not. In Williamsburg, large numbers lived in state subsidized housing, many relied on welfare benefits. The U.S. census revealed that in Kiryas Yoel (in many ways just a smaller version of Satmar Brooklyn, with a population just above 25,000), for the 50 percent of residents subsisting below the poverty level in 1999, their economic situation had not improved by 2018.

By Moshe’s closing years, two of his sons were vying for the crown. Aaron had for many years been the heir apparent; Zalman, brought in to Brooklyn to help his ailing father, had managed to attract a growing following who saw him as the preferred heir. Upon Moshe’s death in 2006, at the age of 91, the growing and often bitter contest between the followers of each man, became institutionalized. That contest actually abetted Satmar growth as the Aaronis and Zalis (as the followers were called) competed to show they were the true Satmar Hasidim. 

Defying the community members' own persistent poverty, each group eagerly built more institutions and gathered more resources for their rebbe - growing, overall, the Satmar brand. And for their part, the competing Rebbes, like Feige, the late dowager rebbetzin, used their financial control to dispense funds to those in need, thus drawing admirers and dependents to their side. 

All this brings us to the appearance of Rebbe Zalman in Jerusalem just now. 

One key part of his visit to Jerusalem, Ramat Beit Shemesh and Bnei Brak, was to distribute $5 million in Satmar largesse. That was a practice adopted by previous Rebbes as well. That act was not only to demonstrate Satmar's liquidity and benevolence, but a public act to show they can support those who turn their backs on the Zionist state’s coffers. Satmar is promoting the idea that they represent an alternate power center to which the haredi population can turn, rather than the Israeli state. 

This formalized almsgiving provides other benefits to the Satmar brand, as well. It helps to undo Satmar's initial failure to thrive in pre-state Palestine, marked by Yoelish’s humiliating departure in 1946. And for Zalman, temporarily at least, the coverage eclipses his brother, Aaron’s, claim to be the genuine and only legitimate heir to the Satmar throne. Undoubtedly, Israel can expect a similar visit by Aaron in the foreseeable future to erase the Zalis' advantage. 

Of course, there is a built-in dissonance to distributing money to followers in such a theatrical staging. That giving charity is transformed into such a performative act is intended to hide the poverty of the overwhelming majority of their own followers; moreover, neither leader is transparent at all about the sources of this financial bounty, except to say they have some rich supporters.

Moreover, as some observers have noted, the throngs who have greeted Zalman Teitelbaum in Israel have not really come to share in his wisdom or bask in his charisma but are attracted purely by his monetary handouts. The apparently triumphal arrival of the Satmar Rebbe in Jerusalem, his "vanquishing" of the need to engage with the Zionist state, is not really a triumph at all; it’s just a rush for the money. 

Samuel Heilman holds the Harold Proshansky Chair in Jewish Studies at the Graduate Center and is Distinguished Professor of Sociology at Queens College of the City University of New York