On May 2, 2010, Rabbi Moshe Hirsch, a longtime leader of the Neturei Karta sect, died in Jerusalem. Deeply committed to the anti-Zionist ideology of his group, with something of the showman about him, Hirsch gained great notoriety for his decision to serve as the late Palestinian President Yasser Arafat’s “advisor on Jewish affairs,” and for sending a delegation of Neturei Karta representatives to Tehran in 2006 to participate in a Holocaust-denying conference.
Hirsch was born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1923. He grew up in an Orthodox – though not ultra-Orthodox – home, and according to his cousin, longtime Jerusalem Post journalist Abraham Rabinovitch, was a good-natured and witty redhead who liked to play punchball, a baseball-like game played with a rubber ball and the hand in place of a bat. As an excellent student, when he reached college age, Hirsch went to study for rabbinic ordination at the prestigious Lakewood Yeshiva in Lakewood, New Jersey. Legend has it that a roommate there was Shlomo Carlebach, who later gained fame as the “Singing Rabbi.”
According to Rabinovitch, who eulogized Hirsch in his paper after the rabbi’s death, the turning point in his life came when the head of the Lakewood Yeshiva was asked by Jerusalem Rabbi Aharon Katzenellenbogen to choose his best student and send him to Israel to serve as a groom for Katzenellenbogen’s daughter.
Aharon Katzenellenbogen, as it happened, was one of the two founders. The other was Rabbi Amram Blau, of Neturei Karta (literally, “guardians of the city,” in Aramaic). The Mea She’arim-based group had split off in 1937 from the ultra-Orthodox political Agudat Yisrael, which was seen as being too lenient in its anti-Zionism. Neturei Karta is a non-Hasidic sect, with its members descendants of students of the Vilna Gaon, the 18th-century leader of the opposition to Hasidism. In the 1950s, Holocaust survivors set up Neturei Karta communities in New York, France and England, but Jerusalem is the center of its institutions, all of which are called, collectively, Torah Veyira (Torah and Fear of God).
The opposition of Neturei Karta to the State of Israel is less the fact that it is a secular state, not run according to Jewish law, but rather that the act of establishing the state was a rejection of a basic tenet of Judaism, that redemption would come with the coming of the Messiah, when the Jews would be restored to their homeland. According to one Talmudic passage, the Jews had promised God not to try to prematurely end their exile, or to rebel against the nations of the world, so that the decision to create a Jewish state was an act of impudence and rebellion.
Hirsch did indeed move to Jerusalem, where he married Rabbi Katzenellenbogen’s daughter, but he never became a citizen of Israel. He lived in Mea She’arim, and made a living as a dealer of etrogim (citrons) for the Sukkot festival. Unlike other anti-Zionist ultra-Orthodox groups, Neturei Karta gave their opposition a very public political complexion, reaching out to the Palestinians and other enemies of Israel to express their support in the struggle against Zionism. This was where Rabbi Hirsch was a specialist, and the hatred that his activities stirred up among other Jews, in particular in Israel, only seemed to inspire him to keep up his efforts – even after an opponent threw acid in his face in the 1990s, causing him to lose an eye.
His fine English and his outgoing personality led him to become the unofficial “foreign minister” of Neturei Karta. In 2004, while Yasser Arafat lay in a coma in a Paris hospital for two weeks, Hirsch, who had already become a confidant of the PLO leader while the latter was still in exile in Tunis, led a delegation to France to hold an extended prayer vigil for his recovery. (Arafat died that November, and Hirsch and a number of associates were in attendance at his funeral in Ramallah.)
By the time of Hirsch’s death, three years ago, he had been suffering from Alzheimer’s disease for some time, and his eldest son, Rabbi Yisrael Meir Hirsch, had taken over many of his responsibilities.
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