This article originally appeared on VICE UK.
Yesterday I stood and watched as men doused Israeli flags with lighter fluid and set them alight at a busy intersection in the heart of Stamford Hill's Hasidic Jewish community. You would be forgiven for thinking that this was a menacing pre-cursor to the much-hyped neo-Nazi "Anti-Jewification" demonstration that's supposed to be happening in the area on March 22, but the guys doing the burning were in fact Hasidic Jews themselves.
Black smoke billowed down the street, past their confused neighbors at the North London Mosque who looked on in disbelief, as one Hasid blasted klezmer music from his car stereo. Twenty others danced in a circle around the flags, shouting, "Down with Zionism!"
"The whole state of Israel is not legal from the Jewish viewpoint," said the flag burning's organizer, Rabbi Elhanan Beck, adding, "The Messiah will not be [Israeli Prime Minister] Netanyahu."
Rabbi Beck and his followers are adherents of the Neturei Karta, an anti-Zionist Orthodox sect that sees the very idea of a Jewish state as heretical. They planned it to be a cutting rebuke of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's address to US Congress on Tuesday. The flag burning coincided with the Jewish festival of Purim.
Some Orthodox Jews in passing cars beeped their horns in support. But it wasn't all cheers and dancing as some very angry neighbors confronted them. Members of London's wider Jewish community see their actions as doing more harm than good at a time when anti-Semitism in the UK, stoked by the the 2014 war in Gaza, has reached an all-time high.
"Israel can't represent us. Netanyahu is secular and doesn't believe in God," said Rabbi Beck, who has lived among Stamford Hill's 20,000-member Hasidic community for 28 years. "When you are looking at Judaism, you have to remember Judaisim is a religion: It's not a nation, it's not a race—it's a religion," he said, adding that "if somebody doesn't believe in God he's not Jewish."
In a nutshell, the Neturei Kata's beliefs are rooted in a deeply religious fundamentalist reading of the Torah, taking to heart its more than 600 laws. They believe the Jews were exiled from the Holy Land more than 2,000 years ago by divine decree after being warned to repent. What they're waiting for is a Messiah to bring them back.
"But going by force is a rebellion against God, against the wishes of God," Rabbi Beck explains. "It's like if you have a child and he's bad and you say, 'Stay in the corner for ten minutes!' If he refuses, what that says is he couldn't care less about your punishment." If it were up to the Neturei Kata, the state of Israel would be dismantled.
As the smoke from the burning flags cleared, Jacob Weisz, a member of the Neturei Karta, said he is saddened by the state of Israel's transformation of Judaism into a political, rather than a spiritual, entity. "On two levels we are against Zionism," Weisz said, both in "what they have done to the Jewish people and what they are doing now to the Palestinians. That's why we burn the flag."
The Neturei Karta chose the festival of Purim to make their stand because it represents the triumph of good over evil, Weisz said. The festival's roots lie in the Book of Esther, the story of a courageous Jewish Queen who exposed the Persian viceroy Haman's plot to destroy her people.
When Prime Minister Netanyahu addressed Congress Tuesday, he said Iran represents a similar threat today as the Persian Haman did in the Old Testament. Iran poses a grave threat "not only to Israel but also the peace of the entire world," Netanyahu said, underscoring his belief Iran is striving for nuclear weapons. "In this deadly game of thrones," Netanyahu continued, "there's no place for America or for Israel, no peace for Christians, Jews, or Muslims who don't share the Islamist medieval creed."
But Rabbi Beck said that "really the Jews have the best of times in the Muslim lands," citing Iran's treatment of its 8,756-member Jewish population, who have their own schools, their own synagogues, and a sitting MP, despite their population dwindling from 150,000 since 1948 and consistent marginalization. "Just the state of Israel," Rabbi Beck said, "creates all the hatred and all the problems that come out today."
Rather than a heroic Esther, Weisz called Netanyahu "a warmonger," who "wants to bring more bloodshed, more war into the Middle East," the thought of which he says is "heartbreaking and outrageous."
As Weisz spoke, an angry Stamford Hill resident confronted him. "I understand if you don't like Israel, but why do you go there?" she asked. "Don't go to Israel and get social security and get your children married there and get all the benefits and then come and burn the flag," she continued. "You are using manipulation," she finished before storming off, refusing to give her name.
"I don't go there to be honest," Weisz countered, and Rabbi Beck holds a Canadian passport. But the actions and stance of the Neturei Karta is of grave concern not just to some of their neighbors but also to the UK's broader Jewish community at a time when anti-Semitism is on the rise in Britain.
The "Neturei Karta is obviously a Jewish group, but burning an Israeli flag still carries the risk of inciting anti-Semitism in others," said Mark Gardner, director of communications with the anti-Semitism-monitoring group Community Security Trust (CST) in an email.
"Those who get excited by such things do not make neat distinctions between people and states," Gardner adds, calling the link between hating Israel and attacking Jews "particularly evident."
Anti-Semitic incidents more than doubled in the UK in 2014 from 2013 according to CST's latest tally. Of 1,168 incidents, 39 per cent were driven by far right, anti-Israel or Islamist beliefs. And CST found the violent conflict in Israel and Gaza between July 8 and the 26th of August, 2014, which left 2,100 Palestinians and 72 Israelis dead, was the "biggest contributing factor."
Mainstream Jews reject what they see as the Neturei Karta's extremism. "Neturei Karta are a fringe group with extreme views," wrote Rabbi Laura Janner-Klausner, seniorrRabbi of the Movement for Reform Judaism, in an email. "The vast majority of British Jews," she added, "like the vast majority of all Brits, reject religious fundamentalism of any kind."
The Neturei Karta's rejection of a Jewish state has seen them form some weird alliances with people who don't like Israel for different reasons. Their members traveled to a Holocaust-denial conference in Iran in 2006 and spoke to an ultra-nationalist group in London called the New Right in 2012.
But people who believe Jews want to take over the world are "crazy," said Rabbi Beck, who wants to open a dialogue with an antisemitic group planning a march in Samford Hill at the end of the month.
"Anti-Semites try to make Jewish people into racists [who] think that they are the master race and all the others are the slaves," Rabbi Beck said, "but this is completely wrong."
Holocaust-denial, Weisz insists, is only a result of Zionists using the Holocaust for their political means. "This is why we seek a dialogue," he added.
"Jews seek peace with everyone," Weisz continued, "whether it's right-wing, whether it's left-wing—we seek peace."
The group's interpretation of "peace" is one that a lot of people would have trouble going along with, and burning flags is a weird way to convey that message, but the Neturei Karta seem happy to confound expectations.
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