If you needed social services from New York’s fervently pro-Israel mainstream Jewish community, would you organize a tremendous anti-Israel rally in its backyard?
Despite assurances that it wasn’t their intention to do so, that appears to be exactly what the Satmar Hasidic community did on June 9, when they gathered a reported 30,000 men in lower Manhattan to protest Israeli efforts to draft thousands of ultra-Orthodox men into the army.
Satmar Hasidim are known for their anti-Zionist theology, but organizers insisted before the protest that they would focus specifically on the Israeli draft. Yet despite a strictly enforced ban on anti-Israel placards, speakers addressing the crowd in Yiddish voiced anti-Zionist sentiment.
“Today’s rally is a declaration of war against the enemies of God and the enemies of religion,” said the Monsey, N.Y.-based Rabbi Yaakov Weiss, who was the protest’s opening and closing speaker. “We hope the evil Zionists will not be successful in destroying our holy Torah studies.”
Speakers used the Yiddish word reshoim, or evil people, to describe Israeli politicians specifically and Zionists generally. And Rabbi Nachman Stauber, who leads a Satmar yeshiva in Queens, made a comparison in his address between Zionists and Amalek, the biblical Jews’ greatest enemy.
The rally came days after the release of a UJA-Federation of New York poverty study finding that 45% of Hasidic families in the New York area live in poverty. The mainstream Jewish community in New York has responded to this need in recent years, supplying substantial resources to Satmar through the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York and the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty, among other agencies.
In the days after the rally, however, responses from the mainstream Jewish community suggested that the protest had strained ties with the Satmar community.
“I would call on the Hasidic community to think carefully — I would not connect our help to them to their policies — but I just very clearly believe that they should think carefully about the ramifications of such a rally here on these shores,” said Rabbi Shmuel Goldin, president of the Rabbinical Council of America, the Modern Orthodox rabbinic association that condemned the rally.
The JCRC, which has particularly close ties to the leadership of Satmar in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, defended the group’s right to protest, but objected to their language. “Sunday’s Foley Square protest against an announced Israeli policy was an expression of free speech,” said Michael Miller, executive vice president and CEO of the JCRC, in a statement issued in response to a Forward inquiry. “However, some of the speakers attempted to outrageously demonize the IDF and the government of Israel. We consider such rhetoric offensive and we categorically condemn it.”
Neither UJA-Federation of New York nor the Met Council responded to inquiries about the anti-Zionist statements read from the stage at the Satmar rally. And in the days leading up to the June 9 rally, mainstream Jewish communal officials displayed a relative indifference to the Satmar plans.