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“I think that our constituencies and the people in our community understand that we can have some profound disagreements in some areas, but still share the sense that we are one people,” said David Mallach, managing director of the Commission on the Jewish People at UJA-Federation, days before the rally.
That equanimity is in sharp contrast to the attitude New York Jewish officials often display in the lead-up to public protests that criticize Israel from the left. The JCRC spent months lobbying against a March 2012 vote at a Brooklyn food co-op on whether the co-op would consider boycotting Israeli goods. Jewish communal officials secured support from local politicians and launched awareness-raising campaigns, eventually defeating the boycott effort.
The unequal response could be due to the unusual nature of the Satmar protest, which was the first massive ultra-Orthodox protest against Israel in decades. Though small clusters from the fringe ultra-Orthodox Neturei Karta group often show up at public events to voice harsh criticism of Israel, they never number more than a few dozen. The last time observers remembered a similarly large group of ultra-Orthodox Jews protesting Israel in New York was in the mid-1980s, amid a furor over ads featuring a bikini-clad model on bus stops in Orthodox neighborhoods in Jerusalem. When then-Jerusalem mayor Teddy Kollek visited a Manhattan hotel for an event, thousands of protesting Satmar Hasids rallied outside.
The June 9 protest was also unusual because of the participation of both of the grand rebbes who claim the leadership of the Satmar community. Aron Teitelbaum and Zalman Leib Teitelbaum, brothers whose rift split Satmar in 2006, both attended the rally, sitting less than 10 feet apart. It marked the first time the two had cooperated on any public event since their dispute began.
In a speech to followers before the protest, Aron Teitelbaum said that efforts had been made to draw attendees from across the ultra-Orthodox community and not just the Satmar Hasidic sect. Those attempts were boosted by a letter from a leading non-Hasidic ultra-Orthodox rabbi named Chaim Kanievsky — a letter later shown to have been forged.
Event spokesman Michael Tobman insisted prior to the rally that the event was focused on the narrow issue of the draft, and was not broadly anti-Israel. “This is to denounce in the strongest possible terms the misguided impending Israeli policy to conscript and to extend mandatory military service,” Tobman said. “This is about a very specific policy and political issue. It’s just not about that larger meta-ideological schism,” Tobman said, referring to Satmar anti-Zionism.
Posters advertising the event, however, suggested a broader anti-Israel message. “The evil rulers in the Holy Land want to incite and seduce young men and teenagers to acquiesce to idol worship and to participate in the impure army,” read Yiddish and Hebrew posters, copies of which were obtained and translated by the Forward.
Additional reporting by Yermi Brenner and Frimet Goldberger.