It was a rumor too juicy to ignore: A teacher at a mainstream Orthodox high school in New York City, the story went, was prepared to defend the six ultra-traditionalist rabbis who attended the Holocaust denial conference in Tehran earlier this month.
The story seemed to be the perfect counterweight to the current uproar surrounding the rabbis, who are members of a small anti-Zionist fringe group known as Neturei Karta, or “guardians of the city.” In recent days, the men have faced excommunication from the ultra-Orthodox community in Great Britain and angry public denouncements from Jewish leaders in the United States and Canada.
Who, in his right mind, would defend their visit, capped by a photo-op with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad?
An intrepid Forward reporter was dispatched to New York City’s West Side Institutional Synagogue on December 20 to attend a scheduled debate between Shannon Taylor, an administrative judge from Brooklyn who believes that all Palestinians should be expelled from Israel and the territories, and Rabbi Mayer Schiller, a Hasid who teaches at Yeshiva University High School for Boys — a Modern Orthodox institution — and has spent years writing and preaching in defense of European culture, group identity and, most controversially, racial separatism. Like the Neturei Karta rabbis, Schiller has often found common cause with and spoken before a cast of extremist characters and organizations, including American white supremacists, Conrad Muhammad of the Nation of Islam, right-wing European nationalists, and Afrikaners and Zulus in South Africa who opposed Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress.
Schiller does not subscribe to the philosophy of Neturei Karta — he favors a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; the ultra-Orthodox group backs a binational plan — and has a longstanding agreement with officials at Yeshiva University High School to refrain from public discussions of his controversial views on race. Nevertheless, the rabbi’s previous criticisms of Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians, as well as his willingness to break bread with unsavory characters, was feeding Internet rumors about an alleged connection to Neturei Karta and clearly had the West Side Institutional crowd — which was, ostensibly, gathered for a discussion on Jews’ responsibility to other peoples — hoping that the discussion would stray in the direction of Iran.
But anyone hoping to witness the first defense of the Tehran-hopping rabbis left feeling disappointed: An hour before the debate, Schiller canceled because he had laryngitis.
“That coward, that lowlife,” Taylor, a disciple of the late Rabbi Meir Kahane, railed against the absent rabbi. “In a medical way, and in a rabbinic way and in a logistic way and in a debating way and a Jewish way and every possible way, he’s a phony and a fraud.”
Contacted by phone two days later, Schiller was eager to refute any suggestion that he was, in any way, sympathetic to the rabbis’ Iranian holiday. The rabbis reportedly insisted to the other Tehran participants that the Holocaust had happened, but they accused Zionists of shamefully exploiting the genocide to defend their own mistreatment of Arabs.
“I’m a great believer in all attempts at Jewish-Islamic reconciliation, dialogue and understanding, but this was the absolute worst setting for it,” Schiller said in an interview with the Forward.
Still, Schiller defended the intentions behind the trip.
“I do like it when [Neturei Karta rabbis] are able to go into some Islamic high school and sit around and talk and everybody begins to feel, well, maybe Jews are not so bad. That’s positive and not being done enough these days.
“The people who went to Iran are people who would give you the shirt off their back, if you needed it, for any Jew, religious or not; they think whatever they were doing is saving and protecting Jewish lives around the world. Misguided if you will, but in their view it is stopping bloodshed.”