THE RABBIS' INTIFADA
I first met the Orthodox rabbis of Neturei Karta when I was a 13-year-old Yeshiva (religious school) student marching in the Israel parade in New York City. “Down with Israel! Free Palestine!” the rabbis chanted from the sidelines. Our teachers instructed us to ignore them, but I was perplexed – and fascinated. Why would Jews demonstrate against Israel?
In fact, Neturei Karta (Aramaic for “Guardians of the City”) are a constant, recognizable presence in the streets of New York and Jerusalem as they call for Palestinian rights. These Yiddish-speaking, socially conservative rabbis in old-world clothing make a surprising sight at protests – often led by anti-racist, anti-war, and Palestinian groups. Neturei Karta adamantly oppose Jewish nationalism and the State of Israel. The reasons are many, but for them, Israel—with its army and Jewish-identified government—is a form of idolatry; and its violations of Palestinian human rights must be stopped. Neturei Karta openly call for Israel’s peaceful dismantlement.
“The genocide against the Palestinian people is a crime against humanity,” says Neturei Karta Rabbi Meir Hirsch of Jerusalem. “The Jew has to be merciful with all that was created by G-d. It doesn’t matter if he’s a Jew, a Christian, a Muslim, or from any other nation. That is to say as a Jew you are obligated to not only show solidarity with the Palestinians, but also to feel their pain and to take care it won’t happen… ‘Love thy brother as thyself!’”
Today, in the United States, mainstream Jewish institutions consider Neturei Karta traitors. As a result of their activism, Neturei Karta rabbis are taunted and sometimes even beaten on the streets by American supporters of Israel. In Jerusalem, Neturei Karta activists face imprisonment by Israeli authorities for refusing to serve in the Israeli army.
Why are these Orthodox rabbis engaged in an intifada (Arabic for ‘uprising’) against Israel and in support of Palestinians? This feature-length film combines narration, home movies, interviews, and archival films to tell the story of my journey into Neturei Karta’s community. The Rabbis’ Intifada documents my quest, as a New Yorker raised in a religious Jewish community that supports Israel, to understand what motivates the rabbis’ resistance. I attempt to unravel the mystery of their activism, where it comes from – a story I never learned in Yeshiva.
My journey begins in 2008 when Israel bombs and invades Gaza, killing 1,400 civilians. As Neturei Karta takes to the streets in protest, I get to know four Yiddish speaking rabbis from Jerusalem and New York, and soon follow them on a journey through the Middle East. They attempt to bring much needed humanitarian aid to Gaza, and pay their respects to victims’ families. The rabbis surprise the region’s Arab and Muslim inhabitants with their message of solidarity.
Through the lens of their diverse, intergenerational voices, the rabbis share compelling stories, offering a nuanced narrative about their unique history.
Alternating between funny, moving, and at times suspenseful, The Rabbis’ Intifada addresses issues of identity, culture and community, and aims to raise awareness about a censored topic and a marginalized people. The Neturei Karta story has never before been told in such depth. In fact, it has effectively been silenced by Zionist Jewish institutions. Their story challenges popular ideas about universal Jewish support for Israel.
Can Neturei Karta’s dissent make a difference for Palestinians who live under Israeli occupation and face continued violence? Will the rabbis’ voices help quell Americans’ fears of being called “anti-Semitic” if they speak up for Palestinians? Can Neturei Karta effectively fight back against Israel’s conscription demands? Can their unique memories of life in Palestine over the past 80 years affect the way Jews see ourselves and our history? What have been the consequences for Jewish identity of creating a Jewish nation-state? Can Neturei Karta make a difference in the struggle against Islamophobia and anti-Semitism?
The film also aims to spark more universal questions: What inconvenient truths are left out of our classrooms and history books? How do we find the courage to speak out when we risk becoming pariahs within our community? How can victimized communities use their history of oppression to affect positive change rather than perpetuate a cycle of violence?