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Behind the Headlines: Renegade Rabbi Relishes Spotlight, Though His PLO Role Remains Murky

Rabbi Moshe Hirsch clearly enjoys the public spotlight shining on him since he became associated with the new Palestinian governing authority headed by Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat.

Hirsch is easily the most famous member of the Neturei Karta, or “guardians of the faith,” the anti-Zionist sect based in Jerusalem’s fervently Orthodox enclave of Mea Shearim — what Hirsch calls a self-imposed ghetto.

But Hirsch’s anti-Zionism and his alleged appointment as “Jewish affairs minister” in the new Palestinian governing authority is so extreme that most of his religious anti-Zionist cohorts apparently reject him, while many vilify him as a trator to the Jews.

“We believe in apartheid from the sacrilege state” of Israel, Hirsch said during a recent interview in his son’s home, where he likes to meet reporters. The only distractions are his young grandchildren, who interrupt periodically to converse with him in Yiddish.

“We speak a different language so as not to be a tool in the transformation from Judaism to nationalism,” explained Hirsch, who grew up on New York’s Lower East Side.

Hirsch, pale and slight, has a gentle demeanor and an easy smile. With his white wispy beard, he looks older than his 62 years.

“Judaism and Zionism are diametrically opposed,” said Hirsch, who in the early 1980s made headlines for inciting riots in Mea Shearim against archaeological digs.

“Judaism is based on faith in God and teachings of Torah, while Zionism is out to transform Judaism into a nationalist concept based on land and language,” he said.

The very establishment of the State of Israel in 1948 was an affront to God, Hirsch and other anti-Zionists believe, because it interfered with the divine plan to keep Jews dispersed until the Messiah comes and redeems them.

And, they believe, Israel represents a mortal threat to the Jewish character of the Jewish people.

Like other fervent anti-Zionists of Mea Shearim, Hirsch does not pay government taxes, accepts no social benefits and rejects such popular Jewish sites as the Western Wal, calling it “a platform for nationalistic events.”

Hirsch not only advocates the dismantiling of the State of Israel. He has also wholeheartedly embraced Arafat.

He refers to the PLO chairman as “our president” and describes him as “congenial, ingenious, wise, sympathetic, determined and courageous.”

Referring to himself as a “Palestinian Jew,” Hirsch said he shares Arafat’s vision of a non-sectarian Palestinian state that would replace Israel, as long as it is accomplished in a non-violent manner.

Arafat apparently has returned the embrace.

Hirsch said he has been officially named the “Jewish affairs minister” in the new Palestinian governing authority.

He does not attend the Palestinians’ weekly Cabinet meetings because they are held on Shabbat, he explained, but attends regular “mini-Cabinet meetings to discuss my chores” on other days. He did not expound on those chores.

OFFICIAL APPOINTMENT NOT CONFIRMED

Despite his claims, Palestinian staffers at Orient House, the PLO’s headquarters in Jerusalem, and at Arafat’s office in the Gaza Strip, would not confirm that Hirsch has been granted any official appointment.

One official said Hirsch had not been given a formal portfolio, and that he was only a close friend of Arafat’s. Another official said Hirsch had “not yet” been given the appointment, but confirmed the regular meetings with Arafat.

Whatever Hirsch’s official status, he has clearly been assigned a public role by Arafat.

He and other members of Neturei Karta have been included as advisers to the Palestinian delegations involved in the peace talks with Israel in recent years.

And he was pointedly placed on stage next to Arafat when the PLO leader made his first official visit to the autonomous West Bank enclave of Jericho earlier this summer.

Some analysts believe Hirsch is being manipulated by Arafat.

“The PLO can use these traditional-looking rabbis as propaganda to show the international media” that the organization is not anti-Jewish, said Menachem Friedman, sociology professor at Bar-Ilan University in Tel Aviv and an expert on the fervently Orthodox.

“But I think (Hirsch) knows it’s a game; he’s not stupid,” Friedman continued. “He’s embarrassing the State of Israel, and that’s enough for him. And giving him an honor doesn’t do the Palestinians any harm. They have nothing to lose.”

Hirsch evidently is not taken seriously enough by the Israeli establishment to be considered a security threat.

“Rabbi Hirsch is no more and no less than a curiosity,” said Gadi Baltiansky, a spokesman for the Foreign Ministry.

“He’s not taken seriously even by his own neighbors and doesn’t have influence over anyone,” he said.

HIRSCH’S ROLE IS ‘MEANINGLESS’

Hirsch’s role with the Palestinians is “meaningless,” Baltiansky asserted. He “looks good on TV because he’s something different, but he’s more color than news. He has never participated in any formal negotiations where Israeli officials have been present.”

Hirsch does not dispute this, but says it is by design.

“We don’t negotiate with Zionists,” he said. “We have chosen to be advisers instead.”

Hirsch said Arafat has promised him a salary as well as an office in Gaza.

He said he supports himself through a stipend from the yeshiva as well as from the etrog business before the holiday of Sukkot.

Yet while he said he prefers to carry out his ministerial duties from Torah v’Ira Yeshiva, the small Neturei Karta base where he studies daily, a man who answered the phone recently at the yeshiva said the institution had nothing to do with Hirsch.

“We have no connection to him, he has no office here and we don’t like what he does!” the man shouted at a reporter who had called looking for Hirsch.

Other residents of Mea Shearim also reacted harshly to the mention of Hirsch’s name.

“Only the newspapers like him, but he has no support here and he’s not worth talking about,” said two Chasidic men, who identified themselves only as Yehuda and Mordechai, and who were selling Jewish music tapes on the street.

“He has no support except for his 14 children,” said Moshe D., who is in his 20s and works in a store which sells religious articles.

Hirsch, in fact, said he has three children and “more than a dozen” grandchildren.

“He is crazy and has been corrupted,” Moshe D. said. “He looks for publicity, but has no role and no status anywhere, not with Jews or Arabs.”

Friedman, the Bar-Ilan professor, agreed. “Hirsch is very, very marginal,” he said.

“He’s offensive even to the very anti-Zionists who, nonetheless, are deeply Jewish patriots.”

“To collaborate with people who murder Jews goes against the basic taboos of Jewish history,” he said.

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