Holocaust Conference Brings Disbelief on All Sides

By Michael Powell and Robin Shulman
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, December 14, 2006

NEW YORK -- They sent congratulatory telegrams to Hamas, their rabbis advised Yasser Arafat (and took a fee for their trouble), and they stood outside the White House wagging signs -- "Judaism Has No Right to Rule over ANY PART of the Holy Land" -- to protest a November visit by Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

But even by the standards of Neturei Karta, these most ultra of ultra-orthodox Jewish Hasids took a step into the world of the very strange, if not the meshuga, or crazy, when they showed up as honored guests at a conference of Holocaust skeptics and deniers in Tehran. With a hug and a smile for Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Rabbi Aharon Cohen walked into a conference room with former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke, discredited academics, and more than a few white supremacists and served up a rousing welcome speech.

"Let me express my gratitude to the illustrious organizers of this valuable event," Cohen told the 67 delegates from 30 countries this week according to a text printed on the organization's Web site. "To sum up, the Orthodox Jewish view is that, yes, there was a Holocaust to a terribly significant degree whatever that was. But in no way can it be used to justify the illegitimate and criminal cause and actions of Zionism."

This drew, by all accounts, loud applause from the Holocaust-denying set, who insist against all reason that the Nazis never committed genocide by systematically killing millions of Jews. President Ahmadinejad often has accused the West and Israel of using the "myth" of the Holocaust as a propaganda tool to dominate the Middle East, and he speaks hopefully of a day when Israel ceases to exist. Within Iran, 30,000 Jews lead a precarious life laced with many humiliations.

You ring up Abraham Foxman, the chairman of the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith and himself a Holocaust survivor, and he cannot contain himself.

"They are a group of religious extremists who have so perverted Jewish traditions that they end up giving comfort and aid to those who hate Jews," he said. "Their brothers and sisters wearing traditional garb just like Neturei Karta were burned at Auschwitz. Their relatives were gassed like mine were!"

Neturei Karta is best understood within the confines and context of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, which harbors the world's largest ultra-orthodox Jewish shtetl, or community. Here the garb -- black coats and hats for the men, wigs and demure dresses for the women -- is that of the 18th century, Yiddish is the lingua franca and there is no deviation from the teachings of Torah and Talmud. The Satmar sect dominates this ghetto, and anti-Zionism is central to their identity.

It was a sin before God, the Satmar argue, for the secular Zionists to have created a Jewish state before the Messiah's arrival. Jews live in exile by divine decree. Israel has inflamed Arabs and Muslims and created nothing but pain for the Jews, they argue. They suggest that the Holocaust itself was a terrible symbol of God's displeasure with the Zionists.

During World War II, the Zionist Reszo Kasztner negotiated with Adolf Eichmann to buy the freedom of Satmar's Rebbe Joel Teitelbaum, who had been sent to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. But Teitelbaum, who died in 1979 and was considered the most charismatic of the Satmar leaders, would later write: "It is because of the Zionists that six million Jews were killed."

Neturei Karta counts Satmars among its small band of adherents. But Neturei Karta goes a step -- no, make that three or four steps -- beyond most Satmars. "They come out of the theology that Rebbe Joel created," said David Pollock, who is associate director of the Jewish Community Relations Council and has written scholarly works on the Satmar. "But he distanced himself from them. He did not like their alliances."

Such displeasure could be heard on the street this week. Sol Wald, 33, sat in his car on a tenement block in Satmar South Williamsburg. He wagged his head at mention of Neturei Karta.

"I'm against Israel but . . . to go to Tehran is a bad idea," he said in accented English. "My grandmother has numbers on her arm [from a German concentration camp]. There are Holocaust deniers there. Jewish people should not participate in that."

Neturei Karta acknowledged never before having gone to a Holocaust deniers meeting but offered no apologies; they are practiced practitioners of the outrageous. Chaim Freimann used to hang around hotels in Washington during the 1992 Mideast peace talks, wearing a Palestinian flag in his lapel and giving old-comrade greetings to Hanan Ashrawi, the Palestinian spokeswoman.

He said in an interview that the Neturei Karta delegation traveled to Tehran to shake the Western world "out of their complacency. . . . It was the spiritual sin of Zionism . . . that was responsible for bringing into existence such an evil personality as Hitler."

Freimann's quote is read to Foxman. For just a moment this hyper-articulate man seems lost for words. "I don't think there are words in the dictionary for what I am thinking now," he says finally.

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