Thousands of Hasidim arrived at the Brooklyn home of the Satmar grand rabbi, Rabbi Yekusiel Leib Teitelbaum, on Jan. 31 before he departed for his second visit as grand rabbi to Israel. Officially, the visit was to celebrate the bris (Jewish male circumcision ceremony) of his grandson, the son of his son who serves as a rabbi in Israel. But from the balcony of his home, the grand rabbi presented his followers with several other goals for his trip. He defined the visit as an effort “whose essence is to help the Torah institutions in the Holy Land that do not receive funding from the Zionist state.” One of the synagogue managers who officiated at the event added, “Our rabbi is going to strengthen the God-fearing institutions and people in Israel, who have not knelt to Baal and have not prostrated to the golden calf of Zionism. There’s a reason they hate us [in Israel] and don’t want the rabbi to come.”
And indeed, like a self-fulfilling prophecy, when the grand rabbi and his entourage landed at the airport in Israel, they were detained for an hour and a half at customs. In the eyes of his followers, this was intentional harassment, stemming from the grand rabbi’s declaration that he will contribute funds for activities to prevent the conscription of ultra-Orthodox in the Israel Defense Forces, and his announcement that he will focus his war on the “hunters” (as he defines them) who work from within the ultra-Orthodox community to enlist ultra-Orthodox youth in the army.
Yitzchak Weiss, the spokesman of the Satmar Hasidic sect in Israel, argued in a conversation with Al-Monitor that “the Hasidic leader himself was not detained, but this was intentional harassment of his entourage because of our plan to distribute millions of dollars to institutions that do not take money from the state.”
The ceremony at the heart of the visit took place Feb. 2 at an elegant Jerusalem banquet hall, and was called Shekel Hatahor (Pure Shekel). Shekel Hatahor was founded at the start of 2013 on the occasion of Teitelbaum’s first visit to Israel as grand rabbi, with the goal of providing financial support for institutions that don’t seek funding from the state. The sect’s funds are distributed to these institutions four times a year.
At this week’s ceremony, the grand rabbi disbursed financial support to educational institutions that do not receive budgets from the “Zionist state,” as he calls it, and attacked the ultra-Orthodox political parties. These parties, in his view, sold the values of the Torah for money. Later, the grand rabbi also directly attacked the spiritual leadership of the ultra-Orthodox parties in light of their agreement to back the emended conscription law that would conscript ultra-Orthodox men in the IDF. “All of the heads of the yeshivot [rabbinical colleges] and the leaders who had a role in this law, in encouraging their representatives to sign on to this severe law — they can’t say, ‘Our eyes didn’t see it,’” he argued.
The grand rabbi also spoke of the recent terror attacks in Jerusalem and blamed the state for them. “We see that this state has no counsel and no prudence to counter [these attacks], for no prudence and no counsel can prevail against the Lord, and we can’t shake off the yoke of the diaspora by ourselves,” said the leader, meaning that the very creation of the state — before the arrival of the messiah and as part of the Zionist secular enterprise — caused these events.
Naturally, the visit of the anti-Zionist grand rabbi stirs discomfort among many people in Israel. Journalist Asaf Golan of the NRG news website, for example, called for his expulsion from the country, since the grand rabbi is “one of Israel’s biggest enemies.” Harsh words were written regarding the grand rabbi’s visit to Israel on social networks, comment boards and news websites.
Weiss is not moved by the criticism. “The groups that reproach us, those are the groups that took over the Yishuv [pre-state Jewish community in Palestine] by means of terror organizations like the Lehi, the Etzel and the Haganah. These are groups that are no different from Hamas,” he said. “We suggest that they move to Uganda, or anywhere else. The people of the Old Yishuv [ultra-Orthodox Jews] settled here in order to fulfill the Torah and the commandments and not to violate the holiness of the land. We think that the right to live in the Holy Land is reserved for religious people, who know — among other things — that salvation has not yet arrived and that we must not provoke the nations that surround us [by establishing a state]. Whoever does not keep the Torah and the commandments has no moral right to live here.”
The grand rabbi’s arrival and the grant-making event caused an uproar among the ultra-Orthodox sects. In recent years, a rift has formed within the Lithuanian ultra-Orthodox movement, Degel HaTorah (flag of the Torah), which split into two: a minority that identifies with the Jerusalem branch and the majority that identifies with the Bnei Brak branch.
The Jerusalem branch is associated with the values of Satmar Hasidism and with other anti-Zionist groups. The Bnei Brak branch adheres to the regular ultra-Orthodox ideology that believes in pragmatism in relations with the state. The latter, so is claimed, tried to sabotage the efforts of the Jerusalem branch to receive aid from the Satmar funds, and published both in Hebrew and in Yiddish a pasquil (polemical wall poster) where they detailed how the Jerusalemites receive money from the state in a variety of ways — which would seem to disqualify them from receiving the Satmar grants.
A source from the Bnei Brak branch told Al-Monitor that the Satmar intervention in the internal ultra-Orthodox rift is inappropriate and out of bounds. According to this source, the Satmars know that the Jerusalem branch’s yeshivot are funded by the state, but continue to give the yeshivot funds because they are seen as the most authentic representatives of Satmar ideology. “The Jerusalem branch is the loudest voice when it comes to anti-Zionist ideology,” said the source. “They go out and protest and wage an aggressive PR battle, and from Satmar’s standpoint that in itself justifies the financial support of their institutions.”
There is no doubt that today the Satmar Hasidic sect is the group leading the opposition to Zionism among the ultra-Orthodox. But verbal and written opposition to the state and to Zionism is not enough. If not for the sect’s copious funds, which provide it with the means to wield enormous influence in order to strengthen its positions, it is hard to see it having any impact. Its harsh opposition, combined with important financial resources, have made the Satmar into a very powerful anti-Israel group, and positions it as the most active Jewish group that opposes the state of Israel and its institutions.
As a result, today, for among other reasons, because of the instability of government funding for ultra-Orthodox institutions, many institutions completely forsake government funding and choose to be funded solely by the Satmar Hasidim — whose funding at times exceeds that of the original government budget. These actions result in a situation where, absurdly, the Satmar Hasidim and the secular Zionist political parties who oppose funding the ultra-Orthodox, such as Yesh Atid, have a common interest: to end ultra-Orthodox dependence on government funds.
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