The Neturei Karta are Circus Freaks, Part II
Here's a second version of thie previous op-ed (see below), written for Jewish papers and more critical of the media's motives in constantly emphasizing the Neturei Karta in their stories. I hope to send it out to different Jewish papers this week.
Why are the Neturei Karta Media Darlings?
It infuriates mainstream Jews. Iran’s President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, organizes a conference devoted to Holocaust denial, and a group of Hassidic Jews, the Neturei Karta, attend. They repeat Ahmadinejad’s anti-Israel slogans, and even partially agree with his Holocaust denial theories. Of course, all of this is diligently covered by the media, and newspapers are sure to feature pictures of bearded, caftan wearing Neturei Karta members shaking hands with Ahmadinejad. Indeed, newspaper articles on virtually every anti-Israel protest are accompanied by a picture of the Neutrei Karta holding signs proclaiming “stop Zionist atrocities”. The Neturei Karta are upsetting enough; even more infuriating is the ridiculous amount of attention lavished on this group by the media. All of this invites the question: Why are the Neturei Karta media darlings?
The Neturei Karta are a miniscule group, with a thousand or two supporters worldwide. Historically, they are a mid-1930’s radical breakaway from the Edah Hacharedis, the main anti-Zionist organization in Jerusalem. After the Holocaust and the establishment of Israel, other ultra-Orthodox anti-Zionists softened their views, and the Neturei Karta found themselves more isolated than ever. In turn, the Neturei Karta’s theology grew even more radical, and the behavior of its leaders increasingly bizarre. For example, a leader of a Neturei Karta affiliated group currently living in St. Agathe, Quebec, Rabbi Shlomo Elbarnes (Helbrans), spent time in a U.S. jail for kidnapping. For the Neturei Karta, anti-Zionism is the focus of their theology, and as a consequence, they demonize all Zionists as disciples of Satan.
Virtually all Jews are appalled by the support that the Neturei Karta gives to Israel’s anti-Semitic enemies. Rabbi Moshe Hirsch, the group’s elder statesman, has close ties to the Palestinian leadership, and was on Yasser Arafat’s payroll. The Neturei Karta maintain close ties to Iran as well. In June 2000, Rabbi Yisroel David Weiss supported Iran’s accusations that 13 Jews had spied for Israel; this, while governments around the world protested these false arrests. Neturei Karta’s leaders have cultivated relationships with Louis Farrakhan, and Abu Hamza, a radical British cleric later imprisoned under Britain’s Terrorism Act. Because of their bizarre behavior, they have been condemned multiple times by other ultra-Orthodox groups, and they are viewed by them as infuriating oddities. Simply put, the Neturei Karta are a fringe group, far less relevant than the Hare Krishna.
Yet, despite being a marginal phenomena, the Neturei Karta receive a lot of media attention. Certainly, the Neturei Karta work tirelessly at public relations, issuing press releases, placing advertisements, and traveling all over North America to march with any anti-Israel group. But the media attention given to the Neturei Karta goes beyond successful PR.
Some of the outsized attention given to the Neturei Karta has to do with journalistic practice. There is shoddy journalism; many journalists are ignorant of the Jewish community, and have no idea that the Neturei Karta are a fringe group. In addition, journalists are swept away by the Neturei Karta’s flowing beards and billowing caftans. As Hassidic Jews, they are exotic figures who seem to have stepped straight out of the 18th century. Because of this, the Neturei Karta are the perfect photo op. And in an image driven media culture, photo ops are the news.
The Neturei Karta’s protests are also a “man bites dog” story. Here you have very Jewish-looking Jews denouncing Israel, the Jewish state. The value of this story becomes magnified in what Deborah Tannen called “an argument culture”. Contemporary media, much like pro wrestling, thrives on conflict. In that regard, the Neturei Karta are the “Hulk Hogan” of pro-Israel events, protesting in order to irritate and annoy, hoping their protests will start fistfights with supporters of Israel. All of these factors encourage journalists to turn kitschy performance art into a front page story.
While poor journalism is forgivable, of greater concern is the ideological bias behind the media’s fascination with the Neturei Karta. In a politically correct culture that despises military action and assigns moral superiority to any victim, Israel is the ultimate bully. Journalists who sympathize with the Palestinian cause find Jewish solidarity with Israel puzzling. These journalists are left searching in vain for some sort of internal Jewish discord over Israel’s right to exist. When they discover the Neturei Karta, they accept them uncritically, because the Neturei Karta offer a story of internal debate unavailable elsewhere.
Sadly, when journalists give the Neturei Karta prominent coverage, they have taken a circus sideshow and put it on the front page. There are many important debates about the Middle East, but instead of those, these journalists have chosen to focus on a fringe phenomenon and consider it newsworthy.
It’s a shame the media seems to make this journalistic mistake, over and over again.