Published December 26, 2006
MONSEY, N.Y. – The photograph is jarring, to say the least. Why on earth would a rabbi from New York travel to Tehran to embrace Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a man who says the Holocaust never happened and that Israel should be annihilated?
In Rockland County, N.Y., a short drive north from New York City, "love thy neighbor" has been a hard commandment to follow in the weeks since a contingent of fringe religious leaders set out to shake the Iranian president's hand.
This small suburban county has the highest percentage of Jews in the nation, and many if not most of them have been seething since leaders of the ultra-Orthodox sect Neturei Karta attended the Holocaust conference in Tehran and seemingly lent their support to known Holocaust deniers.
Rabbi Yisroel Dovid Weiss led the Neturei Karta delegation to Iran's capital on Dec. 11 to participate in a two-day conference on whether the Holocaust occurred. Among the other attendees were former Ku Klux Klan Imperial Wizard David Duke and French professor and gas-chamber denier Robert Fuerisson.
"This kind of cozying up to tyrants, it's really unconscionable," said Holocaust survivor Walter Greenberg, 73, who lives in the county, only about 20 miles north of New York City.
Rabbi Michael Gisser, the executive director of the Holocaust Museum and Study Center in Spring Valley, called the gathering a "conference of hate."
"A lot of people that were there really want to destroy and kill Jews — from their agendas," Gisser said.
'10 Minutes of Infamy'
Rockland County is known for its rich Jewish diversity — members of every denomination, from the outwardly religious Hasidim to Orthodox, Conservative and Reform Jews, live here in the lower Hudson Valley.
But residents say Neturei Karta, led by Weiss, is a fringe operation that espouses views held by virtually no one else in the community — namely that Israel must be destroyed and put into Arab hands before the coming of the Messiah.
"He wants his 10 minutes of infamy," Greenberg said. "That's what it's about."
Neturei Karta, Aramaic for "guardians of the city," was founded in Jerusalem in 1938 as a splinter group of Agudas Yisroel, an anti-Zionist cell of Orthodox Jews founded 26 years before, according to the Neturei Karta Web site.
The group denies that they are "a small sect or an extremist group of 'ultra-orthodox' Jews," but rather are "fighting the changes and inroads made by political Zionism during the past 100 odd years," according to the site.
"Zionism is a fundamentally heretical movement which denies the Divine imperative that Jews remain in exile until the day when all mankind will be miraculously redeemed,” Weiss told a gathering of protesters in New York City in November.
The Neturei Karta's U.S. branch is based in a sprawling but dilapidated tenement in Monsey, a village ringed with strip malls boasting clothing bargains and fast-food shops that offer kosher pizza and falafel.
It's Jewish small-town America.
At a time when most Americans prepared to celebrate Christmas, menorahs twinkled from the tops of minivans as men dressed in black with long, curly side locks hitched rides home and bicyclists, their prayer-shawl tassels twisting in the wind, raced home for Hanukkah celebrations.
Rafael, a nearly 20-year resident of the community, said Neturei Karta has only a handful of members. He, along with other residents interviewed by FOXNews.com last week, declined to give their full names, fearing reprisals within the community.
"[Weiss] definitely does not represent any part of the Jewish community except for his little hole in the wall," Rafael said. "I really believe he should be considered a traitor to the country.
"This is a very, very good country and I think that someone who goes ahead and does what he does — hugs and kisses the enemy of the world — should be considered a traitor. Revoke his citizenship."
Weiss and his group have made headlines with protests in Washington and in photo opportunities with the Palestine Liberation Organization.
"Nobody embraces him," said Simon, a 10-year resident of Monsey who declined to give his last name. "The blood pressure goes up."
A woman who came to a door marked "Beck" at Neturei Karta headquarters Tuesday said Weiss did not live at the building. Other officials were not available for comment. Phone calls to Weiss were not returned.
But there was no denying that Neturei Karta had been in Tehran.
"We put effort into attending occasions such as this because we feel that we have both a religious and religion-based humanitarian duty to spread our message as much as possible," Rabbi Aharon Cohen said at the Holocaust conference, according to remarks published on the Neturei Karta Web site.
"He's still my customer," Rafael said of Weiss. "I'll take his money, but I'll be happy to see him go."
People Ask Questions
Most worrisome to Jewish leaders is the publicity machine that seems to follow Neturei Karta; photos of Weiss embracing Ahmadinejad garnered headlines around the globe.
"A rabbi kissing someone who considers himself the sworn enemy of Israel, which is the Jewish state," Gisser said. "People ask questions."
At Rockland County's Holocaust Museum — where photographs and artifacts from Auschwitz and other concentration camps are a poignant reminder of the dark depths of man's capacity for evil — the staff organized an evening rally Dec. 20 in support of the county's Holocaust survivors.
"These survivors who have survived such horrible things, they're incensed," said Roberta Lieman, the museum's administrator. "I was infected by it. I'm incensed."
Holocaust survivor Sonia Goldstein, 80, was one of several hundred people who attended the rally. She said she couldn't sleep the night she heard of the Iranian trip.
"How those people could go to Iran to face that Iranian Hitler and all the rest of the Holocaust deniers, I cannot understand that," said Goldstein, who tearfully recounted the day a Nazi offered a young boy hidden in the women's section of a camp a candy and then shot him in the head.
"This is up to the government and up to the Jewish organizations to do something against them," Goldstein said.
Groups like the Jewish Defense Organization are planning protests of Neturei Karta outside the group's headquarters. But Gisser said positive action is key for his museum's response.
"We have to teach our children for the next generation love and respect," he said, "and that will lead to peace."
That said, it's still hard to have anything but "zero patience" for Neturei Karta, and harder still to apply the Golden Rule toward the group's members and Weiss.
"Although I'm angry at him, I can't hate him either, because I don't believe that's a word that should be part of our lexicon," Gisser said.
"I'm angry more at his lack of understanding of the true values of Judaism."