Before the sun has a chance to rise, Israeli riot police tiptoe through one of Jerusalem’s oldest Jewish neighborhoods, their shadows dancing across lines of anti-Zionist graffiti decorating buildings and walls.
Their objective is to arrest residents in Mea Shearim for refusing Israel’s mandatory army draft and organizing against the state, according to community claims. They say such raids have occurred on a near nightly basis in the neighborhood for decades. However, in recent years Israel’s police operations have escalated in Mea Shearim.
In their telling, when Israeli forces break into homes during these overnight raids, ultra-Orthodox residents are dragged out of their beds and thrown into police vans.
Many in Mea Shearim, established in 1874, are part of the Eda Haredit, “Congregation of God-fearers” in English — an ultra-Orthodox group in Jerusalem that is also fiercely anti-Zionist.
Israeli police spokesperson Micky Rosenfeld described a less recurrent scene. He was not able to provide the numbers of arrests carried out in the neighborhood over the past few months, but told Mondoweiss police units do not normally carry out night raids “unless there are specific individuals who the police know were involved in illegal demonstrations.”
The Eda Haredit opposes the Israeli state and any attempts at assimilating them into the larger Israeli society. The cloistered neighborhood of Mea Shearim has become a symbol for the group, whose members insulate themselves from state institutions and affairs as much as possible.
Eda Haredit members also reside in the Jerusalem-area city of Beit Shemesh and Safed in northern Israel.
Many of the group’s members are descendants of the Old Yishuv, Jews who resided in historic Palestine under Ottoman and then British rule.
Outside the homes of many Eda Haredit members in Mea Shearim hang signs that read: “Here lives a non-Zionist Jew.” Palestinian flags fluttering outside homes are a common sight here.
Eda Haredit members can often be found protesting the state and Israel’s army draft on the streets of Jerusalem. Israeli forces typically respond by dousing them in skunk spray – a noxious smelling liquid.
The members come prepared, even wrapping their black, wide-brimmed hats in protective plastic. When Israeli police releases skunk spray on the protesters, instead of running away, Eda Haredit members often sing and dance as the putrid concoction rains down on them.
The Israeli police have been accused of using excessive force on the demonstrators, including severely beating unarmed Eda Haredit members.
A century-long anti-Zionist struggle
Mordechai Mintzberg, a rabbi in Mea Shearim whose family resided in historic Palestine generations before Israel was founded, told Mondoweiss that the establishment of the Eda Haredit was a “counter reaction” to Zionism in the early 20th century.
According to Mintzberg, as Zionists tightened their grip on the British Mandate of Palestine following the Balfour Declaration in 1917, Jews were forced to determine their relationship to the Zionist movement.
“The ardent anti-Zionist Jews decided to establish a self-sufficient community that was unquestionably opposed to the Zionist movement,” Mintzberg says.
The Eda Haredit developed its own separate school system – taught entirely in Yiddish – and an independent religious court, known as a Badatz.
When Israel was established in 1948, the group’s struggle against Zionism intensified.
Although Israel has always hosted anti-Zionist Jews across the political spectrum, the Eda Haredit stands apart for the strict adherence to their beliefs.
In the early years of the Israeli state, Eda Haredit members refused to accept Israeli IDs and some even rejected the use of Israeli currency, Benjamin Brown, a professor of Jewish thought at Hebrew University, told Mondoweiss.
Other ultra-Orthodox groups identified with the self-proclaimed Jewish state and integrated into government institutions with their constituents now participating in Israel’s parliament. Leading political parties like Shas and Agudat Yisrael have members who are ultra-Orthodox yet ardently support the state of Israel.
The Eda Haredit considers these ultra-Orthodox groups “traitors” for “collaborating with the Zionist enemy,” Mintzberg said.
For the Eda Haredit, he says Israeli IDs and citizenship are now “forced” on the community, but members “do everything in [their] power to disassociate from the state.”
Eda Haredit members boycott elections and refuse to accept Israel’s national insurance. If members receive unwelcome assistance from the state, it is immediately placed into a fund dedicated to supporting members organizing against the Israeli army, Mintzberg said.
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‘We are struggling for our very existence’
The community speaks Yiddish and only uses modern Hebrew with outsiders. They consider the language spoken by most Israelis today a “perversion” of ancient Hebrew, Mintzberg explained.
Jews were expelled from ancient Israel because they had gone against God’s commandments, the group believes. Jews are not allowed any form of a state until the coming of the Messiah, which is expected to occur following a Jewish “spiritual redemption” that would right the sins of the past.
Zionists have used Judaism to further their political goals in the region and “conquer” the territory, Mintzberg told Mondoweiss, adding that a Jewish nationality is antithetical to the teachings of Judaism. He considers Zionism to be a “parasite” on the Jewish faith.
According to his beliefs, Jews inside Israel and the occupied Palestinian territory should be living under Palestinian rule.
Brown estimates the population of the Eda Haredit to currently be at least 30,000. He says official statistics do not exist because the Eda Haredit refuses to cooperate with Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics.
Lizi Sagie a secular anti-Zionist Israeli activist, told Mondoweiss that, “no one in Israel practices anti-Zionism like the Eda Haredit.”
“They don’t just talk about being anti-Zionist, they really live it,” she said. “I have never witnessed such pure justice like I found in Mea Shearim.”
In the larger Israeli society Eda Haredit members are characterized as “violent extremists” owing to the group allegedly throwing objects, spewing insults, and at times spitting on uniformed Israeli soldiers who wander into Mea Shearim.
The community has also come under fire for its practice of gender segregation. The state has previously intervened to upend barriers on public sidewalks.
But in Mintzberg’s view his group is attempting to survive and defend itself inside a state aiming to consume them into a Zionist society.
“We are struggling for our very existence,” he says.
The most important battleground between the Eda Haredit and the Israeli authorities has opened up around the country’s compulsory army draft.
Israeli law mandates that Jewish-Israeli citizens be conscripted into the army at the age of 18. Men must spend three years in the army, while women are conscripted for a mandatory, two-year term.
Brown says that the some 900,000 ultra-Orthodox Jews in Israel have usually been able to gain unofficial exemptions by proving they are full-time students at yeshiva, a seminary school.
A 2014 bill to restrict draft exemptions spurred a wave of protests from the community, including one of the largest marches in Israel’s history. The issue has remained in the public eye as Israeli lawmakers negotiate a bill to axe the draft exemption for ultra-Orthodox Jews.
However, unlike other ultra-Orthodox groups, Israeli attempts at recruiting the Eda Haredit are futile. For the Eda Haredit, even entering a draft center and showing documents to gain that exemption is considered “collaborating with the enemy”.
“We would never seek Israel’s permission to be exempted from their army, because we don’t recognize the Zionist regime’s authority at all,” Mintzberg said.
“If any of us were ever to accept being drafted into an army, it will be one that is fighting against the Zionist state,” he added.
For Eda Haredit members, it is an honor to be jailed over refusing the draft. Their children are “excited” to reach the age of conscription because “the draft refusers become the stars and heroes of the community,” Mintzberg said.
The rift between the Eda Haredit and other ultra-Orthodox groups in Israel has deepened over recent years. The Eda Haredit sees Israel’s draft as an attempt by officials to further “corrupt” and “Israelize” the larger ultra-Orthodox society.
Over the last decade, ultra-Orthodox enlistment into the Israeli military has climbed from 288 in 2007, to nearly 2,000 today.
Sagie points out that Israeli authorities will often send Ultra-Orthodox army officials into Mea Shearim “just to provoke residents.”
“They want to show the community that, ‘Look, even your own kind is wearing our uniform,'” Sagie told Mondoweiss.
The Eda Haredit holds frequent protests against the draft and distributes pamphlets outside draft centers discouraging other Ultra-Orthodox Jews from joining the army.
The group has also been known to ritually hang Israeli soldier dummies in Mea Shearim to protest Israel’s army draft, evoking condemnation among Israeli leaders.
Last year, Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman confronted the community on Twitter, saying it was a “shame” that Israeli citizens were “risking their lives to defend the homeland”, while an “extremist, violent and anti-Zionist group is attempting to prevent the enlistment of ultra-Orthodox Jews into the army.”
Israeli forces frequently raid Mea Shearim, according to Mintzberg, arresting draft refusers or members active in the protests.
The police operations are often conducted during night hours, when Israeli officers break into homes without any prior warnings – a police strategy usually saved for Palestinian communities in occupied East Jerusalem.
Oftentimes, residents are arrested and then released the next morning. “It’s all just meant to try and break the community,” Sagie said.
Unlike Palestinians, who often use Whatsapp groups and Facebook to warn residents of Israeli raids, the Eda Haredit’s strict anti-modern lifestyle prohibits them from using the internet.
Instead, “we have kosher phones”, Mintzberg says, taking out a weather-beaten mobile phone from his pocket. The phone only has the ability to make and receive calls.
The community has developed a “hotline” that provides details on goings-on in the neighborhood and updates on jailed residents.
During emergencies, like a night raid, the hotline sends out calls to its registered numbers. Once someone receives the call, they dial the number back and a recorded message plays.
One of the recordings, heard by Mondoweiss, was loud and frantic: “The Zionist kidnappers are invading a home!” the message blared out of the phone’s speaker, in Yiddish.
The recordings often inform residents about which houses are being raided, prompting hundreds of residents to flock outside in an attempt to prevent arrests and push Israeli forces out of the neighborhood.
When group members are arrested, oftentimes they will refuse to cooperate with Israeli officials, while others hold daily protests outside the jails where members are being held.
Outside of every synagogue in Mea Shearim, there are posters listing the names of each jailed community member, so that “the entire community will pray for them,” Mintzberg says.
‘A threat to Israel’
Meanwhile, Mintzberg says he and others in the community identify as being Palestinian. “I live on this land, so what else would I be except Palestinian?” he said.
Mintzberg explained that while the group’s strict anti-Zionist views are derived from a religious origin, these values also merge with their sense of morality.
The group’s members feel a strong connection to the Palestinian struggle, he said, “We are clearly bound to each other. We share the same history and the same struggle.”
He accused the Israeli government of seeking to turn the image of ultra-Orthodox Jews into the “enemy” of Palestinians and divide the two groups.
“The state has invested a lot of money and energy into trying to divide us from Palestinians,” he said.
A few families in the Eda Haredit are activists in Neturei Karta, a group of ultra-Orthodox men who organize with Palestinians in the occupied West Bank. However, even these small initiatives to support Palestinians are often targeted and shut down by the Israeli government, Mintzberg noted.
Nevertheless, Mintzberg believes his community’s struggle is a powerful challenge to Israel.
“We are a threat to Israel’s narrative because our continued existence as anti-Zionist Jews defies every myth perpetuated by the Israeli state,” he said.