Heather Tenzer is a filmmaker straddling three worlds: she grew up in a modern Orthodox Jewish community that was Zionist, she left it for non-religious life in New York, and she’s an activist for Palestinian freedom. Her upcoming film, The Rabbis’ Intifada (http://therabbisintifada.com), uniquely stitches together these three vantage points. Tenzer follows the strictly-Orthodox rabbis of Neturei Karta – long-time supporters of Palestinian rights, and opponents of Israeli colonialism – from the US to Jerusalem and Gaza.
In this interview, Tenzer talks about navigating tensions in the Palestine solidarity movement between religious and progressive frameworks for liberation – and about her own challenges as a female documentary filmmaker making boundary-pushing work.
Emmaia Gelman: Why is Neturei Karta important in the Palestine solidarity movement?
Heather Tenzer: Neturei Karta has a long history of standing in solidarity with Palestine. Over the years, they’ve built a reputation among Palestinians and their supporters as a Jewish voice with a consistent presence at Palestine solidarity demonstrations. They unequivocally express support for Palestinian rights. They speak out against Israeli occupation, violence, and colonization. Because of that, they are appreciated by many many Palestinians – but especially religious Palestinians.
Palestinians are diverse. The Palestine solidarity movement is perhaps even more diverse. And I think that Neturei Karta has a unique role to play in that movement. Because NK are deeply religious Jews with socially conservative values, they are able to identify with and relate to the sector of the Palestinian community which is also deeply religious and also socially conservative. Muslims in Gaza who are suffering under Israeli occupation were so touched by NK’s visit and by their expressions of support. I saw it with my own eyes – not just in Gaza, but also in Egypt, Turkey, Jordan… Religious Middle Eastern communities appreciate their support, perhaps even more deeply than expressions of support from Leftist or secular communities.
Neturei Karta often meet people who don’t necessarily know that Judaism and Zionism are different. For example, when I was with the rabbis in Gaza, the children there were initially afraid of them because they look religious Jewish. For a lot of people around the world, Jewish means Zionist or even Israeli. It means an occupier and an attacker and a purveyor of violence. Israel is pretty effective at creating that illusion. Neturei Karta disrupt that.
I was one of the people Neturei Karta reached! My first experience with Neturei Karta was when I was a kid, marching in the Israel Day parade. I grew up in an Orthodox community. Neturei Karta appeared to be very religious, much more religious than my community. I was shocked to find out that religious Jews opposed Israel.
EG: There are many critiques about Neturei Karta. A big one is that they’re not actually interested in Palestinian human rights, but instead – what?
HT: The critique – and the myth, actually – is that they’re just interested in following the Torah text, and everything that they do is about allegiance to their Rebbe, and they can’t think for themselves, and they’re backwards, and they don’t care about Palestinians, they just care about being anti-Zionist. The only reason for supporting Palestine is because they oppose Zionism, and the only reason they oppose Zionism is because in the Torah is says that you must wait till the Messiah comes in order to have a Jewish homeland in Palestine.
EG: That critique would put them in the company of the Christian right: trying to hustle the messiah into place.
HT: Neturei Karta – like all religious Jews – are waiting for the coming of Messiah. I don’t think there is a universally accepted idea among religious Jews of what will happen when Messiah comes. However, there is an idea that Jews would be returned to the Holy Land by God. That idea of return, as I understand it, is completely the opposite of Zionism. It is not a violent forceful man-made return to the land of Palestine, in which Palestinians are massacred or dispossessed. It is a peaceful return of Jewish people to the Holy Land carried out by God. That does not require violence against Palestinians. It does not require a nation state at all, and we may well be living without nation states at all during this imagined anarchic future.
EG: Neturei Karta are controversial on the Left because their gender politics don’t sit well with progressives. But their anti-Zionism puts them to the Left of major Jewish groups in the Palestine solidarity movement on that issue. They also break pretty sharply with other forms of Jewish Orthodoxy. Do you think of Neturei Karta as radicals?
HT: Like other anti-Zionist Orthodox Jews, Neturei Karta oppose a Jewish state for theological reasons. But, Neturei Karta are unique in that they also support the rights of Palestinians to live in peace in their homeland, to be free of Israeli occupation and violence. Neturei Karta are unique in their efforts to speak out around the world in support of Palestinian rights and liberation. That’s a step further than most other Haredim.
I think it’s a mistake to talk about them in terms of Right and Left, because it’s not how they define themselves. Their actions emanate from religious and moral convictions. But if you look at Neturei Karta as a whole, often their language and beliefs are more radical than other parts of the Palestine solidarity movement. I can compare a Neturei Karta demonstration in Jerusalem with a Leftist demonstration I saw on the streets of Tel Aviv. The Neturei Karta demonstration was much more radical and clearly anti-Zionist. They held signs calling Israeli actions in Gaza a “massacre.” At the Tel Aviv protest, some progressives carried Israeli flags. They were critical of Israeli policy, but still supported a Jewish state
So, yes, I think Neturei Karta’s approach is sometimes more radical than that of those on the Left, whether that’s in Israel or here in the United States. Interestingly, in the Israeli Left, now there are people slowly making coalitions with Neturei Karta. They’re breaking with decades of animosity and hostility.
EG: How did Palestinians in Gaza respond to Neturei Karta?
HT: Religious Palestinians were incredibly appreciative of Neturei Karta’s words and actions. When Neturei Karta would visit Muslim families impacted by Israeli violence, I saw how deeply their presence there was appreciated. Some people who identified more as Leftist or communists or whatever were a little bit more on the fence, and not really sure about how they felt about Neturei Karta.
I think the social conservatism of Neturei Karta is very similar to what you find in a lot of different religious communities in the Middle East. And that’s why, when they go there, one of the reasons they’re so welcome is because of this cultural similarity and similarity in world view.
EG: In the course of your work, what kind of conversations did you have with women or queers inside Neturei Karta?
I have gotten to know several Neturei Karta women and many did not feel comfortable being interviewed. I met one woman on the street in Williamsburg. She talked about her support for Palestinians. I wanted to interview her, but she felt uncomfortable with that. This is for cultural reasons, as women in their religious culture generally feel a sense of modesty that prohibits their participation in such things. Off camera, however, they were always very kind, interested and supportive of my project in ways that pleasantly surprised me. They’ve talked to me about milking their goats, about their children, and sometimes even feminism. In one case, there’s a woman who speaks much more fluent English than her husband. Because of that, she often serves as the translator between us.
One time I was with a woman and her 12-year-old daughter in their backyard. The daughter was jumping up and down so her skirt was bouncing. The mother shouted at her daughter that she wasn’t being modest enough. It’s a very rigid society where the laws of the Torah are in their every day, moment-to-moment lives. To me, that level of modesty feels oppressive, but if it is working for them, then who am I to say that my worldview is better?
One time, two Neturei Karta women were speaking with each other. One woman says to the other something like “the men make the decisions, but the women turn the man’s will.” It was a Yiddish expression that doesn’t translate that well in English, but the idea was that women have the power to control their husbands – in a sense, talking about women’s power. I’m hoping to do more to include Neturei Karta women in the film.
I didn’t meet anyone who said that they were unhappy and wanted to leave the community. But based upon what I have read and what some Haredim have told me, it’s very hard to leave. You’re losing your entire family and community, there’s not a middle ground. And yeah, it’s deeply difficult for those who choose to leave.
EG: LGBTQ rights are a major part of human rights conversations right now. How do you reconcile Neturei Karta’s concern for human rights with their apparent lack of support for LGBTQ rights?
HT: Neturei Karta and many other Haredim don’t use the language of human rights, because they don’t have access to secular education. Some are not familiar with Martin Luther King, Jr. for example. Secular thinking is not a part of their world. They define everything that they do, whether it’s going to sleep at night or joining a Palestine demonstration, in religious terms. To explain their concern for Palestinians’ rights, they’ll quote the Torah text on the most basic things. For example, Rabbi Meir Hirsch of Neturei Karta, who is featured in the film, quotes the Torah – saying in Hebrew: ‘Love thy brother as thyself!’” He cites this text as a reason why Jews are obligated to show solidarity with the Palestinians, and “feel their pain,” as he says.
These are common Torah passages that have nothing to do with anything esoteric, but are passages related to the ethical or moral obligations of Jews about caring for fellow human beings.
As far as LGBTQ rights, as far as I know, nearly all strictly Orthodox Jews don’t support homosexuality. I have a queer friend who was not in Neturei Karta but was in another Haredi community. His Rebbe was, as he explained it, sympathetic toward him in some ways, like: this is your struggle. But in the end my friend who was married to a woman still felt like his identity as a gay man was not reconcilable with living in that community. So, he left.
Interestingly, Jacob Israel de Haan is a figure whom Neturei Karta consider as their martyr. He was assassinated in the 1920s by the Haganah. He was an anti-Zionist Jew from Amsterdam living in Palestine. He was openly gay and wrote homoerotic poetry that was published in Amsterdam. When he came to Palestine, he went from being Zionist to anti-Zionist, and from secular to religious. His was the first Jewish on Jewish political assassination in modern history.
EG: Are de Haan’s writings part of Neturei Karta life?
HT: His homoerotic poetry is certainly not! He was a journalist/poet/novelist before he came to Palestine, so those writings are not part of the Neturei Karta canon. But he became friendly with Rabbi Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld, the chief rabbi of the anti-Zionist Haredim of Jerusalem. De Haan became the community ambassador. De Haan and Sonnenfeld went to Transjordan to meet with the prince there, to say, “Look, we represent the Haredi community of Jerusalem, and we oppose what the Zionists are doing.” That was the purpose of their visit, to visit the prince and say, “We want to live in coexistence with the indigenous people here.”
Then de Haan wrote to the British to say, “We, the Jewish community of Jerusalem, do not want there to be a Jewish state here.” That was very threatening to the Zionists.
EG: Are there any other surprising characters in Neturei Karta?
HT: There’s Ruth Blau, who was a Christian in the French resistance during WWII. She converted to Judaism, moved to Israel and married Rabbi Amram Blau who was the head of Neturei Karta at that time. It was a very controversial marriage because she was a convert, and much younger than he. Rabbi Amram Blau was a religious guy, and he’s been described to me as fearless. The Israeli police were very violent toward all the anti-Zionist Haredim of Jerusalem since the beginning of the state. Like, very violent. There’s news footage of these attacks. But Rabbi Moshe Beck, one of the subjects in my film who knew Rabbi Blau, recalls how Rabbi Blau would lead the demonstrations – despite the police violence, and be totally fearless, and have all of the followers stand there and urged them not lift a finger against the Zionists.
EG: What was it like to reach out to them, when you’d decided to make this film?
HT: I reached out to Neturei Karta, and to my pleasant surprise, they agreed to meet with me. I first met Rabbi Meir Hirsch in Jerusalem. He’s the leader of Neturei Karta there. I was surprised that the rabbi was so at ease with me and with my friend Sammy who was translating; surprised that he was willing to speak with me as a woman conducting the interview and at his willingness to speak frankly, to trust in our capacity to represent him fairly. But most of all I was very shocked by his forthcoming and radical language around what Israel was doing to Palestinians. Rabbi Hirsch called Israeli actions ‘crimes against humanity.’
EG: Following your first impressions, did your opinions about Neturei Karta change as you worked on the project?
HT: I didn’t go into it having a lot of negative stereotypes about religious people, in part because I grew up in a religious community. Still, there were things they’d say that I strongly disagreed with and others that would pleasantly surprise me. Our values are oftentimes deeply at odds and oftentimes overlap. That’s the way things are with most of humanity.
The first time I heard them speaking in a way that I found intolerant of LGBTQ communities, that was hard.
EG: What have been the biggest hurdles in making this film?
HT: When I started the film, almost immediately I got a little backlash. I started shooting in Jerusalem years ago. Some Israeli Leftists were very supportive. But others were like, why are you covering Neturei Karta? They’re horrible people, they’re homophobic, they’re sexist… why? I was surprised by this reaction. It seemed to me mostly immaterial what Neturei Karta’s religious beliefs are… I mean, their religious ideology is followed by hundreds of thousands of Orthodox Jews around the world. And the fact that they were supporting Palestinians and that Palestinians were appreciating it, that makes it valuable. Whether or not they have values that we would get on board with as Leftists, that felt very secondary.
There are many legitimate critiques that can be made about Orthodox communities at large. But I see secular men pointing the finger at religious communities and being like, “Hey! Those women are really oppressed. Those places are repressive for women and sexist.” While some of that is true, those same critics tend to ignore these ways that women are oppressed in secular society, when right now in the US secular women are fighting serious battles against sexism (the #MeToo movement immediately comes to mind!), which is pervasive in many secular workplaces, including in the documentary film industry, and is often perpetrated by secular men.
I see a Zionist force at play in the effort to discredit Neturei Karta. I think Zionists highlight Neturei Karta’s social conservatism as a way to undercut the power of what Neturei Karta are doing by saying here’s how they don’t measure up to liberal Western standards. Zionists have done the same thing to Palestinians, criticizing them as “not liberal enough” as a way of trying to push the Western Left away from supporting them.
EG: What work are you hoping your film will do in the world?
HT: I hope first and foremost that the film will humanize Palestinians and expand the conversation around Palestine and Israel. A lot of folks in this country and abroad still think that all Jews – especially religious Jews – support Israel and its policies. Neturei Karta help to challenge that myth. Many folks tend to think that what is happening in Palestine/Israel is a religious war between Islam and Judaism. And I think Neturei Karta help to challenge that by talking both about the history of Muslim/Jewish coexistence and about religious texts that prohibit Jews from killing and occupying Palestinians—or any other people for that matter. Neturei Karta come and say that that violence perpetrated against Palestinians is perpetrated by a state which claims to be acting in the name of Judaism but is actually only acting in the name of nationalism. I hope the film will challenge stereotypes about Neturei Karta, Muslims, Palestinians, and Arabs, and about religious Orthodoxy and what it means to be an activist. I also hope that film will challenge American Jews – and Americas more broadly – to learn about the history of persecution of Palestinians at the hands of Israel. And I hope that by showing a community of religious Jews who are critical of Israel, more Americans will feel licensed and safe to also critique it – without fear of being called an anti-Semite.
Heather Tenzer is a Philadelphia-based documentary filmmaker. She is currently crowdfunding her documentary in progress, The Rabbis’ Intifada on Indiegogo. Check it out here: http://therabbisintifada.com