The ultra-Orthodox Israelis who reject Zionism
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 Mondoweissthat 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.