Rabbi Moshe Hirsch: Ultra-Orthodox Jewish leader who became an adviser to Yasser Arafat

Friday 07 May 2010 00:00 BST

Moshe Hirsch was one of the leaders of the Ultra-Orthodox Jewish anti-Zionist faction Neturei Karta (Aramaic for "Guards of the City"). He pioneered Neturei Karta's relationship with the Palestinian political leadership, and was described as "Yasser Arafat's minister of Jewish affairs". His activity at the small movement's diplomatic front turned it from a marginal phenomenon in the Jewish world into a world-famous alternative to mainstream Jewish thinking. However conspicuous, though, the group was and remains tiny in membership and influence.

Moshe Hirsch was born in New York in 1924 and studied in the Lakewood Rabbinical Yeshiva. An unverified story has him sharing a room in the Yeshiva with the famous Hassidic singer, rabbi Shlomo Karlibach, and the notorious radical racist leader of the Kach movement, Rabbi Meir Kahane. And while this may or may not be true, the ideological gap between Kahane and Hirsch could not have been deeper. The followers of Kahane, who was assassinated in New York in 1990, attacked Hirsch's funeral parade in Jerusalem and clashed with mourners in an outbreak of violence and hostility over Hirsch's anti-Zionist and pro-Palestinian stance. Right-wing publications and websites in Israel were flooded after his death by expressions of hate towards Hirsh personally and Neturei Karta generally.

Hirsch emigrated to Israel, which he considered "a Palestinian occupied territory", and joined Neturei Karta. He saw himself as the follower of the movement's leaders, Rabbi Amram Bloy and Rabbi Leibele Weisfisch. He married the daughter of the movement's founder, Rabbi Aharon Katzenelbogen, securing his influence on Neturei Karta's ideological and political path.

While many of the Jewish Ultra-Orthodox factions in Israel and outside it are anti-Zionist, Neturei Karta was the only one that gave its rejection of Zionism a political dimension. Many Ultra Orthodox Jews reject Zionism on the basis of its being a religiously forbidden attempt to found a "kingdom", in the sense of statehood, without divine permission in the form of the arriving messiah. Neturi Karta, inspired largely by Hirsch, were the only Ultra-Orthodox group expressing resistance to Zionism by reaching out to the political leadership of the Palestinian people, and to other opponents of Israel.

Hirsch's dealings with the Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat began in the 1980s when Arafat was still exiled in Tunis. In 1993, when the Palestinian Authority was founded in Gaza and parts of the West Bank, Hirsch was appointed Arafat's adviser on Jewish affairs. The appointment was, naturally, symbolic, considering the fact that Hirsch had no contact with the Jewish secular public, and that the relationship between Neturei Karta and any other Ultra-Orthodox or other religious faction had always been hostile. Hirsch used to mock other Anti-Zionist Ultra-Orthodox groups for sacrificing their ideology and receiving funds from the "Zionist government" of Israel. They, in turn, saw his as a radical and an eccentric. Hirsch and his associates in Neturei Karta kept attending Arafat's memorial services in Ramallah after the Palestinian leader's death in 2004. The Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, expressed sorrow at Hirsch's death and said a Palestinian representative would attend his funeral.

Hirsch was forced to remove himself from his leading position in recent years due to his illness, but Neturei Karta remained inspired by his political and diplomatic spirit. In 2006 the movement sent a delegation to a conference about the holocaust in Tehran, organised by Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Neturei Karta's participation in the controversial event divided the movement:s ome members believed that colluding with Ahmadinejad constituted a crossing of "a red line" whereas others, led by Hirsch's son Israel-Meir Hirsch, still believe that nurturing the ties with the Iranian leader was the way forward.

Hirsch paid a personal price for his radical beliefs. In the mid-1990s he was attacked by a man who threw acid in his face when he was leaving his synagogue in the orthodox neighborhood of Mea Sha'arim in Jerusalem. He lost his left eye and wore a prosthetic glass eye. The violence did not seem to influence his convictions, and his ties with the Palestinian leadership were unaffected by the attack.

In the last years of his life Hirsch suffered from Alzheimer 's disease. He was taken to Bikur Cholim hospital two weeks before his death with breathing difficulties.

Daphna Baram

Moshe Hirsch, rabbi and politician: born New York 1924; married (three children); died Jerusalem 2 May 2010

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