Thousands of members of the Satmar Hasidic sect gathered outside the Israeli consulate in midtown on Tuesday evening to protest a speech by Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu they say will lead to war with Iran.
Stretching along Second Avenue from 44th down to 42nd Street, throngs of men from the insular Jewish community held signs declaring that Netanyahu, who had delivered remarks before a joint session of Congress earlier in the day, did not speak for their community when he challenged President Barack Obama’s proposed nuclear deal with Iran.
Rabbi Jacob Kellner, a resident of Kiryas Joel, a Satmar community in upstate New York, said that he disagreed with Netanyahu’s hard-nosed approach to ongoing negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program.
That program has been the subject of long-running negotiations and tension with the U.S. The Obama administration’s current plan seeks to head off Iran’s development of a nuclear weapon while allowing the country to pursue a closely monitored civilian energy program.
Netanyahu has for years been arguing that Iran is on the verge of building a bomb; in his address Tuesday to Congress, he was sharply critical of the Obama administration’s approach, saying the deal being proposed “will not prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons. It would all but guarantee that Iran gets those weapons, lots of them.”
“The way he wants to deal with Iran doesn’t make sense. It’s like he wants to engage in a war, it’s like he wants to start another world war,” Kellner said. Demonstrators held signs with slogans like “Bibi, don’t draw American Jewry into your provocative politics” and “We are ably represented, we don’t need a Bibi-sitter,” invoking Netanyahu’s commonly used nickname.
Aside from differences on Iran rhetoric, the Satmar community is also theologically opposed to the Israeli state, which they believe can only be brought about after the messiah’s arrival, Kellner explained. That makes the idea that Netanyahu would claim to speak for the Jewish people especially offensive.
“The Satmar community is anti-Zionist,” Kellner told the Voice as young men crowded shoulder to shoulder, pushing in to hear the rabbi’s words. “We believe in the coming of the messiah, but we believe we can only pray for the messiah to come.”
In their view, Kellner said, until a scripturally legitimate Israel comes to be, the faithful are commanded to respect the secular authorities of the countries in which they live, and that duty precludes support for a Jewish state. “We have to behave with respect to all the nations, because now is the time of the nations. We can’t just grab territory and say it’s ours,” Kellner said. “In our belief we have to wait, in exile, with patience, for God to send the messiah.”
Joel Cohen, 35, another of the demonstrators, said that he felt Netanyahu’s recent comments had endangered his community, and all Jewish communities worldwide. In the wake of a series of anti-Semitic attacks in France and Denmark, Netanyahu, in a speech in February, urged “mass immigration” of Europe’s Jewish population to Israel, saying Europe had become unsafe for the Jewish people. Cohen said he felt that kind of rhetoric could make life more difficult for Jewish communities outside of Israel.
“He makes them [Jewish communities] uncomfortable in their country, and it makes other people uncomfortable with the Jews, like ‘you’re only here temporarily, you’re going to be leaving, it’s not your country, and you’re not loyal to the country, you’re loyal to Israel,’ ” Cohen says. “And we feel just the opposite. We’re loyal to the country we live in, and we have to, by [religious] law, be loyal to the country we live in.”
The demonstrators had sought a permit, according to Kellner, for 10,000 attendants, though he noted that the weather might have prevented some from arriving. Still, a dense mass of black-clad men and boys — the community forbids mingling of the sexes in most situations, and there were no women in attendance — listened behind police barricades as a series of speakers addressed the crowd in Yiddish and English for nearly two hours. Demonstrators wore plastic bags over their wide-brimmed hats as snow turned to sleet and freezing rain, and police were mostly patient, using yellow tape to keep the crowd inside designated areas cordoned off with metal barricades.
Netanyahu and Obama have had a famously rocky relationship, and many analysts saw the Israeli leader’s speech — coming at the invitation of Republican House Speaker John Boehner — as a snub to the White House. It’s also been seen as an effort to undermine any potential deal with Iran by bolstering hawkish House Republicans, who have been pushing for an Iran sanctions package that would kick in if talks break down. Many analysts — reportedly including Israeli intelligence agencies — believe a bill threatening sanctions could scuttle the talks before they’re completed.
Read the full transcript of Netanyahu’s speech here or watch the video below.
Additional photos from Tuesday’s protest are on the next page.[