New York - Radical Right-Wing Rabbi Moshe Aryeh Friedman Discusses His New-Found Direction In An Exclusive Interview With VIN
New York - It’s been months since anyone in the Jewish or Muslim world heard from Austrian Rabbi Moshe Aryeh Friedman, he of the Ahmadinejad-embracing, Neturei Karta-enabling crowd—and for good reason. In past years, the self-described “fighter” attracted and almost relished a noxious notoriety in the international Jewish community for his public appearances with sworn Muslim enemies of the State of Israel.
But today, he’s a new man: He has by and large renounced his dubious past work. And nuts he ain’t—at least not in the nearly-two-hour conversation the soft-spoken, bearded Satmarer Chosid from Vienna conducts with VIN’s staff. His words reveal an Ahavas Yisroel that was there all along, putting the lie to the persona of a terror-sympathizing sellout and vindicating the Sages’ teachings on kaf zechus.
Still, considering his record, Rabbi Moshe Aryeh Friedman has a lot of explaining to do, both of his past and his present paths. And for 107 minutes last week on a Tuesday night in Austria, explain he does.
RABBI MOSHE ARYEH Friedman downplays his authentic Satmar bona fides, dismissing his childhood in the rigorously Chasidic upstate New York enclave of Kiryat Joel as it were a bungalow colony his family once enjoyed. “I left there when I was 13,” he insists, obviously preferring to not discuss his ideological roots in the officially anti-Zionistic soil of the tzadik Reb Yoilish Teitelbaum’s Satmar colony. “It’s not fair to put me in that corner. I am not associated with that group. I have been in Europe for many years.”
However, there’s no denying that the man’s thinking is shaped—or at least was—by Reb Yoilish’s platform of theological opposition to a politically independent Jewish state of any sort, and by a community that continues to subscribe, at least on paper, to that basic premise. Friedman’s own uncle was a gabbai to the Beirach Moshe, Reb Yoilish’s successor Reb Moshe Teitelbaum, zecher tzadik livrachah. And Satmar Chasidim largely make up the infamous Neturei Karta movement, which perpetuates the old battle over whether a secular Jewish state ought exist by ostensibly trying to explain to Israel’s foes the “true” Jewish-community position.
With that kind of baggage, it’s no wonder Friedman was a fiercely vilified pariah to virtually the entire Jewish community, from the staunchly secular to the entire Orthodox camp. But conversely, he was a veritable hero to the Muslim world, especially in the political, media and academic circles in which he freely moved.
However, Friedman repeatedly clarifies that he is not a member of Neturei Karta—and never was. “Ninety to 95% of Jewish reports said that I was the leader of Neturei Karta. It’s not true.”
Friedman saw and sees himself as an independent activist for Torah and Klal Yisroel, at least his version of said—and, he explains, it was Neturei Karta that used his trailblazing if not dubious Muslim-world contacts to pull off many of its distasteful publicity stunts, not the reverse.
So why did he do it? Why did an otherwise respectable frum Yid embrace—sometimes literally—Muslim leaders who casually expressed wishes to annihilate Israel’s population, as well as repeatedly appear at anti-Israel rallies and in Al Jazeera interviews?
The truest answer may lie in the treatise Vayoel Moshe, penned by the sainted Reb Yoilish Teitelbaum—as well as in a brief look at the history of the frum community’s reaction to Zionism.
OVER THE ROUGHLY 50 years from the turn of the century until the 1948 creation of the State, and for years following, many gedolim opposed the political goal of Zionism. They argued that a State of Israel in the midst of the Middle East would only anger the Arab world. Chief among them was Reb Yoilish, whose opposition to the State, most importantly, was based on the Talmud in Kesubos, which forbids the exiled Jewish People from organized return to the Holy Land before the coming of Moshiach.
In short, the opposition of Satmar and other frum demographics to Zionism is faith-based. In their view, the State is seen as a denial of Torah-based faith in redemption as well as a rejection of numerous mitzvos.
And while virtually the entire world that can be called “Orthodox” today maintains an acceptance of Israel ranging from begrudging to smitten, much of that same world still rejects the secularism of modern Israeli society while benefiting from the State’s existence one way or another. Indeed, many actively engage in kiruv activities towards Israel’s millions of ignorant tinokos shenishbeu—witness the dozens of organizations driving 40-plus years of the baal teshuvah revolution.
But some still want to have nothing to do with anything even remotely related to the organized secular Jewish phenomenon that is Zionism; they still long for the classic exile community model of Jewish history. Chief among them are Neturei Karta—“Defenders of the City,” self-appointed champions of the glorious and spiritually rich Jewish shtetls and cities that were Europe and Yemen still are Mea Shearim and Bnei Brak.
Apparently then, Friedman and his like-minded colleagues sincerely if not naively believed that the classic hishtadlus of the ages—reaching out to the declared and red-handed haters of the Jews—would somehow better the overall situation for the Jews.
Thus is explained the actions of the Neturei Karta group, which at most consists of several dozen active members worldwide, in appearing at pro- (and anti-) Israel events brandishing “Judaism, Not Zionism” propaganda, as well as meeting with top Muslim religious and terror leaders, including Yasser Arafat, yimach shmo v’zichro—and milking every such action for as much publicity as possible, particularly in the Arab media.
IN HINDSIGHT, THE uniformed Jewish observer may be forgiven for failing to distinguish the lone wolf that was Rabbi Friedman against the pack in the background. His reputation, cemented by years of ostracism, only became more extreme as each new public appearance again ignited Jewish passions.
But perhaps the biggest insult to his co-religionists came when Friedman, together with several Neturei Karta members, attended a Holocaust-denial conference in Teheran in December of 2006 which he physically hugged the man who had more than once denied the facts of Churban Europe and declared his intention to “wipe Israel off the map.”
The backlash against NK was epic. Hundreds protested outside a Neturei Karta-affiliated Monsey synagogue in January of 2007. In March, the shul mysteriously burned down. And in April, while visiting Poland, Friedman was beaten by fellow Jews, including ZAKA co-founder Yehuda Meshi-Zahav of Jerusalem.
However, something took root in Rabbi Friedman’s mind between now and then—primarily most recently. “It was more than the last several days or weeks; I think that the last recent weeks and months led me to a different environment and got me to a different conclusion based on facts and figures. I started thinking based on facts and knowledge I had gained over the past year. Mumbai was an important part.”
Prompted to introspection by the tragedy in Mumbai, and, most significantly, inspired by a persistent Jewish radio personality Zev Brenner, who apparently played a critical role in his turnaround, Friedman came to the quiet resolution that he had been wrong.
You can listen to the interview with Rabbi Fridman on Zev Brennr show 2 weeks ago by clicking below
Friedman, never at a loss for words, is speaking from the heart now. We can feel it. For the next 90 minutes, he covers a huge amount of ground.
Were there threats to life and limb, perhaps even from the Israeli government, which prompted his turnaround? “No one ever threatened me,” he claims with a chuckle in his throat.
Asked if he regrets hugging Ahmadinejad, Friedman seems to be aware that for too many, words will never be good enough. Still, he sounds level-headed and far from defensive as he matter-of-factly explains that “I was an independent activist and thought I was doing Hatzolas Yisroel.”
“There are two elements of my change in position: One, the way Jews saw it, and they were deeply offended [at the Ahmadinejad debacle], and two, how far it could help Jews,” he explains. “I should have been sensitive to my Jewish brothers, and should have been in contact with Jews before I was in contact with non-Jews. I do regret attending. I do regret the way it was received. I should have taken [Jewish] feelings into consideration. I’m sure that now what I’m doing will help relieve the situation.”
On the community reaction to his shenanigans, Friedman believes that while he was wrong, the inherently emotional nature of the issue only blew it completely out hand. “The frum media made awful reports about me without getting the facts.” He doesn’t want to talk about what actually happened at the Holocaust-denial conference, saying that he is under legal advice to keep mum. “I can tell you there were a lot of lies and false reports as to my comments there.”
Of all people in the world to now be taking on Neturei Karta, Rabbi Moshe Aryeh Friedman is perhaps the best equipped. But will he verbally denounce Neturei Karta? “Yes, absolutely.” And he does not fear a backlash from them. “I am very much independent. You can’t pressure me in any way; I’m not subject to any type of pressure. They know perfectly well who brought them into the international arena.”
Speaking of the notion of working with the Muslim world to establish the Jewish record, Friedman says of Neturei Karta, “I think they are not straightforward. I have been receiving information that they are disrespected in diplomatic circles. Working with a half-million Palestinians is not in compliance with the Three Oaths. There’s also [the issue of] ‘lo saamod al dam rayecha.’ ” He adds that NK’s work creates anti-Semitism.
“I am in the position to reverse things and appear before the Umos Ha’olam… I stand very much behind my words.”
And the reformed Rabbi Friedman has some strong words for practical anti-Zionism. He says that those who preach it say one thing but do quite another with the commercial interests they have in modern Israel, not to mention the benefits they receive from the State.
While the Jewish community may embrace Rabbi Friedman’s change of heart, the same cannot necessarily be said for Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Friedman won’t say whether the Iranian president knows of his new course. “What I can reveal is that the Iranian government, particularly a certain department inside it, follows the Jewish media, including VIN—especially you and Zev Brenner.”
On the subject of Iran, he negates the rumor that Ahmadinejad was provided with a copy of Vayoel Moshe translated to Farsi. “I can confirm that it’s not true. No diplomat or university type ever asked me about an anti-Zionist community.”
But the Iranians and others probably got a whiff of what had occurred with the recent hostilities in Israel. “They were very interested in war of Gaza, Jewish voices and my appearances,” he says. “I was sent many interview requests over the Gaza War and I’m sure they were not pleased. They asked me to join demonstrations but I didn’t, and then they tried to get any comments.”
Friedman refuses to comment on Israel’s right to defend itself, labeling such questions as “political” and focusing instead putting the issue in Jewish religious and spiritual context. “Your question has been asked to me in many ways over the past months,” he offers, simply stating: “I have to love my Jewish brethren.”
So what road does the fearless activist plan to take now?
He still believes in reaching out to Muslim leaders—only to say markedly different things. “Say that Jews must be protected. Represent Jewish feelings. Don’t go with anti-Zionism, but with a practical-pro Zionism, and not in the theological/biblical sense.”
Doing otherwise, Friedman now believes, is “disrespectful of Jewish feelings with regards to the Mumbai attacks. There have been so many double standards on the backs of Jewish blood, so much disrespect of Chabad, so much disrespect of Satmar’s very strong involvement in kashrus with the Israeli rabbinate and Israel’s kashrus industry.”
As an Orthodox Jew, Friedman maintains an unrivaled level of access to the Muslim world from his past misadventures, particularly Iran, but he does not feel he can use his unique contacts to further American diplomatic interests in that country. “Since I am here [in Vienna], I want to not be involved in U.S. politics,” adding that if he could help rescue his “Jewish brethren”—a phrase he uses repeatedly, “I would.”
In his opinion, why or why not, is Muslim hatred of the State of Israel the same as hatred of Jews? “I am much more hesitant to answer this question now, a neutral answer is difficult to give. I hesitate to give a clear answer because I have to be more sensitive,” he hems and haws. “For example, if I raise the issue of Palestinian refugees, people will think I’m a sympathizer, and that’s not the case.”
Finally, he repeats a theme he has stressed throughout our fascinating conversation: The notion that the Muslim community’s primary problem with Israel/Zionists/Jews is that said does not present a united front to the world around it. “Reb Yehuda Hachasid wrote 800 years ago that the goyim will save Jews only if the Jews don’t harm each other,” he points out. “There are even elements in the Koran [that support this], but the first element is to be straightforward. They have to believe that Jews do not say one thing and do another. There should not be divisions and Jewish blood spilled, such as using anti-Zionism against other Jews. For example, in Antwerp there were shuls fighting with each other [over this issue]. The moment they see you are not two-faced they respect it. There needs to be unity on the ground with regards to Jewish feelings—and it will have an immediate positive effect.”
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