Outsiders in London
All photographs: copyright © Milan Svanderlik - London - UK
RABBI AHRON LEIB COHEN (# 24)
Rabbi Ahron Leib Cohen
Born in London, England
Father born in England / Mother in Poland
Ethnic heritage / Father & Mother: Jewish (Ashkenazi)
RABBI COHEN’S STORY:
In order to avoid any misunderstandings, this biography begins with a brief description of three key terms:
Judaism is the philosophy, religion and way of life of the Jewish people going back some three thousand five hundred years and is based on the Hebrew Bible (the Torah) as interpreted through the repository of Jewish law (the Talmud).
Zionism (never to be confused with Judaism) developed in the 19th century, in central and eastern Europe, and was a political and national movement with, as its main goal, the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine, in which Jews would be the majority, free of the anti-Semitic discrimination and persecution they had experienced in the diaspora, and where they might determine their own future. On 14 May 1948, the State of Israel was indeed established in Palestine. Zionists presented this as a national liberation movement for the repatriation of dispersed Jews to Palestine, the homeland abandoned many centuries before. But Zionism was opposed by many Jews, with Anti-Zionists perceiving this new ideology as fundamentally unsound in terms of centuries of Jewish teaching; accordingly, they depicted Zionism as a heretical denial of the ‘Divine Decree’ of exile imposed upon the Jewish People and a colonialist and racist movement, leading to the denial of the rights, land and property of the indigenous Palestinians.
Neturei Karta (in Aramaic, ‘the Guardians of the City’) is the name that was adopted to describe that aspect of Judaism which rejects Zionism and which opposes the establishment of the State of Israel. It teaches that a Jewish regime can only be re-established with the coming of the Messiah. The orthodox Jews who adhere to, and are loyal to, the teaching of Neturei Karta make a point of publicly demonstrating their position, the position of the Torah and authentic unadulterated Judaism. Rabbi Ahron Leib Cohen is a prominent and distinguished, UK-based member of Neturei Karta and an avowed proponent of anti-Zionism.
Ahron Leib Cohen was born in London’s East End, the youngest of three children. His family lived at Dalston where at that time there was a large Jewish community. With ancestry in Lithuania, Ahron’s father had been born and bred in Manchester, while his mother came from Poland. Ahron’s father was a studious man and often acted in a rabbinical capacity, in which respect he was not atypical: there is in orthodox Jewish families a long tradition of religious study and many learned laymen undertake rabbinical functions. “Initially, I went to school in Dalston,” recalls Rabbi Cohen. “Then, in the middle of the Second World War, when I was 8, I went to a Jewish school in Stamford Hill, leaving there at 14 to go to a number of Jewish religious colleges, one of which was the the Gateshead Yeshiva. This was the largest yeshiva in Europe and considered to be one of the most prestigious and advanced yeshivas in the orthodox world. Having completed my initial studies there, I started to act in a rabbinical capacity.” Ahron Leib Cohen married young, at the age of 19, and at the age of 26, he moved to Gateshead. From there, he removed to Salford in Greater Manchester, where he continued his rabbinical studies as well as undertaking some commercial activities - initially property management and later, life insurance consultancy and financial planning. Throughout this time, Rabbi Cohen continued to discharge a range of rabbinical duties as well as undertaking some religious teaching; in 1995, he became a Senior Lecturer at the Jewish religious college, near Hitchin in Hertfordshire. Eight years later, a semi-retired Rabbi Cohen returned to Salford since when he has been very busy spreading the message of Neturei Karta.
Neturei Karta’s online resource is extensive and informative but the following extracts will serve to illustrate its philosophy and the movement’s principal aims:
Recent events in the Holy Land have plunged Jewry worldwide into unprecedented soul-searching. The conflicts to which the creation of the State of Israel gave birth continue to plague Jew and Gentile. Tragically, no end appears to be in sight. Various and contradictory solutions have been offered for the current travails. However, all the solutions offered in so-called mainstream sources have failed. It is our belief that they are inherently doomed to fail. All of them make one fatal assumption. They find it axiomatic that the State of Israel must exist. And, in contrast to the plain evidence of history, they see its existence as a positive development for the Jewish people.
We offer a real alternative to this herd-like mentality that has produced fifty years of war and suffering for both Jew and Arab. We affirm the simple belief, once universally held amongst Torah Jews, that Jewish sovereignty over the Holy Land before mankind’s final redemption is wrong. It is wrong spiritually because it denies that the Jewish exile is a metaphysical state that can be altered only via the practice of our ancestral faith. It is wrong materially because it has consistently led to war, oppression of other peoples and the general exacerbation of anti-Semitism throughout the world.
History is written by its victors. Zionism - by which we mean not the love of Zion shared by all believing Jews, but political and military machinations to grab the Holy Land before G-d chooses to redeem mankind - wields tremendous power over world opinion. All who question its dogmas are subjected to severe blacklisting and, at times, life-threatening terror. This near-total historical censorship has blinded both Jew and non-Jew in our era, to the universal Torah opposition to Zionism up to 1948.
In all schools of European Jewry - ranging from the writings of German Orthodox leader Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, to the Lithuanian perspective found in the works of Rabbi Elchonon Wasserman, to the Hasidic views of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Reb Sholem Dov Ber Schneerson - we find scathing critiques of Zionism. It is this long-standing tradition of our people, that we represent today. We present the millennia-old perspective of the Torah. Its message has been distorted and ignored by Zionism. However, intimidation cannot forever suppress truth.
Zionism is bankrupt. Its leaders war with each other as well as with the Arab world. With a near-hysterical obstinacy, they demand that America finances and supports their failed enterprise. The hour of Zionism is passed. Its victims wander about searching in its darkness for solutions. They will not be found there. Arms and politics cannot solve the Jewish “problem” which Herzl set about “solving” a century ago. Our exile and the sufferings of all humanity are contingent upon repentance and good deeds.
Adherents of Neturei Karta point to the last proclamation of Rabbi Blau in which he deplored the actions of the Zionists against the Muslim and Christian Palestinians and the grievous harm done by the Zionists to the Jewish people in endeavouring to change them from “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” to a modern state, devoid of spiritual foundation, based on chauvinism, built on conquest, and relying on military prowess. In the long run, Zionism will be nothing but a passing aberration in the long history of the Jewish people and of the world.
In a recent interview in London, Rabbi Cohen has said: “Zionists, apart from their secularism, also had as one of their core aims the formation of a state for the Jewish people, now. Our teaching, and this goes back many generations, is that to do such a thing is contrary to our beliefs. Our exile is divinely decreed, and we have to live as good citizens wherever we are, not rebel against the divine decree. There is also another aspect of the matter, and that is, that the very practical essence of Zionism, in wanting to form a state of Israel in Palestine, contravenes basic humanitarian ideals - the aim was simply colonisation, taking over someone else’s land”.
The Rabbi continues: “Humanitarian considerations are very prominent within the Jewish religion: we are required to consider other people - Jewish or not - and to consider and respect their rights, their wellbeing and certainly their lives. Zionism has demonstrated that it does not worry about such things; it managed to take over the land from the Palestinians irrespective of how this affected them. This is, of course, the basic core of the whole conflict which continues to the present day.”
Asked if the large community of Hassidic Jews living in London (estimated to be near 26,000, the largest in Europe) would espouse similar views, Rabbi Cohen answers: “I believe that the vast majority of them understand that the creation of a state of our own was wrong and explicitly against our religious teaching. However, since the fact is that for the time being the state of Israel exists, the question is now, ‘what do we do about it?’ This is where we are faced with a range of opinions ranging from pragmatic acceptance to total rejection.”
Rabbi Cohen continues: “Of course, there are those Jewish people who do not agree with the Zionist agenda, but they don’t stand up against it, they simply choose to ignore it. Most of the Hasidic Jews in London would be reluctant to speak out in public against Israel. Sadly, that is the situation. On the other hand, most of them never celebrate Israel Independence Day, the Zionist flag is nowhere to be seen, and they refuse to display any religious emblems adopted by Zionists. But most would never speak up and share their opinions on this topic in public. The thinking of Neturei Karta, however, is to go for total public rejection. We positively get up and speak up in opposition to the State of Israel. Sadly, we are now a minority movement and are therefore often perceived as outsiders. However, we present an ideology that at one time was shared by the majority of the Jewish People and goes back for countless generations - we have the authority of history.”
It is acknowledged that there are so-called ‘Religious Zionists’, who believe, erroneously and heretically, that the State of Israel is the beginning of the Messianic era and, having populated Israel, Jews are required to turn what is now a secular state into a religious one. They are represented mainly by the National Religious Party which participates in Israeli politics and shapes and influences government policy in a significant way. However, its members are considered by authentic orthodox Jews, not only to be extreme and chauvinistic, but also to be guilty of spreading religious falsehood and are a major factor in inciting bloodshed.
Asked if Neturei Karta manages to make any difference in Jewish communities throughout the world, or indeed in the State of Israel itself (it is estimated that more than 5,000 followers of Neturei Karta live in Israel, mainly in Jerusalem itself) Rabbi Cohen states: “Make a difference? Well, it depends on which society one is talking about. We look to spread our message, primarily to the non-Jewish world. Within the Jewish world, we are not readily accepted. While it is a matter of historical fact that, initially, most devout Jews rejected Zionism, one must acknowledge that Zionism has been spectacularly successful in spreading its message and ideology, and that a large majority of Jews have been infected with, or affected by, Zionism. Thus, spreading our message amongst Jewish people is hard going but, to be honest, we are not worried about that. We feel that despite the obstacles we face, our philosophy is essential.”
“The conflict between Zionists and the Palestinians has caused confrontation and horrific bloodshed (both Jewish and non-Jewish). In the eyes of the non-Jewish world, particularly Muslims and Palestinians, this confrontation and bloodshed has become a blot, or should I say a stain, on all of the Jewish people. In the eyes of the Muslim world, the Zionist project has besmirched all Jews, because they inevitably equate Zionism with Judaism. So, at Neturei Karta, we feel that we have a religious duty to go out and to spread the message that Zionism is not Judaism - it never was - and that anti-Zionism is emphatically not anti-Semitism. What we want to achieve with that message is, firstly, to erase or at least to diminish the stain upon the Jewish people and to encourage others not to look down on Judaism because of the activities of Zionists. We consider this to be our holy religious duty.”
“Secondly, we believe that what we do saves lives. When we explain that historic, Torah Judaism understands the problems of the Palestinians and supports their pleas for help, this reduces confrontation, which in turn reduces violence, which in turn saves lives. If we manage to save just one single life through our activities, it was a life worth saving. Our aim is not necessarily to achieve, but to act, to do what is right.”
“During the presidency in Iran of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who was a very outspoken man with notoriously bogus views about the Holocaust, and because the Iranian government was so vociferous in its opposition to the Zionist state, we felt it was vital to spread our message equally loudly in Iran.”
“Ahmadinejad maintained that the Holocaust was a myth. We all knew that, regrettably, it was an indubitable and horrific reality that had touched the lives of almost all Jews. So, when he organised a ‘Review of the Holocaust’ conference in Tehran, in December 2006, we decided to use this opportunity of spreading our message and to accept his invitation to come. At the conference we refuted vehemently any suggestion that the Holocaust was a myth. However, we also argued strongly that the Holocaust should not be used as an excuse by Zionists, who wanted to employ it as a justification for the existence of Israel and as a licence to continue the oppression of Palestinians. This is what Zionists do perpetually: they jump on to the Holocaust bandwagon whenever they face any criticism or opposition, from wherever it comes.”
During the Tehran conference, Rabbi Cohen delivered a major speech concluding with a prayer: “... that the underlying cause of strife and bloodshed in the Middle East, namely, the State known as ‘Israel’, be totally and peacefully dissolved. To be replaced by a regime fully in accordance with the aspirations of the Palestinians, when Arab and Jew will be able to live peacefully together as they did for centuries.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Rabbi Cohen reflects: “I have been asked over and over again, ‘Why did you go there?‘ (to Tehran). The answer is simple, to spread our message. It was a high-profile opportunity and, while controversial, we felt that we managed to reassure millions of Muslims that there were Jews who understood their problem and the problem of the Palestinians especially, who understandably are opposed to the very idea of Zionism. Of course, in Israel, the reaction to our visit to Iran was explosive and the vitriol in the Israeli media was spectacular. Also, when I came home to the UK, I personally experienced a tremendous ‘whiplash effect’: there were calls for me to be expelled from the community; there were demonstrations outside my house, which was pelted with hundreds of eggs and other missiles; my car was vandalised; and my windows were broken. It was abundantly clear that many Jews were neither able nor willing to look at these matters objectively.”
“Yes, we may be perceived as outsiders, but we carry on,” concludes Rabbi Cohen. “We feel it is our duty is to do what the A-mighty wants us to do and to that extent it is we who are the insiders”.
Interview Date: 23rd August 2013
Updated: 5th September 2013
Neturei Karta International, an extensive online resource, can be seen via this link:
Rabbi Cohen's speach at the International Conference, Review of the Holocaust, in Tehran, in December 2006, is entitled, 'Orthodox Jewish Attitude to the Holocaust' and can be read via the following link:
Rabbi Ahron Leib Cohen is a prominent and distinguished, UK-based member of Neturei Karta and an avowed proponent of anti-Zionism. Neturei Karta (in Aramaic, ‘the Guardians of the City’) is the name adopted to describe that aspect of Judaism which rejects Zionism and opposes the establishment of the State of Israel. It teaches that a Jewish regime can only be re-established with the coming of the Messiah. The orthodox Jews who adhere to, and are loyal to, the teaching of Neturei Karta make a point of publicly demonstrating their position, the position of the Torah and authentic unadulterated Judaism; they positively get up and speak up in opposition to the State of Israel. However, they are now a minority movement and are therefore often perceived as outsiders
Photography: London 23rd August 2013