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Chassidic Gang Wars

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“Supporters of rival candidates for the new spiritual head of the Satmar Chassidim clash on the streets of Williamsburg.” The outcome of the struggle now depends largely on the proceedings of civil courts. They have been asked to decide who the heir to the Satmar real estate empire is. Meanwhile we are left with a negative impression of the mix of religion and fanaticism.

This seems very remote from our ideas of Chassidim as pious followers of God. Yet conflict is a pretty regular feature of some Chassidic life. Where does it all come from? And does this seeming regression towards primitivism that characterizes too many parts of other religions, now look like taking Judaism over too?

Chassidism started up in Eastern Europe in the eighteenth century as a movement of charismatic religious leaders. Within a few generations it had consolidated into regional and strongly nepotistic dynasties. Their leaders, known as rebbes (to distinguish themselves from rabbis), exercised a powerful and dominant influence over their followers, who saw them as the conduit between themselves and God and referred all important life decisions to them for approval and blessing.

Despite the loss of millions of followers during the Second World War, they have succeeded beyond all expectations in re-establishing themselves. Growing in numbers, wealth and power, the Chassidic dynasties today, in America and Israel, dominate the Orthodox world. And as they grow and new talent needs outlets, new little dynasties are constantly springing up. But all of them are named after towns and villages in Eastern Europe to give them “authenticity”. And rather like car number plates, a new rebbe of some Carpathian backwater, emerges in the pages of the Ultra Orthodox Press to add luster, one hopes, to the breed.

Chassidism has succeeded in thriving largely because they are close-knit sects of true believers convinced that they are right. Everyone else, including other Jews, is wrong, and the only way to survive is by holding firmly to their views in opposition to those of the outside world. Anything that is perceived to threaten their exclusivity must be resisted at all costs. This is common to all religious and, indeed, political sects. Just think of fisticuffs that break out between rival churches within the Holy Sepulcher each year, or Sunni Muslims massacring Shiites and vice versa, not to mention the millions of Marxist “revisionists” massacred by Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot and the rest of them. Chassidism is remarkable in that it mainly turns its aggression inwards. In recent years there have been lots of cases of intra-communal aggression, most of it involving Satmar Chassidim.

Towards the end of the Second World War, the Rebbe of Satmar, Joel Teitelbaum, was rescued by a deal with Adolf Eichmann. He went to Israel, where he became president of the fiercely anti-Zionist Eidah Charedis religious community in Jerusalem. Then he moved on to New York, re-establishing his community in Williamsburg. As Satmar increased, it spread to other enclaves and established a satellite community in upstate New York called Kiryas Yoel (Town of Joel). Satmar communities, schools and yeshivas exist in all the major Jewish communities, including Stamford Hill in London, where they have their own rabbinical authorities and standards.

Satmar has grown into the most numerous and powerful of the Chassidic dynasties, with about 100,000 adult members worldwide. It is also the least accessible. Satmarers are known for their strictness and emphasis on education, but they are also known for their charitable work and visiting the sick. Although some of the brightest students go on to a life of study, most young men, after marriage, must go out and earn their keep. This explains the great wealth and influence that they have acquired, particularly in New York, where they are courted by all the major political leaders.

The zealousness of Satmar has always led clashes with other Chassidic dynasties. The first serious physical battles began when they fought against Belz and Ger, who are more numerous in Israel, over their positive involvement in Israeli political affairs. When Belz dealt openly with the Israeli government in the early ‘60s a bitter feud developed. Simultaneously, it must be added, there were fights going on between rival factions within Belz, itself.

Lubavitch, Chabad is the most visible of Hassid movements. But in fact it is much smaller than Satmar. Nevertheless Satmar has always disliked them because of their outreach and proselytizing. Satmar argues that they trivialize and dilute the integrity of Chassidism. In 1975 some Satmar hotheads hung an effigy of the Lubavitcher Rebbe from a telephone pole in Williamsburg, which led to clashes there and in Crown Heights. Running battles continued during 1977 and 1978.

In 1981 the Belz synagogue in Williamsburg was attacked by a Satmar mob. In 2003 there were fights in Williamsburg again because Bobov (another smaller but rapidly increasing sect) recognized the new eruv, whereas Satmar strongly opposed it. According to the New York Times, Satmar supporters brought in gangs of night club bouncers to add weight to their cause. One might argue that these cases of violence are just the result of loose canons. The most conspicuous antagonisms of Satmar have, indeed, come from splinter groups such as Neturei Karta, who are so anti-Zionist that they have sent representatives to Iran to offer them support against Israel, and they regularly turn up to support pro-Palestinian demonstrations. While these groups may not be official Satmar organizations, they draw their support and ideology from it. (Actually, Neturei Karta also gets support from Charedi organizations in Britain such as the Adath.)

This physical extremism is the inevitable result of closed, passionate communities living in open democratic societies which give them greater freedom of _expression than they enjoyed under the Czars or Communism. It is also clear that violence tends to erupt during yeshiva breaks when huge numbers of teenage youngsters with few outlets for their physical energies are let loose within closed and judgmental societies. Such a “religious riot” happened in Boro Park, another Orthodox enclave in Brooklyn, this spring.

Despite all this very non-religious behavior, there are some hopeful signs. As more communities grow they are bound to split. New sons and grandsons of famous dynasties are now vying for power where only one can succeed through the old system. Whereas hitherto this competition was played out in terms of who could set up a new “court” by being stricter, the spread of challengers now means that some candidates will be presenting themselves as more tolerant and accommodating. New leaders will emerge who will attract support from those areas in the Chassidic world (and they do exist) who are dismayed both by the spiral of violence and the retreat from the more open spiritual and mystical message that initially animated the movement.

In the language of Lurianic Kabbalah, there may be some “holy sparks” emerging from the “broken shells”.

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