What is the Yiddish Orthodox press saying about October 7 and the war in Gaza?

Since October 7, the enlistment of young Haredim, ultra-Orthodox Jews, in the Israeli army is no longer taboo. Several rabbis and heads of religious schools have even encouraged it in Israel, in a traditionally non-Zionist “black hat” world that differs from the religious Zionist universe. A significant part of the Hasidic movement, however, remains impervious to the chanting of the canon. The Satmar Hasidic movement, unknown in France but powerful in the United States, is even fiercely critical of the religious parties that support the war. To dive into their entirely Yiddish-speaking world, K. is presenting several long extracts from their newspapers.


Di Tzeitung, Front page from February 14, 2024, “Ceasefire talks with Hamas moving very slowly”. 


Dear readers,

From time to time, I bring you some news from the Yiddish world – a handful of original academics, serious students toiling away in their yeshivas, and above all, many Hasidic households where Yiddish is the only daily language. Today, I invite you to explore the Yiddish Hasidic press to hear it speak on the subject that plagues us all – and horrifies me personally: the war.

So how is the Yiddish-language Hasidic press covering the conflict in Gaza? Over the past three months, I’ve consulted two weeklies: Di Tzeitung, “The Diary”, and Der Yid, “The Jew”. Both are published in Brooklyn and read worldwide by Yiddish-speaking Hasidim. Other publications include Der Blat, “The Page”. These newspapers are published by the Satmar Hasidic group of Hungarian origin. Although absent from France, this movement has united a number of Hasidic and ultra-Orthodox factions around its principles, including anti-Zionism. This anti-Zionism is itself linked to an attachment to Yiddish as the everyday language, as opposed to modern Hebrew or non-Jewish languages. Some Satmars live in Israel, but refuse to take part in elections there. They are therefore not politically represented, and castigate the Hasidim and ultra-Orthodox who take part in the country’s political life even though they do not claim to be religious Zionists. They also refuse all state aid from Israel, and their institutions in the country are funded entirely from the USA. A word of warning: do not confuse the Satmar Hasidim with the ultra-Orthodox (non-Hasidic) Neturei Karta ultra-minority, who have not hesitated to move closer to Teheran since the Ahmadinejad years, in their drastic opposition to Zionism. Satmar’s chief rabbis have condemned them since the late 1960s.

We don’t expect from Der Yid or the Tzeitung a fiery admiration for the State of Israel and its army, and we don’t find it. On the other hand, the same amazement and anguish are to be found in almost all the Jewish press.

The reaction of these newspapers to the massacres of October 7 is that of Jews bruised by the torture of other Jews. The “pogrom of Shemini Atzeret”, the “massacres of October 7”, are the “cruel fruit” of the “murderers of Hamas”, that “terrorist group” which has opened a new chapter in its “sinister history”. With regard to the pro-Palestinian demonstrations in the United States, the editors point to the numerous excesses. Antisemitism on campuses is described at length, giving rise to burning concerns. So far, nothing unusual.

If the Yiddish-speaking Hasidic press is specific in its treatment of the conflict compared to the rest of the diasporic press, it is rather in its frank criticism of the Israeli government and its insistence on wishing for an end to the war as soon as possible. It is a Satmar custom to criticize the State of Israel less harshly in times of war. It was respected, especially in the early days; however, from the outset, the military response was questioned.

Di Tzeitung, November 1, 2023 “When the US bombed Fallujah (Iraq) in 2004, it killed around 600 civilians, i.e. 0.2% of the city’s population. By the end of last week, the death toll in Gaza had risen to over 8,000, i.e. 0.3% of the population.”

I’d like to take you back in time a little – the situation has unfortunately not improved since I selected the few articles translated below, which date from mid-January. I’m limiting my press review to the weeklies published by the Satmar group, both because they are by far the most important of the Yiddish press in terms of circulation and readership, and because they are the only ones with a periodicity that allows regular coverage of the conflict, and of current events in general. There are other Yiddish-language newspapers, magazines, almanacs and bulletins, most of them from the Hasidic world, and a few aimed mainly at lay Yiddishists. Here’s what we read after three months of war, between January 11 and 19, in Der Yid and Di Tzeitung.

Di Tzeitung headlines: “GAZA WAR: THE STATE OF ISRAEL WILL BEGIN WITHDRAWING ITS TROOPS”. The journalist notes that “to meet the needs of its national economy, the State of Israel is bringing several thousands of its soldiers home from Gaza”. Then he hopes: “Insofar as the United States, for its part, is calling for a rapid end to the war and, in the meantime, is demanding reduction to the minimum in the bombardments that are causing so many deaths, we might have hoped to see an end to the war, or at least a reduction in the terrible civilian casualties in Gaza, which are doing so much damage to the prestige of the State of Israel throughout the world”. “But this is not the case,” he concludes, disappointed, after several lines.

The Hasidim of Satmar recognize the existence of the State of Israel, but they don’t consider it to be theirs any more than any other. They are also generally very loyal to the United States.

Let’s turn now to an analysis published in Der Yid, the historic organ of American Jewish ultra-Orthodoxy. Published weekly with a circulation of around 55,000, it has been the Satmar voice par excellence since the 1970s. In mid-January, as it has done almost every week since October, it questions the wisdom of the Israeli army’s entry into Gaza. Let’s listen in.

“THE SIN OF WAR. The Zionists’ bitter war against the Palestinian people in Gaza has already been going on for over three months – since Simchat Torah, when the Hamas assassins succeeded in breaking through the barriers set up around Gaza and carried out their gigantic massacres […], destroying the course of thousands of Jewish lives. […] Since that day, the Zionists have waged a war of revenge in Gaza, first with massive bombardments, then with a ground invasion, which has totally destroyed the Palestinian towns of Gaza. 22,000 Palestinians, most of them civilians, have been killed, and their images are being used by Hamas to smear the Zionists, stirring up anti-Jewish fury and hatred around the world”.

The editor does not consider Zionism, or the existence of the State of Israel, or the behavior of Israeli soldiers, to be the cause of antisemitism. The Satmars know full well (and are historically well placed to know) that antisemitism existed before Theodor Herzl, and even motivated Herzl to develop his projects. Their idea is that Nations are always liable to give in – at least a variable number of their members – to anti-Jewish hatred. What is needed, therefore, is to prevent, as far as possible, too many people from being tempted by an antisemitic worldview, and above all, to obtain the protection of the rulers in countries where Jews live, so that through their Justice, their laws or their armed arm, they can prevent antisemitism from taking its course.

The writer goes on, choosing to emphasize the ineffectiveness of IDF action:

“But after three months of war, the Zionists have still not achieved their main objectives: they have not managed to shoot the leaders of the Hamas terrorist group, […] they have not succeeded in forcibly freeing the captive hostages and 180 Jewish soldiers have already fallen in the war in Gaza. Hundreds are wounded or crippled, may God protect us, and they have also failed to stop Hamas firing rockets into southern Israel. The war is also accompanied by an upsurge in cruel acts against Jewish lives in Israel, with Palestinian terrorist attacks in Jerusalem and the West Bank, and missiles launched from Lebanon by the Hezbollah terrorist group into northern Israel. The war has displaced thousands of Jews, who have had to leave cities in the north and south of the State of Israel and are in exile far from home. As the prophets said: ‘The people of Galilee will wander from town to town and will settle nowhere'”.

Religious references, quotations from verses, are absent in factual articles but very numerous in analytical articles or columns in Der Yid, as are Hebrew locutions in general. The editor bases his reasoning on Jewish values and arguments derived from his reading of the Talmud. In his view, political Zionism cannot be religious. This idea was developed by Rabbi Joel Teitelbaum, organizer of the Satmar movement after the Second World War. In his theological work Vayoel Moshe, he interprets a text from the Talmudic tractate of Ketubot by stressing the importance of three oaths required by God. Two of them are required of the Children of Israel: they must not emigrate en masse to Israel before the Messianic redemption, nor revolt against the gentiles among whom they are exiled. The third is required of the gentiles: they must not oppress the people of Israel too harshly. It goes without saying that the violation of the third commandment by gentiles does not justify the Jews’ being absolved from the first two. There are other arguments as well. It’s a mitzvah, a good deed, but that is a personal one and shouldn’t require the use of cannons. The Satmar point of view also opposes the acquisition of territories not recognized by the UN, considered a provocation to the Nations and especially to the Arabs. In addition, they criticize the current Israeli rulers for being corrupt (a reproach that is not specific to the Satmars, as we know) and for sacrificing lives for their own interests.

It is in this frame of mind that the editor continues, appealing to arguments to be rather classified on the side of common sense:

“Honest Jews have argued from the outset that this war is senseless and moreover opposed to the Torah, insofar as the war decisions have been taken by the worst possible leaders, who place no value on Jewish lives. Their aim is not at all to save the souls of Israel. They wage their war driven by a passion for revenge and victory. Indeed, any reasonable person has begun to understand that it would be impossible to eliminate all the Palestinian murderers in Gaza. On the contrary, the war is a breeding ground for thousands of new Palestinian murderers, driven by anger and the desire for revenge after the murder of their families. […] ”

While the writer is opposed to Zionist ideology in general, which was initially emancipatory and secular, it is religious Zionism that he criticizes most vigorously by far. He denounces the mixing of religion and politics as a secularist might – but naturally, his arguments are partly religious:

“Accepting the necessity of the existence of the Zionist state leads in any case to accepting the loss of Jewish lives in wars. […] But far worse than the position [of secular Jews] on this issue is that of the religious activists in Netanyahu’s government. They have fueled Palestinian anger by supporting the establishment of settlements in the occupied West Bank, in the midst of Palestinian populations. They insisted on visiting the Temple Mount to provoke the Arabs and prove their dominance. During Chol Hamoed Sukkot, in the middle of the Sukkot festival, three thousand Jews went to the Temple Mount, which inflamed the anger of the Hamas murderers, who took cruel revenge during Shemini Atzeret, launching what they called the Al-Aqsa Deluge (named after the Al-Aqsa mosque on the Temple Mount). […]

Der Yid, Friday March 22, 2024 – Parashah Vayikra..

The major religious parties who support this war by claiming it is God’s will [are eminently guilty]. […] The newspaper Hamodia (an ultra-Orthodox paper published by the Agudat Israel party) published an opinion piece by a Hasidic rabbi, just after the massacre, to the effect that this war is of divine will. […] Another Agudat Israel newspaper, Hamevaser, writes that according to the Torah, we have the right to kill not only Hamas fighters, but also the civilian population, men, women and little children, as Shimon and Levi did when they destroyed the town of Shechem because its inhabitants were holding back a young girl. May their mouths fill with earth for these words. The Degel Hatorah party newspaper, Yated, wrote that the soldiers who entered Gaza were holy and that their parents had more merit than the binding of Isaac: for Abraham did not sacrifice his son Isaac, while their children died. Let their mouths be filled with earth for these words. […] In short, the major religious parties have completely poisoned the minds of the Haredi street with their fiery support for war. They compete in flattery of the Tzahal, one with blessings, another by hanging Tzitzit (ritual bangs) on soldiers; a third sends gifts and food for the army, another plays music and dances… The blessings of yeshivah directors have borne fruit. Young Haredi men and boys enlisted to take part in the “great Mitzvah of war”. […] Not only young men, but also young women. […] ”

Let us pause here for a moment, to recall that the Satmars are utterly opposed to the enlistment of young religious men in the army and absolutely devastated by the sight of young female soldiers – even if they had to wear a long skirt. This view is in fact changing in the Haredi world, which is increasingly accepting that women perform certain tasks in the military. It should be noted, however, that this refusal to support a Jewish army does not mean that the Satmar newspapers do not mourn the death of every Jewish soldier, nor that they do not show respect, in other articles, for the female soldiers who have tried to alert their superiors to Hamas’s plans without being listened to… Several articles have also emotionally evoked the fate of female soldiers killed in their base, or captured.

A few lines later, the editor returns to his denunciation of Netanyahu’s militarism:

“Worse still, these major religious parties support Bibi Netanyahu, this thuggish leader, even in his plans to extend the bloody war in Gaza to other countries. […] He plans to invade Lebanon to destroy the Hezbollah terrorists, who are sending rockets from there into northern Israel. A war with Hezbollah would be costly, as it is heavily armed, and could lead to war with Iran and Syria, God forbid. Netanyahu is serving […] his political interests, even if it costs thousands of lives. […] Jewish lives are of no importance in the face of the state’s desire.”

Let’s conclude this mid-January press review with an editorial published at the time by Der Yid. The weekly newspaper calls on Israeli patriots themselves to condemn a murderous and apparently ineffective war – Eisenkot, Golan, Ayalon and others come to mind. Men of war, secularists, Sabras… Like them, Satmars worries: what will happen after the war?

“EDITORIAL. “ONE HUNDRED DAYS OF WAR, AND AFTER? […] It’s been a hundred days since the Hamas assassins killed over a thousand Jews and kidnapped more than two hundred and fifty. Over a hundred days since the State of Israel launched a war to “destroy Hamas” and re-establish its deterrent force. One hundred days, and we’re still at Alef. Thousands of people have indeed been killed in Gaza, an entire population has been displaced. But the rockets continue to fall. Tzahal boasts of every inch it has gained in Gaza, but what has it achieved? Have the war aims been achieved? Can we say “mission accomplished”? […] Among patriots of the highest rank in Israel itself, some are calling for time to take stock and determine objectives for after [the war]. They point out that the hostages have not been released. The dead have not been resurrected. Almost two hundred soldiers have already lost their lives, in addition to those who tragically perished at Simchat Torah. So what’s the plan for the future? If thousands more Palestinians are killed, will the place become a peaceful haven? If the State of Israel really does manage to catch its leaders, will Hamas close up store?”

Macha Fogel




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