JERUSALEM – Dozens of Palestinian flags are painted up and down the ancient walls. The red, green, black and white colors of the flag adorn the outsides of buildings, walls and doors. But this is not the West Bank or Gaza. These flags are painted in the heart of Jerusalem, in one of the most ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods in all of Israel.

Welcome to Mea She’arim, just a short walk from the Old City of Jerusalem. Inside its narrow winding passages is one of the first Jewish neighborhoods built outside the Old City. Dating back to the Ottoman Empire, this community is home to many who not only reject Zionism, or Jewish nationalism, but go so far as to claim the state of Israel should not exist at all based solely on their religious interpretation. 

Moshe Lef, a 25-year-old store owner living in the heart of Mea She’arim, believes that the country belongs to the Palestinian people. “We want to go to the Palestinian[s] and live good with each other, like our grandparents did.”

Moshe Lef, member of Edah Haredit

Lef, who comes from a family of Jews who were living peacefully in Jerusalem before Israel was formed, cited his family’s peaceful coexistence with Palestinians – even sharing an apartment with a Palestinian family in the decades ago. Lef claimed to be a sixth-generation resident of Mea She’arim, part of a community that predates the modern state of Israel and goes back to Lithuanian and Eastern European Jews that migrated to Jerusalem in the late 1800s.

“We believe this country is [the Palestinians’] and we didn’t want the state of Israel to exist in this country,” he said.

 Lef wears a traditional black vest over a white button-down shirt with the tassels of his tzitzis poking out underneath. His peyot, the long curls of hair that many Orthodox Jews keep, fall over the sides of his mostly unkempt beard. By all outward appearances, Lef seems much like any of the other 1.2 million ultra-Orthodox Jews that make up around 13% of the population of Israel. But while many Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) and others living within the wider Mea She’arim neighborhood are ambivalent about the state of Israel and cooperate with it, Lef is part of a small Haredi movement called Edah Haredit that has been very anti-Zionist, based on their interpretation of the Torah, since the group was founded in the 1820s, according to Kimmy Caplan, professor of Jewish history at Bar-Ilan University.

The Edah Haredit is known as one of the most hardline groups even among the already very-traditional Haredi community, Caplan said. In the last 20 years, many Edah community members have grown even more outspoken about their views, Caplan added, partially in response criticism from within the ultra-Orthodox community of Edah Haredit’s opposition to the state of Israel.

In an interview near his store, Lef elaborated on the group’s core religious beliefs that fuel the its ideology. “We are waiting for the Messiah to come,” he said, adding that only then will God give power to those who believe in Judaism. Until then, “we think that the state of Israel is against the Bible” and that a Jewish state, especially a secular one, should not exist.

Lef’s religious beliefs put him in direct opposition to the state of Israel and its existence. Curiously, it also puts him in line with Palestinians opposition of the state and in violation of laws around showing support for Palestine.

Israel’s new right-wing government has banned the public display of the Palestinian flag and has stepped up enforcement. Israel’s National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir announced via Twitter that he had directed police to enforce the removal of these flags and to “stop any incitement against the State of Israel.” Outreach to Ben-Gvir’s office to comment on the Palestinian Flags in Mea She’arim went unanswered.

Lef said he believes the flags his community paints save lives and serve as protection for the community.  “We don’t have a fight with the Palestinians,” said Lef. “Even in the most horrible times in Israel” when there were attacks and bombings in every neighborhood, places like Mea She’arim were quiet, he said. “We believe that the reason is because we say we are not in a fight with the Palestinians”.

Not only do Lef and those in the Edah Haredit completely reject the Israeli state. Lef claimed that those in the Edah Haredit community take no Israeli government assistance, use only private health insurance and even avoid registering their children with the state if possible. “We don’t travel with the bus” and acccept “not the childcare, not the money, nothing. We are autonomous in all things.” Lef explained. Caplan confirmed that this is often the case in this hardline community.

While Lef said that the community’s fight with the Israeli government is ideological, it has clashed with the Israeli state and police. Protests in Mea She’arim around the route of the light rail line running through ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods have at times gotten violent. There have also been cases of arson, vandalism and violence where the police have been called in as the community protests perceived threats to their way of life.

Given the insularity of the community, its size can be difficult to pin down. Nationwide, Professor Caplan estimated the community is between 30,000 and 40,000 people, roughly 2-3% of the ultra-Orthodox community. While the community is also spread out across Israel and abroad both Lef and Professor Caplan point out the greatest concentration and the heart of the movement is still within Mea She’arim community.

The community’s insular nature has concealed their anti-Zionist stance and affinity for Palestinian flags from many Israelis. Daniel Kleinman, an Israeli security guard at an Israeli government building mere steps away from Mea She’arim, had never heard of or seen the Palestinian flags. He was surprised to learn of their existence just behind the community’s walls, noting “that would be very strange” here in Jerusalem. Professor Caplan also noted while the community is not quiet about their beliefs, that many in Israel might be unaware of their views.