A man contracted to work on anti-Zionism campaigns within the past year was appointed as Director of Jewish Outreach for the New York Republican State Committee last week, The Jewish Channel can report.
Yossi Gestetner was appointed to the State Republican Party position on June 12th, with a press release declaring, “During the last seven years, Mr. Gestetner has been a resilient voice for Conservative values and Republican ideals,” and that “Yossi has illustrated his broad understanding and deep connection to members of the Jewish Community.” Gestetner has previously held freelance political and communications positions, and maintains a blog, GestetnerUpdates.com, and an account at Twitter.
However, following an investigation of multiple years’ worth of Gestetner’s writings and work, and an hour-long on-camera interview, the Jewish Channel has found that the State Republican Party official has held a number of professional positions and maintains certain opinions that are often considered at odds with standard Republican Party doctrine, including some that differ strongly from broader Jewish opinion. These include: his work for and choice not to repudiate an anti-Zionist group, Torah True Jews Against Zionism; his advocacy on behalf of violent offenders and sexual abusers within the ultra-Orthodox community; and his positions on government assistance programs.
Less than thirty minutes after State Republican Party Chairman Ed Cox was asked about this investigation by NY1 News reporter Josh Robin, whom The Jewish Channel informed of its investigation, Gestetner announced his resignation.
Gestetner held a contract position in the summer of 2011 with the anti-Zionist group True Torah Jews Against Zionism, The Jewish Channel has found. The organization’s website declares in its headline, “Traditional Jews are not Zionists,” and goes on to say that “the Zionist idealogy [sic] is totally contrary to traditional Jewish law and beliefs and the teachings of the Holy Torah. ” The “Torah” is a term used to refer to the Jewish Bible, as well as the system of values derived from the Bible and other writings by traditional Jews.
In the on-camera interview with The Jewish Channel’s Steven I. Weiss, Gestetner acknowledged that he worked for the organization “publicly” and that his advocacy for their cause is “not a secret.” He said he was working for them under “a media consulting contract,” in which he endeavored “to get them to talk with people in the media.” Gestetner said he would not “take responsibility” for his work for past clients, and that his work for a client “doesn’t mean that I personally agree or disagree with it.”
However, when asked for his opinion on the group in his then-current capacity as a State Republican Party official charged with working with the Jewish community, Gestetner said, “we gotta see to it that all sides and sects within the Jewish community find a home,” adding “I’m not here to give opinions about groups or organizations, obviously people have all different ideological differences.” Gestetner also repeated an assertion, frequent in his writings, that polls show the Republican Party can gain significant Jewish support by focusing on issues other than Israel: “from a strategic point of view, while Israel is an important issue, but you gotta focus, you gotta have a plan to show the people, that you live here day to day, that our policies, our programs work for you.”
Gestetner further defended his work for True Torah Jews Against Zionism by saying, “as long as I don’t go out there and assist people in doing crimes, as long as people are doing things perfectly legal, and people need public relations consulting, media consulting, I think it should be perfectly fine in doing so.”
Asked if he, himself, was a Zionist, Gestetner said, “I’m an American, I live in the United States, and I hope to see that people who live in Israel, such as I have immediate family, that they are safe and sound.” He added, “I can understand the passion that people have around this issue, but then again, there are certain issues where everybody’s out there championing for it, and I don’t need to be another chicken at the table and scream and yell.”
Anti-Zionism is common among many ultra-Orthodox and Hasidic groups. Gestetner identifies himself as a Hasid, but as one not belonging to any specific sect. While some anti-Zionist ultra-Orthodox are aggressive in declaring their message, such as the group Neturei Karta that sent delegates to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s Holocaust denial conference, many others simply don’t support the existence of Jewish government of a Jewish State of Israel. Gestetner said in the interview, “I personally have no problem with the State of Israel being there.”
Gestetner made clear that he thinks his position on Israel would be different from the man who appointed him, Chairman Ed Cox, who has led the State Republican Party since 2009: “Ed Cox would definitely say that the New York State GOP, as the Republican Party nationally, wants to see the State of Israel succeed and people be there safe and secure, because Israel is the only true friend and ally that the U.S. and the only true place of freedom that the US or the west in general has in the middle east.”
Advocacy for Alleged Criminals
The Jewish Channel’s investigation found examples of Gestetner advocating on behalf of alleged violent offenders and sexual abusers in the ultra-Orthodox community, both as a professional consultant and in his personal writings.
One of the most notorious criminal cases to come out of the ultra-Orthodox community in recent years is a fire-bombing last May in New Square, in which an assistant to the grand rabbi of the local Hasidic sect attempted to set the home of Aron Rottenburg ablaze as retribution for Rottenburg’s attending prayer services separate from the majority of the community, and causing third-degree burns over more than half of Rottenburg’s body and leaving him hospitalized for a month. The assailant, Shaul Spitzer, pleaded guilty to first-degree assault in February, and was sentenced in April to seven years in prison.
The day after the fire-bombing, Gestetner described it in a post on Twitter: “Someone in Square, while smoking, slipped on flammable material so he caught fire…”
Asked what he meant by this response in the on-camera interview, the state GOP official said the “three dots” in the tweet indicate the comment was meant “in sarcasm.” Asked why he felt sarcasm was an appropriate response to the violent crime, he said “if you want to make the argument that this tweet was out of place, I’ll give you that, perhaps.”
Gestetner wrote a Yiddish post on May 26th, 2011, about the fire-bombing for his blog, GestetnerUpdates.com, and linked to that Yiddish post from a post in English entitled “A Few Words Regarding the New Square Fire.” Gestetner also posted a link to the Yiddish post on Twitter. However, the links from both of those posts now link to a Yiddish writing dated more than a month after the original Yiddish post was published, and the June 29th, 2011, Yiddish post discusses economic matters in Greenland, and carries no message regarding the New Square fire. Gestetner denied having altered the post in the on-camera interview, and said the original Yiddish post about the arson is still online and accessible, and that he would e-mail a link to it to The Jewish Channel; he has yet to send such a link to TJC, and reviews of his Yiddish posts by experts suggest the post was no longer online.
Gestetner also recently served as a spokesperson for a controversial event that drew more than 1,000 Hasidim to support the legal defense of an alleged child molester, an event that was promoted with posters depicting the alleged victim of the abuse as a missile targeting the Jewish community with her accusations.
Gestetner said he defends those members of the ultra-Orthodox community accused of violent crimes and sexual abuse because “In the court of public opinion, the community is bad and we didn’t get a fair chance.” He said Hasidic activism on behalf of the accused comes from a desire to support the American legal doctrine of “innocent until proven guilty,” and that “many people in the community, specifically in the Hasidic community, think that this is just a talking point, rather than an active ideal.” Of the posters portraying an alleged victim of sexual abuse as a missile for an event he represented, Gestetner said, “I don’t think I’m gonna take responsibility for anybody’s marketing idea, or everybody’s marketing idea.”
Asked what he thought the community response to those to whom “innocent until proven guilty” no longer applies, because they’ve either been found guilty or pleaded guilty, such as the New Square arsonist, Gestetner said, “You’ve got to give people a chance; he has pleaded guilty, he has been sentenced to seven years,” adding “you’ve got to let the process work; if this is what the system has handed down, I guess he’s gonna need to live with the consequences.” Gestetner denied that he or the ultra-Orthodox community or leadership at large has a moral responsibility to condemn such crimes, saying “if you’re asking me to go out there and take every criminal, everybody in the Hasidic community who has done a criminal act and go off on a, you know, a tirade against the person, I’m not going to do it,” adding, “because what do you want to gain, crimes happen in all communities.”
Reporting Crimes to Rabbis Before Police
On the topic of the recent controversy raised by a New York Times investigative series revealing that ultra-Orthodox rabbis have instructed constituents to consult a rabbi before calling police if they believe a community member has violently or sexually abused them or their child, The Jewish Channel found the State Republican Party official wrote on his blog on April 1st, “The Jewish system forbids one Jew to tell on another Jew as a first. However, if a person thinks that a crime has been committed, the person can consult with someone who has no bias in the outcome, such as a rabbi.”
In the on-camera interview, Gestetner affirmed this position while clarifying that “I’m not a rabbi,” saying “it is preferred that people should consult at least with a rabbi, how to proceed.”
“NYPD budget should be cut”
Another notorious crime within the Orthodox community is the kidnapping, killing and dismemberment of 8-year-old boy Leibby Kletzky last year, in Brooklyn. The episode drew scrutiny on the volunteer neighborhood-watch group in ultra-Orthodox Brooklyn, Shomrim, which did not contact law enforcement to let them know that Kletzky was missing and that they’d launched a search for him. The New York Police Department was only informed of the situation after Kletzky’s father placed a call, some two hours after Shomrim launched its search. This led some critics to accuse Shomrim of failing in its responsibilities, and to call for its funding from New York City to be diminished.
In response to those calls, The Jewish Channel found, Gestetner wrote a post on his blog titled “After Kletzky, NYPD budget should be cut, Shomrom [sic] funds increased.”
In the on-camera interview, Gestetner explained that in his post he was trying to “illustrate absurdity by being absurd,” declaring, “If someone is out there saying that Shomrim didn’t do a good job, you know what, if you want to play ball, let’s play ball in a strong way.”
Unorthodox Republican Views of Government
Coming from a Hasidic community that is disproportionately impoverished and served by government assistance programs (the Hasidic enclave of Kiryas Joel is the poorest town in the country, according to recent census data), the State Republican Party official argued that his community should support Republicans because theirs is the party of more government assistance, not less. His statements come at a time when the national parties find themselves in a budget duel in which Republicans want to cut spending on government assistance programs, and Democrats want to increase it.
“If you go back and look at the numbers, President Bush in his first six years, when he had a Republican House and Senate, besides for a short period, spending on all these programs that you just mentioned increased way faster than it did when Bill Clinton was in office, and Bill Clinton was a Democrat,” Gestetner said, adding “maybe in the past the Republican Party put a stronger focus on business rather than the poor…but I think over time the Republican Party has been very active in helping the poor.”
Gestetner criticized New York’s current governor for his budget cuts, saying “here is New York State, we have Governor Cuomo, he’s a Democrat, he’s taken an axe to education and to Medicaid.”
The State Republican Party official suggested that Democrats have left an opening for Republicans to recruit Hasidim currently receiving government assistance, which Republicans could exploit by expanding eligibility for the programs. “I’m not saying it’s accurate in the numbers, but if you’re a family of four or five and you earn thirty to thirty-five thousand a years, you’re eligible for thirty-five thousand in government assistance, but if you earn five thousand more you’re going to lose half of all of it, and if you open a business, you’re going to have a problem receiving some of these benefits,” Gestetner explained, adding “if you want to get people off these programs even if they earn more, you’ve got to be willing to give them a little bit more and then slowly but surely get them off of it.”
Gestetner used himself as an example, saying “I’m trying to earn, I’m still working, and when it comes to the end of the year, the end of the quarter, I’m thinking what did I do, I’m barely trying to earn some money, instead of filling out applications.”