Rabbi Meir Kahane: His Life and Thought (1976-1983)
By Libby Kahane
Institute for the Publication of the Writings of Rabbi Meir Kahane
$26. 50 | NIS 103
The legacy of Rabbi Meir Kahane (1932-1990) remains so fraught that to say a sympathetic word -- no matter how qualified-- about any aspect of his career is to invite opprobrium.
Yet the fact is that Kahane was one of the most influential, selfless, brilliant American Jewish personalities of the post-World War II era.
In 1968, he founded the Jewish Defense League in New York, and in 1971 after immigrating to Israel he established the political party Kach (outlawed in 1988).
Under Kahane, JDL was a catalyst pressuring the US Jewish establishment to put Soviet Jewry, Jewish poverty, and urban anti-Semitism, higher on its agenda.
Kahane in his original JDL incarnation saved the souls of countless impressionable young Jews from terminal ennui if not outright assimilation.
After his move to Israel he became ever more extreme in his religious views. Maybe that was because the Zionist revisionist establishment spurned him. He was tarred as a racist because he wanted to "remove" the Arabs from Israel. Today, his devotees essentially reject the Herzlian model of Zionism and would replace it with a theocracy led by "Torah-fearing" Jews.
There was no grey in the mature Kahane's worldview. He paid the price for being obdurate. I can't think of another Jewish leader who served prison sentences in both the US and Israel. What other Israeli politician was held in administrative detention? How many went on hunger strikes time and again?
No one of his generation banged out as many fluidly-written, influential, polemical articles, pamphlets, and books. No American-born Jew had so much influence on the Israeli body politic. None could draw a crowd or mobilize young Jews to action like Kahane. His ideas came rapid-fire replete with action plans, blueprints, and milestones.
He was indefatigable and unbelievably creative. One day marching in Skokie against the Nazis the next organizing patrols in Brooklyn. One day forming a think tank another a training camp. One day trying to salvage JDL (which had shriveled when he made aliya) another articulating a platform against what he considered decadent Western culture.
He created front-groups and spin-offs such as the Conference of Jewish Activists, Student Activists for Soviet Jewry, Return [Diaspora Jews to Israel], and the Museum of the Potential Holocaust, to cite just some.
And in 1990, tragically, he was murdered in Manhattan by an Arab terrorist, part of a cabal that would be tied to the 1993 World Trade Center bombing -- the forerunner of September 11, 2001 and the Long War we find ourselves in.
Did I say he was charismatic? I found the early Kahane mesmerizing. I first appreciated the enormity of the Shoah because he talked about it when others didn't. Following him into the street from the auditorium of Hunter College chanting "Never Again" and sitting down on Third Avenue and 67th Street near the Soviet UN Mission in Manhattan was like an ecstatic-religious experience for me.
But in his Kach incarnation his ideas sounded reactionary and repugnant. And for most people that is how he is remembered. For saying no to tolerance, no to respect for minority rights, no to religious pluralism, and no to compromise with political opponents. There were red lines. In response to a grenade attack on a 1983 Peace Now demonstration that took the life of Emil Grunzweig, Kahane declared that political violence against Jews was unacceptable.
No surprise then that the second volume of Rabbi Meir Kahane: His Life and Thought (1976-1983) written by his widow Libby Kahane has met not so much with disapproval as with averted eyes.
This disregard is unfortunate.
Like the first volume, published in 2008, this work presents essential material— and photographs— upon which any future critical appraisal of Kahane's career will likely rely. While far from iconography, his widow understandably writes with empathy and admiration.
That said, Libby Kahane, a retired librarian, has written a lucidly crafted, well-organized, and extensively footnoted narrative. Almost everyone in Kahane's circle is acknowledged. Virtually every documented article and speech is synopsized. True believers will be mesmerized. Historians will be grateful.
There is also a compassionate humane reason not to ignore this work.
Kahane never made money by being a "professional Jew." His family never enjoyed the accoutrements of middle class Jewish life. He sought to keep his family out of the limelight. Yet as fate would have it, Libby Kahane lost not only her husband but also a son, Binyamin Ze'ev, to Arab terror. The younger Kahane and his wife Talya were murdered in 2000 while driving early one morning on Road 60 in the West Bank during the second intifada. They were apparently random victims of PLO shooters. The couple's young children sitting in the back of the car came away, mercifully, physically unharmed.
Misfortune continues into the next generation: Libby's grandson-- her daughter Tova's son Meir Ettinger-- a leader of the so-called Hilltop Youth was arrested on suspicion of vandalism against Muslim and Christian properties.
Volume II picks up in 1976 with Kahane's second attempt at running for the Knesset.
His first effort in 1973 garnered nearly 13,000 votes about 3,000 short for that year's electoral threshold.
Rav Tzvi Yehuda Kook, spiritual leader of the Gush Emunim settlement movement, was not altogether unsympathetic to Kahane's first Knesset run even though most of Kook's followers would presumably have voted for Mafdal (the National Religious Party). The book concludes on the eve of his election in 1984 to the 11th Knesset. A third and final volume is planned.
Blocked by establishment organizations and many synagogues from public speaking, Kahane developed workarounds. There was his Jewish Press newspaper platform. He was also a first-class propagandist (in the pre-social media era) coming up with catchphrases that had instant resonance: "Not One Inch," "There is No Palestine," "Jewish Blood Is Not Cheap."
He sought confrontation -- engaged in the propaganda of the deed. For instance, he had no compunction about advocating the destruction of the Muslim shrines atop the Temple Mount.
In his 1977 Knesset campaign, Kahane— now bearded— espoused a bellicose far-right Orthodox platform on conversions to Judaism, abortion, and religious pluralism. He was visceral in his attitude toward intermarriage and interpreted the presence of non-Jewish volunteers in Israel as a mortal danger.
Some of Kahane's positions are almost too painful to recount because he didn't begin his career as a religious fanatic. But once he became one there would be no wiggle room for compromise. That was no less true on politics. He vehemently protested against Menachem Begin for cutting a deal with Anwar Sadat at Camp David that led to Israel's withdrawal from the Sinai. Others did too, of course, but on military and strategic grounds.
What you don't get in this book is a handle on Kahane the man, husband, and father. The couple married in 1956 and had four children. Now a great-grandmother, Libby offers only a few vignettes about their personal life -- a bar mitzvah planned while Meir was in prison or a throwaway line about how much he missed the children. She seems determined to protect the privacy of a very public man. I hope in the final volume she will say more.
Had Kahane lived he would today probably be leading an opposition faction in the Knesset. I abhor the messianic, demagogic, and apocalyptic positions he espoused as leader of Kach. Israel's broken political system needs reform to bolster centrist and moderate elements. That said, it's indisputable that the existing system treated him shabbily. Rather than face up to the ideological challenge Kahane posed he was stifled. The same system that abides Arab Knesset members who relish the chance to incite would not tolerate Kahane's incitement.
Today those who carry the torch for Kahane's ideas are rudderless. Some may see this as a blessing. But the fact that they basically have no legitimate outlet for their views may do more harm than good. To paraphrase Lyndon Johnson: It would probably be better to have them inside the tent pissing out, than outside the tent pissing in.
Elliot Jager is a Jerusalem-based journalist, senior editor at The Jerusalem Report, and author of 'The Pater: My Father, My Judaism, My Childlessness' (The Toby Press). You can follow him on Twitter @JAGERFILE.