When I was in middle school I used to admire Rabbi Meir Kahane, the late extremist Jewish nationalist. I decorated my notebooks with proclamations of “Kahane Tzadak,” Kahane was correct, a mantra of Israel’s ultra right. What was he supposedly “correct” about? His views that Israel should expel all of the Arabs within its midst. That the entirety of Israel, including every inch that Israel has ever conquered, must remain 100% Jewish.
My views have changed significantly in the past 10 years. I soon came to realize that this perspective is hateful, racist, absurd, and dangerous, a point that should be obvious to anyone who has every read Kahane’s work. Now Rabbi Kahane disgusts me. I believe in the existence of a “Jewish State,” but do not believe that our state must come at the expense of others.
I wonder why I ever ascribed to such hateful views. I consider myself a pretty tolerant, level-headed person who embraces liberal values, so why was I enamored by an ultra right-winger whose political party is considered a terrorist organization by both the United States and Israel? The answer is that Rabbi Kahane’s philosophy was very attractive to me as a young Jew searching to define his Jewish identity.
Rabbi Kahane was proud to be a Jew, arguably prouder than most other Jews that I know. He wrote with such passion about the importance of Jews sticking up for themselves, being brave and strong, taking control of their destiny, and not getting pushed around by others.
The timing was ripe. I started reading Kahane in the early-mid 2000s, shortly after 9/11 (during which I was nine years old) and the Second Intifada, two major events that were especially significant for those (such as myself) coming of age during that period. In school I started learning in depth about the Holocaust, how we were helplessly and hopelessly thrown into gas chambers only 60 years prior. It is no wonder I was looking for some Jewish pride.
And then there is the experience of being a Jewish kid in middle school. The physiological, psychological, and social changes occurring at this age bring with it an identity search. This is when people begin to associate with various groups and labels. This was also the stage in which many of my friends began to give up on Judaism, feeling unconnected to this aspect of their identity. Socially, being religious was definitely not the cool thing to do. So I was wondering what it meant to be a committed Jew, from an ideological point of view.
Kahane provided me with an answer. He wrote quite clearly about what it means to be a proud Jew. There was no ambivalence, no nuance, it was black and white Jewish pride. Jews are here and here to stay, and we do not care what the world has to say about it. We are going to be our own people and “do our own thing,” regardless of what anyone else has to say. As a Jewish 12 year old, I admired this unapologetic pride. By high school I had realized the problems with Kahane’s ideology in that his Jewish pride came along with hate for others, especially Arabs.
When I went to study in Israel for a year post-high school I saw with my own two eyes that “Kahane Ta’ah,” Kahane was wrong. The fastest way to get to my yeshiva involved driving on route 443, which winds through Palestinian territories. I recall being shocked when first viewing the security wall along the road, knowing that it saved countless lives by thwarting terrorist attacks, though it still felt morally wrong to me. I recall passing through the checkpoints heading in and out of Israel proper on 443 and seeing the Palestinians—women and children—have to wait in the hot sun as they were thoroughly inspected while the guards let us pass with a friendly wave. I wanted to just look the other way, but found myself unable to.
And then I saw the hate that Kahane’s ideology had bred. I encountered both Israeli and American friends whose views were outright disturbing. One Israeli teenager I had a Shabbat meal with, a very intelligent boy, said with the most sincere of faces: “I just do not understand why we do not just bomb the entirety of Gaza and get rid of them all.” On the 20th anniversary of Kahane’s assassination, a banner was hung outside my yeshiva calling for people to remember the man. I do not know who put up the banner—I am certain that it was students working independently and not the yeshiva—but I understood them, where they were coming from, what they were looking for, and was scared by what I knew they had found.
Dr. Baruch Goldstein, who massacred 29 Palestinians, was a student of Kahane. Now this ideology has led to the murder of Mohammed Abu Khdeir. Whether or not the murderers were Kahanists, I am sure that Kahane’s ideology had some influence on them or whoever their teachers were. Few people are crazy enough to commit murder, but it only takes one or two (or in this case six) bad apples to cause a catastrophe.
We must distance ourselves from Kahane’s ideology and all those that espouse it. Freedom of speech does not mean that we must support the right of everyone to take a podium in our synagogues and schools. I have heard teachers and rabbis in school, summer camps, yeshivas, and synagogues (though not my own) either joke about or seriously support racism, Arab expulsion, and “carpet bombing” Gaza. Those who condemn racism and hatred should not stand for this anymore. If we hear someone supporting or even joking about these views we must speak out. We can no longer just sit in the crowd and ignore it.
Finally, we must find alternative ways of guiding our most ideologically vulnerable, those between the ages of 10 and 16, through the process of developing a Jewish identity based not on fear of the Holocaust and Intifada, but on joy and spirituality. We should be able to teach our children that being a proud Jew is not a zero-sum game; we can be Jewish and members of society who embrace all people.