Billy Joel famously wrote in his song, “It’s still Rock and Roll to me” But you can’t get the sound from a story in a magazine…aimed at your average teen.
I feel the same when some people attempt to explain Rabbi Meir Kahane and his philosophy. Most of these pundits never met him, know little about him and yet have the hutzpah to try to define him. The truth is Kahane was a great leader who inspired a generation of young Jews. Today he is inspiring a new generation, and this scares those on the left. Lots of young Jews both religious and secular are flocking to embrace Kahane’s ideology.
Although the Brooklyn-born Rabbi was assassinated by an Arab terrorist in 1990, his legacy and ideology continue to gain in popularity. Recently, the head of a far-right party in Israel, Otzma Yehudit (Jewish Strength) Itamar Ben Gvir was elected to the Knesset garnering 14 seats in the next Israeli Parliament. Ben Gvir, an unabashed follower of the late Rabbi, is slated to become the minister of Internal Security in Israel. The left of center in Israel is working up a lather trying to discredit both Ben Gvir and Kahane.
Kahane bashing is fast becoming a cottage industry. New books, purporting to explain Kahane’s ideology are aimed at those who never heard of him and are written by those who never knew him. It’s the veritable “blind leading the blind”. One, a self-described “radical, left wing, socialists” recently attempted to define Kahane. Kahane, of course, was a right-wing anti-communist, who’s ideology was anathema to the writers’ socialist views. Could this book be accurate, I wondered? When I read it, I was amazed at the incredible dishonesty of the author, a Dartmouth professor no less, who had the self-delusion to think that he could explain Kahane. In fact, he never understood Kahane’s philosophy, and neither will anyone who makes the mistake of buying his book.
More recently, I was sent a podcast by Daniel Gordis of his interview with Yossi Klein Halevi. Yossi opined about the legacy of Kahane and his opinion on the election of Itamar Ben Gvir, the right wing Kahanist. Gordis prodded Yossi, a one-time follower of Meir Kahane to describe his switch from being an ardent Kahane follower into a vocal Kahane basher. Yossi explained that, with time, he became disenchanted and turned against his onetime mentor.
I know Yossi since the late 60s when he was one of the boys I trained and led in demonstrations to free Soviet Jewry. Yossi and I are good friends and I admire his work of the past 50 years. (I also admire Daniel Gordis for his intellect and insight) But Yossi and I came away from our involvement with Meir Kahane with very different impressions. Ten years ago, Yossi did not express the hostility and resentment of Kahane (dare I say hatred?) that he does today. A once card carrying right-winger, he seems to have shifted toward the left, toward the center. Naturally, Yossi is entitled to his opinion and as a famous and well received author, he is probably better off on his perch in the middle. I can however point out, that he was younger than many of us from those old days who do not share his negative opinions about Meir. Who knows if he had he been a bit older, he might have understood Kahane better.
The truth is, that Meir was all about Ahavat Yisrael or love of Jews. This was his guiding principle when in Brooklyn with the JDL and in Israel with Kach. Ben Gvir is right about that. But Yossi is also right that Kahane changed after making Aliyah. Yossi admits that he himself also changed. Kahane became embittered at the situation he found in Israel. For sure, he was a complex individual. I wonder, however, what gives Yossi the right to change his perspective, the same right that he denies to Meir Kahane?
Kahane was a risk taker at a time when most Jewish leaders weren’t. He was the guy at the roulette wheel, who after winning a hand, says, “let it ride”. Many well-meaning rabbis encouraged him to moderate his views. They assured him he would be more successful if he did. He could sell more of his books. He would receive lucrative speaking engagements for big bucks. But that was not Meir Kahane. As he would not betray his ideals, so instead he stayed the course and said “let it ride”. Many in the establishment were afraid of him. They neither had his courage nor his fearlessness. His enthusiasm was contagious. We were all affected by it. Undoubtedly, this was one of his strengths as a leader.
As I remember, thousands of Jews stood just a bit taller because of Kahane and the JDL. I dare say that Yossi Klein Halevi was one of them!
Kahane’s words inspired a generation. His speeches touched a nerve in all who heard him. Speech after speech, I saw him electrify the audience: “do not stand idly by your brother’s blood”. For those of us whose parents were survivors, this resonated. Where were the Jewish leaders in 1944 when my brother was gassed in Auschwitz? Who stood up for my family? Or for Yossi’s, for that matter.
Kahane was a leader who led from the front of the barricades, not from the back lines. I was with him in Harlem when we confronted the Black Panthers for their anti-Semitism. He stood next to me on the front line. He was also there when we confronted the Nazis. He led by example.
He sacrificed much for his beliefs. His position as a pulpit Rabbi, as the editor of the Jewish Press and his opportunity to be with his beloved family. And as much as we travelled around the country, he was adamant every week to get home for Shabbos to be with his wife and children. Ultimately, he sacrificed his life for his beliefs.
When he arrived in Israel he recognized the danger that is only now becoming apparent to so many. Can we allow the Arabs to vote the Jewish soul and character out of the Jewish State? He wasn’t a racist and did not hate Arabs. He just wanted to guarantee the ‘Jewishness’ of the State of Israel.
So, he warned of the dangers of a large Arab fifth column rebelling against the Jewish citizens of Israel. He was one of the early voices to sound that alarm. Because so many today agree, Ben Gvir, is in the Knesset. But in the 70’s and 80’s he was considered an ‘outsider’ by the political establishment and viewed with suspicion and alarm. That was why they turned against him and shut him down. Not because of his ideology. Others in Likud held similar views. They were not deemed” racist” and banned from running for the Knesset. Ask yourselves had not his warnings come to pass? Doesn’t a growing segment of the Israeli population today agree with him?
Furthermore, there are some in Israel advocating a radical leftwing defeatist ideology that would lead to Israel’s destruction. They advocate against the Jewishness of the State. And yet, they are not deemed racist and banned from holding public office. Why the double standard?
I realize that as the views of Rabbi Meir Kahane resonates more with the public, there is bound to be increased scrutiny about who he was and what he stood for. Obviously, I am gratified at this. But I am saddened to hear only the anti Kahane voices included in such debates.
I sincerely hope that there will be more future debates and podcasts discussing Kahanism. Kahane deserves to have his philosophy debated and explained. I jus hope that such a discourse will be conducted in an atmosphere of honesty and fairness and include people who believe in Kahane’s ideology and not be limited only to the Kahane bashers who hated him.
Dr. Alex Sternberg
Former JDL activist 1968-1972
Author: “ Recipes from Auschwitz– The Survival Stories of 2 Hungarian Jews with Historical Insight”