Events in Israel last week remind me of an episode in my life from more than 30 years ago.
I was co-editor of my Jewish high school’s newspaper in the Washington, DC area. We were starting to hear about a radical right-wing rabbi in Israel, originally from the United States, named Meir Kahane, who had just won a seat in the Knesset. He seemed so unlike any other Jew I had ever heard of. He didn’t care what the rest of the world said and thought. He said that Judaism and democracy were fundamentally incompatible. He had completely given up on the possibility of Arabs and Jews coexisting in the land of Israel, and his solution was to expel all the Arabs, and to make Israel into a theocracy. We also learned that the entire rest of the Israeli political spectrum loathed him and his positions so much that they would all leave the Knesset every time he got up to speak. He was fascinating and fearsome in his extremism and general hatefulness.
My co-editor and I found out that he was coming on a fundraising tour and was giving a lecture sponsored by a synagogue in Silver Spring MD. Some of our friends were planning to go to protest his speech. With some chutzpah, we decided to go and cover the speech for our high school paper, and to ask him if we could interview him as well. To our surprise, he was happy to be interviewed by two high school age journalists. (Come to think of it, this was not so surprising, as he was desperate to get his message out in whatever medium possible.)
We assembled questions for him to highlight just how extreme his ideology was, and he answered as we expected. Arabs, he said, were inherently wild and violent people, this was an immutable characteristic of them and you could prove it from the Torah. He was not concerned with how the world would react to expelling the Arabs from all of Israel, because we have to trust in God to help us out. Non-Orthodox Judaism is an affront to God, and if he were prime minister he would make sure it would not exist in Israel. He was personally charming and charismatic, but his words were as hateful as any we had ever heard from a Jew. We published the interview, accompanied by an editorial discussing how loathsome we thought his ideas were.
Immediately after the issue was published, our high school newspaper received a letter to the editor from the Israeli Embassy in Washington, DC. We were chastised by the Undersecretary of Information of the Israeli Embassy, who said that we shouldn’t have given Kahane any coverage in our newspaper. He represented a very extreme and marginal phenomenon in Israeli society, and responsible news outlets simply ignored him.
We were flattered to receive this letter; usually foreign embassies don’t read high school newspapers. To the credit of that Undersecretary of Information, he wrote the letter directly to us and not to the school administration. And the school administration, to their credit, said we should print the letter, and we could write a response. In our response, we wrote that we felt that even if his ideas were extreme and marginal, he had been voted into the Knesset, and he was genuinely newsworthy. We thought it was important for people to know that such a phenomenon existed in Israel and had an alarming level of support in our local community.
Much has happened in the intervening decades. Later in the 1980s, Kahane was banned from the Knesset after it passed a law outlawing racist political parties. In 1990, Kahane was assassinated by a Muslim extremist after giving a speech in New York. And the sad history of Middle East violence includes a growing list of acts of violence perpetrated by Jews who were inspired by his words and ideology and that of his followers — acts of murder including the Massacre at the Tomb of the Patriarchs in 1994 and the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995; acts of arson and vandalism against churches, mosques, and organizations that advocate Jewish/Arab coexistence. The overwhelming majority of Israelis continue to regard him as a most terrible embarrassment and regard his ideas as loathsome, but there is a segment of Israeli society that has embraced his ideology — and clearly, without the actions of his followers, the landscape of the Middle East today would look different.
Soon after the Rabin assassination in 1994, Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu explicitly repudiated any electoral support from Israel’s right wing fringe. Per Dan Ephron’s book “Killing a King: The Assassination of Yitzhak Rabin and the Remaking of Israel”: “Benjamin Netanyahu, his popularity plunging, tried to draw a line between the extremists and the rank and file of his own party. ‘These people are not in Likud and won’t be in Likud and I have a message for you and the message is: I don’t want your votes, I don’t want to be elected by you,’ he said in a television interview.” (p. 213)
Netanyahu appears to have changed his perspective since that time. Last week, Netanyahu played a key role in brokering a deal for the neo-Kahanist political party Otzma Yehudit, led by former students and associates of Kahane, to merge with another right-wing party, to maximize their chances of crossing Israel’s 3.25% electoral threshold. Thankfully, most Israelis utterly reject this party — but Netanyahu is now shamefully courting them as a partner in an eventual governing coalition.
This slice of the Israeli political spectrum represented by Otzma Yehudit was formerly regarded as untouchable. Previous Kahanist parties were banned for their support of racist ideology and terrorist violence. The analogy to the KKK is apt, much as I wish it were hyperbolic. In retrospect, sadly, our little high school newspaper was right to have sounded a high-school-sized alarm about the man and his toxic ideology that played such a devastating role in Israeli life. I pray that Israeli voters and leaders will again utterly marginalize and ostracize the radical right. I fear for Israel’s future if they do not.