A pre-election event I attended in Tel Aviv brought back unsettling memories from decades past, ones featuring the late Rabbi Meir David Kahane.
Organized by the newspaper Yisrael HaYom (Israel Today), the event I paid to attend featured journalists interviewing members of Israel’s Knesset running in the upcoming parliamentary election, the country’s fifth in the past four years. Representatives of the right, left, and center participated, all but two in person. Prime Minister Yair Lapid and Defense Minister Benny Gantz, conducting state business outside the country, appeared in videos.
Bezalel Smotrich, leader of the Knesset’s Religious Zionism Party, stood out with his smooth speeches. Waxing patriotic about the need to elect a large right-leaning coalition government in order to improve personal safety and reform the country’s supreme court, he promised to make Israel great again, so to speak.
The urbane certified lawyer did not raise the topics that have made him a household name in Israel. These include denigrating gays and Reform Jews and segregating Jewish mothers from Arab mothers in hospital maternity wards. A liberal commentator at the event called Smotrich the most talented politician on the current scene.
Another Knesset member, running in the No. 2 spot on Smotrich’s Religious Zionism’s list, did not attend, but no one could ignore his growing presence on the scene. I’m referring to the right-wing populist Itamar Ben Gvir who has advocated annexation of the entire West Bank and expulsion of all Arab Israelis.
Ben Gvir has gone viral with two videos. The first showed him brandishing a pistol after two Arab security guards in a parking lot irritated him with their questions. The second showed him in East Jerusalem whipping out his gun to protect Jewish residents after someone hurled a rock at an Israeli settler earlier in the day.
Which brings me back to Meir Kahane, the American Orthodox rabbi who co-founded the Jewish Defense League (JDL), established Israel’s Kach party, and served one term in the Israeli parliament. He subsequently was found guilty of conspiracy to produce explosives in the US. In Israel he was found guilty of plotting to blow up the Libyan embassy in Belgium.
The first time I saw Kahane was in Manhattan in the early 1980s. As a reporter, I covered a speech he gave outside a reform synagogue on the Upper West Side. Three things stood out.
First, Kahane was a powerful orator who made seemingly logical points about the future of Israel. He argued that Israelis couldn’t have a democratic Jewish state unless they granted Arabs living on the land full rights. His solution: deport all Arabs.
Second, Kahane’s speech took place outside the Stephen Free Wise Synagogue, a bastion of liberal Judaism. The crowd that gathered mostly came to condemn him. Only a handful of JDL members showed up on his behalf.
Third, one of Kahane’s JDL supporters, a hulking, fearsome-looking man, shouted something like, “Enough of this @/&^$#!”, and grabbed an anti-Kahane protester’s sign that he ripped it to pieces.
The next time I saw Meir Kahane came perhaps five years later when I covered his appearance at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. Thanks to a group of protestors who screamed at him from the back of the auditorium, I had trouble hearing his speech. What I caught echoed what I had heard from him in New York. The event organizers, fearing violence, wound up escorting Kahane from the stage before he could finish speaking.
An American citizen born in Egypt gunned down Kahane at a New York hotel in 1990, a crime now seen as an early example of Islamic Terrorism in the US.
Which brings me back to Smotrich and Ben Gvir, both silver-tongued rabble rousers. Ben Gvir, a devotee of Meir Kahane, has become a media sensation over the past year. Smotrich, the more polished politician, has joined forces with him. Together their party is expected to win enough seats in the election to make theirs the 25th Knesset’s third largest (after Likud and Yesh Atid). Benjamin Netanyahu has promised to make them ministers in his cabinet if he can cobble together a 61-member coalition.
Kahane the provocateur, Smotrich the cunning Yago, and Ben Gvir the gun-waver, remind me of Korach and his followers in the Book of Numbers. They challenged the leadership of Moses and Aaron. To punish them for their insolence and hate mongering God caused the earth to swallow them up.