“The Prophet,” a documentary film featuring the life of Rabbi Meir Kahane, presents a surprising and at times unsettling view of the controversial figure. Throughout this past year, his name has once again permeated Israel’s political scene as his ideological descendants pushed their way to the forefront of Israeli politics. The long-held consensus concerning the figure of Meir Kahane is that he is an extremist with anti-democratic tendencies who promoted the use of violence and racist policies against Israel’s Arab population. However, this film is likely to leave some uncomfortably surprised after learning about his initial motives and political advocacy.
Kahane was born in Brooklyn, New York in 1932, there he began sharpening his political organizational skills at an early age. Already a teenager by the end of the Second World War, he belonged to a generation of Jews in which the trauma of the Holocaust was engrained in their mind, radically transforming the worldview of many after learning of the horrors of Auschwitz and Treblinka. He sought to live out his life according to the vow “Never Again,” which subsequently became the official slogan of the armed organization he founded, ‘The Jewish Defense League’, in the late 1960s.
The documentary’s director strategically displays Kahane’s motivations for his activism by revealing to the viewer a number of statements he made concerning this question. One worth noting shows the militant leader being interviewed when he poignantly says, “I’m tired of seeing Jews get pushed around.” Much of the driving force behind his activity appears to be his desire to see the end of persecution against Jewish people. This was the very reason he established The Jewish Defense League, as a response to the rise in anti-Semitic attacks in New York during this period. This is what pushed him to organize protests against the persecution of Jews and practicing Judaism in the Soviet Union—he was tired of seeing these Jews get pushed around.
During the screening of ‘The Prophet’, this discovery produced a keen sense of discomfort. Thoughts suddenly entered my mind that these causes are genuine, and I imagined decent and honestly concerned Jews that were probably protesting with him. ‘Never Again’ has been a Jewish consensus since the end of the Holocaust, and Jewish people—young and old—annually vow to guard this fundamental principle through action.
If we turn the pages back into the history of Zionism in Mandatory Palestine, we’re likely to see that some of Kahane’s rhetoric is reminiscent of the discourse and policies in the Yishuv. Kahane urging the exclusive employment of Jews instead of Arabs may remind us of the concept of ‘Hebrew Work’, a policy encouraging employers to hire Jews only.
However accurate the comparison, there’s an important difference between the two. Meir Kahane and his racist cadre sought anti-democratic policies intentionally discriminating against Palestinians as an end goal. Zionism on the other hand promoted policies such as ‘Hebrew work’ and organizing Jewish labor unions (although efforts were made to organize Arab workers as well) as a means to achieve its goal of establishing an independent Jewish state.
Mainstream Zionism was and should continue to be pragmatic. In order for this to happen the idea must continue to be in constant development; adapting and befitting current social and political needs and realities. Otherwise, the narrative that Zionism is inherently unjust, racist and has no place for Israel’s non-Jewish citizens—ironically shared by anti-Zionists and much of Israel’s extreme political right—will destroy the idea that was born in order to provide a solution to an historical injustice made against a persecuted Jewish people. A new conceptualization of Zionism in Israel has long been necessary. One that serves as a kind of Israeli patriotism that ensures the Jewish essence of the state, but produces senses of civil, cultural and national belonging for all of its citizens.