Alex Sternberg
A Jewish Activist

Time to stop vilifying Kahane and his ideas

Close to 30 years after being assassinated, Rabbi Meir Kahane is once again in the news. Contrary to the dreams of the left leaning, “mainstream” Jewish organizations, Kahane’s ideology was not buried along with him. When Binyamin Netanyahu agreed to allow the pro-Kahane Otzma Yehudit Party to join his coalition in the next election, it unleashed an avalanche of fear, hatred and panic among the large, left leaning Jewish groups both here and in Israel. The vitriol spewing forth from their public announcements vehemently opposing such a coalition, evoked the visceral fear of leaders who know that their message no longer resonates and are scared that they are on the verge of becoming irrelevant. Why should you ban Otzma but not the Arab List, many of whom are Jihadists bent on Israel’s destruction? (Finally, this week one such party, the Ballad, was decertified. It remains to be seen if the ban will be upheld by the courts)

Meir Kahane, born in Brooklyn in 1932 to a family deeply involved in the right-wing Revisionist Party of Zev Jabotinsky. Zev Jabotinsky, the charismatic leader of Ravisionist Zionism was a frequent guest in the Kahane home, visiting Meir’s father, Yechezkel Kahane. As a budding teenager, Kahane listened raptly to the revisionist message and took part in demonstrations against the British and their anti-Jewish immigration policy to Palestine.

The lessons learned from the struggle for Israel’s independence, especially the philosophical and tactical differences between the left-wing Ben Gurion led Labor Party and the revisionist inspired Menachem Begin led Irgun, left an indelible mark on his ideological development.    Kahane was a Betari and a follower of Zev Jabotinsky. Years later, when he founded the Jewish Defense League, it was the right leaning Jabotinsky ideology that was at the core of the group’s philosophy.

In Israel, the divisions between Mapai and Herut ( the Begin led political party that grew out of the Irgun) was a fault line through Israeli society. Ben Gurion inculcated a revulsion toward members of Irgun and Herut and encouraged his followers to ostracize them and shun them.

In fact, during the middle 40’s Ben Gurion ordered his members to denounce and turn over to the British any Irgun soldier they could. The British, who could never really infiltrate the Yishuv, were surprised but glad to have such unexpected cooperation. They gleefully jailed the Irgun fighters and at times sentenced them to hang.

Among the Ben Gurion legacies that seem to have lasted in Israeli society, is a revulsion of ideologies the left doesn’t agree with and an attempt to silence such differing opinions.

It was 1968, one year after the stunning and miraculous victory of Israel in the 6-Day War, when Kahane, an editor of the Jewish Press, a Brooklyn-based, orthodox paper, began to receive a deluge of complaints about attacks on Jews in Brooklyn neighborhoods. Along with two friends, he established the Jewish Defense League, an activist self-defense group dedicated to defending Jews.

I was an 18 year old college student, a graduate of Yeshiva Torah Vodaath, when Kahane contacted me to join his fledgling group. I was a black belt karate expert, training in the famed Tong Dojo, one of the toughest Bed-Stuy based, inner city karate schools in America. Strangely my instructor, a ghetto-bred Black man, encouraged me to teach Jewish youngsters’ karate, so they can protect themselves.

I joined the JDL and began to get to know Kahane. We had a robust 15 members when I first met him. I began to go with him to speeches and demonstrations. With time, I set up karate classes, and organized demonstrations, sit ins and became an advocate for Jewish rights. As a child of Holocaust survivors, Meir’s message hit home. Never again. The organization grew, along with our membership. We had many, who were like me, children of Holocaust survivors. Our shared experiences found expression along with the JDL-Kahane inspired message.

We were not a racist group. But we did not shy away from confronting any anti-Semites, such as the socialist, anti white, anti Jewish, Black Panther Party. We denounced anti-Semites where ever they were. We chose to physically confront members of the Nazi Party rather than to sit down for tea and “dialog” with them. Kahane taught us to be activists along with encouraging us to read Jabotinsky, Begin, the exploits of the Irgun. For many of us, this was an education that we never had and eagerly drank it all in. I began to amass a library of books on Zionism and Israel and of course, the Irgun. Never once did I hear Kahane espouse any hatred or racist comments. He loved Jews and was sacrificing his time and later, his life for them. To be sure, there were things he said I didn’t agree with. Some other things, I didn’t fully understand. But his overall message was clear: we stand up for Jews!

Sometime after we began the campaign for the freedom of Soviet Jews, we were visited by members of the Mossad. Their message was for us to cool our anti Soviet campaign. They maintained that Israel was carrying out “quiet, secret” negotiations. Just like the ADL and the AJC. Everyone was doing ““quiet””, hidden work. But the Jews were still being repressed. We turned down their request with a counter proposal: you negotiate with the Soviets quietly, while we negotiate “loudly”.

When he moved to Israel in 1971, most of us were against him getting involved with politics.  We were afraid that he would appear to be just another politician and his message would be diluted.

But Kahane disagreed with Israel’s approach to the Arabs. Israel needed to be prodded, he felt. He was willing to take his message to the people. His ideas were revolutionary. Some good, some not so good. But the boys in power, afraid of the polls indicating he may win as many as 10 seats, decided to act out of fear and banned him from running for the Knesset. The label “racist” and “terrorist” were permanently attached as an adjective to Kahane and his ideology. It is time to stop that.

The Arab-Israel situation has been evolving for years. Israeli attitudes have undergone a sea-change, from wanting to get along, to needing to separate. Many middle-of-the roaders are adopting a more right leaning, Kahane type of attitude. The two-state solution, a dangerous and myopic surrender to Arab desire to destroy Israel, has been pretty much debunked. Let’s hope it will be buried once and for all.

Confederation of the Arabs with Jordan seems to be the emerging concept. But Jordan doesn’t want this and many in Israel are worried that it will destabilize Jordan, a “friend” of Israel. Some friend. The unrest in Yerushalayim at the Har Habayit is instigated by Jordan. Votes by UNESCO to deny the Jewish connection to our holy places, is instigated by our “friend” Jordan. Those who espouse a more robust response to Arab provocations are not racists or Nazis!

No one advocates killing innocent people.  But who likes innocent Jews dying? As the Arabs continue to embrace personal terror, the time has come to reexamine the response.

In the 70s, Meir and I appeared on a radio talk show in Montreal. The host, clearly unsympathetic, asked us how did we reconcile our advocacy of physical violence at times? “After all”, he asked “you are the people of the book”?

Simple, Kahane answered. You’re looking in the wrong “book”. Ours says “ if one comes to kill you — kill him first”. That was and is Kahanism.

The most outspoken anti-Kahanists, rail against Kahane from their dangerous neighborhoods in the German Colony. They don’t live in Hebron. Kahane’s legacy resonates most with those who live with their families in constant danger. 30 years after he died, there are posters in Israel claiming “Kahane was right”. In America, thousands wonder “where is Kahane now, when we need him”? Ask yourselves why is this? Are we all ‘racists? Murderers? Nazis?

Kahane’s message is one of many. It is not any more illegitimate than the one’s advocated by the defeatist left, who would like to surrender Israel. And yet, those dangerous ideas are not barred.

I spent four turbulent years as a Jewish activist, much of it at Kahane’s side. I strongly resent these vicious labels thrown about by many who never knew him or understood his message.

We are all entitled to a difference of opinion about important issues. But it’s a real Chilull Hashem when Rabbi Lau calls Kahanists racists.

About the Author
Born in Hungary, emigrated to US 1961. Became USA Karate Champion and teacher. Joined the Kahane led JDL teaching karate and becoming an activist. Receiving doctorates in physiology and Public Health, was the Director of the Pulmonary Function and Exercise Physiology Lab at Downstate Medical Center for 30 years. A leading figure in US Karate, he was a master instructor for close to 50 years. Presently, an author writing about the Holocaust, and lecturing on Jewish history.
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