Why Kahanism resonates?
The more the ideology of Rabbi Meir Kahane resonates, and the more citizens of Israel gravitate toward his views, the more apoplectic the left-wing press in Israel and the US becomes. After Israel’s recent election, I read with great amusement the many comments heralding the death of Israeli democracy. Led by the perennial Israel basher Thomas Friedman, they gathered around the grave of Israeli democracy to deliver a mournful Hesped. The “Israel we know is gone”, they tearfully lamented. Signaling this demise, according to Friedman, was the willingness of the country to finally count the thousands of voters who opted for the Kahanist candidate Itamar Ben Gvir. In contrast, it was proof of a vibrant democracy in 1988, when the Supreme Court disqualified Kahane from running, shortly after the polls predicted a win of 10-12 seats in the upcoming election.
Why are American Jews so obsessed with an Israeli right-wing government?
Sadly, American Jews are steadily moving away from proclaiming their Jewishness. As a result, their support of Israel is also waning. In the woke, leftist world, supporting Israel’s right to exist is no longer in vogue. Students on college campuses increasingly support anti-Israel messages as they identify with the cause of the Arabs. They march lockstep with those advocating the destruction of the Jewish State hoping that such anti-Israel position will earn their bonafides with the leftist, woke crowd.
Into this atmosphere comes Netanyahu who staunchly supports Israel’s right to exist and exist as a powerful nation. Such a position alarms the American Jewish community, who don’t want Jews to be “in your face”. They prefer Jews to be low key, never loud (G-d forbid), not making a fuss. Their ideal is the hora dancing kibbutznik, tilling the soil and not the seasoned Israeli commando protecting the homeland. They would rather the Jews in Israel remained the underdog, always just one step away from annihilation.
But no, Israel won’t play the victim, and this angers them.
Imagine in this atmosphere (Ma yomru Hagoyim?) the emergence of Itamar Ben Gvir and his Kahanist party. One can understand why Jews in America have become apoplectic at the resurgence of Kahanism, an ideology they fought with all their might to eradicate. Ben Givir is often described as a racist, convicted of racist activity. Just what was his crime however: He was in possession of leaflets proclaiming “Kahane Tzoddek” (Kahane was right).
The message of Kahanism is in the ideology. Those of us who followed Rabbi Meir Kahane and became activists of the Jewish Defense League came because we heard things no other Jewish leader said. “Love your fellow Jew, have pride in your Jewishness, stand up for your fellow Jews”. Was this Kahane’s message? No, it came from the Torah. Meir just reminded us. ‘Never Again’ especially resonated with us, as most of us were children of Holocaust Survivors.
I joined the JDL as an 18-year-old Yeshiva graduate in 1968. I was a Black Belt in karate and a National champion. Meir wanted me to teach young Jews to defend themselves. I began to travel across the country with him setting up JDL chapters and karate centers. On all those trips and the many days and nights I shared a hotel room or a jail cell with him, he tutored me. I drank up thirstily his lessons on Jewish history; Jabotinsky, Begin, Tel Hai, Aley Hagardom, the boys who paid the ultimate sacrifice for creating the State of Israel. Most of us never heard this history, certainly not in the hallowed halls of the Yeshiva. He referred me to books about that time and encouraged me to read them and learn this history. This was his message; this was what we learned from him. Not racism, not hatred of anyone, but love of Jews. This is his legacy and why it resonates so many years after his death.
Of course, after he moved to Israel his message changed. He became somewhat bitter. He saw firsthand the political climate and began to recognize the inherent threat facing Israel. He didn’t hate Arabs, he just recognized the threat to Jews that Arabs were posing.
Decades before Israel experienced Arab pogroms in previously peaceful mixed cities of Arabs and Jews, he warned that it may be coming. President Rivlin called these unprecedented attacks, a “pogrom” against Jews. Was he also a ‘racist’?
Naturally, the left vilifies Kahane and what he stood for. But their message no longer impresses even their own members. Kahane’s message, however, does. This scares them. Shaul Magid, the self-described “radical leftist socialist”, admits this in his recent attempt to misrepresent Kahane’s ideology. He is deeply frustrated as he cannot explain the increased popularity of Kahanism. He is afraid of losing followers to Kahanism.
“Land for peace” demanded the Arabs. “Land for peace” echoed the leftists.
But in 2005, when Arik Sharon gave back the entire Gaza, expecting peace in the south, the Arabs rained tens of thousands of deadly rockets down on the innocent inhabitants of southern Israel.
So much for the myth of “land for peace”! As Kahane predicted, it was never about land!
Kahane was vilified for advocating the expulsion of Arabs. He was not the only one who saw the large Arab population as a threat. Mainstream Israeli leaders agreed with him, such Rehavam Zeevi and others. Even the pillar of left wing socialists, Ben Gurion advocated for the expulsion of Arabs from the newly formed State of Israel. Just read about his famous “Plan Dalet” in Benny Morris’s accounts of the 1948 war. Was he also a racist? Ben Gurion a Nazi?
How can anyone be surprised at the resilience of Kahanism? Step by step, Arabs who genuinely wanted coexistence and peace have disappeared. Where are the moderating voices who advocate a peaceful coexistence with the Jews? Land for peace? Look at Gaza.
While Kahanists like Ben Gvir never met him, those of us who were JDL activists during those turbulent years of the late 60’s and 70’s remember his message. It’s easy to label us racist, fascist, even Nazis, in order to discredit us, but Kahane was no racist. None of us were. He loved Jews and encouraged us to do the same. I am always bewildered at the outrage by Israeli leaders when Israeli soldiers are called Nazis, yet these same leaders eagerly level the term Nazis toward other Jews they don’t agree with. Also, did you notice the many recent debates about just what was Kahanism? The guests debating are always Kahane Bashers.
That is not to say that we agreed with everything that Kahane advocated. Does anyone agree with everything that comes out of the mouth of any leader?
But you don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater. Most of his message has proved prescient.
To my mind, today’s so-called Kahanists are merely advocating his message of love for Israel and Jews.
I never met Ben Gvir, and I don’t know him personally. I do wish him luck as I wish all Israeli governments luck. We need him in the government to keep Netanyahu “honest”.
And oh, Mr. Friedman, don’t worry: The rumors of the demise of Israeli democracy are greatly exaggerated.
Dr. Alex Sternberg
Former JDL activist 1968-1972
Author: “ Recipes from Auschwitz– The Survival Stories of 2 Hungarian Jews with Historical Insight”