Kahanism is neither Judaism nor Zionism

It's not Zionism. It is Bizarro Zionism.

FILE - In this Oct. 27, 1988, photo, leader and co-founder of the Jewish Defense League, Brooklyn-born Rabbi Meir Kahane, center, is joined by supporters shortly after arriving at John F. Kennedy Airport in New York. In the 1980s, Kahane’s violent anti-Arab ideology was considered so repugnant that Israel banned him from parliament, and the U.S. listed his party as a terrorist group. (AP Photo/Susan Ragan, File)

(RNS) — This past weekend, I delivered a guest sermon in a synagogue. My topic: American Judaism post-Oct. 7.

At one Shabbat, a man approached me and said, “Rabbi, don’t you think it’s time to bring back the JDL? Maybe Meir Kahane was right — ‘every Jew, a .22.'”

My response to him came in the form of a grimace, and then, a sigh.

The sigh: one of the most powerful Jewish memories of my teen years.

It was 1969, 55 years ago this spring. The rabbi of our suburban Long Island synagogue loved presenting provocative programs, but none as provocative as the evening when the late Rabbi Meir Kahane publicly debated a prominent Reform rabbi.

Rabbi Kahane was the founder of the Jewish Defense League (he is the subject of an excellent intellectual biography by Shaul Magid). He had served as a pulpit rabbi in Howard Beach, Queens. (Fun fact: he presided at folksinger Arlo Guthrie’s bar mitzvah ceremony.) Kahane founded the JDL in 1968. Its original goal: to protect elderly Jews from street crime in the changing neighborhoods of Brooklyn and Queens — Jews whose more affluent relatives and neighbors had abandoned those neighborhoods for Westchester and Long Island.

Kahane opened the conversation. He spoke about the Holocaust and the lack of Jewish resistance. He spoke about Jewish pride and the need for Jews to defend themselves against their oppressors — whomever and wherever they might be. He sneered at ineffectual, weak Jewish men — “nice Irvings,” he called them — lawyers, accountants and dentists. (He was laughing at our fathers and uncles.) He railed against establishment Jewish groups who cared more about propriety and dignity than about Jewish survival.

Meir Kahane’s message thundered to the sanctuary’s ceiling: “Never again!” Never again would Jews go meekly to their own destruction. Never again would Jewish boys and girls be nice. Niceness, Kahane said, had led to Auschwitz. I can still hear him saying: “When Moses encountered the taskmaster who was beating a Jew, he did not form a committee. He did not take out newspaper ads. He did not collect signatures on a petition. He slew him.”

Then, it was time for the other rabbi to speak. He served a congregation in a leafy Connecticut suburb.

An audience member asked him: “How should we respond to antisemitism?”

His answer: “We should picket country clubs that don’t allow Jews to join.” The audience howled with laughter. Jews in the outer New York City boroughs are endangered; Jews in the Middle East and Europe are endangered — and you speak of country clubs? 

When the laughter died down, Kahane did an advertisement for the JDL camp in the Catskill mountains that taught self-defense to young Jews. The Catskills! The summer address of American Jewish vulgarity and excess! A skinny kid from my confirmation class, a scion of a family that owned a famous Catskills resort, exclaimed: “That’s it. I’m going!” He was not the only one who went for the sales pitch. For many young Jewish men, tired of being wimps, the JDL was like a Charles Atlas body building program for the psyche.

Needless to say, Kahane won that debate. Within a few years, he would become one of American Jewry’s most prominent rabbis — even meriting an interview in “Playboy” magazine.

The Jewish Defense League began with noble intentions — to protect Jews. As Magid shows, Kahane’s writings from that period were cogent, albeit hot-headed, critiques of American Jewish identity — what he sometimes called “bagels and lox Judaism.” Kahane was a radical — a Jewish version of Malcolm X. The JDL was a Jewish Black Panthers, even mimicking the Panthers in their use of the clenched fist as an emblem.

But soon, the JDL turned to higher forms of mischief and mayhem in support of Jewish causes. In the words of Yossi Klein Halevi, who spent part of his boyhood in its ranks, they had a certain “ecstasy of rage.” That ecstasy of rage appealed to children of Holocaust survivors, especially those working-class Jewish kids in the outer boroughs of Brooklyn and Queens. In their support of Soviet Jewry, they would violently disrupt events featuring Russian performers. In 1972, they placed a bomb in the office of the impresario Sol Hurok; when it exploded, it killed a secretary, a young Jewish woman.

Then, the JDL moved, along with its leader, to Israel. Like many new immigrants, it changed its name. The JDL became Kach International. Kach: a cold monosyllable — from the Hebrew word meaning “thus it is.” 

There, Kahane developed an ideology that blended ultra-nationalism with fundamentalism. Even today, his ideological admirers scrawl on walls in Israel: Kahana tzadak — “Kahana was right!” Right about what? That Israel should forcibly expel Arabs from the land of Israel, especially the West Bank. 

In 1990, an Arab terrorist, El Sayyid Nosair, assassinated Kahane. But, his ideology would survive him. Kahanism influenced Baruch Goldstein to murder Muslims at prayer in Hebron on Purim, 1994. Kahanism was so dangerous that Israel banned Kach from membership in the Knesset.

But that ideology has been resilient. It influenced several of Israel’s current coalition members — in particular, Itamar Ben-Gvir. That ideology haunts the long article in this past Sunday’s New York Times Magazine about militant settlers in the West Bank who have committed acts of violence against Palestinians.

But, let me get back to my interlocutor at the synagogue — the one who thought Kahane had been right and we might need to revive the JDL, as it existed circa 1968.

My responses to him had been a sigh and a grimace.

The grimace: I sympathize — no, I empathize — with Jews who are afraid. The lessons of history are clear: there is every reason to believe campus protests will devolve into violence.

So what gives me pause? Because I don’t want to live in that version of America, of armed tribal battalions and vigilantism. 

You might disagree with me, and such disagreement would be legitimate. Anecdotally, I have heard of a number of Jews who have shocked themselves by winding up at a shooting range — just in case.

The question: How should American Jews think about Kahanism and the acts of settler violence The New York Times has reported?

Jews defending themselves against aggression? Absolutely.

But when that devolves into aggression itself and xenophobia — no.

Am I just being a typical Jewish liberal?

Also, no.

How does the Torah itself understand this issue?

The non-Jew in the land of Israel is the ger, “the stranger within our gates.” We had to provide for the welfare of the stranger, who was often an impoverished laborer or artisan — “because you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

In the words of the late biblical scholar Nechama Leibowitz, “A history of alienation and slavery, the memory of your own humiliation is by itself no guarantee that you will not oppress the stranger in your own country once you have gained independence and left it all behind you.”

The Torah mandates, no less than 36 times, that Jews are responsible for treating the stranger with love and justice.

In that sense, Kahanism violates both the letter and the spirit of Jewish teaching. Fans of the comic Superman will remember Bizarro Superman, a distorted doppelganger of the superhero.

Kahanism is Bizarro Judaism and Bizarro Zionism — because it bases itself not on a love of Zion or of the Jewish people. Rather, it bases itself on a debased hatred of Arabs, Palestinians and Muslims.

I have learned from my friend, Gil Troy:

I believe in a Zionism that faces facts, that exercises power with restraint, that sees the Jewish past as a lesson, not as a mystical imperative or as an insidious nightmare; that sees the Palestinian Arabs as Palestinian Arabs, not as the camouflaged reincarnation of the ancient tribes of Canaan or as a shapeless mass of humanity waiting for us to form it as we see fit; a Zionism also capable of seeing itself as others may see it; and finally, a Zionism that recognizes both the spiritual implications and the political consequences of the fact that this small tract of land is the homeland of two peoples fated to live facing each other.

Two final quotes.

I think of Judge Jack B. Weinstein, who was a United States district judge in New York and one of this past generation’s most distinguished jurists.

These are the words of his decision in U.S. v. Kahane, 1971, in which members of the JDL were sentenced on bomb-making charges: “In this country, at this time, it is not permissible to substitute the bomb for the book as a symbol of Jewish manhood.”

And, I think of the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. In an address to the Knesset, he spoke of the followers of Kahane and Baruch Goldstein, as quoted in The New York Times Magazine:

“You are not part of the community of Israel. You are not partners in the Zionist enterprise. You are a foreign implant. You are an errant weed. Sensible Judaism spits you out. You placed yourself outside the wall of Jewish law.”

Yes, for many, Meir Kahane speaks from the grave.

So does Yitzhak Rabin.

I prefer his voice. I hope most Jews, and most Israelis, would prefer that voice as well.

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