The iconoclastic firebrand that was Rabbi Meir Kahane, Hy"d
For his yahrzeit, 18 Cheshvan.
Perhaps more than any other, his was a life dedicated to serving Am Yisrael. Regrettably, it was a life ended abruptly in the struggle to awaken a nation that had taken to slumber only a generation after the greatest tragedy that befell its people.
Brilliant and inspired, he was an iconoclastic firebrand who left his mark wherever he walked or whenever he talked. To be sure, friend and foe alike came to understand that there was no place he was ever afraid to go, and nothing that was ever left unsaid.
With a penchant for understanding the ways of the world, and a political proclivity that was rooted to the core in his love of his people, Rabbi Meir Kahane lived his life devoted to the cause of Ahavat Yisrael. Driven by an intense passion for justice that had rarely been seen before, and lamentably that seems to be especially found wanting today, he became the most controversial Jewish spokesman of our generation.
Born in 1932, Meir David Kahane was raised in a religious nationalistic home in New York. Son to a scholar, he learned at a very early age that Judaism was inseparable from Zionism. And that anti-Zionism was just another manifestation of anti-Semitism. He was taught also that, sadly, there were too few Jewish proponents of the biblical notion that posited that Jews should, unapologetically, stand tall. He understood even then that Jewish history, and destiny, was often determined by the bold actions of a few noble Jews. His heroes were Ze’ev Jabotinsky, Yosef Trumpledor, Menachem Begin, Shlomo Ben Yosef, Dov Gruner, Meir Feinstein, and their compatriots of the Irgun and Lehi, a too-small select group of modern Jewish warriors whose names were sadly unknown, or unspoken, in too-many Jewish homes.
The valiant struggle undertaken by these extraordinary Jewish heroes would leave its impact on Kahane. In response to the anti-Semitism that seemed ubiquitous, the unpretentious and private young man from New York would one day be drawn by circumstances to take a demonstrative public stance because others would not. Yet, that metamorphosis should not have surprised anyone, certainly not those who remember this once-quiet New York teenager hurling stones at the passing motorcade of British Foreign Minister Ernest Bevin, an archenemy of Jewish nationalist aspirations.
Following his years at the Mir Yeshiva, he picked up a law degree from New York Law School, and a Master’s degree in International Relations from New York University along the way. He moved from being a modest neighborhood rabbi to copy editor and frequent contributor of the Jewish Press, to a neophyte rabble-rouser whose presence would soon shake the world.
Establishing the Jewish Defense League in 1968 in response to an anti-Semitism that proliferated seemingly unchecked in the neighborhoods of New York, he introduced with it a new breed of American Jew – one willing to fight back. As the JDL’s reputation and popularity grew, so did the condemnations, especially from those so-called Jewish leaders who had previously been empowered by their Jewish constituents to serve the need now taken up by the new Jewish defenders.
Nonetheless, the young men of the JDL continued to take to the streets undeterred, feared and respected by those with whom they did battle, and delivered a renewed message that Jewish blood was not cheap.
But Rabbi Kahane had a greater calling -- helping Jews everywhere. It was not enough, he opined, to serve only those Jews beleaguered only in our own neighborhoods. What of those who stood defenseless elsewhere, and who, he wondered, would feel their pain?
Not long after he founded the Jewish Defense League, Rabbi Kahane made a priority of taking up the cause of Soviet Jewry, a people subjugated and smothered by Soviet totalitarianism. Through extralegal and illegal means, the JDL directed its war against a détente that had masked the Soviet oppression of its religious minorities. No Soviet diplomat would walk the streets of New York freely, the Rabbi warned, if any Jew were compelled to walk the streets of Moscow in fear. In a bold and imaginative campaign to rein terror on the perpetrators, the JDL became a bone in the throat to Soviet interests in America. Numerous times the Soviet Union directed its complaints to the United States government and the United Nations assembly in an effort to curb the “Jewish hooligans,” protests that served only to bolster the latter’s fearless reputation, and determination.
In the end, when all was said and done, the JDL brought to the fore a Soviet Jewish problem that had been shrouded for too long, mobilized an apathetic American Jewish establishment, and befittingly laid claim to opening the iron curtain to the several hundred thousand Russian Jews who were reluctantly permitted to emigrate. All because there walked a rabbi who would not allow himself to sleep comfortably knowing that Jews elsewhere could not.
But most importantly, there was Israel. In keeping with the most fundamental principle of the Jewish Defense League’s ideology, Rabbi Kahane, his wife Libby, and their four children made aliyah in 1971. Welcomed at first as a modern American Jewish hero, the Rabbi soon made his political mark by antagonizing the prevailing political order. Challenging its neglect of the inevitable demographic clash with its own Arab population, and calling to question the ill-fated desire to seek peace at any cost with its neighboring Arab countries, Kahane became a small, though vocal, political alternative.
As Israel confronted an assault of Arab terrorism unleashed, coupled with proliferating social problems, his appeal and support grew. Elected to the Knesset and given a legitimate forum in 1984, and barred from running again in 1988 when the polls predicting an almost unprecedented rise in power, Rabbi Kahane’s name became synonymous with Israeli right-wing politics. “Extremism,” some called it. To be certain, it rendered a new terminology to Israel’s political lexicon:
Representing people, problems, and issues that had remained unaddressed by successive Israeli governments, he became a popular figure who threatened conventional politics. Remarkably, his impact was so great that the Likud government that presented itself as “nationalist” fought to keep him at bay with a fury that even eclipsed the old Labor governments’ efforts.
Always placing the fate of others above his own, he discounted any concern for his own reputation, faithfully leaving that judgment to God, and to history. As the bravest and loudest voice forewarning the Jews in Israel, and elsewhere, of the impending dangers of a specious and spurious yet all-encompassing quest for Middle East peace, he believed that history would certainly vindicate him.
Long before the fraudulent peace of Oslo, when all others were still hailing the accomplishments of an earlier Camp David surrender to appeasement, Rabbi Kahane spoke about the dangers engendered by the lack of Jewish resolve. He warned that this perilous march to peace, based foolishly on illusions and the best of intentions, would ultimately lead Israel on the path of disaster. As seemed his duty, he shamelessly reminded those who would listen that the road to Hell was paved with good intentions, and, too many dead Jews.
Rabbi Kahane once wrote the words that perhaps more than any others explained this march of madness:
“Not all Jews are heroes, and there are those who grow weary of the long struggle, and the longer wait. And weariness carries with it weakness. Weakness of the body, and weakness of the spirit. Weakness that persuades the Jew to believe, that which just yesterday, he knew to be nonsense. Weakness that prepares the ground for the Jew to believe in madness, and in illusions.”
For him, there was only one thing worse than illusion – self-delusion, an enterprise he feared the Jews had begun to master all too well.
In 1924, the prolific Jewish writer Maurice Samuel, daring to call Jews a “separate and holy people,” concluded his book You Gentiles with the following: “…I console myself with the thought that if this book offends by its assertiveness, God knows that the infinite tactfulness of thousands of other Jews seems to have offended no less. Whatever we do we are damned – and I would rather be damned standing up than lying down.”
Rabbi Meir Kahane, was a rabbi who was in fact damned – damned standing up, but never lying down. His writings, his speeches, and his audacious actions on behalf of his fellow Jews gave no quarter. As certain as the sunrise, his words and his deeds carried with them the assured belief that they invoked the blessings of Heaven.
As the founder and leader of the Jewish Defense League, and then the Kach Movement in Israel, he was condemned, and imprisoned, too-numerous times for his radical actions. And at other times, for his views. Yet he remained undeterred. Articulating a philosophy pregnant with moral clarity, he once wrote:
“The real prisoners are the ones who walk the streets daily, knowing that they should do a certain thing, and are afraid to do it. They are serving life sentences. If a person believes in something, and does it – he is never in prison – he is always free.”
Never, then, was there a freer man than Rabbi Meir Kahane.
Rabbi Kahane, for two decades warned us through word and through deed, of the impending catastrophes that we would inevitably face if we chose to follow Washington, and place our trust in princes, rather than the path prescribed by Torah. The Rabbi warned us that when the final showdown would come, the support of these “so-called friends” of Zion would, to use the language of Pierre Van Passan, “evaporate like snow on a summer day’s sun.”
With the nations of the world in general, and Israel’s Arab neighbors in particular, the Rabbi understood that there would only be peace through strength. Not because they loved us, but because they could be made to respect us.
Rabbi Meir Kahane was an unconventional genius.
His name was, and will forever remain, synonymous with Jewish activism. Principled in purpose, he feared no fight. Therefore it was understandable that the establishment feared his ability to capture and radicalize the hearts and minds of a generation of youth that had been left with little direction, and even less purpose.
A prolific writer, his pen left a penetrating mark on the generation that was influenced by his many books and frequent articles. Tireless, he spoke everywhere, and to everyone, and galvanized a generation of Jews that began to question its parents’ indifference to the life and death issues that he brought to the fore.
The cry of “Never Again,” if ever heard before the rabbi established the Jewish Defense League, was certainly too faint. Rabbi Meir Kahane, and the Jewish Defense League, proclaimed it loudly, and proudly. And it was nothing less than a revolution in Jewish affairs. “Never Again” did not mean that never again would the Jewish people be confronted with anti-Semitism, pogroms, and worse. In the galut, that promise cannot be made, nor kept. But “Never Again” did mean, that never again would the Jews stand idly by, while the anti-Semitic beast reared its pernicious face. It was a chant – a promise – a that became the hallmark of a new Jew. It was a message that instilled a measure of fear in those who made sport of hating Jews. It was a compelling wake-up call to the Jews who had long served as their victims. And it sent a stern and menacing signal to the Jewish leaders who for too long seemed indifferent to both.
He would often remind us that the Jew needed to stand on two legs – the religious, and the nationalistic.
Rabbi Kahane was in every sense, a unique man, a visionary. But he was more. So much more. No political visionary ever knew as much about the New York Yankees as did the rabbi; and no Yankee fan ever climbed more police barricades than did he. No biblical scholar comprehended international law as well, and certainly no international jurist ever understood the Five Books of Moses as did the venerated and often berated rabbi. Perhaps more politically astute than anyone we will ever meet, he often, nevertheless, refused to be diplomatic. You see, he understood, that one doesn’t compromise Jewish values.
With one leg fully entrenched in Israel, and the other still planted in America, the once-quiet pulpit rabbi from Howard Beach, New York reluctantly became an international celebrity. In the matter of a few short years, he came to champion Jewish causes everywhere, and in his own unique manner, left life-lasting reverberations in his wake. It was not history that created this man, but this man who helped fashion history.
He would often remind us that the Jew needed to stand on two legs – the religious, and the nationalistic. Those who stood on only one, he argued, were crippled. And never had one man stood taller on both legs.
Bold, brazen, and never bashful, Rabbi Kahane commanded the ability to engage in intellectual discourse that made even the most erudite opponent shrink before him. Or, he could shift gears effortlessly, and communicate masterfully, with the young and disenfranchised.
The rabbi often addressed groups a thousand strong, and at times, spent endless hours passionately mentoring a single lost soul. Because he understood, that that one lone soul might one day himself alter the course of Jewish history. This endless passion to serve his people, coupled with the determined drive to pursue justice, was in every sense, his raison d’être.
More serious than any man we have ever met, he balanced that with a wonderful sense of humor that always “humanized” the man they wanted us to see as a Jewish outcast.
Often late for appointments, he was always the first to rush to the aid of a Jew in peril. Talented, and of brilliant mind, he was tortured by the notion of Jews suffering, whether in Manhattan, or Moscow.
He feared only God.
He was instrumental in disseminating the type of pride that brought many a young Jew to proudly place the knitted kippa on his head. Finding little time, or use, for sleep, the rabbi’s twenty-hour workday was never enough. Like Ze’ev Jabotinsky, a generation and a half before him, he saw things that others could not. And as was true of Jabotinsky, he was branded a “pariah” by the established Jewish world, which wanted him so much – to simply go away.
Doors to the established Jewish institutions were regularly closed to him – sometimes, as in the case of the campus Hillels throughout the United States, they were literally, physically chained, all in the endeavor to keep him out. Yet, not surprisingly, his ideas still seeped through.
Who really appreciated this remarkable man? Ask an old Holocaust survivor, who knew too well what it meant to be forgotten by American Jewry, while European Jewry burned in flames. Ask the frightened American Jew, living alone in a once Jewish neighborhood, fearful of the anti-Semitism that he felt every day. Ask the Jewish settler in holy Hevron – resting-place of our forefathers - deserted by his own Israeli government, while surrounded by a marauding pack of wolves. Ask the more than a quarter of a million Russian Jews, prisoners of a totalitarian Soviet regime for over fifty years, who had their fate, their future, and their freedom tied to the radical rabbi – a rabbi who was willing to go to jail, for them.
Rare indeed was the man who was willing to shake heaven and earth and sacrifice almost all for his fellow man. Unwilling to compromise the truth, and bereft of any concern for political correctness or conventional expectations, Rabbi Meir Kahane taught us that the life in one’s years is infinitely more important than the years in one’s life.
Felled by a murderous assassin’s bullet in New York in November 1990, he is now gone.
The loss of one great man, and our world will never be the same. It is no doubt the most important thing that the rabbi would ever teach – that one person, could indeed, be the difference.
How different our world would have been had Rabbi Meir Kahane decided that the pain and suffering of the Jews everywhere was not his pain. Or if he had not stood in opposition to the ongoing Jewish retreat from the territories liberated in the 1967 Six Day War, an event that should have instead ushered in the age of redemption. Or, had he simply accepted that these things were sometimes better left alone. God knows, our Jewish leaders said it was so.
Without the rabbi, we mournfully lack the vocal and vociferous outcry against the perfidious and misbegotten peace process. More importantly, we shall forever miss the fury of the same noble rabbi, not here today to lead the voices of reason, and demonstrate in angry protest against the road map to madness.
“Never Again” did mean, that never again would the Jews stand idly by, while the anti-Semitic beast reared its pernicious face. It was a chant – a promise – a that became the hallmark of a new Jew.Tragically, it seems that we really didn’t deserve him, and must now fend for ourselves.
The message of Rabbi Meir Kahane is still quite clear today. And for the Jewish people wandering seemingly leaderless in a desert of our own creation, he is needed more than ever before.
We stand today at the moment of truth, called on to muster the courage to break with illusion and foolishness. We stand today a moment that finds us still masters of our own fate, having learned from that noble rabbi that much can be accomplished through dedication, and the faith and the fight of the few against the many.
His legacy should not to be misunderstood, nor left to the historians who so often rewrite it. The message is as clear as it is powerfully poignant: If we march forward with the courage that is called for, guided by Torah and unencumbered by the need to appease unappeasable opponents, then future generations will indeed bless us. If, on the other hand, we equivocate and vacillate, misled by a fearful and faint-hearted temperament while our fate and that of our brethren in Israel and elsewhere still hang in the balance, we shall forever regret the moment of truth when we might have achieved glory, and were found wanting.
The struggle continues. And it continues without the voice, or the hand, of the most noble Jew of our generation.
And, it seems so much harder today to say: “Od lo avda tikvateynu.” That “our hope is not yet lost.”
Meir Jolovitz is a past national executive director of the Zionist Organization of America, and formerly associated with the Institute for Advanced Strategic and Political Studies. He had previously served as national chairman of the Jewish Defense League.
POST SCRIPT: Meir Kahane was far from perfect in his personal life, this post is about the recognition of his great accomplishments with all his human flaws. PM