Rabbi Meir Ka­hane: A Noble and Icon­o­clas­tic Fire­brand

The Jewish Voice - - OBITUARY - By: Meir Jolovitz

Trag­i­cally, when the sun set be­fore its sched­uled time, we lost the most noble Jew of our gen­er­a­tion. 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 fi ebrand 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 u said.

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 fi ht 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. Th ough 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 fi st 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 rightwing pol­i­tics. “Ex­trem­ism,” some called it. To be cer­tain, it ren­dered a new ter­mi­nol­ogy to Is­rael’s po­lit­i­cal lex­i­con: “Ka­hanism.”

Rep­re­sent­ing peo­ple, prob­lems, and is­sues that had re­mained un­ad­dressed by suc­ces­sive Is­raeli gov­ern­ments, he

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, ztk’l, lived his life de­voted to the cause of Aha­vat Yis­rael.

be­came a pop­ulist figu e 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 per-

suades 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.

Rabbi Ka­hane pos­sessed an in­nate grasp of is­sues large and small, and used al­ways and only the barom­e­ter: how does it af­fect the Jews? It was, by all means, his sin­gle-minded pur­pose for be­ing. To him, Jabotin­sky and his fol­low­ers were mod­ern day Mac­cabees who rep­re­sented a novel idea in­deed – the courage to stand fi m. It was the ba­sis, he came to be­lieve, upon which the State of Is­rael needed to hang its very character.

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 in­fin te 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 fina 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 fi ht. The efore 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. Few sub­jects were too sa­cred for commentary, and through his writ­ings he re­vealed and ren­dered an at­ti­tude hereto­fore con­sid­ered un­think­able. 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.

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. Tho e 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 fi st 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. The more they tried to si­lence him, the louder he seemed to get. And the louder he got, the more he rip­pled the pond.

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 fl mes. 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 fift 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 in­fin tely 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.

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 find 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 fi ht 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.

Yet trag­i­cally, at a piv­otal mo­ment of Jewish his­tory, with Is­rael still un­der siege, we re­main lead­er­less.

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.” Th t “our hope is not yet lost.”

Daily News ar­ti­cle of Novem­ber 6, 1990 on the as­sas­si­na­tion of Rabbi Meir Ka­hane, ztk’l. Rabbi Ka­hane was gunned down at the Mar­riott East Ho­tel in mid­town Man­hat­tan by Is­lamic ter­ror­ist El Said No­sair on Mon­day night, Novem­ber 5, 1990

A pro­lific writer, Rabbi Ka­hane’s pen left a pen­e­trat­ing mark on the gen­er­a­tion that was in­flu­enced by his many books and fre­quent ar­ti­cles

A pro­lific writer, Rabbi Ka­hane’s pen left a pen­e­trat­ing mark on the gen­er­a­tion that was in­flu­enced by his many books and fre­quent ar­ti­cles

A pro­lific writer, Rabbi Ka­hane’s pen left a pen­e­trat­ing mark on the gen­er­a­tion that was in­flu­enced by his many books and fre­quent ar­ti­cles

A pro­lific writer, Rabbi Ka­hane’s pen left a pen­e­trat­ing mark on the gen­er­a­tion that was in­flu­enced by his many books and fre­quent ar­ti­cles

Meir Jolovitz writes that Rabbi Ka­hane’s 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”

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