Never Again, Indeed (Extract)

Extract from an article in Issue 11, September 15, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here. On the 40th anniversary of the founding of the Jewish Defense League's, Meir Kahane's widow has written a new book When 18-year-old Libby Blum married Meir Kahane in 1956 in New York City, relatives wondered how the shy young woman would get along with her hot-tempered spouse. Thin and nervous, the dark-haired groom, who had studied law and rabbinics, was five years Libby's senior and had been her group leader at Bnei Akiva, the Orthodox Zionist youth movement. The couple, who eventually had four children and immigrated to Israel in 1971, remained different in temperament. The Brooklyn-born rabbi and extremist was high-strung, theatrical and a media hound, while his wife, Libby, who has just celebrated her 70th birthday was (and is) measured, low-key and, until recently, never in the limelight. Kahane elbowed his way into Jewish history by grabbing headlines and "doing outrageous things," in his own words. He preached an ideology advocating the forcible expulsion of all the Arabs from the biblical Land of Israel and spoke of banning intermarriage between Jews and Arabs, whom he often referred to as "dogs" in his rabble-rousing speeches. His wife, by contrast, lived quietly in Jerusalem, raising four children, two sons and two daughters. She helped support the family by working (since 1971) as a librarian in the reference department of the Jewish National and University Library - a department which she headed from 1980 until her retirement in 1998. Today Libby Kahane, gray hair poking primly from beneath her religious head covering, is the picture of religious domesticity. Warm and personable, she has 30 grandchildren and 10 "greats," she tells The Jerusalem Report in a mid-August interview in her home. Their miniature framed photographs dangle from an ornamental silver-plated "tree" on display in her immaculate Jerusalem apartment in the largely nationalist-Orthodox Kiryat Moshe neighborhood of Jerusalem. Now she has emerged from obscurity to promote the first volume of an encyclopedic biography, which she wrote over the course of several years, and self-published about her late husband, who was assassinated in 1990. The book is called simply, "Meir Kahane: His Life and Thought." A decade after Meir was assassinated, in December 2000, double tragedy struck Libby Kahane when her 34-year-old son, Binyamin Ze'ev, a radical right-wing settler, and his 32-year-old wife, Talya, were slain in an ambush by Fatah gunmen as they drove their family van from Jerusalem to the hard-right West Bank settlement of Kfar Tapuah, where they lived. The publication of Libby's book coincides with the 40th anniversary of Kahane's establishment of the Jewish Defense League (JDL), in August 1968. The JDL was a militant group, which promoted Jewish vigilantism, and was founded largely as a reaction to urban racial and ethnic tensions stoked by the teacher's strike of 1968 in New York City. "Every Jew a .22," was the slogan that the JDL used to urge Jews to arm themselves. But the group also took upon itself the fight for Soviet Jewry. Another slogan was "Never Again;": The Holocaust affected Kahane emotionally, who was born in 1932. After immigrating to Israel in 1971, Kahane founded Kach, a hard-line militant group, in 1974. It won one Knesset seat (occupied by him) in the 1984 election, but was banned from seeking re-election by the Central Elections Commission in October 1988, on the grounds that it was racist and undemocratic. After the 1994 Hebron massacre of 29 Palestinians by Kach activist Dr. Baruch Goldstein, the movement and its satellite group, Kahane Chai, (Kahane Lives) were outlawed in Israel and declared terrorist organizations by the American government. When she started to write the memoir, Libby says what she had in mind was a "sincere and factual" document about Meir Kahane for their progeny. Later, she says, she felt that a wider reading public would benefit from the account of her "maligned" late husband. She included numerous details, because as a career librarian she felt "facts would bolster its accuracy." The dense manuscript seeks to correct certain "misconceptions" about him, she says. Throughout his life, she asserts, Meir was demonized by politicians fearful and jealous of his popularity, and sensation-seeking journalists. The book was published by the Institute for the Publication of Rabbi Meir Kahane's Writings, a non-profit organizatio, that was established by the Kahane family in Jerusalem in 1993. Libby personally covered the book's printing costs; 3,000 copies have been printed. Claiming to be a follower of what she says is Kahane's "true" ideology, an ethos far gentler than commonly thought, she dismisses some of her husband's more incendiary speeches, ideas and actions as naive attempts to draw attention. She says (and writes) that he was a "passionate" lover of Jews, an emotion shaped by the Holocaust. Kahane was also deeply influenced by his Safed-born father, Charles, who lost four relatives in an Arab shooting attack on their car (in Safed) in 1938 and became an influential Brooklyn rabbi. Charles supported the right-wing pre-state paramilitary Irgun and young Meir belonged to Betar, the revisionist Zionist youth movement. He did not "hate Arabs," she says, but was a biblical literalist, who simply interpreted the Torah as saying that the Holy Land was exclusively for Jews. Early on, she says, he understood the power of the pithy sound-byte and the media stunt. American Israeli attorney Larry Dub agrees with Libby. He was a student of the rabbi's in high school and an early JDL supporter and, later, lawyer to Kahane. Dub tells The Report that Kahane made enemies in Israel because he "had a solution to the Jewish-Arab conflict" in a country where politicians "do not have one, and shove problems away." Dub says Kahane could have been high up in the Likud, maybe even a minister, "but he had his principles." But four decades after the JDL's birth, experts on the radical right and historians remain divided in their analysis of the breadth of Kahane's political legacy in Israel. Political scientist Ami Pedazhur, previously of the University of Haifa and now an associate professor at the University of Texas at Austin, Department of Government, tells The Jerusalem Report that Kahane had "a great impact" on the political system in Israel. The New York-based JDL, he points out, had very little to do with Israel and was first involved with perceived Afro-American anti-Semitism and then mainly with the Soviet Jewry movement. But, he says, Kahane found "an agenda for his violent and racist ideology" in Israel, to which he brought "its first manifestations of racism." Pedazhur says that Kahane radicalized Gush Emunim, the religious settler movement formed after the 1967 war, and legitimized racist vernacular in political discourse. "Whenever there is a violent altercation between [settlers] and police these days, you can thank Meir Kahane. His followers have replaced the old leadership. His legacy is huge." But Bar-Ilan University political scientist Dr. Asher Cohen, an expert on religious Zionism, says this is a wild exaggeration. Kahane remained a marginal figure, as have his adherents, because his "American," Sixties, anti-establishment message ultimately clashed with the pro-state attitude of the religious Zionist settlers, who have generally regarded the state as a proof of divine intervention in Jewish history. Kahane may have been admired initially by Israeli establishment figures for his strong stance on Soviet Jewry and so forth, but he never became a universally popular figure with settlers, he says. "But the extremists grab the headlines." Meir Kahane never lived long enough to inhabit the apartment Libby occupies today, next door to the home of their son, Baruch, a Talmud scholar. Meir was slain, at age 58, in a New York hotel by Egyptian immigrant El Sayyid Nosair, after giving a talk. Nosair was acquitted of the crime despite "overwhelming evidence" said the trial judge, sharply critical of the jury, which found Nosair guilty of the lesser charge of illegal gun possession. He was later convicted in a federal indictment for being part of a wider terror plot. Dub, who represented the family's interests at the trial, says the outcome didn't surprise him or the family and just bolstered suspicions that larger forces have always been "out to get" Kahane and enhanced his martyr image. (Libby also believes that her husband was targeted by American and Israeli security agencies.) Dub points out that Nosair's Jewish lawyer, William Kunstler, renowned for taking on liberal rights cases, out-matched the inexperienced prosecutor. Kunstler described Kahane as a racist and that made an impression on the jury, which was made up exclusively of people of color, says Dub. Libby recalls with grim irony that her father, Jacob Blum, died of illness in Jerusalem on the same day as Meir. She was at Hadassah Medical Center with her brother, Phil, when her nephew called on a pay phone with news of the assassination. Meir's body was flown to Israel, and she went from funeral to funeral. Referring to the terror slaying of her son and his wife, Libby says stoically, invoking her deep faith, "God takes but gives the strength to endure." Binyamin was his father's spiritual heir and founded Kahane Chai, later outlawed. Today Libby says that her son, who bore a strong physical resemblance to his father, was not suited for the role and that she opposed his political involvement. Binyamin was a Talmudist, she says, and wrote a commentary for a Passover Haggada. She is consoled by the fact that Binyamin's car was not targeted because of who he was. "It was just bad luck" that he was attacked, she says. The slain couple's six orphans, aged 10 years to two months at the time (and in the van with their parents but who survived) are being brought up by Talya's siblings who live in Tapuah. Libby and her surviving children tried but failed to have them reared by their families in Jerusalem. She lives a few short blocks from the Mercaz Harav seminary, established in 1924 by Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, Palestine's first chief rabbi and regarded as the flagship nationalist-religious yeshiva. In 1971, Meir met Kook's son and spiritual heir, Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook, who took over the yeshiva (in 1935) and expanded upon his father's idea that settling and building the Land of Israel would bring the messiah, a process some believed had begun with the 1967 Six-Day War. Kahane, himself, greatly expanded on the idea. "Classic Gush Emunim dogma held that God gave the biblical land to the Jews. But Kahane put emphasis on the fact that it was not for Arabs," notes Pedazhur. He recalls that Kahane's tirades against Arabs often had a bizarre sexual in which he warned that Arabs prey upon Jewish women. Last March, after eight pupils were massacred at Mercaz Harav by a Palestinian gunman, a spate of graffiti saying "Kahane tzadak," or "Kahane was right" appeared, as they have after similar nationalistic crimes in the past. "They don't bother to wash it off anymore," says Libby, underscoring what she sees as the public's sympathy for her husband's solution to the conflict. But Bar Ilan's Cohen says these sentiments are limited to a handful of vocal extremists and working-class punks, who might shout ethnic epithets about Arabs at a Beitar soccer game to "seem cool. They are a minority," he says. Libby, for her part, says she "has nothing to do" with Kahanists and is not their guru. Transplanting his American ethnic biases to Israel, after Kahane immigrated, he "first picked on" the black Hebrews, the Chicago sect headed by Afro-American Carter Ben-Ami, which partially relocated to Dimona, claiming to be descended of the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel. But he quickly found a "far more important niche," says Pedazhur by "mobilizing" the right-wing camp and inciting Gush Emunim to violence. Here too, he says, Kahane focused more on the ethnic divide between Jews and Arabs than on the territorial dispute. Kahane turned out to be too extreme even for Israel's right-wing and created problems for them, and many welcomed Kach's disqualification from the Knesset elections in 1988. Experts predicted that he could have won up to five seats. Pedazhur says ex-Kachniks such as Baruch Marzel (who has also advocated violence toward homosexuals), Itamar Ben-Dvir and Noam Federman have replaced longtime settler leaders such as Daniella Weiss, Bentzi Lieberman and even Moshe Levinger. The latter became sidelined as too moderate, says Pedazhur. Kach settlements attract violent Jewish-Arab altercations and set an "exciting" example for the younger generation of settlers. He mentions Hebron, Kiryat Arba and Kfar Tapuah as hotbeds of right-wing radicalism. Pedazhur also recalls Michael Ben-Horin, a Kach movement activist, who in the 1980s, at the time of the peace agreement with Egypt and the Israeli withdrawal from Sinai, founded what he called "the State of Judea." Later, he was one of the editors of Baruch Hagever (Blessed Is the Man), which eulogized Baruch Goldstein, the Tomb of the Patriarchs murderer, and a key participant in the Yitzhak Rabin pulsa denura (curse of death) ceremony before Yigal Amir shot the prime minister. The violent reaction of Jewish settlers in the 2005 disengagement from the Gaza strip "stems from Kahane," says Pedazhur. The second major impact of Kahanism, says Pedazhur, was that it gave expression to racism in Israeli political discourse. Until then, he says, "people didn't dare say the kind of things he did." For example, modified Kahanist concepts such as transferring the Palestinian population out of the West Bank affected the lexicon of right-wing politics and served as a basis for the political platform first articulated by Rehavam Ze'evi, the general and politician who founded the right-wing nationalist Moledet party and was assassinated by Palestinian gunmen in October 2001. Pedazhur says Kahane even influenced the rhetoric of the Orthodox Sephardi Shas party, which attracted ex-Kach voters. Dub, who lives in Jerusalem, asserts that Menachem Begin once offered the American émigré rabbi a spot on the Likud ticket. "Today Kahanists remain in the closet because [the movement's] illegal. Wearing a T-shirt with the clenched fist [JDL/ Kach symbol] can get you arrested." But Bar-Ilan's Cohen insists Kahane's legacy is minor. He says the overwhelming majority of West Bank settlers do not support extremists. He points out that Marzel's Jewish National Front party, established in 2004, received slightly less than 25,000 votes in the 2006 elections, less than half the minimum 2 percent required to enter the Knesset. Furthermore, Cohen says that "not a single shot" was fired during settler violence in the Gaza Strip and that even the extremist "Hilltop Youth" number no more than some 400 to 600. He says Kahane failed to galvanize mainstream settler support because his "anti-establishment message" didn't go over well with pro-state settlers. Indeed, he says, even after the 2005 disengagement, studies show that settler youth continue to serve in the military. Ironically, Cohen says, Kahane's anti-establishment message resonated with voters in poor Sephardi towns, and not settlers. Libby's lengthy (nearly 800 pages) book varies substantially from published works on Meir Kahane. Two such books are "The False Prophet" by the late Village Voice journalist Robert Friedman (Lawrence Hill Books, 1990) and the more gossipy "Heil Kahane" (in Hebrew) by Yair Kotler (Adama Books, New York, 1986.) Libby Kahane says both books are "seriously flawed by bias and inaccuracies." She quotes from a New York Times book review of Friedman's book which calls it a "remorseless polemic... ranting in heated melodramatic prose." Among other things, Friedman alleges that under the alias "Michael King," the rabbi led a double life as FBI informant, skirt-chaser and rabble-rouser. Her book acknowledges that Kahane used several pseudonyms, including Michael King, for his work as a writer with the New York-based Jewish Press. Although Libby frequently acknowledges New York Times reports of JDL activities, she does not refer to Michael Kaufman's profile of Kahane in 1971, which broke the story that "King's" antics caused a rejected woman, Estelle Donna Evans, to jump to her death off the Queensboro bridge in despair over the end of their romance in 1966. "I have no proof," she says curtly, although Kahane himself did not hide Evans' identity and established a charitable foundation in her name, which he advertised in JDL publications, notes author Friedman In a 1994 Times article, Kaufman wrote that Kahane pressured him not to report the Evans incident in the 1971 front-page profile. In Friedman's account, Times editors caved in and Kaufman referred to the woman "elliptically" in the mid-section of the story. After the Goldstein massacre, Kaufman published a fuller account of the episode that occurred 23 years earlier. "Years later, when racist supporters of the Rabbi's Kach movement screamed that their Israeli critics slept with Arabs or lived with shikses (non-Jewish women), I re-examined my choices and wished I had stressed the Estelle Donna Evans story more prominently in my exposé. Looking back, it seemed more central to the rabbi's motivations. When last weekend I read of the slaughter in Hebron, I realized once more that Rabbi Kahane's legacy was compounding itself, and again I thought back to the woman on the bridge," wrote Kaufman in The Times. It might not have helped. Dub dismisses Kaufman's version and says Kahane was a revered Orthodox rabbi and devoted family man who had many enemies already back in the 1970s. He was highly charismatic, says Dub, and it was possible that a woman could have tragically deluded herself into thinking that he was in love with her. Dub first met Kahane in 1969 when the rabbi was teaching Jewish philosophy at the modern-Orthodox Yeshiva of Central Queens, a day school located in Jamaica, New York, a "changing" Afro-American neighborhood. Dub joined the JDL where he learned how to shoot weapons. He later hosted Kahane at his home in Rhode Island in the 1980s and after he married, Dub's wife sported JDL jewelry, a clenched fist against the Jewish Star of David (the symbol of the movement) in gold. Dub says that he hosted Kahane on his Kach fundraising trips to Rhode Island in the 1980s when he commanded larger donations than Likud or Labor and had an exhausting schedule. "He had 15 engagements in 24 hours. There was no playing around." Two women classmates of Dub also have fond memories of Kahane in JDL early days. Debbie Rosenberg Katz tells The Report that she remembers Kahane as an active member of her family's modern-Orthodox Young Israel synagogue of Laurelton, also in Queens. On the festival of Simchat Torah, Kahane led the way in fun and pranks by dancing and showing youngsters how to tie prayer shawl fringes to chairs. Rise (Pagenkoph) Page babysat for Kahane's brother's children. "That was how I became involved with the JDL," which was advertised as a Zionist organization, she says. She went to rallies where Kahane spoke. "My parents were concentration camp survivors. It made me feel good that Jews were standing up and not letting others push us around." Page says she liked being part of the JDL "until they become militant... and ran camps teaching young people how to use guns. That was a turn-off and I stopped participating." The militancy turned ugly on January 26, 1972, when the violent anti-Soviet agitation fomented by the JDL to protest persecution of Jews in the USSR ended horribly. The Manhattan offices of Sol Hurok, a Jewish impresario who brought Soviet performers to the United States, was firebombed and a 27-year-old Jewish secretary named Iris Kones perished. Libby's version of the tragedy, which found Kahane in Jerusalem in the midst of son Baruch's bar mitzva celebrations, is markedly different than Friedman's. Both agree that a shocked Kahane deplored the incident. A New York federal grand jury indicted three JDL members in June, 1972. Libby suggests the firebomb was a set-up designed to besmirch the JDL, and writes how Kahane helped behind the scenes to assist the hunted, and innocent, she maintains, suspects. Friedman writes that, in 1979, Kahane admitted in an interview that the JDL was responsible for the Hurok bombing. Friedman details how a network of JDL sympathizers helped the suspects escape to Israel, where as of his book's publication in 1990, several were living on the West Bank. The case was dropped in 1975 for lack of evidence. Libby did not have an easy life with messianic Meir, who was forever starting - and folding - Jewish organizations, and raising funds. (One failed idea was to start an organization that would democratize American Jewish organizations, which he charged were run on the whims of non-elected figures.) Throughout their lives she remained on the sidelines, dutifully tolerated his notoriety, which included police arrests, and kept a diary. Despite her book's meticulous detail, she does not reveal much emotion about the frustrations, if any, of living alongside a man like Kahane. The work, in a way, gives her a chance to have the last word, something that she may not have had in real life with him. Asked by e-mail if she found exposés of her husband, whether she believed them or not, difficult to take, Libby answers, "Yes, it hurt when people wrote nasty things about Meir, and when they published pictures of him looking like a raving maniac. But it did not hurt deeply, because I knew the truth about his character - and about his appearance. More, I understood why they worked so hard to present him in a bad light. They hated his ideas, so they fought to destroy his credibility." She says her husband filed no libel suit against his accusers. "Meir felt it would just give the rumor more credence," she says. At home, Libby says Kahane was quiet and "not hateful of anyone." But Pedazhur says that it hardly matters what Kahane told his wife at home, or how he behaved there. On a personal level, several ex-Kach leaders whom he has interviewed were "nice people." But in a powder keg of a country, Kahane let the "hate genie" out of the bottle and "the damage was done," he says. Kahane's legacy may be in question but he was right about one thing: his end. Kahane once predicted his own assassination and told attorney Dub that he hoped "the bullet that kills me is not fired by a Jew." He had his wish. • Extract from an article in Issue 11, September 15, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here.