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Rabbi Meir Kahane
His Life and Thought
Volume One: 1932-1975
By Libby Kahane Urim
761 pages; NIS 150
It's hard to think of a 20th-century Jewish figure who inspired so many of my generation to stay Jewish, yet who also generated such visceral loathing among our elders.
Rabbi Meir Kahane - as man and phenomenon - could never have arisen, much less flourished, had he been born in Melbourne, Johannesburg, London or even Los Angeles. Whatever his gifts and foibles, Kahane could only have sprung to prominence in the tumultuous time and perilous place that was New York City in the late 1960s and early 1970s. It was the perfect storm for Diaspora Jewish militancy.
Entire urban Jewish neighborhoods were under siege: synagogues firebombed; cemeteries desecrated; elderly Jews beaten mercilessly. It seemed as if the city's liberal mayor, John V. Lindsay, had traded peace with the volatile black and Puerto Rican communities - offering affirmative action, community power-sharing in the form of decentralization and enhanced welfare services - at Jewish expense.
Jews who could flee to the suburbs did so (enabling many to hang onto their liberalism), while those of us trapped in the five boroughs were left to our own devices.
From their suburbs (or Manhattan enclaves) the well-heeled, acculturated leaders of the Jewish establishment were cut off from the concerns of their poor, mostly Orthodox, coreligionists. Prominent Jewish organizations, settlement houses and even so-called Jewish hospitals became devoted to serving the black and Puerto Rican communities. There was no money for Jewish education; none for the Jewish poor (who were thought not to exist); and nothing - needless to say - for defense in the inner-city jungle.
At the other end of the communal spectrum were the Old World rabbis, including those in my Orthodox Lower East Side yeshiva, who were painfully disconnected from the pulsating temptations and lurking dangers that surrounded their charges.
The choice seemed to be: We could hang on to the waning yiddishkeit of the shtetl, embrace by hook or by crook the faux Judaism of the limousine-liberal crowd or walk away from the whole kit and caboodle at the first opportunity.
INTO THIS maelstrom burst Meir Kahane, seemingly offering a third way: engagement in politics, ethnic pride, self-defense, a channel for our adolescent energies and (I thought) a redefinition of what it meant to be Jewish.
For those who think of Kahane exclusively in the Israeli context, as the founder in 1974 of the anti-Arab Kach movement, his contribution to American Jewish continuity can easily be overlooked.
I don't know if Meir Kahane saved Soviet Jewry - though he certainly put the issue on the front pages of the newspapers - but he undoubtedly saved thousands of American Jewish youths like me, not only those who joined his Jewish Defense League, but those who benefited collaterally from it. And for that, whatever his failings, I, for one, am in his debt.
IT'S A CLICHE to call a woman "long-suffering," but if anyone deserves that appellation it is Kahane's widow, Libby, who for all the years of her husband's activism stayed out of sight raising their four children, only to lose Meir to an Islamist assassin in 1990, and son Binyamin Ze'ev to a Palestinian terrorist in 2000. She has now, hesitatingly, entered the limelight by writing the story of her husband's life until 1975. A concluding volume is in the works.
If, as Spanish essayist Jose Ortega y Gasset argued, "Biography is a system in which the contradictions of a human life are unified," this book doesn't qualify. Instead, the author's stated aim was to produce an authoritative study of her husband's "one-man struggle to promote the Torah way of life."
Yet, to her credit, Rabbi Meir Kahane can't be dismissed as pure iconography. Indeed, this important work is not easily pigeonholed.
A deeply private, religious woman, now a grandmother, Libby Kahane is in no position to produce either an impartial assessment of her husband's place in history or a kiss-and-tell best-seller. Instead, the author, who is a professional librarian, has done much of the archival and chronological heavy lifting that will one day allow a more dispassionate - and, with a bit of luck, fair-minded - biographer to write the full-scale, balanced and yet illuminating biography Meir Kahane deserves.
KAHANE WAS born into a relatively comfortable family. His father was a pulpit rabbi during the Great Depression. Meir was educated in the yeshiva school system, developing a stutter which he overcame with great effort only in adulthood. He joined Betar in 1946, Bnei Akiva in 1952. Meir told Libby that he quit Betar because he wanted a more Orthodox environment.
At any rate, he met her at a Bnei Akiva meeting in 1954. "After several months, Meir asked me out. I have always felt that Meir and I were fated to marry," she writes.
That's about as personal as this volume gets.
Kahane studied at the illustrious Mirer Yeshiva during the day, graduated Brooklyn College night school and married Libby in 1956. Their dream was to make aliya and for Meir to work for the Foreign Ministry. This option was closed to him, as Libby tells it, because Kahane belatedly discovered that opportunities went exclusively to Labor Party loyalists.
Along the way, Kahane received his rabbinical ordination from Rabbi Abraham Kalmanowitz, got a master's in international relations from NYU and a law degree from New York Law School (he failed the bar exam, which many do on the first try, and never tried again). Afterward, Kahane went through a series of jobs: newspaper delivery man, pulpit rabbi and budding journalist, sometimes writing under the name of Martin Keene.
The murkiest years in Kahane's life (hardly covered in this book) are those between 1963 and 1965. He and his college buddy Joseph Churba set up a Washington think-tank that never really took off. This was when Kahane sometimes went under the name Michael King and reportedly did not lead the lifestyle one would have expected from a married Orthodox rabbi.
You don't have to be Sigmund Freud to speculate why this clean-shaven, modern Orthodox man ultimately reinvented himself into a religious obsessive.
Around this time, Meir started writing for the Brooklyn-based Jewish Press, which would be (despite some intermittent friction with publisher Rabbi Solomon Klass) his main source of income. The tabloid would also become his bully pulpit. Kahane was extraordinarily prolific, yet Klass never paid him enough to make a decent living.
In 1968, in the context of increased levels of violent Jew-hatred stemming from New York's minority communities, Kahane, with attorney Bert Zweibon and public relations man Mort Dolinsky, founded the Jewish Defense League. Dolinsky soon left to make aliya and became head of the Government Press Office. Zweibon became JDL's general counsel and Kahane's ostensible No. 2.
THIS BOOK is replete with detail: names, dates, speeches, columns, travels, ripostes to trial judges and so on. We learn that Kahane's first arrest came when he held a sit-in at the NYC Board of Education in downtown Brooklyn, demanding that the agency terminate two black anti-Semites who had ensconced themselves in a local school board as part of Lindsay's decentralization scheme.
Later, when black militants threatened to turn up at Temple Emanuel on Fifth Avenue to demand "reparations" from Jews for supposedly exploiting black folks, Kahane and his fledgling JDL showed up with baseball bats and lead pipes to protect Jewish honor. That incident gained Kahane tons of publicity and gave JDL plenty of traction.
KAHANE SOON diversified JDL's activities to the struggle for Soviet Jewry. He employed his knack for public relations, together with bluff, a whiff of violence and a pinch of intimidation to generate badly needed attention for the movement. From there, it seemed only natural to channel JDL's energies toward defending Israel from US pressure to abandon the territories captured in the Six Day War.
Along the way, he started a variety of front groups, including DIJEL to press for democracy in Jewish organizational life; the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Activist Organizations; and Shuva to foster the mass aliya of US Jewry.
Kahane was both a brilliant theoretician and a master logistician. Yet given how many balls this one-man act had in the air at any one time, he inevitably fell short when it came to following through.
As Kahane's face became well known, followers urged him not to go anywhere without security. Poignantly, and perhaps more tellingly than intended, Libby Kahane writes that "Meir adamantly refused to have a bodyguard. He had complete trust that God would protect him in his efforts to help His people."
Only with hindsight does it strikes me that Kahane had become delusional about his role in history and his omnipotence. For all his brilliance, media savvy, boundless energy, micromanagement skills, writing talent and charisma, as the years went on Kahane's views became ever more sensational, his schemes ever more grandiose. There seemed no one he could turn to for a reality check; no one to rein him in.
At the end of the day, Libby Kahane's work is indispensable for the detail it provides. Yet it disappoints in offering few insights into Kahane's complex personality.
I hope she allows herself, in the second volume, to get more personal. It must have been a severe blow for him to have been rejected by Menachem Begin and the Jabotinsky movement. Was that what helped push him to ever greater theological and ideological extremism? These are the things readers really want to know.
Meir Kahane was a flame - both illuminating and incendiary. This book is only part of his story.
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