Carrying a torch
Nearly two decades after his murder, Meir Kahane's wife has written a biography of the controversial rabbi and rabble-rouser - or rather its first volume. Her love and admiration still burning strong, Libby Kahane is convinced her husband got a bum rap
Rabbi Meir KahaneHis Life and Thought - Volume One: 1932-1975, by Libby Kahane, Lambda Publishers, 762 pages, $45
Behind every great man stands a suffering woman. So it was with Abraham and Sarah, Odysseus and Penelope, and, uh, Bill and Hillary.
"The False Prophet," journalist Robert I. Friedman's scathing 1990 biography of Meir Kahane, the right-wing extremist rabbi who advocated the expulsion of Israel's Arabs, leaves the reader with the impression that Kahane's wife Libby suffered more than most.
In Friedman's thoroughly sourced telling, Kahane comes off as something of a rake: a serial adulterer who used his frequent absences from home to carry on affairs with a series of women. Friedman describes how, when he was still a young man, Kahane went so far as to set a wedding date with one mistress, who jumped off the Queensboro Bridge when she finally learned that he was already married.
It is perhaps a wonder, then, that Libby Kahane has spent the past decade researching and writing a back-breaking panegyric to the first 43 years of her husband's life, a 762-page doorstop entitled "Rabbi Meir Kahane: His Life and Thought, Volume One: 1932-1975." Based on Meir Kahane's own writings and speeches, along with recently conducted interviews and other sources, the book focuses on his political activities, from his early years as a leader in right-wing youth movements through his first unsuccessful bid for a Knesset seat.
Let's get the formalities out of the way. You should not read this book. It's altogether too long, lacks serious analysis, is excessively footnoted, and ignores important unflattering details. Most unforgivably, it somehow succeeds in making the story of one of the most fascinating Jewish figures of the past century a terribly boring one.
It's worth asking what Libby Kahane thought she was doing. In the book's introduction, she says the study is intended as a resource for future historians. "While no author can be completely objective about his subject," she writes, "I believe that my twenty-seven years as a reference librarian ... gave me expertise and experience in the methods of careful research and proper documentation that make this book an accurate, authoritative study." The attempt to claim the status of the dispassionate investigator, is, of course, ridiculous, given that she was married to her subject for 44 years. It's rather unlikely that future historians will take the work as "authoritative." As a research librarian, the author must surely know this. So why did she really write the book?
I called Libby Kahane at her home in Jerusalem (she includes the number, oddly, on the biography's last page) to press her on the point. She told me the project came out of a desire to correct what she saw as a flawed perception of her husband as a "crazy fanatic."
"My husband has had very bad press," she said. "I wanted people to know what he was really like, and what really motivated him. My plan was to write what he had done and his reasons for why he had done it."
Completed nearly two decades after Kahane's 1990 assassination, the book serves as an apologetic for the founder of the far-right Jewish Defense League and the Israeli Kach movement. It doesn't back down from Kahane's ultra-radical viewpoints, but it massages the edges of his legacy, confronting the charges of racism often leveled against him, ignoring his alleged adultery, modulating some of his more extreme rhetoric and portraying him as an upstanding family man. It's a spit shine for an image badly tarnished in the post-Baruch Goldstein, post-Yigal Amir era.
In March of 1938, a Jewish taxi was ambushed on the road between Acre and Haifa. Haaretz reported at the time that Arab bandits had laid stones in the road to force the car to stop, then approached it and opened fire. Four of those killed in the attack were related to the Kahane family, among them an aunt and cousin of Meir's, who was 6 at the time.
A month later, in an assault that Libby Kahane writes was meant as revenge for the taxi ambush, three young members of the Revisionist Zionist youth movement Betar shot at an Arab bus near Rosh Pina. No one was hurt, and the gunmen turned themselves in to the British authorities soon after. One of them, Shlomo Ben Yosef, was hanged on terrorism charges. He reportedly sang the Betar song as he walked to the gallows at Acre, becoming a Revisionist martyr on the level of Joseph Trumpeldor, after whom the Betar movement was named. "This was a significant turning point in modern Jewish history, and it was directly connected to Meir?s family," writes Libby Kahane.
The story would make for a great opening sequence to a Kahane biopic, and Libby Kahane seems to sense that. Still, her use of the incident isn't nearly as telling as the inclusion of an even earlier story of conflict between Arabs and the Kahane family. In 1893, when Meir's grandfather was a young man, Libby writes that he was framed by an Arab under his employ for the murder of a village leader who had supposedly come to his orchard to steal etrogim (citrons). He was beaten by the local Arabs and then jailed by the Turkish police. It's a tale of Arab perfidy and Jewish victimhood that establishes themes that will recur in later chapters of Meir Kahane's life.
Kahane was born in 1932 in Brooklyn. His father was a congregational rabbi and an active American supporter of the Irgun, the pre-state underground militia led by Menachem Begin. According to his wife, Meir was a sort of wonder child. Of his time in grade school, she writes: "A classmate in fourth grade remembered him as one of the three top students. Meir was not only a scholar. Tall and slender, he was good at sports and had great verbal skills." He got good grades, too, according to a seventh-grade report card: "90s in all subjects," his wife writes. He was also tough: "Rabbi Yaakov Yellin ... recalled that one summer when they were 11 or 12, he and Meir faced off. Yaakov was bigger, but Meir got him down on the ground." Libby makes special note of Kahane's allegiance to the New York Yankees, a rarity in Brooklyn in those days, where the Dodgers were still the home team.
It's clear that Kahane struggled at Brooklyn Talmudic Academy, a high school affiliated with Yeshiva University. Nonetheless, the author does her best to give the experience a positive spin. She quotes Yitz Greenberg, the eminent left-leaning modern Orthodox rabbi, who was a classmate of Kahane?s, as saying: "Meir, with a handful of co-conspirators including me, was a continuous source of entertainment and dramatics both in class and out of class." It?s possible Greenberg was just being polite. In Friedman's book, which was published before Kahane's assassination, Greenberg struck a somewhat different tone, saying that Meir "couldn't follow through on daily tasks like doing his homework, but he could fantasize, he could dream, and he always loved fairy tales in which he was the hero." Friedman also reports that Kahane once wrote a paper in which he argued that he was the Messiah.
Kahane was an active member of Betar while a student in high school. Libby's book includes a newspaper photo of him at a 1949 Betar demonstration in New York against the British foreign minister, at which members of the group pelted the minister with tomatoes. In 1952, while in college, Meir switched allegiances to Bnei Akiva, a religious Zionist youth movement. Libby writes that Meir later told her Betar's purpose had been to support the Irgun, and that after independence it was more important to work with Bnei Akiva to strengthen the religious nature of the state than to be involved with Betar. She also indicates Meir may have been upset that he wasn't elected the head of the American branch of Betar at the group's convention in 1951.
In the meantime, Kahane was studying at the Mirrer Yeshiva, a relic of pre-Holocaust Poland that had transplanted itself to Flatbush, Brooklyn, after spending much of the war in Shanghai. He received his ordination there.
Meir and Libby met in Bnei Akiva in 1954, when Libby was only 16. They went on dates to coffeehouses in Greenwich Village and played Monopoly. On one date, Libby says, "I began a sentence with the words, 'When we are married...,' saving him the need for a formal proposal." Less than half a page of the biography is dedicated to their wedding, which took place in 1956. The first of their four children, a girl named Tova, was born the following year.
Bar mitzvah lessons for Arlo
Between their wedding and the founding of the Jewish Defense League in 1968, Meir held a series of jobs. He worked as the rabbi at a synagogue in the Howard Beach neighborhood of Queens, New York (where he gave bar mitzvah lessons to a young Arlo Guthrie), as a columnist for the Jewish Press, and as a newspaper delivery man. Throughout the chapters that cover these periods, Libby Kahane emphasizes the normalcy of their pre-JDL life. It's in this section that she clumsily addresses her husband's alleged racism. She tells us their children were the only ones allowed to play with the children of the first Puerto Rican families to move to the Long Island town where they were living, and offers an anecdote about a black friend of Meir's, a Jew named Chawkwal M. Cragg.
"Whenever Cragg was our Shabbat guest, Meir made every effort to put him at ease," Libby writes. "Once, I served watermelon for dessert. Because of the stereotype that blacks are especially fond of watermelon, Meir was sensitive to the possibility that Cragg might be insulted that I'd chosen that dessert. So he made a point of thanking me profusely for serving his favorite dessert."
Libby Kahane's chapter on the period between 1963 and 1965 is uncharacteristically short on detail. During those years, according to Libby, Meir was hired by the U.S. government to infiltrate the John Birch Society, a radical right-wing, anti-communist, anti-Semitic group. He also tried and failed to organize a national pro-Vietnam War student group. While Libby?s account of these years is sketchy, Friedman's is considerably more lurid. This was the era of the affair that ended in Meir's lover's suicide.
Friedman doesn?t dispute Meir's claim to have done contract work for the government, but makes the entire enterprise sound like a series of morally questionable scams that had the side benefit of keeping him away from home. "Sexual charisma was a power that [Meir] discovered somewhat late in life - and he was making up for lost time," writes Friedman.Libby Kahane doesn?t respond directly to these allegations. Elsewhere in her work, she calls Friedman?s book "seriously flawed by bias and inaccuracies." But her account of this era is sparse enough to stick out in this otherwise thorough telling of her husband's life.
Meir founded the JDL with two friends in 1968. Libby cites three immediate factors inspiring the group's birth: violence against Jews in New York neighborhoods undergoing racial transitions, fear sparked by the inner-city riots that swept the nation in 1967 and 1968, and resentment over the relatively new concept of affirmative action. There was obviously a strong racial component to these concerns, so much so that Friedman, in his book, called the early JDL an "anti-black protest group." Libby, though, is careful to phrase the factors so that race feels like an afterthought.
"The change in New York City was dramatic," she writes. "Violence was rampant, and because of New York's demography, much of the violence was committed by blacks and a large percentage of their victims were Jews."Racial tensions were indeed high in New York at the time. The immediate backdrop in 1968 was the conflict between teachers and parents in the city school system. The department of education was experimenting with a policy that would grant communities greater control over local schools. In many neighborhoods, this meant that white - and often Jewish - teachers lost their jobs or were reassigned. Rhetoric was heated on both sides, and a teachers strike in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn elevated the situation to the point of crisis.
It was into this overheated atmosphere that Kahane launched the JDL. His wife reproduces an early JDL pamphlet titled "A Manifesto," a deeply paranoid screed that warns of a "repetition of the Nazi nightmare" and includes the passage, "JEDEL [the original acronym for Jewish Defense League] stands up to the Black Nazi whose hatred of the white man is compounded by anti-Semitism."
Beginning in the summer of 1969, the JDL ran a summer camp in the Catskills for young activists between the ages of 14 and 18. Their daily schedule was intense: four hours of karate, two of weapons training, one of close-order drill, and four of classes on Jewish history. The kids wore fatigues and ate from mess kits, until "sloppy dishwashing resulted in a diarrhea epidemic," according to Libby. After that, they used paper plates. At least there was truth in advertising: one Jewish Press ad for the camp was headlined, "This Camp is NOT for FUN & GAMES!"
In "The False Prophet," Friedman, who died in 2002, argues that the JDL's famous terror campaign against Soviet targets in the United States in the early 1970s was actually orchestrated by Irgun and Stern Gang veterans with high positions in the Israeli government. Friedman names right-wing Israeli politicians Geula Cohen and Yitzhak Shamir as having been deeply involved. Cohen and Shamir had hoped that violence against Soviet diplomats and other representatives in the United States would create a crisis that would threaten the process of detente, and that the Soviets would be forced to allow Jews to immigrate to Israel. They thought the huge influx of Jewish immigrants would help solve the demographic problem that would be introduced when Israel finally annexed the territories it had occupied in 1967.
Friedman writes that Meir Kahane met with Cohen, then a Herut MK, in 1967. He quotes her as saying that after the meeting, Kahane "changed the JDL's program overnight," from a domestic focus on Jewish self-defense to militant action on behalf of Soviet Jewry.
Libby Kahane explicitly rejects this version of events. The overnight change in the direction of the JDL's activities is apparent in her telling, but she connects the shift to a 1964 column in the Jewish Press in which Meir Kahane called for radical action on behalf of Soviet Jews. Libby writes that the JDL wasn't ready for that sort of action until December of 1969. Later, she writes that "leftists claimed that ... Meir became a tool of the Israeli right wing. This is patently ridiculous. Meir acted independently long before he met with them, as well as afterwards." A footnote refers to a 1997 interview Libby Kahane conducted with Geula Cohen, the text of which is not provided.
Between 1970 and 1971, JDL activists disrupted Soviet dance performances in three American cities with tear gas, mice and buzzers; they also left pipe bombs outside Soviet offices in New York and led demonstrations, some more violent than others. Such activities became difficult, however, as Kahane's rising public profile drew increased police attention. In August of 1971, on probation for a variety of offenses, Kahane decided to move to Israel.
There are only four years of anti-Arab activism addressed in this first volume (and the only completed one) of Libby Kahane?s book. The volume ends in 1975, well before her husband reached his rhetorical stride on the subject. He would be elected to the Knesset in 1984 on an anti-Arab platform by supporters known for rallying to the cry of "Death to the Arabs!" He would enter Arab villages in a van full of Kach members and start fights with the locals. Ehud Sprinzak, the late Israeli counterterrorism specialist and expert in far-right Jewish groups, would publish an article calling Meir Kahane a fascist, and his party would be excluded from national elections for being both racist and anti-democratic. But this was all many years away in 1971. Given these limitations, it's still notable that Libby seems to make an effort to portray her husband as compassionate toward the Palestinians.
The first mention of activism directed at the Palestinians comes with Kahane's 1972 trip to Hebron, in which he circumvented a military order banning him from entering the West Bank city by dressing up as an American tourist. He had announced he was going to Hebron with the intention of meeting with the Arab mayor and arranging for Jews to return to the city. Libby Kahane writes that once Meir and 60 of his followers had arrived, a reporter asked if his followers could live together with Arabs. He responded, "What a question! The Arabs couldn?t wish for better neighbors!"
Terror neged terror
That same year, in the aftermath of the Munich Olympics, Kahane began to promote the concept of an international Jewish underground to attack Arab targets. Libby quotes Meir, who writes, "[W]e must arrive at the decision to use unlimited counterterror; to strike directly at Arab leaders and to bring terror into the streets of Cairo, Damascus and Tripoli." In what might be an attempt to temper his language, Libby does not use the term that Meir coined for the idea - TNT, or Terror Negged [Against] Terror. Instead, she refers to the concept as "counterterror" and an "antiterrorist underground."
When Kahane found that the state wasn?t interested in TNT, he went ahead with it on his own. On September 19, 1972, a crate of weapons originating with Kahane's organization was intercepted at Lod airport. Kahane announced the formation of the political party that would become Kach a little over a week later, riding a wave of publicity following the discovery of the weapons.
On a roll, Kahane ramped up his pronouncements. In November, he announced a plan to offer compensation to Palestinians who left Israel or the territories, including Israeli-Arab citizens, even going so far as to mail letters to individual Palestinians offering them money if they would leave. "[It] was Meir?s ahavat Yisrael, love of the Jewish people, that motivated him to pursue the Arab emigration plan," writes Libby. "He wanted to prevent a destructive religious and national war in Israel like the one then raging in Northern Ireland." He had no money to offer, however, and the plan went nowhere.
Meanwhile, Kahane was still the head of the JDL, which continued to bomb Soviet targets in the United States. In January of 1972, a JDL firebomb went off outside the offices of a company that managed concert tours for Soviet groups. A 27-year-old employee named Iris Kones died of smoke inhalation. By all accounts, Kahane was livid. Libby writes that he called the bombing an "insane act." What she doesn't mention is that Kones was Jewish. It's an ironic detail, but it's also an ideological problem for Meir, who, after all, was supposedly in the business of Jewish defense.
Meir's election returns were disappointing in 1973. Soon afterward, he returned to the United States for a lecture tour, and then went back again to serve a year in an American jail for violating the terms of his probation. Libby shares some of the letters she received from him during that period, many of which feel quite similar to his articles and speeches, both in tone and content. The volume ends with his return home after his jail term.
As an attempt at changing the general perception of her husband, Libby Kahane's project is entirely quixotic. The researchers who might pick up this book will never take it seriously, and the popular appeal is minimal. It seems unlikely that anyone but the most nostalgic Kahanist would take the time to slog through it.
On the other hand, Libby told me the second volume of the work is nearly ready for publication. While I shudder at the thought of another 700 pages of her prose, it might be interesting to see how she deals with the ramped-up rhetoric of the latter portion of her husband's life. It's one thing to ignore details and justify certain statements. It will be quite another to confront Meir Kahane's 1984 rallies and his alleged mentorship of the man who massacred 29 Palestinian worshippers in Hebron 10 years later, Baruch Goldstein.
Josh Nathan-Kazis is the editor of New Voices, an independent magazine for American Jewish college students, available online at newvoices.org. He lives in Brooklyn.
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