Opinion |

I Shut My Orthodox Synagogue's Doors to Racist Rabbi Meir Kahane. But Others Let Him In

I told Kahane: You and Louis Farrakhan both raise money the same way - by attacking Jews. That was decades ago. Now, Kahanism's theology and politics of racist exclusion is consuming Israel's religious Zionist camp

Rabbi Daniel Lande
Daniel Landes
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FILE PHOTO: With a portrait of late Jewish extremist leader Rabbi Meir Kahane on the wall, left, a Jewish settler walks inside a disputed building in the West Bank town of Hebron, November 16,  2008.
FILE PHOTO: With a portrait of late Jewish extremist leader Rabbi Meir Kahane on the wall, left, a Jewish settler walks inside a disputed building in the West Bank town of Hebron, November 16, 2008. Credit: AP
Rabbi Daniel Lande
Daniel Landes

The embrace of the Kahanist Otzma Yehudit (“Jewish Power”) by the venerable Habayit Hayehudi party is not a staggering move, as some suppose.

Once the flagship of religious Zionism, Habayit Hayehudi now stands for a pernicious nationalism; its particularism has become paranoia, its self-regard is now unmitigated self-righteousness, its love for others has turned into a hatred of the other.

Kahanism’s spirit already permeates the camp; the political deal signed between the two parties has simply formalized their symbiotic relationship.

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Habayit Hayehudit descended from the defunct religious Zionist Party, or Mafdal. It had two founding objectives: to maintain government-funded Orthodox schooling, and to keep control of the Chief Rabbinate which, in Israel, decides who’s a Jew.

Once both raison d’etres were met, religious Zionism began to decline. But then, especially after 1967, religious Zionism seized upon the elevation of one piece of its Jewish inheritance: particularism – to the exclusion of the other (the goyim).

That particularism was present from the start, in the writings of the movement’s key master thinker, (Rav Abraham Isaac Kook, 1865-1935), whose moral, universalist teachings were soon eclipsed by another prominent strand of his thinking: the sanctification, even deification, of the Land and the People.

His legacy, as advanced by religious Zionism, is a hypermessianic ideology which claims legitimacy by appearing as a classic manifestation of Zionist activism: its divine endorsement is evident, in religious Zionism’s own eyes, by the successful "flowering" of Jewish national redemption in which it participates – the territories captured and settled, the primacy of the Jewish people established.

Habayit Hayehudit is thus the latest example of how a radical, if not extremist, religious movement becomes institutionalized.

Witness the casual racism of Israeli yeshivat hesder students with hatred of Arabs as a norm.

Witness how, in this camp, the Shabbat prayer for the State of Israel, seen as the ultimate evidence of an ongoing redemptive process, vies (and often surpasses) in duration and intensity with the musaf kedushah – the Holiness Prayer, the most elevated moment in classic Jewish worship.

Witness the wide embrace of the "Jewish first" declaration of the Nation State Law, without any concern for its impact on "the [non-Jewish] minority," who are left bereft of a stake in the identity and progress of the country.

Protestors waving a Kach flag outside the Tel Aviv military court hearing the case of Elor Azariah, found guilty of the manslaughter of an incapacitated Palestinian in Hebron. Feb 22, 2017.Credit: Emil Salman

At the center of all this is the lack of an articulated Orthodox theology of tolerance, justice, and yashrut(integrity and decency) regarding our place "within the nations" and the place of "the nations within us."

The relationship of the far-right Otzma Yehuditwith Habayit Hayehudiis dialectical. Kahanism, its supremacism and racism, was always the bad sibling, but it was never fully rejected by religious Zionism.

"Yes," religious Zionists claim, "they went too far, they’re embarrassing, and they are not controllable; but it’s good to have them – you need someone tough and crazy in a fight. After all, we don’t really want Arabs in Hebron, do we?"

Let me tell you about my own encounter with Meir Kahane.

Some 29 years ago in Los Angeles, I temporarily exchanged pulpits with a Conservative rabbi. A big hullaballoo ensued, but I survived and both congregations were the better for the experience. Right afterwards, I received a letter from Meir Kahane, who opined: "You did the wrong thing, but for the right reason."

I wasn’t completely sure what that meant, but he concluded that on that basis he was coming to L.A. to speak at my shul. My one sentence response was: "You are invited the day after I have Louis Farrakhan speak." This went public. Kahane actually called me to say that he was coming in a month to my shul, but wanted to know why davka I picked Louis Farrakhan as the point of comparison. I told him: "You both raise your money in the same way: by attacking Jews."

Two weeks later, Kahane was assassinated in New York at his own rally because he refused a police request to put up an electronic gate, believing it would prevent his own armed thugs from entering. That story offers a critical lesson: when you give up on moral gatekeeping, on red lines, you can never know who comes through the gate.

Habayit Hayehudi head Rafi Peretz at the party meeting that endorsed its merger with the racist far right Otzma Leyisrael party 20 February, 2019.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Make no mistake, the Kahanists are the ones now in control in Habayit Hayehudi and in religious Zionism. More moderate leaders, in nature and practice, will now try to ease their discomfort by pointing to some alleged moderation by the students of Meir Kahane. Or they’ll say that we need them for the fight.

But the truth is that extremists tend to the extreme. And Orthodoxy’s dominant strategy these days follows that line.

Habayit Hayehudi,you will be consumed by the Kahanists. Soon, they’ll be declaring that you’re actually "leftists" when you put up even weak moral opposition to one of their murderous plans that constitute a suicide of Jewish values.

The Kahanists, their accomplices and their contaminating influence will only be stopped by religious Zionist leaders declaring their absolute moral condemnation; by a weighty loss of votes; and the pulling of Diaspora money for all the institutions that offer support for these parties.

Any equivocation paves the way for the complete moral destruction of religious Zionism.

Rabbi Daniel Landes is founder and director of YASHRUT, building civil discourse through a theology of integrity, justice, and tolerance. YASHRUT includes a semikhah initiative as well as programs for rabbinic leaders

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