I Was a Teenage Kahanist: A Naturalized Leftist's Guide to Israel's Right

If you don’t conduct some sort of discussion with the most fanatic people on the other side, you won’t understand them – or yourself.

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Israeli right-wing activists shout slogans during a rally against supporters of Mohammed Allan, a Palestinian prisoner on a hunger strike, in Ashkelon, Aug. 16, 2015.
Israeli right-wing activists shout slogans during a rally against supporters of Mohammed Allan, a Palestinian prisoner on a hunger strike, in Ashkelon, Aug. 16, 2015. Credit: AP

I’m left-wing. I didn’t imbibe it from my mother’s milk; I wasn’t born that way. I evolved. At age 14, as part of some infantile thrall of youth and quest for belonging, I still thought I could be a Kahanist. Well, for about a week or two. I remember it vaguely, but I don’t want to talk about it. I’ve repressed that embarrassing phase. There was a moment when I regurgitated slogans I’d heard at home. “Death to the Arabs” was one of them. This was during the Oslo period. Rabbi Kahane had been assassinated three years earlier, but violence always remained in fashion in Israel. And I wanted Mom and Dad to love me. So I said what they expected to hear from me, as a good son and a good boy, to proud parents.

That didn’t last long. Maturity arrived later, in the 1990s. I discovered that there’s a whole world outside Israel. My parents had undergone Soviet indoctrination that went on from the day they were born until the day they immigrated to Israel. They understood only force and didn’t believe in human rights. I was a fan of Guns N’ Roses and I read books by beatniks and existentialists. I was doomed to disappoint my folks.

It soon dawned on me that I couldn’t be both a culture-loving humanist and an extreme right-winger. Or even just a regular right-winger, for that matter. The two didn’t go together. You had to choose. So I did. If I’d gone on being right-wing for even one unnecessary minute, something within me would have died.

Being a left-winger was my adolescent rebellion. My parents still haven’t gotten over it. I was the first native-born left-winger in the family, who proceeded to betray Israel. My maternal grandfather had become a member of the Labor Party. My father said he was a “fantasist,” and added, “Don’t listen to him. He’s not right in the head.” Until my apostasy, that was the farthest left anyone in the family had ever been. Everyone else – uncles and aunts, cousins, grandparents, nephews, in-laws – positioned themselves as far to the right as it got in this country.

Just come to us for a holiday meal – your ears will burn. Think Avigdor Lieberman – and then move to the right. Lehava? More to the right, keep going. Perpetrators of “price-tag” acts? Go on, I’m telling you. Keep going right until you hear a boom.

I’ve become used to my right-wing family. They haven’t got used to me, but that’s their problem. “You’re a sick individual,” my father tells me every time I make the mistake of getting into an argument about politics with him. For them it has nothing to do with ideology. It’s a matter of mental health: They look at me as though I’ve lost my mind. Who knows? Maybe they’re right. Maybe we really should carpet-bomb the Gaza Strip back into the stone age. Expel all the Palestinians to Jordan. Massacre women and children to deter terrorists. Give opponents of the regime long prison terms. Shut down Haaretz forthwith and reinstate the military government.

Illustration.Credit: Sharon Fadida

Maybe I really am nuts and they’re the normal ones.

“You used to have some sense,” my mother says. I try to explain to her that 20 years have passed since then. I was in the eighth grade and had no idea what human beings were. But from her perspective, I could have remained right-wing to this day. If I’d persisted along those lines, the sky would be the limit. I’d have become MK Miki Zohar. A dumb, content rightist.

I’ll tell you what the problem is: There are people who are born leftists. They grow up in families that are already second- and third-generation Israeli left. That’s all they know. That’s the left-wing elite. It’s made up of people in whom certain values have taken root, which they then pass on as a sort of spiritual inheritance to their offspring. The result is that there is a hefty percentage – a few tens of thousands, I bet, even a few hundreds of thousands – of leftists and centrists (former leftists) who can’t even imagine what it is to be right-wing. To them it seems alien or bizarre. An awful character trait. These people are afraid of right-wingers, which is why they draw hasty conclusions: Every online comment, every curse, every public show of crass, aggressive rightism – all this appears to them to signal the end of the world. Like a harbinger of the inevitable collapse of Israeli society.

The left-wing elites hate the right-wing mass because they know it only as a caricature of itself. Like a political slogan. They delegitimize it and strip it of its humanity, because those people are this “other” that doesn’t stir empathy. You mustn’t touch or talk to them. The “other” is the contemptible, the disgusting, the ugly. Those sorts of elites are engaged in what has become the left-wing sport in Israel: condemnation. It’s a popular pastime. Those rightists, those violent types, these not-nice people are without conscience or morality. This dichotomy serves as a means of segregation.

Right-wingers are seen as deformed, as bearers of the burdens of sin and crime. And the left-wingers remain free of all guilt (but not from guilt feelings, of course). They’re not involved, after all. This doesn’t exist in their families. They’ve never had the virus. They haven’t been tainted with the stain of rightism. They look at the right-wingers from the viewpoint of independent observers. Like referees sitting on tall chairs in tennis matches. Except that it’s not tennis, it’s free-for-all wrestling. The traditional, entrenched elitist left preserves integrity – and has the ballots to prove it. It passes on the sense of absolute justice from generation to generation, like upmarket real estate in the center of Tel Aviv.

I was born into an extreme right-wing family, and I will die in an extreme right-wing family. I am neither surprised nor impressed by violent, racist militancy. And I know how to take it in the right proportions. Life is not the Facebook page of the “Shadow.” If you don’t conduct some sort of discussion with the most fanatic of the right-wingers, you won’t understand them, and in the end you won’t understand yourself, either.

For the purist left the right is a slogan – an image that exists in some ruined parallel universe, like an alien. A UFO. And the more Israeli reality solidifies into isolationism, the greater grows the gap between those who make a point of being clean and the dirty types on the other side, until the alienation morphs into horror and hatred.

So I suggest making contact with the right-wingers – those strange creatures whose opinions really are something unbelievable, an indescribable horror. From my experience I can tell you that most of the time it will be like talking to the wall. But occasionally something moves. I’m talking about truly tiny movements, micro-movements. But at least there’s movement. And we, after all, are thirsty for movement. Dying of thirst.

On the other hand, you can go on branding, mocking and scorning the mass right-wing, Web-talkback public. Go on feeling superior to them. Lording it over them. That will really help you. Us. All of us.

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