Friday, February 22, 2008

Meir Kahane by Libby Kahane

My militant husband

Rabbi Meir Kahane
His Life and Thought
Volume One: 1932-1975
By Libby Kahane
Urim, NIS 150/ $36

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 Negro 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'n kaboodle 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 Arab 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 bestseller. Instead, the author, who is also 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 gathering 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 such opportunities went exclusively to Labor Party loyalists.

Along the way, Kahane received his rabbinical ordination from Rabbi Abraham Kalmanowitz, got a master's from NYU in international relations, 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).

Afterwards, 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 1963-1965. He and his college buddy Joseph Churba set up a Washington DC 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) Kahane's 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 York¹s 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 number two.

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 1967 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 G-d would protect him in his efforts to help His people."

Only with hindsight does it strike 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 final 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.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

The catharsis Israel needs

Ehud Olmert must go. But would we be better off under Binyamin Netanyahu?

The Winograd Committee, established to examine the Second Lebanon War, determined that a leader who sends his army into battle is obligated to analyze in depth the nature, timing and chances of success of the campaign: "We saw that the rash decisions to go to war made by the government headed by [Prime Minister Ehud] Olmert did not meet these conditions."

Thus spoke the five-member committee in May 2007, when it released its interim findings.
Last month, the committee presented its final report, saying, "We want to stress that we stand behind everything we said in the interim report, and [that] the two parts complement each other."

According to the final report, there were "serious failings and shortcomings in the decision-making process." Let's recall that at the top of the decision-making pyramid was Ehud Olmert.

The premier, said the committee, had one of two choices after Hizbullah attacked: "The first was a short, powerful, strong and unexpected blow on Hizbullah, primarily through 'stand-off' firepower. The second option was to bring about a significant change of the reality in the south of Lebanon with a large [-scale] ground operation, including temporary occupation of Lebanon and 'cleaning' it of Hizbullah military infrastructure."

But, said Winograd: "Israel went to war before it decided which option to select, and without an exit strategy...."

The committee concluded that Israel's chances of victory were stymied by the government's failure to deploy the necessary troops for a ground offensive; that Olmert allowed himself to be "dragged" into a belated attack in the last days of the war; that the government showed "no understanding of the theater of operations, of the IDF's readiness and preparedness, and of the basic principles of using military power to achieve a political and diplomatic goal."

Finally, the committee said that no one gave "serious consideration" to whether it was reasonable to achieve anything tangible in the offensive Olmert launched in the last 60 hours of the war, during which 33 IDF soldiers gave their lives.

NOW, I know some pundits are claiming that this report is not damning of Olmert, and that the heaviest criticism was leveled at the IDF. But I'm not so sure.

In a democracy, the civilian commander-in-chief is responsible for defining the army's mission; mission then defines strategy. Absent a mission, how could the IDF win?

It is true that, for inexplicable reasons, the theater commander was hardly speaking to the commanding officer of the north; that the OC Northern Command was hardly speaking to the chief of staff; that the chief of staff was barely talking to the defense minister, and that the defense minister and prime minister were hardly speaking to one another. That accounts for some of what went wrong.

AS THESE words are being written, security forces are on high alert in expectation that Monday's attack in Dimona - which may have emanated from Gaza - might be the start of a new wave of Palestinian terrorism.

A large chunk of the responsibility for events in Gaza (and for the failure to finish the security barrier in the Hebron area) rests not only with Ehud Olmert, but also with Defense Minister Ehud Barak. He reportedly did very little consulting with the IDF high command or with the security cabinet even as Israel ratcheted up the pressure on Hamas in the Strip.

Once again - as in the Second Lebanon War - we see a failure to consider all possible scenarios, a refusal to consult, and an over-reliance on improvisation.

Plainly, Barak hasn't changed. He's still impulsive and full of himself. He is not the antidote to our leadership problem.

Bottom line? Olmert must go. Yet Barak is not the guy to replace him. And polls show he would not.

IT IS CLEAR that if elections were held today, the Likud would form the next government. So assuming Binyamin Netanyahu did become prime minister, would Israel be better off? Is he today more credible than Olmert?

The harsh reality is not that Bibi has suddenly become more trustworthy, but that Olmert, by comparison, is so untrustworthy. So, yes, Netanyahu is more credible than Olmert.

But Netanyahu has a history of saying one thing and doing another. He cut a deal with the PLO over Hebron in 1997; he was ready to give up 13 percent of the West Bank to Arafat in the 1998 Wye Agreement; he reportedly sent Ron Lauder to try and work out a deal with Syria's Hafez Assad over the Golan Heights.

As finance minister Netanyahu paid for the disengagement from Gaza, only to quit before its implementation. And, more recently, he could not help himself from talking too much on television about Israel's September 2007 bombing of a suspected nuclear site in Syria.

At the end of the day, Bibi's pragmatism - so long as it does not devolve into the kind of self-serving opportunism Olmert has fallen into - might prove an asset. But the Israeli body politic can't afford another leader who says one thing and does another. The effect on public morale would be simply too devastating.

In his Monday night attack against Olmert from the Knesset podium - "Would the captain of the Titanic have been given another command?" - Bibi rose to the occasion.

The opposition leader had been strangely silent lest he ruin his chances of coasting into the premiership. He never really articulated the case against Annapolis. Though he spoke out on Jerusalem, here too he was a bit disingenuous, as the division of Jerusalem - whatever that means - is the least immediate of the threats facing Israel in the charade talks with the hapless Mahmoud Abbas.

Anyway, Netanyahu's rhetorical abilities have never been in question. Now, more is needed: Specifically, the opposition leader should present an unambiguous platform that tells Israelis not just what the Likud opposes, but what it proposes, and how it hopes to achieve its goals.

WHEN YITZHAK Rabin returned to power, he gave us Oslo; when Ariel Sharon came back from the political wilderness, he brought us disengagement.

We all make mistakes. The real question is: At age 58, is Netanyahu able to learn from his? Can he reinvent himself and lead Israel in the treacherous times ahead? I hope so. Because Ehud Olmert really must go.

In the long term, a key answer to our systemic problems would be electoral reform and a restructuring of the political system. But more immediately, Israel needs a catharsis; and, for better or worse, Binyamin Netanyahu is the only candidate that can offer it.

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