Meir Kahane was the last one off the plane. "He is always the last one off the plane," one of his security people whispered to me. "He insists."
I never quite understood this. It seemed to me just as easy to shoot the last guy off the plane as the first, but Kahane had his own way of doing things.
Four of his security people, members of the Jewish Defense League, were waiting for him at the gate. They were big and beefy and wore mirrored aviator glasses. As Kahane emerged from the jetway, they moved forward and formed a cordon around him.
Like Kahane, an Orthodox rabbi, they all wore fuzzy, knitted yarmulkes pinned to their hair.
Some people could never quite get used to that. Orthodox Jews were not supposed to wear mirrored aviator glasses or be big and beefy. But changing the image of Jews was Kahane's talent.
His supporters had posters of a Hasidic Jew, garbed in dark clothing, a round hat on his head, his sideburns curling down his face, changing into a Superman costume in a phone booth. And Kahane put it this way after Israel's successful Six Day War: "We are a Jewish fist in the face of an astonished gentile world."
In the best article on Kahane I have ever read, Leon Wieseltier of the New Republic, himself a former member of the Jewish Defense League, wrote in 1985: "The Jewish Defense League was based on an odd combustion of feelings of superiority with feelings of inferiority. The Jews were victims and they were victors. They were meek and they were mighty."
Wieseltier had some other things to say about Kahane, like: "a boorish and maddened little man . . . who succeeds in the street because he belongs in the gutter . . . a national disgrace of the Jewish people . . . slime."
I didn't know the passions that Kahane stirred when I first met him. It was 1977 and I was interviewing him because a group of American Nazis wanted to march in the Chicago suburb of Skokie, where a number of Jews and Holocaust survivors lived.
Kahane was a smallish man, who that day was wearing a dark suit and an Israeli-style, wide-collared white shirt. He did not have a beard yet.
We climbed into the back seat of a car driven by a local supporter. Crumpled beneath our feet was a copy of Shotgun News. Kahane dug around in his pockets and handed me a folded bumper sticker. I opened it and read: "Every Jew -- A .22."
"My first idea was to say, 'Every Jew -- an M-1,' " Kahane said without a trace of humor. "But it didn't rhyme." It always bothered him, though. A .22 just never really had the kind of firepower he liked.
I started to ask him about the planned Nazi march.
"There will be no Nazi march in Skokie," he said. "We intend to bloody the Nazis should they try."
You're predicting violence? I asked.
He looked at me very hard. "I am not 'predicting' violence," he said. "I am promising violence."
As I was writing this in my notebook, Kahane turned to the driver. "The place I'm staying tonight," he said. "The food is kosher? You're sure?"
He was, after all, a religious man.
Meir Kahane was shot to death Monday night in New York by a man who, police say, was a naturalized American citizen born in Egypt. He used a .357-caliber revolver and hit Kahane twice at point-blank range. A Palestinian terrorist group, the Islamic Jihad, had offered a $20,000 reward to anyone who would kill Kahane, but it was not known if the man was trying to collect the reward. I think he probably was not. Money is not usually the motivation for such people. Rage is.
Kahane understood rage. He was good at it. He left the United States, moved to Israel, was elected to the Parliament by only 1 percent of the voters, and gave up his U.S. citizenship. Rage against Arabs was his political platform.
It is natural to avoid speaking ill of the dead, but I have already read and heard reports that Kahane was an "extremist" who wished to "expel" the Arabs from Greater Israel because he believed them to be a "threat" to the Jewish state.
In reality, however, Kahane's feelings ran much deeper than that. As Wieseltier wrote of him, Kahane was "the first Jew who may be properly compared to the Nazis."
Kahane hated Arabs not just on political or security grounds. He hated them on racial grounds. He called them "dogs" and "jackals" and a "cancer." He wanted Israel to pass a law making it a crime for Jews and Arabs to have sexual relations, a law similar to the one the Nazis passed in Germany making it crime for Aryans and non-Aryans to have such relations. Kahane spoke of the "incredible pollution of the sacred Jewish seed" by Arabs in terms so Hitlerian that he outraged the vast majority of Israelis and his political party was banned for advocating racism.
So where did his support -- however meager -- come from, especially his support in this country?