In life and death of Kahane lay truths

November 11, 1990|By Arthur Hertzberg

Meir Kahane's life and death are being dismissed with cliches. He incited violence, and he was its victim. He hated Arabs unto death, and the hatred was returned, to his death. "Those who live by the sword shall die by the sword."

These assertions are true, if facile, but they do not plumb the meaning of Rabbi Kahane's life, or of his death last week by assassination in New York.

Yes, he was personally nasty, without honor in his dealings even with supporters. His overt supporters both in the United States, where he began his public career as the founder of the Jewish Defense League in 1968, and in Israel, where he founded a political party of his own in the early 1970s, were few and from the fringe.

But there were 30,000 people at his funeral in Brooklyn, and he was sufficiently troubling to the established parties of the right in Israel, led by Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir's Likud, that they sued to disqualify him from running for Israel's parliament in the last election on the ground that he was a racist.

Rabbi Kahane had been elected once, in 1984, and they were afraid that his one-man parliamentary delegation might grow. The right-wing parties were hugely relieved when the Supreme Court of Israel barred Rabbi Kahane as a candidate. Their leaders knew that he spoke for something that found resonance in the hearts of some of their own, respectable supporters.

Meir Kahane was born and bred in Brooklyn. He was the child of a family that has spent the last several generations in the Holy Land, but the central explanation of his career, and of his appeal, is to be found in the Holocaust, the murder of most of the Jews of Europe by the Nazis.

This was the ultimate experience of Jewish powerlessness. A people without the power to fight back was slaughtered by the millions, while the democratic world looked away. The Jews did not even have sufficient nuisance value in the West to get the Allies to make public the full story of the horrors of Auschwitz, about which they knew early in the war, and to warn the Germans unmistakably and repeatedly that they would be held for personal account for their murder of the Jews.

A far greater man than Meir Kahane, a nationalist who cannot be suspected of racism, Menachem Begin, responded to Jewish powerlessness by repeating, over and over, with deep passion, "Never again," a slogan that Meir Kahane made his own.

Mr. Begin insisted that the Jews needed a state of their own, strong and deeply rooted in the soil of their biblical ancestors, to have the power to guarantee their survival. Arabs should have personal equality in such a state and should not be mistreated or forced out, but sovereignty belonged to the Jews.

Their history had proved that without power in their own hands, it was not safe to depend on the "good will" of others. Jews had been the victims in every century of assault, expulsion and murder.

Even in the minds of much more moderate Zionist nationalists, such as the Labor Party now in opposition, the central meaning of Zionism was and remains the need for Jews to have a state of their own. Its ports and airfields are the only ones in the world that cannot limit access for Jews running for their lives at times of persecution.

The mainstream of Jewish thought and feeling balances anger at the memory of powerlessness with the knowledge that the Jewish state, and the Jewish people as a whole, can survive only in a stable world order under the rule of law.

The overwhelming majority of the Jewish people knows that it is suicidal to create a "we" and a "they" in which the "we" is the Jews and the "they" is the rest of the world.

Even when contemplating the Holocaust, the ultimate Jewish tragedy, most Jews know that their security depends on safeguarding the rule of law and on increasing decency and respect for the rights of all men and women. The passion for the state of Israel betokens the bitter knowledge among Jews that "good will" is not enough; the pervasive commitment to social peace represents the knowledge that if order breaks down, no one is safe.

Rabbi Kahane expressed fierce Jewish anger without the slightest leaven of trust in the world. The painting of swastikas on the wall of his father's synagogue in Brooklyn in 1952, when Meir Kahane was 11, and the desecration of a cemetery in 1968, were each the work of two or three nasty youngsters. But in Mr. Kahane's soul, these were the first signals of Nazism being transplanted to America.

He organized the Jewish Defense League in response to the second incident, and he was soon harassing Soviet diplomats and trying to bomb their consulates in the cause of Soviet Jewry. The rational that Mr. Kahane offered to his small handful of followers was his version of the memory of the Holocaust: The gentiles could be moved to pay attention to Jewish needs only by force.

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