I FELT SYMPATHY for Rabbi Meir Kahane, who was assassinated last week in a New York City hotel. While I understood his rage, I believed it would be his undoing.
Like Malcolm X, a man I knew and loved, Kahane reached the very dangerous conclusion that no amount of moralizing or good will would change his "enemies." Kahane and Malcolm responded to their hatred by becoming haters. Each lost total faith in his enemy's capacity for change. When all hope is gone, one is left with very few options. Chief among them are resignation, insanity or violence.
Anyone whose very existence is tied to centuries of hatred and oppression either tries to combat hatred in a rational way or else goes over the deep end. Perhaps Kahane and Malcolm were pushed.
Malcolm was angered by what he perceived to be a systemic discrimination against blacks. He found it everywhere, in every institution including government.
Kahane's view was that the hatred of Jews was a worldwide conspiracy. He saw the Holocaust as the ultimate Jewish tragedy and taught his followers that Jewish survival was tied to violence. He was disdainful of good intentions and capsulized his feelings with a borrowed phrase: "Never again."
He believed that a part of the problem for Jews was their image of being "soft," of being unwilling to fight back.
In 1968, Kahane founded the Jewish Defense League. Its purpose was to counter violence against Jews and to ensure their survival.
While Malcolm did not found the Nation of Islam, which brought him to prominence, he brought world attention to the small sect that inspired him. Almost singlehandedly, Malcolm X won for his "nation" a new consciousness, fear and respect. Those ingredients seemed to be at the core of his work and that of Rabbi Kahane.
But there was one great difference. Malcolm X never allowed his mind to shut down, never became one dimensional or totally intractable. He was not forever consumed by hatred. Like Kahane, he fervently believed in confrontation but remained open for the possibility of change. And by the time he was gunned down in a ballroom in 1965, also in New York City, he had become far more willing to work with those he once viewed as the incorrigible enemies of his people. He recognized certain realities that escaped Kahane.
It appeared that Kahane fell in love with the very hatred and violence he once abhorred. He cursed Arabs and referred to them as "dogs," just as Malcolm, early on, referred to all whites as "devils."
I recall asking Malcolm, after he realized his life was in danger, why he did not leave America.
"There's nowhere to go. A man must be willing to give his life for what he believes or he's not really a believer."
Rabbi Kahane told the very same thing to a friend of mine, Sam Bortnick, who, as a much younger man, was a member of the Jewish Defense League. I talked to Sam on Friday, and of course he lamented Kahane's death. But he did not despair.
"He was needed," Sam said of Kahane. "His tactics may have been tough, but they are required. It took his toughness to wake up the Jewish people. There was a lack of seriousness about being Jewish, until he came along.
"Rabbi Kahane never feared for his own life. He feared for the future of his people. That's what drove him. He told me many times that he would be killed; he said it was inevitable. But he had to do his work because, he believed, 'establishment Jews' were not doing theirs," Bortnick said by telephone from his home in Del Ray Beach, Fla.
Malcolm X spent the last year of his life developing new ideas and broader concepts. Kahane spent his last years pushing a program that most Jews couldn't accept. But deep in their hearts many sympathized with him. In his death, a surprising number of them -- 30,000 -- showed their respect outside a synagogue in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn.
That was Malcolm's experience as well: many sympathizers, few real followers. In the final months before he died, I asked Malcolm about that. He responded by saying: "Well, nobody has to 'sign up' with me. The most important part of the tree is the roots. They're 'signed up' with the tree but you rarely see them."
Malcolm overcame his bitterness and came to greater understanding, perhaps too late. I wish I could say the rabbi overcame his anger.
Claude Lewis is a Philadelphia Inquirer columnist.