He Knew What Makes Jews Tick

JOEL BAINERMAN

November 17, 1990|By Joel Bainerman | Joel Bainerman,Joel Bainerman is on the editorial staff of the Jerusalem Post

JERUSALEM — THE NEWS reporting following Rabbi Meir Kahane's death is yet the final example of how the media dealt with a man they could never understand.

Rabbi Kahane can't simply be written off as a racist (probably the worst thing you could be called in North America). Yet while he was branded a racist, curiously, no PLO or Arab leader, all of whom have publicly announced they want the Jews expelled from Israel, was ever considered the same. A radical Rabbi Kahane was; a racist, never.

If being a racist means not liking Arabs, then at least half of the Israeli Knesset is racist. Do Prime Minister Shamir, Ariel Sharon, Yitzhak Rabin, and Moshe Arens ''like'' Arabs? People involved in human conflicts aren't supposed to like each other. Probably upwards of 95 percent of both Israelis and Palestinians are racist, if being a racist means hating your enemy. Few Israelis I meet would ever consider inviting Arabs into their home to break pita with and even fewer would want their children to marry one. Yet when North American Jewish leaders warn their co-religionists about the dangers of intermarriage and assimilation they're honored and applauded. When Meir Kahane did the same in Israel between Jews and Arabs, he was branded a racist.

It is said that Rabbi Kahane's followers were only a tiny cadre, but the fact is an entire generation of young Jews -- business, engineering, dental, law and medical students among them -- had their Jewish identity kindled by his writings and speeches, which talked about proud and strong Jews. He awakened them to a spiritual treasure chest and heritage they didn't realize they had. While few of these ''good Jewish boys and girls'' got involved in the Jewish Defense League's radical antics, they were definitely behind them in spirit.

To those facing assimilation into the non-Jewish community, Rabbi Kahane gave good reasons to remain Jewish: pride and self-respect. He warned Jewish parents that you couldn't give a child a half-baked, part-time Jewish education and expect him to see any value in remaining Jewish. It would be yet another battle which mainstream Jewry would eventually embrace.

In Israel, especially in the many areas inhabited by Sephardic Jews whose families had emigrated from Arab countries, Rabbi Kahane represented an uncorrupted commodity, unusual in the greasy world of Israeli domestic politics. He was seen as someone who couldn't be bought off with power, a minister's post, or funds for institutions affiliated with his party.

Contrary to news accounts of his rallies, Rabbi Kahane didn't simply ''incite'' his followers. What Menachem Begin did a few years earlier for the ethnic self-image of the Sephardim, Rabbi Kahane did for their political self-respect. He told them that the left had no monopoly on political acumen, that they too had a right to their views on Israel's policy toward the Arabs.

There were many sides to Rabbi Kahane. He directed enormous energy toward almost every Jewish concern. It's remarkable that in all the news accounts of his life not one mentioned his many achievements.

As a writer with no formal training, he had been a columnist for the Brooklyn-based The Jewish Press since the early 1960s and author of six books. Had the reporters done their homework they would have discovered that as far back as 1962 Rabbi Kahane warned North American Jewry via his columns that Soviet Jews faced a potential Holocaust if action weren't taken to get them out.

When he was arrested for demonstrating against the visit to Canada of the Soviet prime minister, Alexei Kosygin, in the late 1960s, few were even aware that millions of Jews lived in the Soviet Union. Indeed, he laid the groundwork for every Soviet Jewry struggle organization and Free Ethiopian and Syrian Jews campaigns that would eventually come under the umbrella of every Jewish federation. His relentless struggle on behalf poor and defenseless Jews in New York and oppressed Jewry everywhere put him in a class of his own.

He told American Jews in the early 1970s of the likely future of their relations with the black community due to its rising animosity against Israel. The American Jewish leadership insisted that theblacks would be forever indebted to the Jews for their support in the battle for civil rights. Rabbi Kahane insisted that, on the contrary, blacks had their own political agenda and concerns, particularly liberation movements in the Third World. Jesse Jackson and Louis Farrakhan ultimately proved him right.

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