Kahane's ghost and my old friend

A Jewish settler says he is not a bigot, but he idolizes a man who shot 29 praying Palestinians.

April 09, 2000|By Hillel Kuttler

"THIS IS my sports center. I'm going to put up a wall here and cement all over the ground there," my old classmate Seth was saying that chilly winter afternoon on the dusty expanse of his front lawn.

"It'll be a basketball court and a handball court, and the kids can play hockey. On the other side of the house will be a garden." A typical suburban homeowner's dream, but for the location of the arena-to-be: a neighborhood ringed by wire and fences, protected by guards in a booth, aloft in the flowing green mountains of the Israeli-administered West Bank.

Ginot Shomron -- Gardens of Samaria -- is a lovely community, a "settlement." It's just down the road from the Palestinian city of Nablus, but light years from our native Queens, N.Y. The Sacketts' red-roofed stone structure houses a family of eight, the last two born since Seth and wife Rhonda immigrated to Israel in 1990, and he began going by his Hebrew name, Shmuel.

It also is the host of unpleasant attitudes. We go inside to chat, and my eyes can hardly avert the bumper sticker ordering "Arabs: Out"; the memorial candle stuck to a photograph of the Arab-baiter Rabbi Meir Kahane; the picture of Baruch Goldstein, who killed 29 praying Palestinians.

The tributes mingle awkwardly, sandwiched between a Derek Jeter poster and holy texts. Hatred contradicts Jewish values -- "He who hates his friend is like a shedder of blood," an ancient rabbinical commentary teaches -- yet it rings out in my skullcap-wearing contemporary's domain.

I'd have thought he rejected such viewpoints, too. Evidently, I wasn't paying attention.

Seth was our high school class' clown. He instigated eraser fights just as the teacher's back turned, composed tunes for school skits and mimicked like nobody's business -- such that the veins in his neck jutted out like our Spanish instructor's.

In those pre-guns-in-school-days, provocateurs were merely those who fished carbon test papers out of the trash or led raids onto the roof, where we'd empty hulking pails of water onto the squealing girls below. Seth also improvised The Scarlet Letter's recital by pinning a red "TL" (a variation of "teacher's pet") onto a popular classmate's shirt.

"That was totally fun," Seth says. "We didn't do bad things; we did clowning-around things. We would never have harmed anyone."

Flashes of the old Seth endure. There's the ascending laugh that begins "aaAAHH" and the ear-to-ear smile that clamps his eyes shut. He remains as enamored of American sports -- on his block, "we don't allow soccer," he jokes -- as when his rear end occupied a permanent spot on our basketball team's bench.

He dropped the pranks in college -- "I realized that I could continue this and make everyone laugh the next four years and be on the unemployment line the next 40 years" -- to concentrate on marketing. Seth was a young star at RCA, selling telecommunications equipment and bagging appliances as rewards. In Israel, he continued in sales with the Postal Authority, where he proposed -- in vain -- the then-revolutionary idea of introducing the Internet to the country.

Seth invested himself equally in activism. In high school, he organized fund-raisers to help liberate Soviet Jews. Once in the work force, he taught classes for some Wall Street bankers who knew little about their faith. These days, he directs an organization that runs seminaries in towns under Palestinian Authority control. He jets around the world, pitching the project and collecting contributions.

Oblivious to changes

Seth and I were hardly close friends. I was oblivious to his advocacy and even the issues. Aside from recognizing the man's name, I knew nothing of Kahane's get-rid-of-the-Arabs platform that led to a brief stint in Israel's parliament and, ultimately, his assassination.

Kahane remains a hero to Seth for steering him to Israel. Seth maintains that "absolutely not" does he hate Arabs. But he makes no apologies for considering them inferior and enemies, for refusing to hire them even to do home repairs.

Shortly after 1993's Yitzhak Rabin-Yasser Arafat handshake, Seth co-founded "This is Our Land," a movement to expand Jewish strongholds in the West Bank and to prevent them from being turned over to the Palestinian Authority. The Israeli government arrested Seth some 20 times and tried him for sedition and incitement.

He returned to my consciousness after 15 years, a photograph in a newspaper. A lawbreaking radical-in-the-making, in my own circle? How could I have missed the signs?

`An extension' of boyhood

Perhaps the answer was all too apparent. The inner struggles many of us experienced during our youthful years simply bypassed this fellow. He did not evolve -- he unfolded. Seth, his black hair and long beard evincing a few patches of gray, says he is "just an extension" of the long-ago boy.

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