Years have passed since Rabbi Kahane penned this essay, but it still rings sadly true today. Rabbi Kahane was known for saying uncomfortable things that comfortable Jews didn’t want to hear. In honor of his yahrtzeit, here’s another one of his brilliant and illuminating writings, which was published almost 25 years ago in The Jewish Press and was recently reprinted in the fabulous, opus, seven-volume collection of Rabbi Kahane’s short writings, “Beyond Words.”
The Jews of the United States
March 25, 1988
Jewish leaders in Israel and the world have long warned that the Jewish State risks standing bereft of “allies.” That should Israel take “extreme” and provocative action, i.e., be prepared to do the difficult and painful things that it must do in order to survive, it faces the hazard of standing alone against a hostile world. What is just as clear to perceptive Jews is that, should the State of Israel do what is necessary to survive, i.e., take steps that go against the basic grain of liberal, Western democratic views, it risks splitting a large part of the United States Jewish community. And, indeed, the signs of dissent and hostility are there for all to see. They raised their ominous heads during the war in Lebanon, and, emboldened, are louder and more vociferous, today.
Once, in the wake of both the Holocaust and the establishment of the Jewish State, it was simply impossible for any Jew who sought to be recognized as a member of the community, to condemn Israel. The terrible Holocaust and the terror it meant for Jews who lived through that period gave Israel— as the haven for Jews from such future terrors — an immunity from attacks by Jews. But as with all things that are based on emotion, rather than logic and ideology, as times changed and as a generation changed and moved on to make way for another, so did the attitude toward and the status of the Jewish State.
There was always a built-in contradiction within the Jewish Establishment leadership and certainly within the intellectual community. While they supported Israel, they were essentially products of non-Jewish, Western culture and values. They were first and foremost liberals, before they were Jews. Not for them was “my people and Israel, right or wrong.” They wanted “right,” and the standards by which they judged morality were liberal ones. Indeed, they had persuaded themselves that they were also “Jewish,” since peace of mind and conscience — as well as awesome ignorance — demanded the equating of Judaism and Jefferson, the “Hebrew prophets” (sic) and liberalism.
In the first 20 years of the Jewish State, there were few abrasive moments and few opportunities for the ridiculous equation to be tested. But following the Six-Day War, and as the euphoria wore off, as the Yom Kippur War badly tarnished the image of the Israeli Superman, and, most importantly, as the distance from Auschwitz grew longer and a generation grew up that knew not the horrors — things changed. Liberal Jews, with their psychological inability to be winners (losing is so much easier and losers so much more lovable), began to squirm over the “occupied territories,” the use of force by Jews against “civilians, women and children,” albeit to save Jewish lives. Talk began to be heard in certain Jewish circles about Israeli “intransigence” and unwillingness to compromise. The poor “Palestinian” refugees were, more and more, the subject of Jewish concern (though not, apparently, how they had become refugees). The terms “moderate Palestinians” (and even “moderate terrorists”) began to find their place in the lexicon of liberal Jews and certain Jewish Establishment groups.
And then, of course, came Lebanon and Sabra and Shatila, and all the submerged and sublimated liberal hostility to Israel emerged. And that is, of course, the proper term. “Hostility.” And it was hostility on the part of many Jews, especially Reform and Conservative rabbis, who always sensed the impossible contradiction between Zionism and a Jewish State, and the liberal, Westernized values they truly believed in. And so, pulpiteers ordered their congregants to rise at Yom Kippur services and beat their breasts for Israeli sins against helpless “Palestinians.” And more and more Op-Ed pieces by Jews and Jewish leaders began to appear, dissenting from Israel and criticizing her. Until, today, a real and major split is before us. And the question is: What to do about it?