Rabbi Meir Kahane, whose 27th yahrzeit falls on 18 Cheshvan (Nov. 7 this year), lived a life dedicated to serving Am Yisrael. Regrettably, it was a life that ended abruptly as he struggled to awaken a nation that had taken to slumber only a generation after the greatest tragedy that ever befell it.
Brilliant and inspired, he was an iconoclastic firebrand who left his mark wherever he walked and whenever he talked. Friend and foe alike came to understand there was no place in which he feared setting foot, and nothing was ever left unsaid.
With his deeply rooted love of the Jewish people, Rabbi Kahane personified Ahavat Yisrael. Driven by an intense passion for justice, he became the most controversial Jewish spokesman of our generation.
Born in 1932 and raided in religious nationalistic home in New York, Meir David Kahane learned at a very early age that Judaism was inseparable from Zionism – and that anti-Zionism was just another manifestation of anti-Semitism. He was taught also that Jews should, unapologetically, stand tall. He understood even then that Jewish history and destiny were often determined by the bold actions of a few noble Jews. His heroes were Ze’ev Jabotinsky, Menachem Begin, and their compatriots in the Irgun and Lehi, small groups of modern Jewish warriors whose names were sadly unknown, or unspoken, in too many Jewish homes.
From Mir Yeshiva to New York Law School and then a Master’s in International Relations from NYU, he advanced from a being neophyte rabble-rouser to someone who would shake the world.
Establishing the Jewish Defense League in 1968 in response to the anti-Semitism that proliferated in outer-borough New York neighborhoods, he brought to the fore a new breed of American Jew – one willing to fight back. The young men of the JDL took to the streets undeterred, feared, and respected, delivering a renewed message that Jewish blood is not cheap.
But Rabbi Kahane had a calling to help Jews everywhere, not only those who were beleaguered in our own urban neighborhoods. What of those who stood defenseless elsewhere? Who would feel their pain?
Not long after he founded the JDL, he made a priority of taking up the cause of Russian Jewry, subjugated and smothered by Soviet totalitarianism. Through extralegal and illegal means, the JDL directed its war against a détente that had masked the Soviet oppression of Jews.
In the end, when all was said and done, the iron curtain was opened to several hundred thousand Russian Jews who were reluctantly permitted to emigrate. All because there walked a rabbi who would not allow himself to sleep comfortably knowing that Jews elsewhere could not.
But, most important, there was Israel. In keeping with the most fundamental principle of the JDL’s ideology, Rabbi Kahane, his wife Libby, and their four children made aliyah in 1971. Welcomed at first as a modern American Jewish hero, Rabbi Kahane soon became a small, though vocal, alternative to the prevailing political order
As Israel confronted the growth of Arab terrorism and the proliferation of social problems, his appeal and support grew. Elected to the Knesset in 1984 but barred from running again in 1988 when the polls predicted an almost unprecedented rise in power, Rabbi Kahane’s name became synonymous with Israeli right-wing politics. “Extremism,” some called it. To be sure, his movement added a new term to Israel’s political lexicon: “Kahanism.”
He was a populist figure who threatened conventional politics. Always placing the fate of others above his own, he discounted any concern for his own reputation, faithfully leaving that judgment to God and to history. As the bravest and loudest voice forewarning Jews in Israel and elsewhere of the impending dangers of a specious quest for “Middle East peace,” he believed history would vindicate him.
In his view there was only one thing worse than illusion: self-delusion, an enterprise he feared Jews had begun to master all too well.
Rabbi Kahane possessed an innate grasp of issues large and small, and used only one barometer: How does it affect the Jews? His writings, his speeches, and his audacious actions on behalf of his fellow Jews gave no quarter.
As the founder and leader of the JDL and then the Kach Movement in Israel, he was condemned and imprisoned numerous times for his actions – and his views. Yet he remained undeterred. Articulating a philosophy pregnant with moral clarity, he once wrote:
The real prisoners are the ones who walk the streets daily, knowing that they should do a certain thing, and are afraid to do it. They are serving life sentences. If a person believes in something, and does it – he is never in prison – he is always free.
Never, then, was there a freer man than Rabbi Meir Kahane.
He warned us incessantly of the catastrophes we would inevitably face if we chose to follow Washington; if we placed our trust in princes rather than the path prescribed by Torah. He told us that when the final showdown came, the support of so-called friends of Zion would, to use the language of the late journalist Pierre van Paassen, “evaporate like snow in a summer day’s sun.”
Rabbi Kahane understood that there could be peace only through strength. And that peace would only arrive not when our enemies loved us but when they would be made to respect us.
A prolific writer, his pen left a penetrating mark on a generation that came under the influence of his many books and articles. It was understandable that the establishment feared his ability to capture and radicalize the hearts and minds of young Jews who had been left with little direction and even less purpose.
The cry of “Never Again,” if it was heard before Rabbi Kahane established the JDL, had certainly been too faint. Rabbi Kahane and the JDL proclaimed it loudly and proudly. And it was nothing less than a revolution in Jewish affairs.
“Never Again” did not mean that never again would the Jewish people be confronted with anti-Semitism, pogroms, and worse. In the galut, that’s a promise that cannot be kept. But “Never Again” did mean that never again would Jews stand idly by while the anti-Semitic beast reared its satanic head. It was a chant – a promise – that became the hallmark of a new Jew.
He would often remind us that a Jew needed to stand on two legs – the religious and the nationalistic. Those who stood on only one, he argued, were crippled. And never had one man stood taller on both legs.
Bold and brazen, never bashful, Rabbi Kahane commanded an ability to engage in intellectual discourse that made even the most erudite opponent shrink before him. But he could shift gears effortlessly, and communicate masterfully with the young and disenfranchised.
He balanced his serious sense of purpose with a wonderful sense of humor that always humanized the man they wanted us to see as a Jewish outcast. Often late for appointments, he was always the first to rush to the aid of a Jew in peril. He was tortured by the notion of Jews suffering, whether in Manhattan or Moscow. He feared only God.
Doors to the established Jewish institutions were regularly closed to him. The more they tried to silence him, though, the louder he seemed to get. And the louder he got, the more he rippled the pond. He was unwilling to compromise on truth, and he was bereft of any concern for political correctness or conventional expectations.
Rabi Kahane was felled by an assassin’s bullet in New York in November 1990, and since then we have lacked his voice of righteous fury crying out against both our overt enemies and the misleading temptations of the perfidious “peace process.” He is needed now more than ever.
His legacy should not to be misunderstood or left to the historians who so often rewrite it. The message is as clear as it is powerfully poignant: We must march forward courageously, guided by Torah and unencumbered by the need to appease unappeasable opponents. We dare not equivocate, he warned, only to regret the moment of truth when we might have achieved glory and were found wanting.
Today, tragically, at a pivotal moment of Jewish history, with Israel still under siege, we remain leaderless. The struggle continues. And it continues without the voice, or the hand, of the man who in my opinion was the noblest Jew of our generation.