Otzma Yehudit Chairman Itamar Ben Gvir is facing an unenviable task: paying his respects to the memory of the most controversial man in recent Jewish history while engaging in an ongoing media war to convince Israelis, American Jews, and Joe Biden that he isn’t Rabbi Meir Kahane.
It was obvious how torn he has been between those two points: on Thursday afternoon (the Yahrzeit falls on Shabbat) he posted an article marking the 32nd anniversary of Rabbi Kahane’s assassination in Manhattan, then took the article down, then posted it again. Finally, the sure-footed, never caught without a smart rebuttal Ben Gvir hesitated.
Ben Gvir revealed that he owes his mitzvot observance to Rabbi Kahane, even though he did “teshuva” only two years after the assassination, at age 16. He shared this memory and then felt compelled to add: “It’s no secret that today I am not Rabbi Kahane and I don’t support the deportation of all Arabs, and I will not enact laws enforcing separate beaches, although we will surely act to expel terrorists from the country for the sake of Israel’s settlement enterprise and Jewish identity. But it seems to me that the highlight of Rabbi Kahane was love. An unconditional love of Jews, uncompromising, without any ulterior motive.”
In his book “The Jewish Idea,” Rabbi Kahane’s teachings are presented systematically: he claimed that his words on religious matters are the opinion of Judaism, and ridiculed Jews who speak in the name of Judaism, when in fact they never read the Bible, Talmud, or Halachic commentaries, and represent the values of democracy and liberalism as Judaism.
Kahane believed in Torah from Heaven and God’s choosing the people of Israel. He believed that Judaism is neither a religion nor a nation but both, (“Religionization”). He rejected the idea that believing we are the chosen people and objecting to assimilation and intermarriage is racism because racism suggests that another group of people is inferior because of their race, while a gentile is free to convert and become equal to born Jews.
To the Jews of the Lower East Side of Manhattan, the birthplace of the Jewish Defense League, Rabbi Meir Kahane was nothing short of a Rebbe. He held court in one of the Grand Street co-ops apartments, and people came upstairs for the same reason Jews go visit their rebbe everywhere: to unload, cry a little, ask for advice, get a blessing.
On Cheshvan 18, 5751, November 5, 1990, Kahane gave a speech to an audience of mostly Orthodox Jews from Brooklyn, urging them to make Aliyah before it was too late. As a crowd gathered around him in the second-floor lecture hall in Midtown Manhattan’s New York Marriott East Side, Kahane was shot by El Sayyid Nosair, an Egyptian-born U.S. citizen, who was acquitted of the charge of murder. He later admitted to having committed this assassination as well, after being caught and convicted of the 1993 Trade Towers bombing.
It’s very difficult to settle Kahane’s rabid anti-Arab speeches––especially in Hebrew––with his conversations, on the radio, and in personal appearances, in English.
In Hebrew he sounded like something out of a racist magazine; in English, he came across as a witty intellectual, who never raised his voice, never shook a fist. And yet, in both languages, he possessed the sharp skills of a born politician, very much like his protégé whom he never met.
It should be noted that in 1988 when his Kach party was disqualified over its “racist and anti-democratic agenda,” the polls gave Kahane 8 seats in the coming election – a whole lot like Ben Gvir. And the folks who voted to remove him from the Knesset were not just the Arabs and the leftists, who didn’t compete with him for votes – they were the right-wing parties, who stood to lose many seats to him, a whole lot like Ben Gvir.
I mention Kahane’s ouster by people who for the most part shared his agenda as a warning to Ben Gvir, who just celebrated, together with Smotrich, the biggest election victory of a religious Zionist slate since 1948. Watch out, there’s a target on your back, and no one except for your voters is interested in what you really have to say. They want you gone, and this includes people you’ll be sharing seats with around the cabinet table.