Thirty years ago, on 5 November 1990, Rabbi Meir Kahane, founder of the Jewish Defence League (JDL) in the US and the Kach party in Israel, was gunned down by an Egyptian Islamist, El Sayyed Nosair, at the Marriot Hotel in Manhattan. He was 58 and a father of four.
Kahane had repeatedly proclaimed his mantra that “the pain of a Jew wherever he may be, is our pain” and espoused violent actions to prove his commitment — someone who projected himself as a lonely man of faith, a prophet to a loyal group of young untainted followers.
Born in 1932 as Martin David Kahane, he was very much a child of his times. His father supported the militancy of Vladimir Jabotinsky’s Revisionist Zionists. With the revelations of the Shoah shocking American Jews, Kahane joined the nationalist Betar in 1946 and was arrested at a protest against the visiting British Foreign Secretary, Ernest Bevin, some months later.
He attended the Mir Yeshiva in Brooklyn and came under the influence of Avraham Kalmanovich, a heroic figure who had escaped from Lithuania at the beginning of the war. Kalmanovich was credited with the saving of the Mir Yeshiva students by securing their passage, first to Shanghai and then on to New York. The members of other yeshivot in Lithuania were systematically annihilated by the Nazis. Kahane easily switched his allegiance from Betar to Bnei Akiva in 1954.
Kahane thus came of age in momentous times, the arrival of camp survivors in the US, the rise of Israel and the Black Years of Soviet Jewry (1948-1953). His youth was coloured by the intimidating accusations of Senator Joe McCarthy’s UnAmerican Activities Committee as well as the antisemitic Stalinist show trials in Eastern Europe.
As a charismatic communal rabbi, a prolific writer and a married man, Kahane was restless with the burden of respectability and restraint. By the 1960s, he began to lead a double life.
At home over Shabbat, as Meir Kahane, he was the wise sage and loving father. At work during the week, as Michael King, he took off his kippah, informed on fellow Jews for the FBI and was a hard-drinking womaniser. In the 1960s, a disproportionate number of Jews were involved in the protests against the ill-fated war in Vietnam. Kahane viewed the conflict as a milhemet mitzva, an obligatory war, and later claimed that the CIA had funded his campaign to entice Orthodox Jewry into the pro-war camp.
In 1968 he founded the JDL, primarily to help the Jewish left-behinds as their more well-to-do coreligionists moved into the suburbs. The rise of the militant Black Panthers, often accompanied by antisemitic innuendo amidst the demand for better housing allowed Kahane to mobilise young Jews — a menacing insouciance, armed with baseball bats and lead pipes — to defend those who remained.
This coincided with the conquest of the West Bank during the Six-Day war and the first collective letters reaching the West from emboldened Jewish refuseniks in the USSR.
Within a short time, the JDL was the fastest growing Jewish organisation in the US, exhibiting a deep antipathy to the shtadlanim (court Jews) of establishment organisations. Yet within a year of its formation, the JDL had crossed the line between militancy and violence, between respect for the rule of law and illegality, between Jabotinsky and Kahane.
Kahane imitated Jabotinsky’s promotion of “the new Jew” who should exhibit dignity (hadar) and be as strong as iron (barzel), but he went further by planting bombs and accumulating an arsenal of guns. A bomb in the offices of the impresario Sol Hurok, who brought Soviet artists to the US, killed a Jewish secretary. Kahane struck up a friendship with the Mafia boss, Joe Columbo, who obligingly put up $45,000 bail when he was accused of violating the Federal Gun Control Act.
In November 1971, Kahane visited London in an attempt to establish a British branch of the JDL and spoke to a packed meeting at Central Hall, Westminster. His presence in the UK led to many denunciations by Jewish organisations. The United Synagogue turned down requests from several synagogues for Kahane to give a sermon on Shabbat. He was, however, called up on Shabbat at Golders Green Synagogue.
The Universities Committee for Soviet Jewry was determined to prevent Kahane from capitalising on all its hard work. At the Westminister meeting, one of its members asked whether Kahane would do his patriotic duty and offer himself in exchange for Jews in strict regime labour camps. “The KGB will have Rabbi Kahane, the Jewish people will have the prisoners of Zion”. This proposition did not impress the hundreds of irate supporters present.
Recently released records indicate that people were informing the FBI of Kahane’s conversations within his inner circle as well as at his meetings in synagogues and on campus. One report commented: “His intent is to secure germs of a virulent disease from a hospital or bacteriologist, grow a sufficient amount of these germs, and then smuggle them to a Soviet city. He will then threaten to contaminate the city unless the Soviet (sic) allow Jews to emigrate to Israel.”
In 1971, Kahane emigrated to Israel where his ideas and actions were taken to new extremes. Israel’s leaders were “Hellenised Jews” while Arabs were “thorns in our eyes”. Kahane wanted the Arabs of Israel and Palestinians in the territories to depart with compensation. Those who remained would not be permitted to participate in political life. Intermarriage between a Jew and an Arab in Kahane’s Israel would be regarded as a capital offence.
Periods of protest, arrest and imprisonment were peppered by fundraising tours of the US — the Syrian Jewish community was particularly generous. Those donors who were reticent to have their names revealed could contribute via Chabad House.
Menahem Begin originally embraced Kahane, but his public image proved too much for the Likud. Begin wanted to unite the right and to avoid splitting the vote. Kahane refused and ran his own list. Relations between the two men finally broke down when Begin together with Sadat and Carter signed the Camp David Agreement in 1979. Kahane finally got elected to the Knesset on his fourth attempt in 1984 where he was ignored by most MKs before Kach’s disqualification in 1988.
Kahane’s philandering continued. A serious affair with Gloria Jean D’Argenio ended when she jumped off the Queensboro Bridge into the East River after he had promised to marry her and then broken off the relationship. She died the next day. An affair with his secretary, Gerri Alperin, resulted in a public row with his wife at the shiva of Kahane’s father in March 1978. Alperin was chased out of town by Kahane’s incredulous supporters who ousted him from his position — albeit temporarily. Kahane’s wife refused to divorce him for their children’s sake but they began to live separate lives.
Kahane’s assassin was a member of the Islamist group, responsible for the blowing up of the World Trade Centre in 1993.
The history of the last century reveals how easy it is for ordinary people to be magnetically attracted to powerful, flawed figures and to be sucked into quasi-messianic movements. Although he was never a major player, the saga of Meir Kahane indicates that many Jews too were not immune to such visions of perfection.
Jewish Chronicle 5 November 2020