Kahane the prophet

Yakov Rabkin

On my recent visit to Tel Aviv I stayed in Ben-Gurion Boulevard, a stone’s throw from the house in which Ben-Gurion, the founder of the Zionist state, used to live. Nowadays, the neighbourhood is full of young people, filling up cafés and restaurants, milling around on foot, but mostly on the ubiquitous electric scooters, quite a few with a yoga mat slung across the shoulder. This population is largely oblivious of the Torah and its commandments, and a few extant synagogues stand mostly empty. On the day I went there, the Great Synagogue, built to accommodate a thousand worshippers, attracted barely twenty persons to its Sabbath morning service, traditionally the most frequented of the three daily prayers.

Politically, central Tel Aviv is considered left or apolitical. Some deplore its hedonistic values, others denounce its lack of nationalist fervour. It was thus surprising to see on one of the houses a painted slogan of the ultra-nationalist Kach movement: a clenched fist with the slogan “Only thus!” (Rak kach). Arguably, it would be hard to find disciples of Rabbi Meir Kahane, the founder of Kach, in this gentrified and genteel neighbourhood.

It so happened that on my last evening in Tel Aviv I went to the Cinemathèque for the screening of “The Prophet”, a documentary about Meir Kahane. The film traces his origins in New York in the 1970s, his violent campaign on behalf of Soviet Jewry, his arrival in Israel and his election to the Knesset. Kahane was an unabashed nationalist, finding justification for his use of violence in, as he put it, “the stench of Auschwitz”. In Israel, his exclusive claim on the land drew on the Divine promise to the descendants of the biblical Jacob. He favoured a transfer of non-Jews out of Israel, encouraged their emigration by peaceful means but was not averse to engage in violence. He was even once put in administrative detention, a measure routinely applied to thousands of Palestinians but rarely or ever to Jews. His message incensed fellow parliamentarians who would walk out whenever he took the floor in the Knesset. Israel’s political mainstream ostracized him. On a trip to the United States in 1990, he was assassinated in his native New York.

The film ends with a few clips of the political mainstream in today’s Israel. Politicians are shown voicing Kahane’s insistence on the subordinated status of Palestinians in the Zionist state. The passage of the Nationality Law in the summer of 2018, which concludes the film, makes this principle official. Kahane used to repeat that he articulated what many Israelis thought but dared not say.

The current political stalemate in Israel is caused by the refusal of the main parties to invite the third-largest faction in the Knesset to join a governing coalition. The reason? It consists mostly of Palestinian citizens of Israel. Kahane used to make fun of those who argued for equality: “You want a future defense minister to be an Arab?”. His messages were crass and unmentionable in polite company. This is no longer true.

Faut-il pleurer, faut-il en rire?”, “shall we cry or laugh?”, asks – in a totally different context – Jean Ferrat (né Tenenbaum), son of a Holocaust victim, in a song popular in the 1960’s. The filmmakers deliberately do not answer this question. Kahane’s former allies and disciples, many of whom were interviewed for this film, might like the film. So would those who deplore what they deem to be Israel’s shift to the right.

Perhaps, today’s mainstream politicians may find the film more challenging. The film puts a mirror in front of them and makes them appear political heirs of the assassinated rabbi. Many of them would object to this characterization and dispute this lineage.

On a visit to the Ben-Gurion house museum one can see the founder’s keen interest in military affairs. An entire room is dedicated to his relations with the army; after all, he was not only the prime minister but also the defense minister for many years. In spite of his public denunciations of acts of anti-Arab violence committed by his political opponents, paramilitary units under his command, such as the storm troopers of Palmach, also terrorized Arabs and forced them to leave in 1947-49. It was Ben-Gurion who defied the United Nations and forbad the return of the refugees. He also made sure they would have nowhere to return to and had over five hundred Arab villages razed to the ground. Albeit careful in his public pronouncements, he once said: “We are not yeshiva students debating the fine points of self-improvement. We are conquerors of the land facing a wall of iron, and we have to break through it.”

After watching the film I found the Kach slogan on the wall less incongruous in the vicinity of Ben-Gurion’s former home, among the smoothie-sipping start-up developers, many of them working for Israel’s military. Settler colonialism has its own implicit logic, regardless of minor hues and nuances in political discourse. Kahane grasped this logic and had the zealot’s courage to make it explicit. Time proved him right. Moreover, nowadays Israel has come to inspire exclusive ethnic nationalists and white supremacists around the world, from Poland to Bolivia.

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Kahane the prophet