“I'm listening to the discourse around these elections, and there are those who are saying, like Tom Friedman, ‘the sky is falling in. Israel is finished. The Israel that we knew is certainly finished. Maybe Israel itself is finished.’ And then I hear others saying, ‘we've just had a democratic election. This just proves how democratic we are.’ And I don't buy either response. Something significant has happened. It's not the end, God forbid, but we've just crossed as a society, we've just crossed the red line.”
Those are the words of Yossi Klein Halevi, my partner in this series of podcasts. Who is Itamar Ben-Gvir, the “Kahanist” who is now part of Israel’s incoming government? As for the appeal of Kahanism—what was the appeal back in Kahane’s day, and what is it now? And is Ben-Gvir a Kahanist? If so, of what sort?
There is no one better to address these critical and (for some) painful issues than my friend and teacher, Yossi Klein Halevi. Yossi is a senior fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. Together with Imam Abdullah Antepli of Duke University, he co-directs the Institute's Muslim Leadership Initiative (MLI), which teaches emerging young Muslim American leaders about Judaism, Jewish identity and Israel.
Halevi’s 2013 book, Like Dreamers, won the Jewish Book Council's Everett Book of the Year Award. His latest book, Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor, is a New York Times bestseller. His first book, Memoirs of a Jewish Extremist, tells the story of his teenage years as a follower of the militant rightwing rabbi Meir Kahane, and his subsequent disillusionment with Jewish radicalism. The New York Times called it “a book of burning importance.”
Yossi and his wife, Sarah, live in Jerusalem and have three grown children.
Our conversation with Yossi Klein Halevi has been divided into two. In today’s episode (the link at the top will take you to it), Yossi reflects on the rage and desperation that he and many young American Jews in the 1960s felt and what attracted them to Meir Kahane as well as the moment when Kahane radicalized and became a violent theologian after moving to Israel in the 1970s.
On Wednesday, we will post part two of our conversation in which Yossi Klein Halevi discusses Itamar Ben-Gvir and to what extent fear, justified or not, led so many Israelis to vote for him. That post, along with a transcript, will be available to paid subscribers to Israel from the Inside.
There are few people that I look forward to speaking with regularly more than a colleague, a friend, one of the most mellifluous writers about Israel and Zionism in the English language, Yossi Klein Halevi. Yossi really kind of needs no introduction, but I'll just give the basics. He is a Senior Fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. Together with Imam Abdullah Antepli of Duke University and Maital Friedman he co-directs the Hartman Institute Muslim Leadership Initiative. Yossi is the author of the New York Times bestseller “Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor” and cohost with Donniel Hartman and Elana Stein Hain of the Institute’s “For Heaven’s Sake” podcast. He is the author, also of another fabulous book “Like Dreamers: The Story of Israeli Paratroopers who Reunited Jerusalem and Divided a Nation” which won the Jewish Book Council's Everett Book of the Year award. And we're going to talk a little bit today about the subject of his very first book, “Memoirs of a Jewish Extremist”, which told the story of his teenage attraction to, but then subsequent disillusionment with Jewish militancy. And of course, part of that was Meir Kahane. And Meir Kahane is sort of back in the Israeli news indirectly because Ben-Gvir, who was just elected to the government not long ago, is a self-proclaimed disciple of Kahane, even though he claims to have moderated some from his positions. And in order to try to understand Kahanism, what its attraction was to people back then, what its attraction may well be to people today, why certain people like you'll hear Klein Halevi, no less in love with the Jewish and moral tradition than they ever were, have now distanced themselves from Kahanism. There's really nobody better to talk to about that, both because of his personal experience, but because of his extraordinary analytic abilities than Yossi Klein Halevi. So, Yossi, first of all, thank you very much for taking the time. I know you're busy, I know you're traveling a tremendous amount, so I'm very grateful to you for being in this conversation.
Well, thank you so much, Danny, and I can't tell you how much I've been looking forward to speaking with you in particular about this moment. And so, it's really a privilege to be able to do that. Thank you.
So, let's start with your own story. You grew up in a family of immigrants to the United States in New York City. Tell us a little bit about how you grew up and what you think looking back attracted you to Kahanism. I know you mentioned to me once that you were actually, ironically, in Israel during the time of his first campaign and were somewhat peripherally, I guess, involved in that campaign.
Not so peripherally.
But in any event, tell us a story. The kind of family you grow up in. And given that, what's the attraction to Kahanism? What is it about Kahane’s worldview that speaks to caring Jews? And why does Yossi Klein Halevi end up moving away?
Well, we're talking about, for me personally, events that happened literally 50 years ago. That's a long time. It's a long time in a person's life. It's even a long time in history. And I would have been really happy never to talk about Meir Kahane again for the rest of my life, never to revisit the late 1960s in Brooklyn. But here we are 50 years later, and it's Kahane’s moment. It's an astonishing development, and I can't quite wrap my head around it, and I'm struggling for answers to the questions that you raised. In terms of my background, I grew up in a survivor family in Brooklyn, Borough Park. And in the late 1960s, there was a convergence of extraordinary historical developments. And suddenly, Brooklyn became one of the centers of world Jewry because that's where Meir Kahane and the Jewish Defense League emerged. And the convergence of events that created Meir Kahane and the JDL was, first of all, the coming of age of the survivor generation, which I was in high school then, and we were beginning to ask the hard questions, hard questions about the American Jewish community and its role during the Holocaust, questions about the world. We had a tremendous amount of rage, and we were looking for some way to express that rage. And Kahane came along and was the catalyst. But along with Kahane, it was the Six Day War that had recently happened and that had injected this tremendous boost of Jewish pride and the fighting spirit. It was also the 60s in America. And the 60s were a time when violence and radical politics were being celebrated and rewarded by the media. The more violent you were, the more militant you were, the more column inches you got in The New York Times. And Kahane is the one who really most internalized that in the Jewish community and translated that into a very successful political agenda. And finally, in some ways, most importantly, it was the Soviet Jewry movement, and Soviet Jews were coming of age, having their own coming of age experience in response to the Six Day War. And there was this very powerful symbiotic relationship, cause and effect happening between American Jewry and Soviet Jewry. Young Soviet Jews were revolting against the Kremlin's forced assimilation policy, reclaiming their Jewish pride. That, in turn, had a deep influence on American Jews, young American Jews in particular. And we intensified our protests and into this extraordinarily intense environment, this kind of hothouse of post Holocaust 60s mix. Meir Kahane comes along, and I saw him as everything that the American Jewish community wasn't, which was certainly true. And Kahane created a moment that never existed before or afterward, which was to recruit a fairly large number of young American Jews who were willing to do outrageous acts on behalf of Jewish causes and go to jail. That became kind of a normative experience for many of us going in and out of jail, learning the legal system. And that's something that young Jews were really not supposed to know, not from the inside. We were supposed to be the lawyers, not the defendants. And so, there was an upending of the normative American Jewish experience. And again, Meir Kahane was the impresario of this transformation.
So, you get involved with him. What is it exactly that speaks to you? Is it the Jewish pride? Is it about Jewish action following a period of American Jewish life when there was no action? And just to remind our listeners, it's a little bit hard to remember, but that during the Holocaust, there was basically no Jewish response in America. I mean, that's a slight exaggeration, but it's not a huge exaggeration. There were not mass marches on Washington. There were millions of Jews in America. The word was out. Deborah Lipstadt’s book about The New York Times coverage of the Holocaust proves that beyond the shadow of a doubt, people knew what was happening. There was one protest behind the White House of 400 mostly Orthodox rabbis that got a little press and then went away. So, is it a sense that finally we're doing something? Is it rage about the Holocaust? What about Kahane specifically speaks to you?
It was actually rage against the American Jewish community for the reason that you just mentioned. There were demonstrations. There was an effort in the 1940s in the American Jewish community, but what was lacking was a sense of desperation. And we were, in a way, retroactively supplying the desperation that had been missing in the American Jewish community. And that's what motivated us when we invoked the slogan “never again”. And we were very aware of this at the time. Never again didn't mean for us that never again will there be another Holocaust because that's not in our control. You never know when the next wave of anti-Semitism is going to come along. But what never again meant for us is never again would Jews respond passively; would Jews respond without a sense of shaking the foundations of society. And that's what we tried to do. We took direct aim at President Nixon and Henry Kissinger's most important foreign policy achievement, which was detente with the Soviet Union, and we actually disrupted it severely. And that was a direct response to Rabbi Stephen Wise and the American Jewish community basically falling in line and not wanting to disrupt President Roosevelt's agenda and not challenging him. And so that was really, I would say, the most powerful motive for us. And if I can segue now for a moment, Danny, into the dark side of this. We were kids. We were 17-18 years old, and he cynically manipulated our naivete, our enthusiasm, and put young people in intolerable risk, legal risk, physical risk, and then abandoned them when they got into trouble. Not at the beginning. At the beginning, he did stand by his disciples. But when he moved to Israel in 1971, he lost interest and he left people to really twist in the wind. And the reason that I'm mentioning this is because there was a ruthlessness in Kahane. There was a love of violence for its own sake. And I used to make a distinction between what I would call the good Kahane and the bad Kahane. The good Kahane was the American Kahane, the Jewish Defense League, and it was all for the sake of protecting Jewish lives. And then there was the bad Kahane, who moved to Israel and became an apocalyptic racist, created his own insane version of Judaism. He was a kind of theologian who placed vengeance and hatred at the center of his theology. And Kahane moved from being a political ideologist to being a radical theologian. And so that was a bad Kahane. But the truth is that I see a direct link between the two Kahanes, and that was a man for whom any means was justified if you felt that your end was justified, whether it was using random violence, risking the lives of civilians, or whether it meant abandoning your own followers. And so, there was in Kahane and at the heart of what we call today Kahanism, a deeply immoral contempt for restraint for the norms that really are essential to a decent society. And I came to fear Meir Kahane and what he unleashed and what he was empowering in all of us, in me, validating rage and hatred, violence, and turning that into the litmus test for being a good Jew.
Before we move on and talk a little bit about your split with Kahane, and then we'll talk a little bit about what's developing today in Israel with Itamar Ben-Gvir and others, the word that you used that really struck me a minute ago was desperation. And it struck me that some of Zionism's greatest movements have also been born out of desperation. I think that Jabotinsky is a person whose career is really fueled by a sense of desperation, a sense that Europe is going to go to a horrible place and an urgency to get Jews to leave. It doesn't work at the end of the day. But I think Herzl also, in his own way, is animated by a certain sense of desperation. It doesn't lead to anything similar to what Kahane does, but desperation, it struck me as you were speaking, you'll see, isn't foreign to Zionist discourse and isn't really foreign to Zionist feeling. And I want to hear in a second whether you agree with that or not. But the other thing that I was just thinking as you were speaking is what you're calling the bad Kahane, and I'll use that terminology for now and what he became is anathema to the Jewish life that you and I live. And I think you are perhaps in the English language, the most eloquent spokesperson for a Judaism of love, moderation, passionate Zionism, etc. But this notion of that the ends justify the means, that's also found in the Lehi, commonly called the Stern Gang. I mean, I think you could make the argument there, some people would make it, some people wouldn't, but it certainly has been made. Menachem Begin, who, you know, I revere, was accused by some of his followers of having left them behind in Poland when he and Eliza fled to Russia. My only point about all of this is that all of these things have echoes in Zionism. And the more one knows about Zionist history, the more you hear the echoes in different kinds of places without in any way, God forbid, making the claim that they're similar with Kahane. They're just echoes here. But these are long standing issues in Zionist history. So, what happens in the life of Yossi Klein Halevi? He gets to Israel in his junior abroad. As you said before, you're actually more than peripherally involved in Kahane's first run for the Knesset. And today, of course, you're talking about him as having been a radical, terrible theologian who turned Judaism into something ugly. What's the switch for you?
Well, before I answer, I just want to respond to what you were saying a moment ago about desperation, and that's certainly true. But where Kahane diverged from, all of the people you mentioned Jabotinsky, Begin, even the Lehi, the Stern Group, was that, unlike all of them, Kahane sanctified hatred and rage and violence. For Begin, for Shamir, certainly for Ben-Gurion, force was necessary. It wasn't something sacred, and hatred was beyond the pale. You know this better than most of us. Danny, you put in the hours. Begin was a man of love and not a man of hatred. Itamar Ben-Gvir just memorialized Kahane as a man of love of the Jewish people. Well, you know, I never knew a man who spoke more incessantly about love of his fellow Jews and hated his fellow Jews more than Meir Kahane. Kahane had an endless list of Jewish traders, of Jews for whom he had nothing but contempt. And Kahane loved those Jews whom he could manipulate who were his followers. And until some of them turned against him, I turned against him. And he publicly disowned me in the pages of the Jewish Press. He wrote an article refusing to mention me by name. And so, there is this profound disconnect at the heart of Kahanism between the supposed love for the Jewish people and this continual sense of being betrayed by the Jewish people for not coming up to their standards of how we're supposed to behave, how we're supposed to think. So, what happens?
Before we go on, Yossi, I want to interrupt you for one second. Let's say one of our listeners is asking herself or himself at this moment “I want to hear this side of Kahane. I want to hear Kahane's words.” Where do they turn to read this? When they stop listening to the podcast what can they read to sort of meet this part of Kahane that you're describing, where can he be found today?
You mean in terms of what Kahane has left behind in his writings?
I’m thinking of some of the columns that he wrote for the Jewish Press where he would refer to secular Israelis as Hebrew speaking gentiles. This sense of if you weren't with him, you were really beyond the pale. I remember him talking about Yossi Sarid and other left-wing Zionist leaders who deserved death, who deserved to really be not just excommunicated from the Jewish people, but physically dealt with. And this is something, you know, Kahane in America, he certainly despised large numbers of American Jews, but he didn't really begin speaking about violence against fellow Jews until he moved to Israel. That was the transformation. And something happened to him. And I saw it up close. He moved to Israel. And I came to Israel in ‘73 for my junior year abroad at Hebrew U. And of course, one of my first stops was the office on Jaffa Road. And Kahane had already begun to pivot away from Soviet Jewry toward his Israeli far-right agenda, expelling Arabs. In those years, he wasn't speaking so much about expelling Palestinians from Judea and Samaria. He was speaking about peacefully, voluntarily encouraging Arab citizens of Israel to emigrate. And I think that that's really an important point because Ben-Gvir is doing the same thing today. Ben-Gvir is trying to go back to Kahane of 45 years ago. And when I hear Ben-Gvir, I hear Meir Kahane of the JDL, and much less Kahane of Kach, with the exception of voluntarily encouraging Arab citizens of Israel to leave. And so, Ben-Gvir is very cleverly adopting the Kahane that he feels is palatable for the Israeli public and leaving aside the apocalyptic messianic Kahane, who wanted to blow up the Dome of the Rock and who dreamed of a showdown between Israel and the entire Muslim world as the trigger for the coming of the Messiah. He was kind of an insane, he became a mad, apocalyptic theologian. But I am getting a bit ahead of the story because I didn't quite understand this when I showed up at his office in 1973, coming to help, and I did some work for him, and gradually I began to realize that this isn't quite the same Kahane. It's not quite the same agenda that we signed up for in Brooklyn. This wasn't an agenda of protecting Jewish lives, but of attacking Arab citizens of Israel, turning Arabs into conditional citizens, beginning a conversation, a discourse which is culminating today in which Arab Israelis are conditional citizens. And there's something very dangerous about taking a part of your population and turning them into conditional citizens. That's what I saw Kahane doing in 1973. And again, this is before he was speaking about violent transfer, about expulsion. It was all seemingly innocent. What's the harm in setting up an immigration office to encourage and offer financial incentives to people who, in any case, aren't quite happy in a Jewish state? And so, we're here to help.
When does he make the transition to the more violent, advocating the forceful, violent expulsion of Arabs? When does that transformation take place?
It happened a month after I showed up at the office, volunteered for that first election campaign, which he failed to get into the Knesset. And then comes the Yom Kippur War a month later, Kahane finds himself a failure. He had left the JDL. The JDL is falling apart in America. He was certain that he was getting into the Knesset, and the polls actually showed him getting three or four seats. The war happens, the elections are postponed, and suddenly Kahane is completely irrelevant. He's a new immigrant from Brooklyn. Who cares about Meir Kahane? In 1973, the country is traumatized, and it turns inward, and Kahane finds himself nowhere and a nobody. And this becomes a major trauma for him. And I saw it literally overnight, Kahane becomes an apocalyptic theologian and begins to speak bitterly about Israel. Bitterly with real hatred toward labor Zionism. Begin is a kind of a sellout. They're all sellouts. And only Meir Kahane is the carrier of the purity of the Zionist vision. And if you read his book, 40 Years, that's an important document. He's writing about the state of Israel as coming to an end, Zionism as coming to an end. Kahane really turned against Zionism in his way. He went so far in an ultranationalist direction that he became a kind of anti-Zionist. He hated the Zionism of normalization. He hated the mundane Zionism that allowed the Jewish people to recover from the Holocaust that empowered the Jewish people. And Kahane instead went off into a direction of messianic delusions. So, it happened very soon after I joined him and left. And then most of the people who had been with him in America also left him and felt that this was really not a direction that made sense for those of us who had followed him in New York.
But here we are 49 years later, in the fall of 2022, not the fall of 1973. It's almost exactly half a century, and something about Kahane has been reborn. So, tell us a little bit in your own mind, obviously, you can't creep into Ben-Gvir’s brain, but is Ben-Gvir, to use your terminology, the bad Kahane wearing the clothes of the good Kahane?
Say no more than that. You just summed it up.
That's what you think. You think he is fundamentally an apocalyptic theologian or an apocalyptic politician, absolutely looking to sound moderate, when in fact, what he wants is violence and throwing the Arabs out and so on and so forth.
Yes. And, you know, in the JDL, Kahane used to set up front groups that were intended to attract young people who were a little bit afraid of the JDL. And Kahane set up a series of front groups. And of course, that's a tactic that he learned from the Communists in the 1930s, who set up all of these fake peace front groups that were completely controlled by the Soviet Union. What I think Ben-Gvir’s genius is to turn the entire movement into a front group, and that's his party Otzma Yehudit, Jewish power, which is the faction within the Religious Zionism party, is, to my mind, one great Kahanist front group.
Music credits: Medieval poem by Rabbi Shlomo Ibn Gvirol. Melody and performance by Shaked Jehuda and Eyal Gesundheit. Production by Eyal Gesundheit. To view a video of their performance, see this YouTube:
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