Altercation: The Ghost That Stalks the American Jewish Establishment – The American Prospect

Posted By on August 13, 2021

This weeks Altercation is (mainly) authored by the extremely prolific Shaul Magid, professor of Jewish studies at Dartmouth College, Kogod senior research fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America, and rabbi of the Fire Island Synagogue in Seaview, New York. It draws on the research and arguments of his new book, Meir Kahane: The Public Life and Political Thought of an American Jewish Radical, though its contents are original to Altercation.

When people today hear the name Meir Kahane, most think about the militant and racist rabbi turned Israeli politician who founded a political party in Israel, was elected to the Knesset in 1984, and was removed in 1987 under the Racism Law legislated just for him, which made his party illegal. Many may be familiar with his policy to transfer Arabs out of Israel, his belief that Israel cant be both Jewish and democratic, and his critique of left-wing secular Israelis, calling them Hebrew speaking goyim.

Those more familiar with Israel may be aware of the ubiquitous Kahane was Right graffiti that dotted the landscape, especially after the second intifada in 2000, the emergence of a series of Israeli politicians who still view Kahane as a mentor, and the rise of small but vocal neo-Kahanist vigilante groups that terrorize Arab civilians in the name of Kahanes vision of what a Jewish state means. There are very few in Israel who are not familiar with the term Kahane or Kahanism and what that implies. His funeral in Israel in 1990 was one of the largest in the history of the country.

In contemporary America, however, things are very different. Kahane is almost a persona non grata in the American Jewish conversation, and when his name is mentioned, it is usually in regard to something in Israel. Ironically, Kahanes career began in America with the founding the Jewish Defense League in May 1968, and by early 1970 he had all but hijacked the Soviet Jewry movement through his call for civil disobedience and even violence to persuade Russia to free its Jewish dissidents. He testified before Congress about Soviet Jewry in June 1968. In March 1971, he organized a rally in D.C. for Soviet Jewry that was the largest rally ever held at the White House. He was the subject of long articles in Esquire and The New York Times Magazine, and was a feature interview in Playboy in 1972. JDL chapters sprang forth in many cities across the country, and his Soviet Jewry activism was the subject of a White House discussion between President Nixon and the Soviet ambassador. In 1971, a Look magazine poll showed that about 25 percent of American Jews had a positive view of the JDL. Kahane was not a marginal figure but a national one. It is likely that between 1968 and 1973 he was mentioned in The New York Times more often than any other rabbi in America.

So why do we know so little about Kahane in America? Jonathan Sarnas comprehensive book American Judaism does not mention him or the JDL at all. This is no oversight. There has been a marked attempt among scholars and institutional Judaism more generally to erase Kahane from American Jewish history.

Perhaps thats because Kahanes American record includes leading an organization that committed several murders. In 1985, regional offices of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee were bombed; the bombing in Santa Ana, California, killed ADC official Alex Odeh. Irv Rubin, the head of the Los Angeles branch of the JDL, publicly celebrated the killing, and eventually several JDL members were convicted of murders of other Arab Americans, while JDL members whom the FBI posted rewards for in Odehs killing remain free in Israel. Rubin died in prison awaiting trial for other violent acts. The JDL credo that set it apart from other far-right American Jewish organizations was its embrace of deadly violence.

Despite that, the ultranationalism of Kahanes worldview has seeped deep into the collective subconscious of American Jewry. We simply cannot tell the story of postwar American Jewry without Meir Kahane.

To get at what I am arguing, we must distinguish between two things: Kahanes tactics and Kahanes worldview. Kahanes tactics were very much a product of his time; the culture and race wars of the late 1960s, the radicalism of the New Left that led many young first-generation Jews to radicalize and adopt radical politics for Jewish causes after the New Left became anti-Israel after 1967. Kahanes militarism was a reflection of those years, even if his American followers proved to be a good deal more deadly than any wing of the New Left.

His worldview, however, was something different. It was an amalgam of Cold War anti-communism, an attack on American liberalism, and a systemic critique of the moderate nature of a mainstream Jewish establishment that was wary of making trouble. He challenged the regnant belief that liberalism and moderation would save the American Jewish dream. Interestingly, Kahanes early program was a diasporist one and not focused on Israel at all. An early JDL manifesto claimed the organization sought to save the American dream for Jews by instilling in its youth an assertive and activist program to fight assimilation, anti-Semitism, and intermarriage.

If we remove Kahanes militant tactics, his general worldview is alive and well.

His belief in the ubiquity of anti-Semitism in America was strongly resisted by the American Jewish establishment, and most American Jews. His belief that liberalism had no answer to intermarriage was similarly contested. He wrote a book on intermarriage in 1974, Why Be Jewish?, when few Jews were writing about intermarriage. Based on the 1972 sitcom Bridget Loves Bernie, he called American Judaism Bernism. He lamented the American bar mitzvah (all bar, no mitzvah) and offered a Judaism of the street before there was a social justice movement. When American Jews were still worried mostly about anti-Semitism on the right, he claimed anti-Semitism on the left was more threatening, and in the 1970s he argued that anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism were identical at a time when few made that connection. Kahane argued against Black nationalism the way some Jews today argue against critical race theory. In the late 1960s, he argued Jews were not responsible for whatever had happened to American Blacks, at a time when many liberal Jews favored reparations. Today, Kahanes view on reparations can be heard in many quarters of the moderate Jewish world.

On these and other issues, what Kahane was saying about American Jewry in the late 1960s and 1970s is what many mainstream Jews are saying in 2020. If we remove Kahanes militant tactics, his general worldview is alive and well. He founded Camp Jedel where Jews could learn to shoot guns as Jews. Today, some American Jews proudly send their children to the IDF military Gadna program, where American Jews learn to shoot guns as Jews. In some way, what Kahane wanted was to transfer Israeli survivalism to American shores. In the 1980s, Kahane argued that a Jewish and democratic state was schizophrenic. Today, faced with a half-century occupation, some Jews are questioning whether democracy should be sacrosanct if it challenges a Jewish state.

In short, if we separate tactics from worldview, Kahane has seeped into the collective subconscious of American Jewry more than we are willing to admit. In Israel, facing up to Kahanism is easier as it is more open and thus more a part of the conversation. The attempt to erase Kahanes legacy in America makes it much more difficult to recognize and confront. Many want to see him as a persona non grata. And therein lies the danger. The neoconservatism that emerged after Kahane was gone has been partly responsible for the rightward shift in some of American Jewry. But Kahanism lurks just beneath the surface. Someone once said that even though Kahane left America, America never left Kahane. I would add that in the collective mind of much of American Jewry, Kahane lives on in many of the moderate and genteel discussions about Jewish survival today.

I see that that Rabbi/Professor Magid is also a clawhammer banjo player and a student of Ken Perlman, one of the great living banjo virtuosos and musicologists of old-time banjo as well as the musical partner of Al Jabour who was, until his death a few years ago, the curator of American folk music at the Smithsonian in Washington D.C. There are a few people in this world who have too much talent to be accorded to a single person. Its just not fair. I had this thought twice in the past week, once when I was reading about Jhumpa Lahiri and again when I was reading about Viet Thanh Nguyen. Both are significant scholars as well as brilliant authors of fiction. (Of course, they are also terrific, albeit unnecessary, arguments for the value of an open immigration policy.) Ive not read Lahiris new novel, Whereabouts, originally written, infuriatingly to mere mortals, in Italian, a language she recently decided to learn, but I did read Nguyens magnificent two novels and can recommend them unreservedly. Start with The Sympathizer before moving on to The Committed.

We cant solve many of the worlds problems all by ourselves here at Altercation, but one I think we can dispose of is the sad fact that many people think Tom Jones is lame. Well, think again after you have watched Tom sing Long Time Gone with Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young; Raise Your Hand with Janis Joplin; Burning Down the House with the Cardigans; and, more recently, Leonard Cohens Tower of Song all by himself.

Finally, what the world needs now, no less than love sweet love, are conservatives who have a sense of honor and devote themselves to tell the truth, regardless of where it may lead. There are just a few of these left and we lost one with the passing of Yale historian (and Brooklyn College alumnus) Donald Kagan, whose four-volume history of the Peloponnesian War is one of the great scholarly achievements of the past half-century.

See the article here:

Altercation: The Ghost That Stalks the American Jewish Establishment - The American Prospect

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