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Kahane the prophet

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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.

David Ben-Gurion on the beach. From the Ben-Gurion House Museum.

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.

Yakov Rabkin

Yakov M. Rabkin is Professor Emeritus of History at the University of Montreal and the author of What is Modern Israel? (Pluto/University of Chicago Press) and “Demodernization: A Future in the Past” (Columbia University Press).

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6 Responses

  1. Eva Smagacz on January 7, 2020, 4:32 pm

    “Moreover, nowadays Israel has come to inspire exclusive ethnic nationalists and white supremacists around the world, from Poland to Bolivia.”

    This makes me cringe – How true it is of today’s Poland!.

    • Antidote on January 12, 2020, 5:43 pm

      Poland had plenty of ethnic nationalists and ‘white’ (Polish) supremacists long before there was any Jewish state. It is the massive ethnic cleansing and illegal land grab Poland (among others) got away with before (interwar period) and after 1945 that sent strong signals to the Zionists that they were going to – or definitely should, in the name of justice for all (except their victims, of course) and on account of their suffering/alleged Christ among the Nations status, get away with it as well . Stop projecting. Poland was no innocent victim of WW II, just as Israel won’t be an innocent victim of WW III, if it ever happens, with Iran in the spot of Germany as alleged most evil empire. One reason why Poland currently throws itself at the feet of Trump in the hope that the US will move their military bases and nuclear weapons from Germany (who wants them out asap) to Poland is that Putin has called their bluff and falsified history on numerous occasions. Poland, much like Israel, refuses to learn that good relations with neighbours are far better than relying on distant superpowers for defending and enabling their expansionism and ethnocentrism. How do you explain that Israel was, for the most part, founded and expanded by Polish Jews? Was Zionism inspired by Jewish or Polish thought and culture?

      • echinococcus on January 12, 2020, 7:41 pm

        “Was Zionism inspired by Jewish or Polish thought and culture?”

        Seeing that Poles were the most populous group among the Zionist settler colonialists, the conclusion is obvious. Also, “Jewish” for Poles is still Polish. There is no alternative in the question.

      • Antidote on January 14, 2020, 12:15 pm


        There is nothing obvious about the most populous group of colonists/immigrants wielding proportionate political power. See the immigration history of other colonial settler states, such as the US. Nor did Polish Jews, then or now, ever form a majority in Palestine/Israel. The question I posed was, however, why this clearly significant and influential group of European settlers played such a significant role in the formation and eventual preponderance of right-wing, racist Zionism. I suggest you have a look at Daniel Kupfert Heller ‘s “Jabotinsky’s Children” (2017). As Heller notes in an interview/exchange:

        “The story of the Polish roots of right-wing Zionism took me by surprise. I had initially set out to write a book about the turbulent political life of Polish Jewish youth on the eve of the Holocaust. I knew that right-wing Zionism was popular among many Jewish youths in Poland between the two world wars, but presumed that Jabotinsky’s writings contained all I ever needed to know about their worldview.
        All that changed when I began rummaging through Poland’s government archives. I kept finding police reports that described right-wing Zionist activists marching in Polish patriotic parades alongside Polish scouts and soldiers, laying wreaths at Polish war memorials, and imploring their young Jewish followers to “act Polish.” Right-wing Zionist youth could even be heard singing the Polish national anthem and chanting “Long live the Sanacja!,” the name given to Poland’s authoritarian government, which came to power in 1926.
        I was baffled. Why would a Zionist movement convinced that Jews were destined for a life of misery and persecution in Europe choose the Polish national anthem as their battle cry? What inspired them to include among their chants a call to support Poland’s authoritarian government? What was it about the country’s policies and practices—many of which were already the features of right-wing regimes across Europe—that could be deemed compelling and even instructive to Zionists seeking to build a Jewish state?“

        As for Jabotinsky’s children, and more pertinent to the toic of this post: In this discussion, Jabotinsky is praised as the supreme and indispensable Zionist leader, needed today more than ever, and Kahane (more than Begin, Shamir or Netanyahu) identified as the carrier of his true “DNA” (around 40/41 min)

  2. Misterioso on January 7, 2020, 7:09 pm

    Regarding the Zionist racist thug Meir Kahane, I am compelled to acknowledge the courage and humanity of Vanessa Redgrave, a brilliant British actor, and despite relentless attacks by Zionists, a long time supporter of the Palestinians.

    Haaretz, August 31/18

    “In an interview for Hollywood Reporter, the veteran actress doesn’t regret her dismissal of the Kahane-formed Jewish Defense League, says she felt a responsibility to speak out.”

    “British actress Vanessa Redgrave is presented with the Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement honour at the 75th Venice Film Festival,” – Italy, August 29, 2018\ Tony Gentile/ REUTERS

    “Vanessa Redgrave is unapologetic for referring to ‘Zionist hoodlums’ during her Academy Award acceptance speech 40 years ago.

    “On Thursday, the veteran actress told the Hollywood Reporter in an interview ahead of receiving a lifetime achievement Golden Lion Award from the Vienna Film Festival that she felt a responsibility to speak out no matter the consequences.

    “Redgrave, 81, was referring in her remarks at the 1978 Oscars to the members of the Jewish Defense League who objected to her funding and narrating ‘The Palestinian’ a 1977 documentary about the Palestinians’ situation and the activities of the Palestinian Liberation Organization.

    “She received the best supporting actress Oscar for her performance in the 1977 film ‘Julia,’ in which Redgrave played the title role — a woman murdered by Nazis prior to World War II for her anti-fascist activism.

    “Following her nomination, members of the JDL burned her in effigy and allegedly offered a bounty on her head. There was a firebombing at one of the theaters that screened the documentary. The JDL also picketed the Academy Awards ceremony where she received her Oscar opposite pro-PLO demonstrators.

    “’In the last few weeks you have stood firm and you have refused to be intimidated by the threat of a small bunch of Zionist hoodlums, whose behavior is an insult to the stature of Jews all over the world, and to their great and heroic record of struggle against fascism and oppression,’ Redgrave told her supporters during her acceptance speech.

    “She concluded the speech by pledging ‘to fight anti-Semitism and fascism for as long as I live.’

    “The controversial statement about ‘Zionist hoodlums’ reportedly cost her many roles over the years.

    “’I didn’t realize pledging to fight anti-Semitism and fascism was controversial. I’m learning that it is,’ she told the Hollywood Reporter this week.

    “’I had to do my bit. Everybody had to do their bit, to try and change things for the better, to advocate for what’s right and not be dismayed if immediately you don’t see results.’”

    “Redgrave has remained true to political causes even at the twilight of her career. Last year she directed her first film, ‘Sea Sorrow,’ a documentary about the European migrant crisis and the plight of migrants encamped outside Calais, France, trying to reach Britain. She has criticized the British government for its policies toward migrants.”

  3. Hemlockroid on February 6, 2020, 11:18 am

    I’m very grateful for Professor Rankin’s books and writings giving insight to the development of Protestantism’s zionism. May it be defeated soon.

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