The logo of the Kach, Meir Kahane's militant ultra-Zionist group. Credit: Creative Commons/Shuki

Yasha Levine published an amazing, little known story that was there in the bright light of day for anyone to report (but which no one did). He discovered in Jeffrey Goldberg‘s magnum opus, Prisoners: A Story of Friendship and Terror (first published, 2006), that the latter was a youthful hasid (follower) of the American-Jewish ultra-nationalist, Meir Kahane:

…Soon enough I came across the writings of Meir Kahane, on a high shelf, and it was Kahane who provided a not un-Panther-like but specifically Semitic model of self-defense. Kahane was the Brooklyn rabbi who founded the Jewish Defense League in 1968 to shake Jews out of their fatalistic and feminized passivity. He argued, infamously, in favor of the bat, the bomb, and the gun. (“Every Jew a .22,” he said, to the shame and horror of the Manhattan Jewish elite and to the secret joy of every beaten-down Jewboy in the tristate area.) . . .But for a time he held all the answers for me. In the locker room, I was a kike, but in the sanctuary of the library, I was a revolutionary kike, one of Kahane’schayas, a beast, a street-fighting Jew.

Goldberg currently blogs at The Atlantic and was a staff writer for The New Yorker. He is a sort of Jewish media mandarin who defines what is polite pro-Israelism in American society. He is one of the most popular arbiters of Jewish politics. If you pass muster, you become part of the acceptable Jewish mainstream. If not, you are sentenced to a form of anti-Israel Siberia.

The above passage is endlessly fascinating for what it reveals about Goldberg’s identity as a Jew and his view of Jewishness and Jewish peoplehood in general. First, the way he described how he first comes across Kahane’s writing, portrays it as a moment of savoring the forbidden fruit, not unlike a young boy coming across his dad’s hidden Playboys. Except instead of forbidden sex, he discovers the forbidden fruit of Jewish violence, which he euphemistically calls “Semitic self-defense.” In associating the term “Semitic” with Kahane’s teaching he gives it a tribal coloring as if the Jewish leader were somehow more historically authentic, because of his tribal ethnic identity, than more mainstream Jewish leaders.

Another striking phrase is the claim that Jews exhibit a “fatalistic and feminized passivity.” I don’t know enough about Kahanism to say whether the notion that a deadened Jewish life is associated with a sense of the weak and the feminine is an idea of Kahane’s or that this is filtered through Goldberg’s prism. But associating Jewish liberalism with gender in a context meant to denote it is debased is the height of misogyny. It’s frankly odious.

Next comes the famous Kahaneism: “Every Jew a .22,” whose power Goldberg magnifies with the self-aggrandizing statement that it brought “secret joy to every beaten-down Jewboy in the tristate area.”

Frankly, I was a “Jewboy” born and raised in the tristate area (Rockland County in the 1960s, while Goldberg grew up on Long Island in the 1970s). Though I never thought of myself as a “Jewboy.”

We both grew up in communities where Jews were minorities. Yet I never shared the sense of alienation he clearly felt. I never experienced the anti-Semitism he did.

Goldberg grew up in Malverne, a small village lying almost on the border with Queens and on a direct flight path to Kennedy Airport. Here is his sociological analysis of his hometown:

There was only one Arab in my school, in Malverne, on the South Shore of Long Island, not far from Queens. Malverne is a tribally Catholic, deeply American town that borders, to the misery of at least some of its residents, an enclave of blacks, who share Malverne’s public schools. This fact explained why some of Malverne’s whites sent their children to the Catholic school down the street from my house.

All this means that geographically and culturally Goldberg grew up as a hyphenated Jew living on the cusp of urban and suburban. His was a suburban upbringing, but the ethnic tension that was rife in the boroughs and on which Kahane preyed, easily bled over to inner suburbs like Malverne.

Note the “tribal” language in the above paragraph. He knew only one “Arab.” Not an “Arab-American,” but an Arab. Malverne was “tribally Catholic,” which explains the sense of anti-Semitism he nursed as a youth. In another passage, he mentions being beaten up regularly by “Irish boys” who forced him to play a twisted game of “Jew Penny.” In a separate one, he called them “Irish pogromists.” Then there were the “blacks” who, something like the occupied Palestinians in relation to Israel, live in an enclave that is apart from his home, but somehow manage to infiltrate it via the public school system.

One of the key differences between us may be that my family’s roots go back in the Hudson River Valley to the 1920s. My father was born and raised in the river town of Haverstraw. He had a strong sense of Jewish identity and New Deal liberalism. Jim Farley, who eventually became FDR’s postmaster general, was the local Democratic political boss. As a local Democratic party operative in Peekskill, my great-uncle Isidor Goldsand, nominated local boys to attend West Point.

Unlike Goldberg’s dismissive view of his parent’s Jewish liberal values, I admired my dad’s family’s long history of support for the Democratic Party and social justice.

There was also an “Arab” in my school. But at the time (around 1964), we were so oblivious to ethnicity I didn’t even know it. I later discovered that he was Lebanese-American. After we both grew up and left our hometown, he told me that the neighbor youth hadn’t wanted to play football with me. He was so insistent that he had to fight one of the boys before they’d let me play. Here is his version:

My Irish and Italian friends hated you for being Jewish. I was brought up to hate no one. The irony of all of this was that after the 67 war, the parents of some of my Jewish friends would no longer let me into their homes.

For him, this was an expression of tolerance and solidarity. For that, I’m eternally grateful. I played touch football with an Arab boy I didn’t even know was Arab and Goldberg played “Jew Penny” with his tormentors. That may be the difference between Malverne and New City, where I grew up.

Though New York City was only 30 miles away, we didn’t look to the Big City for our identity, Jewish or otherwise. We were a self-contained community. Perhaps because Jews were a minority, perhaps for other reasons, there was no sense of Jewish alienation.

I also had another benefit that perhaps Goldberg didn’t. I attended the Conservative Jewish camp movement Ramah and its accompanying youth movement, which offered a deep, authentic spiritual identity. Goldberg, like another famous American Jewish cultural icon, David Mamet, grew up as a Reform Jew with an ambivalent sense of his own identity, that helped turn him into an adherent of a more muscular, assertive form of Jewishness:

Goldberg’s parents were Jewish liberals whose religious exposure began and ended with occasional visits to the local Reform temple, “a sterile place of yellow hallways, organ music, women in furs, and garmentos [ed., an obscure reference to Jews who worked in the NY shmateh, i.e. "garment" business] talking through Shabbat services.”

Though I’m not a maven in the sociology of Long Island Jewish life, the Jewish community (especially the South Shore) there retained a stronger sense of connectedness to New York City. It was less acculturated, a first-generation Jewish suburbia. Families tended to be middle-class, settling in the small, cozy Levittown-type homes built by Jewish developers like the Levitts and LeFraks (and a non-Jewish one named Trump) after World War II. The politics were more conservative than the liberal, wealthier North Shore.

I don’t know where Goldberg’s truculent, pugnacious Jewish alienation originated. I don’t know where this fascination with violence (“the beast, the street-fighting Jew”) stems from. But the notion that every Jewish child in the tristate area shared all this is preposterous. At most a small minority of youth felt this way then. In typical fashion, Goldberg magnifies his own personal journey and transforms it into one shared by every other Jew around him.

His book Survivors contains other passages redolent of Kahanism. Here he talks about the first time in his life he held a gun, during his IDF training:

I was exceedingly happy – the rifle was electric with the promise of Jewish power – and so, too, were my new comrades, all of us from the Diaspora, most of us having lived our lives in the company of quisling Jews who, for reasons inexplicable and bizarre, believed that the main lesson of the Shoah was that those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it, instead of the actual lesson of the Shoah, which is that it is easy to kill a unilaterally disarmed Jew but much harder to kill one who is pointing a gun at your face.

After his military service ended, Goldberg began writing for the Jerusalem Post. Even crediting this piece of ersatz satire, More Tear Gas, Please, as the product of a callow 26 year-old with much too high a level of self-regard, it’s hard to swallow the grotesque images of this 1991 piece:

Nothing breaks the ice better between two warring peoples than a little light-hearted fun. And what is a better example of light-hearted fun than a beauty pageant? The Israeli administration would be highly praised if it sponsored an annual Miss Occupied Territories Contest…

Arab women would compete in “Miss Gaza Refugee Camp” and “Miss Mother Who Sends Her Children into the Street to Catch Israeli Bullets with Their Heads” contests.

When did his ambivalent love affair with Kahane end? It certainly continued as late as 1990–when he was age 25–and told Kahane’s grandchildren about his view of their grandfather:

“When [Kahane's]grandsons asked me what I remembered of him, I answered, ‘He had very profound thoughts,’ which was true.”

There are many words or phrases I can think of to characterize Kahane’s ideas, but “profound” isn’t one of them. Influential, yes. Powerful, in a sense. Charismatic, yes. But profound? No. Kahane took the radical ideas of the Black power movement and infused them with the anger and resentment of post-war Jews regarding the Holocaust and fused them into a virulent, racist manifesto. Profound? If you call Adolph Hitler’s Mein Kampf profound, then perhaps the word suits.

Hitler too fused a twisted reinterpretation of socialism with a fiery resentment at Germany’s World War I humiliation at the hands of the Allies into something he called National Socialism. The difference between Hitler and Kahane was that the former came to power at the head of a powerful nation, while the latter was assassinated before his ideas could come to their full flower. Had he lived, there can be little doubt that Kahane, especially in the current political climate, could’ve become Israel’s prime minister. The history of Israel is replete with banned and reviled terrorists who eventually came to power (think, Begin and Shamir).

Why is this important? Because one of America’s most popular commentators on Jewish politics cut his teeth on the racist ideology of Meir Kahane. Though Goldberg has rid himself of the worst excesses of Kahanism, he still retains the intellectual truculence and ideological rigidity of Kahane. He maintains the same sort of blinkered view of Jewish life and peoplehood that characterized Kahane, the same notion that we are a tribe, one that must stick together because everyone outside us hates us and wants to do us harm. As I say, Goldberg has toned this down considerably. But it’s still there for all to see.

I organized an unofficial panel of Jewish progressive bloggers at the 2009 J Street conference. Goldberg raked the organization over the coals for even allowing us in the door. Among those who joined the panel besides myself were Jerry Haber of the Magnes Zionist, an Orthodox Jew who teaches Jewish philosophy at a major university, Phil Weiss of Mondoweiss, Leila El-Haddad and Ray Hanania. His characterization of the event (which he never attended) follows:

…The people on the panel were marginal figures except in the rather circumscribed universe of anti-Zionists-with-Jewish parents

The panel actually contained two Palestinians, both of whom Goldberg disappears in his account. Jerry Haber and I are both Zionists. The only panelist who could remotely be considered anti-Zionist was Phil Weiss.

But there’s an even more disturbed phenomenon at work here. If you are a progressive Jew blogging about the Israeli-Arab conflict, you are by definition anti-Zionist. And if you are anti-Zionist you are not really Jewish (“anti-Zionist with Jewish parents”). It was part of the Kahane manifesto to divide the world into good Jews and bad Jews. Bad Jews were so disturbing that he essentially wrote them off as Jews. They were “Hellenizers,” traitors, “Jews by birth.” In some Kahanist circles, such Jews were viewed as a problem even worse than Arabs themselves, thinking that inspired the Kahane devote, Yigal Amir, to assassinate Yitzhak Rabin.

There are Kahanist echoes in a recent passage that Levine raises in his own piece. Last month, an East Jerusalem Palestinian was beaten to within an inch of his life by a howling mob of Jewish youth who set upon him in Jerusalem’s Zion Square while scores of bystanders looked on (most of whom did little to stop the lynching). In reviewing Isabel Kershner’s hand-wringing account of the incident in the NY Times, Goldberg sniffs dismissively:

This sort of thing isn’t actually that new. As someone who covered the funeral procession of Meir Kahane, the racist rabbi assassinated in New York more than 20 years ago, I can attest to the fact that Jewish hooligans, mainly from Jerusalem’s poorest neighborhoods (and many who are descendants of Jews who fled, or were expelled, from Arab countries), will periodically set themselves upon innocent Arabs. They did it at the funeral, and in subsequent incidents.

If you examine the assumptions behind this passage, they reveal the blinkered perspective I mentioned above: the lynch in Jerusalem isn’t such a big deal because it’s happened often before: nothing of interest here folks, just move on. Those who perpetrate such violence aren’t representative of Israeli society. Rather they’re “Jewish hooligans,” most of whom are likely Mizrahim (Jews of Arab origin) taking out their resentment at being supposedly expelled from their Arab countries of origin. That’s certainly a cozy, reassuring narrative. But so full of holes it couldn’t retain water if it was sitting in the middle of the ocean.

First, those who kill Palestinians are not necessarily Mizrahim. Those youth who nearly murdered the boy in Zion Square were not just Mizrahi. They weren’t just poor, misguided, uneducated youth who know no better. That’s what Israel apologists want you to believe. Because that allows them to explain away the massive levels of violence, some spontaneous and some state-sponsored, against Palestinians and even against the Muslim world in general (see the latest Israeli attack on Sudan). Ashkenazi Jews too hate Palestinians. The level of violence on the West Bank is extraordinary with killings, maimings, firebombings and other brutal attacks happening weekly. Hatred of Arabs is not constrained by one’s Israeli Jewish ethnic identity. Rather, it’s defined by a national struggle between two peoples.

Second, there is another pro-Israel narrative that makes an equivalence between Israel’s Nakba expulsion of nearly 1-million Palestinian residents of the country in 1948 and the supposed mass expulsion of Arab Jews from their homelands in the same period. Except that this expulsion never happened. At least not on nearly the scale of the Nakba. Did Jews leave Arab lands? Yes. Did they experience suffering there? Yes. But were they largely physically expelled as Palestinians were during the Nakba? No. Were some Arabs expelled or did they feel in fear of their lives if they didn’t flee? Undoubtedly. But “some” doesn’t equal the 1-million Palestinians uprooted from Israel.

But notice how Goldberg has adopted this narrative, one that Kahane would’ve embraced wholeheartedly had he lived to write it himself.

There’s also another alarming element of Kahanist-like thinking in this passage. It posits a set of tribes warring against each other in much the way that Kahane described Israel’s fight for existence in the “primitive” Arab world: Arabs hated their Jews and got rid of them. Those Jews moved to Israel where they’re taking their revenge on a different set of Arabs. It’s that whole mess of tribal hatred portrayed by Kahane in his writings.

What this narrative omits is that Israel isn’t a tribe. It’s a nation. A nation oppressing another nation (which is again, not a tribe). This has nothing to do with ancient hatreds or primitive cultural values becoming manifest in the modern world. This is about politics, land and power. These are motivations as old as humanity. But they are not tribal. They are negotiable and soluble given the will to do so. Saying the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is insoluble because of the primitivism of the Middle East is nothing but warmed over Kahanism. And that’s precisely what Jeffrey Goldberg is.

Let’s not make the mistake of thinking Jeffrey Goldberg was the only Jewish youth who succumbed to the siren song of Kahanism. There are many now- powerful Jewish leaders and academics who cut their teeth in the movement. Among them a former nightclub bouncer from Moldova who was a card carrying member of Kach (Kahane’s political party) when he first arrived in Israel: Avigdor Lieberman. Yossi Klein Halevi, now a respected mainstream journalist writing for distinguished publications (the New York Times, the Guardian and Foreign Affairs, among them) was a leader of the Jewish Defense League when he was young. Unlike Goldberg, Halevi wrote an entire book about it and has made this an acknowledged and integral part of his professional identity as a journalist.

Finally, Yoram Hazony, the founder of the Likudist think tank, the Shalem Center was a devote as well. Here are some of his remarks about the “sainted” founder of the Kahanist movement, on his murder:

One of the galvanizing events in Hazony’s life was an encounter with…Rabbi Meir Kahane, in the fall of 1984…Akiva Eldar published excerpts from a eulogy Hazony wrote in 1990, after Kahane’s assassination in New York. “We were mesmerized,” Hazony wrote about the meeting with Kahane at Princeton. Most of his friends, he noted, had never before spoken with a Jewish “believer” and were amazed to discover that an Orthodox Jew could be an intelligent person, capable of defending his opinions against a group of Princeton students. They had all entertained an image of Judaism as something primitive. “We listened in astonishment, and finally in shame, when we began to realize that he was right.”

…Hazony made it clear that, “[We express] gratitude to someone who changed our lives, thrilled and entertained us, helped us grow up into strong, Jewish men and women. Many of us found other ways of doing what he asked.”

Keep in mind that shortly after his flirtation with Kahanism, Hazony joined forces with the Netanyahu family, becoming a confidant of Bibi and writing and researching two of his books. In truth, Netanyahu is a parve version of Kahanism. It is Kahanism bled of its brutalism and transformed into a political ideology that can sit in the parlor and discourse with the ladies. Netanyahu is the “other way” of “doing what Kahane asked” which Etzioni alluded to in his obituary.

In other words, today’s Israel is a place of which Meir Kahane would be proud. He wouldn’t be content with it because it still hasn’t rid itself of the troublesome leftist “Hellenizers” Kahane so despised. But it has rendered them irrelevant to political discourse or the ultimate fate of the nation. The upholders of Kahane’s legacy now rule Israel. They don’t acknowledge this debt to him publicly. To do so would be considered impolite. But behind closed and not so closed doors, they all know where they came from. They know who’s their poppa.

Richard Silverstein writes the Tikun Olam blog, which studies Israeli nationalism and the Israeli-Arab conflict. He wishes to thank Yasha Levine for research assistance in preparing this report.


Bookmark and Share