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Rabbi Kahane's Last Victory

By Joshua Z. Heller

IN DEATH, Rabbi Meir Kahane accomplished what he could never do while he was alive.

The controversial right-wing Israeli who advocated expelling all Arabs from Israeli territory was gunned down in Manhattan on November 5 by El Sayyid A. Nosair, an American of Egyptian ancestry. Kahane's death at the hands of an Arab lent respectablity to the man and his racist hatred.

Kahane's murder was a tragedy--a tragedy not just because it ended the life of one man, but because it set back the cause of peace in the Middle East by a generation.

Kahane preached that Arabs and Jews couldn't and shouldn't live together in peace. For his followers--and even to some who did not support him--Kahane's death is one more piece of evidence to support his claims.

FOR Jews scarred by the memories of the Holocaust, Kahane's slogan "Never Again" was a powerful message. To his discredit, Kahane perverted the reasonable agenda of opposing anti-Semitic violence into a doctrine that justified militance and violence. In the late 1960s, Kahane's Jewish Defense League took up the cause of human rights for Soviet Jews, a noble crusade for a group which was largely ignored at the time. Unfortunately, the League turned to violent tactics such as attempted bombings to achieve its aims.

In 1971, Kahane emigrated from the United States to Israel and founded his political party, Kach. With Kach as his base of support, Kahane tried to exploit the irrational fears of the Israeli public. After decades of war, violence and terrorism in the region, many Israelis were mistrustful of Arab and Palestinian intentions. But these fears generally did not find expression in political extremism. Kahane fanned this spark of mistrust into flames of hatred.

Most Israelis rejected his ideas as unethical, immoral and racist. Kahane ultimately appealed to only a small segment of the Israeli population and the world Jewish community. At the height of his popularity, Kach garnered only about 5 percent of the vote in Israeli parliamentary elections. In 1988, his party lost much of its support when it was barred from elections under the terms of an Israeli law against racist and undemocratic parties.

The world Jewish community also repudiated Kahane. Many synagogues and other Jewish organizations refused to allow him to speak at their events. Mainstream voices in the U.S., including the ardently pro-Israel New Republic, routinely bashed Kahane. When Kahane came to Harvard just days before his death, the Harvard-Radcliffe Hillel staff and most of its constituents left the building rather than be present for his appearance. Most of the few who remained argued with him bitterly.

Their opposition wasn't surprising. It was Kahane who conceived the idea of applying a policy of "population transfer" to Israel and the occupied territories. He wanted to expel from Israel all Palestinians, including those who were honest, voting, law-abiding, tax-paying citizens. Kahane justified his plan by citing the Biblical precedent of kicking the Canaanites out of the Holy Land. Kahane also argued that expelling Arabs from Israel would represent just vengeance for the Jews who had were forced to flee Moslem countries when Israel was founded.

Not surprisingly, most Israelis rejected Kahane. They realized that Kahane's program, in addition to being racist and immoral, was simply politically untenable. In other countries which have attempted population exchanges--notably India and Pakistan and Greece and Turkey--ethnic hatred has been heightened, not calmed.

IN RECENT years, Kahane turned his fury toward Jewish Israeli liberals and peace activists. At a rally that I observed in Jerusalem in April, Kahane demanded that those Israelis who worked for peace be thrown out of Israel along with the Arabs. He said that the only appropriate way to deal with the tensions in the Middle East is violence.

Although the rally was held in one of the main squares of Jerusalem and publicized days in advance fewer than 1500 people attended; I estimated that about a third of them were journalists or curious passers-by.

Though the ideas Kahane expressed were reprehensible, his skill as a demagogue was impressive. He used his charisma and public speaking flair to play on the crowd's emotions and avoid the moral questions that surrounded his arguments.

From a practical standpoint, it is immaterial whether Kahane's death was the action of a crazed individual--as evidence indicates--or if it was part of some larger conspiracy. Violence and revenge have always been powerful forces in the Middle East, and the assassination has already had a tragic impact.

Despite the efforts of Israeli security forces, there have been acts of violence against Palestinians in retaliation for the assassination. This new violence will just add to the tensions and violence already present since the Temple Mount incident.

Kach as an organization will probably not survive for long. The movement was held together by Kahane's intensely charismatic personality, and there is no heir-apparent ready to take over. Chances are that the party will splinter, as so many other Israeli political movements have done in the past, and lose many members to other right-wing parties. The fanatical anti-Arab sentiment of Kahane's followers will probably survive without him.

With or without the party, the cycle of violence and retribution will continue. Israeli security analysts have noted that in the past, terrorist acts have come in clumps. Once one person or organization shows that a particular type of attack can be accomplished, other groups try to copy their success. Thus, it is entirely possible that Kahane's assassination forbodes a string of terrorist attacks against Jewish and Israeli targets within the United States--targets that were previously almost immune from attack.

America is not used to dealing with terrorism within its borders; we are used to people being shot in New York for their wallets, not their principles. Arab terrorism in the U.S. would undoubtedly turn public opinion against the Palestinian cause, thus further sapping momentum for a peaceful settlement.

There is no way of telling how far the wheel of violence will turn. Kahane's teachings are now being disseminated far more widely than they were before, and a minority of Jews will regard him as a martyr. His followers are angry, looking for revenge, certainly in Israel and possibly even in the US. Israeli public mistrust of Arab, especially Palestinian intentions, will probably rise.

With the continuing American troop buildup in Saudi Arabia and the daily increases in tensions in Jerusalem and the West Bank, it may be only a matter of time before a minor incident provokes yet another Mid-East war.

And that intolerance and tension is just what Rabbi Meir Kahane would have wanted.

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