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BOOK REVIEW : Bid to Expose a 'False Prophet' Falls Short : THE FALSE PROPHET Rabbi Meir Kahane, From FBI Informant to Knesset Member by Robert I. Friedman Lawrence Hill Books/Chicago Review Press $19.95, 240 pages

August 29, 1990|JONATHAN KIRSCH

My journal contains two entries on the subject of Meir Kahane, the American-born rabbi who founded the Jewish Defense League in Brooklyn and later the Kach party in Israel.

I copied out these passages from a 1984 article in The Times because then, as now, Kahane poses an acute moral dilemma for the Jewish people, here and in the Jewish homeland: Is violence the only appropriate weapon for a people nearly exterminated in the Holocaust and still threatened with extermination by their enemies in the Middle East?

"It is not terrorism. It is vengeance," Kahane once said of his own taste for violence against adversaries, especially Arabs. "Vengeance is a fundamental principle of Judaism, and I will debate any rabbi on Wilshire Boulevard on that point."

"If our enemies had wanted to do us incalculable harm," observed Gideon Hausner, the man who prosecuted Adolf Eichmann for his crimes against humanity, "they could not have done so more effectively than to have planted a person like Kahane in our midst."

The same moral dilemma flashes rather fitfully through the pages of "The False Prophet" by Robert I. Friedman, which is both a political biography of Kahane and a hit piece that depicts Kahane as a "con man," a "philanderer," an informer, a rabble-rouser and a bloodthirsty villain.

The author insists that Kahane, a man who has been written out of Israeli politics precisely because his ideas are so repugnant, is somehow emblematic of what's wrong with the Jewish state. "Rabbi Meir Kahane's life and times," Friedman writes, "are a looking glass into the dark side of Israel's soul."

Friedman is an accomplished investigative reporter for the Village Voice, among other newspapers, and his book is a spider's web of names, dates and places in which he has ensnared his prey.

For example, he makes a convincing case that Kahane and the JDL ("a strange brew of kooks, right-wing idealogues and dreamers") were a cat's paw for the FBI, Israeli intelligence operatives and what Friedman calls a "covert cabal of right-wing zealots" (including the future prime minister of Israel, Yitzhak Shamir), who encouraged them toward provocative and sometimes openly violent attacks on such targets as black activists, the anti-war movement and, especially, the Soviet Union.

Of course, Kahane makes a case against himself and his personal political party, Kach, whenever he opens his mouth. "I get up in the Knesset and say: 'When I'm prime minister no Arab will be hurt by Jewish terrorists because there won't be an Arab left in Israel!' " he boasts.

Friedman openly blames Kahane for the 1985 bombing in Santa Ana that killed Alex Odeh, an Arab-American community activist. "The rabbi was laying the groundwork for a terrorist underground in the United States that the FBI says carried out a string of bombings in 1985 that killed two persons, including Alex Odeh," Friedman writes. "Kahane had long dreamed of forging a Jewish underground that would spread fear and shatter the souls of his enemies. Now just a year after his Knesset victory, he had professional assassins roaming America."

"The False Prophet" struck me as a hit piece because Friedman appears to be driven by a visceral hatred of Kahane. The author does not try to discredit Kahane's racist and anti-democratic ideas by showing why they are morally wrong or politically unworkable. Rather, he tries to convince us that Kahane's ideas are bad because he is so bad--according to Friedman, he's a loser, a nut and a very nasty fellow.

Thus, Friedman dwells on the sordid details of Kahane's adolescent sexual experiences, his "ungracious" demeanor as a poker player, even the fact that Kahane is a stutterer. We are given a leering account of a particularly ugly incident in which Kahane apparently jilted a woman whom he picked up in a bar during one of his self-appointed undercover operations; the woman, who may have been pregnant with Kahane's child, threw herself into the East River.

Significantly, Friedman scolds the New York Times for failing to print the story of Kahane's dead lover back in 1971: "If the paper of record had published all it knew about Kahane, a self-righteous, Orthodox rabbi who constantly moralized about personal relationships, then perhaps both he and the JDL would have been destroyed."

The animus in Friedman's aside illustrates exactly what's wrong with "The False Prophet." He imagines that Kahane (and the movement he created) will somehow shrivel up and blow away if only the world knows what an unsavory character Kahane really is. Thanks to him, now we know.

But I fear that Friedman will be proven wrong about what it takes to eradicate "Kahaneism." And the moral dilemma--the agonizing question of the role of violence in the destiny of the Middle East--remains very much with us.

Next: Richard Eder reviews "A Good Baby" by Leon Rooke (Knopf).

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