WASHINGTON — I recently asked Rabbi Meir Kahane who his model in Jewish history was. I expected him to name one of the eccentric Jewish rebel-heroes--Judah Maccabee, who defeated the Hellenists after persistent desecrations of the Temple Mount, or Shimon Bar-Kochba, who rebelled against the Romans 60 years after the destruction of the second Temple.
To my great surprise, Kahane responded: "I belong to mainstream Judaism, a line that begins with Abraham, our forefather, and goes through the great Hallakhic Sages of Diaspora. But if I have to chose a single individual I identify with most, I'd say King David. It was said of King David that he studied every night, and in the morning he would wake up and make war."
Kahane, assassinated in a New York hotel last Monday, truly believed that he represented mainstream Judaism. Because of sensitivity to his militancy, the rabbi wanted people to know that he was also a scholar and that, under certain circumstances, he could be as prominent as King David. Kahane never perceived himself to be a radical fundamentalist and thus was certain that the rest of the world had wrongly perceived him. He was equally certain that his message was the most important thing that had happened to Jews in the last quarter of the 20th Century. His rise to power in Israel, Kahane believed, was just a matter of time.
In fact, Kahane never represented mainstream Judaism and was a colossal political failure. Twenty-two years after launching the Jewish Defense League in New York City and 19 years after moving it to Israel, he was still the head of a fringe protest movement. His party, Kach (Thus!), was a politically organized right-wing backlash. He was never in a position to influence government policy and was barely able to rally more than a few hundred demonstrators. Even Kach's sole attempt to establish a settlement in the West Bank, considered the mark of success by the Israeli right, failed miserably.
Kahane ran his movement in a very personal way. He raised its money, wrote its pamphlets and made all its important decisions. Never capable of or interested in allowing other leaders to grow and take responsibility, Kahane was, in fact, running a one-man show built on emotions, anti-Arab hate and his charisma. Israel's Supreme Court decision, in 1988, to disqualify Kach from participating in the electoral process, due to its racism and anti-democratic stand, proved that Kahane's political formula could not work in Israel.
Rather than political, Kahane's long-term success was cultural. The Israel to which he emigrated in 1971 had its problems and was never a model democracy. But certain ideas were anathema. Violence against civilians was considered an un-Israeli act, as was the idea of a mass expulsion of Arabs. Political hooliganism in the streets was considered repugnant, and nobody, not even the worst enemy, was collectively referred to as "dogs" or "animals." An orthodox rabbi expressing these ideas from the pulpit was a nightmare that even the nation's leading liberal ideologues could not have possibly imagined.
The Israel that Kahane has left as a legacy is far different. It is still democratic, open and free. It is also brutal and violent. Its schools, universities, military camps, markets and synagogues are increasingly filled with populist chauvinism and crude anti-alien sentiment. Most noticeable are neo-religious ideas about redemption, the expurgation of the Temple Mount, the indivisibility of the Land of Israel and the necessity to transfer the Arabs out.
Kahane should by no means be held responsible for all these ills. The Jewish state has come a long way since the early 1970s, shaped, in part, by the necessity to carry on in a world full of Arab terrorists. But not a single Israeli I know has made a greater contribution to the brutalization of the nation and its public spirit than did Kahane. What was especially different about the rabbi from Brooklyn was his conscious theological and educational effort to destroy the mechanisms of Jewish moral engagement among his followers, an effort unfortunately crowned with great success.
The most destructive element in Kahane's teaching was not his call for the eviction of all Arabs from Israel, but his theology of Jewish violence. This theology was first developed in America, without reference to the Arabs. When completed in Israel, it included the Arabs. Its essence was that "a Jewish fist in the face of a Gentile is Kiddush Hashem " (the sanctification of the name of God). When asked by a journalist whether he would be willing to instruct his followers not to hit innocent Arabs who just happened to be near a terrorist incident, Kahane responded: "No. . . . As long as they are here, we are lost."