Meir Kahane

TJH December 1985, vol. XXIII, no. 5

Meir Kahane.  

Some Jews adore him and revere him as a modern day prophet. Many Jews fear him and hate him. Most Jews regard him as a continuing embarrassment.  

Whatever the response to his programs and policies, all Jews are agreed that his publicity skills are extraordinary. Hardly a day passes without some reference to his activities in the media. He obviously has the power to keep himself in the limelight for a long period of time and to force the Jewish establishment to deal with him publicly.  

Although today Kahane is the only representative of his right-wing party in the Knesset, polls indicate that should an early election be held he would capture 10  percent of the vote. His bite may almost be as bad as his bark. 

How do we explain the emergence in Israel of a successful political figure who advocates the expulsion of all Arabs and who pleads that democracy is an inappropriate political structure for the Jewish state?  

There is no single cause. The continuous 40-year battle with the Arab world has created a war mentality that views all Arabs as the hated enemy. The frustration over persistent Palestinian terrorism feeds the hostility. The disillusionment that followed the inconclusive struggle in Lebanon searches for some Arab victim to receive the energy of its despair. The nearly impossible task of absorbing the occupied territories of the West Bank and Gaza feeds the creation of dramatic action and fantasy solutions. The decay of the Likud, Begin’s conservative coalition, which has now consented to share the government with its more liberal opponents, encourages opportunities on the right to recruit the devotees who represent the compromise. The long-standing Sephardic anger against the old Ashkenazic establishment expresses itself in a direct attack on the patriotism of the ruling class. Above all, the new immigration of ultra-Orthodox Jews from North America provides troops and fanatic fury for the street thugs of the Kahane movement.  

Whatever the causes, the Kahane phenomenon is real and dangerous.  

What is its significance? What does it say to us about the present and the future of the Jewish state?  

The Kahane phenomenon is a vivid proof that racism and fascism are just as Jewish as universalism and socialism. The call for the expulsion of Arabs from the Jewish state is no different from the demand of German Nazis for the eviction of the Jews from German soil. There are many elements in traditional rabbinic Judaism that encourage chauvinism and a violent hatred of outsiders. Given the privilege of majority status, the victim becomes the victimizer.  

Kahane, as a traditional rabbi turned politician, is an example of the danger in marrying nationalism with religion. The original pioneers of a militaristic nationalism, like Vladimir Jabotinsky, regarded the superstition and fanaticism of the traditional religious sector with as much disdain as their socialist opponents. Although it encouraged violence, it was free of the Messianic foolishness which now characterizes the new conservatives. Begin, with politicial astuteness, encourafged the merger of two previousy incompatible Zionist trends. The result is the Jewish version of the army of Ayatolla Khomeini. A militant chauvinism receives religious sanction.  

Kahane, like Hitler, derives much of his success from saying out loud what many people are thinking, but which most of them are too embarrassed to proclaim publicly. By speaking racism without inhibition, he makes it respectable. If politicians dar utter the forbidden words of racism, ordinary citizens certainly have the right to do the same. What was formerly clandestine, associated with shame, now becomes an accepted part of the political dialogue. Like the proclamations of the ancient Persian king, the sentiment, once uttered, cannot be recalled.  

The Kahane phenomenon is a testimony to the emergence in Israeli politics of violent confrontation. Although Begin’s rhetoric often encouraged spontaneous physical attacks on opponents in the streets, the recruitment of thugs to engineer personal assaults and public disturbances is something new and frightening. Especially the use of provacative insults like “traitor” and “blasphemer” gives ordinary criminals the right to pose as the self-righteous defenders of the faith.  

Kahane demonstrates the irony of Arab-Jewish relations. Its propoganda encourages the very Arab alienation which the racists claim justifies the expulsion of the Arabs. The more Kahane speaks and is publicized, the more do Israeli Arabs and their West Bank Palestinian brothers feel that they can find no comfortable place within the Jewish state. The more Arab alienation, the more Arab violence. The more Arab violence, the more the Kahane demand for Jewish counter-violence.  

The Kahane upsurge certainly reflects the weakening of the Likud coalition. Originally a small right-wing party controlled by Menachem Begin, the Likud emerged as a marriage between militaristic nationalists and the capitalist opponents of Zionest socialism. With the socialist decline in the mid-’70’s. Likud assumed political power in 1977 and expanded its security base by forging an alliance with the religous right. However, the retirement of Begin  and the revival of the Labor opposition, has left the coalition in disarray. No longer finding resolute leadership within the major conservative party, many right wingers are turning to the new fringe groups on the right for political expression. The more Likud decays, the stronger will Kahane grow.  

Kahane has been a catalyst for the Israeli left. There is nothing like a terrifying enemy to mobilize the indifferent. The one positive consequence of Kahane’s emergence to prominence is that he, like Jerry Falwell, forces lazy liberals to take political action and to patch up old quarrels for the sake of effective confrontation. By simply being the monster that he is, he fuels the energies of reluctant secular Zionists and their liberal religious friends.  

What should be done about Kahane? 

The answer is not one that orthodox civil libertarians like. But freedom of speech and political organization can never be absolutes. They are functions of the preservation of social order and a democratic political system.  

Kahane’s political party, like all political parties that preach racism, needs to be banned. Israel is not America. Israel is a vulnerable bi-national state at war with its neighbors. It cannot afford the luxury of racist incitement to violence. Just as West Germany appropriately forbids the establishment of openly Nazi political organizations, so must Israel forbid the right of Kahane to sit and preach in the Israeli parliament.  

Political bans cannot ban the convictions that give rise to the crisis. But they do remove the political respectability that enhances the prestige of organized racism and makes it more difficult to operate.  

A democracy that believes in survival does not masochistically allow itself to be used for its own destruction. At this time when Arab-Jewish reconciliation is so essential to Israel’s survival, absolute political freedom is less important than peace.  

Sherwin Wine’s ‘Humanistic Judaism’ – A Book Review by Rami Shapiro

Humanistic Judaism, Spring_Summer_Autumn 1978, Vol. VI, Number II

“The most interesting Jews of the last hundred years never joined a synagogue. They never prayed. They were disinterested in God, They paid no attention to the Torah lifestyle. They found bourgeois Reform as parochial as traditional Orthodoxy. They preferred writing new books to worrying about the meaning of old books. They had names like Albert Einstein, Sigmund Freud, and Theodore Herzl.” 

And, though Sherwin T. Wine never explicitly says so in this introduction to his first book, Humanistic Judaism (Prometheus Books), we Jews have more in common with these Jews than we will ever have with Jews like Jeremiah, Rashi, and the Baal Shem Tov. 

Initially, one balks at the idea. Why can’t I retain and strengthen my ties to such ancestors?  And who is Wine to say that the chain of tradition suddenly kinks, cracks and crumbles with the advent of quantum mechanics and the post industrial world? What is the Humanist movement to suggest that my claim to carrying on the spirit (if not the letter) of the law and the prophets is just so much intramural politicking and bogus prooftexting (sic)? 

Rabbi Wine’s response is simple and direct: It isn’t he or Humanistic Judaism which is severing our links to tradition: It is ourselves and our behavior. No philosophical premise bars us from copying the lifestyle of Rambam or the Besht, rather it is our own behavior patterns that put the lie to such nostalgic desires. It isn’t theology so much that separates us from our ancestors. It is honesty. 

And honesty is just what Rabbi Wine’s book is all about. He demands it of his readers, and he wields it like a bludgeon. This is nowhere more evident than in his assessment of contemporary definitions of Judaism. Such definitions are, for the most part, academic fantasies in which the writer imagines the “ideal Jew”, and substitutes his imaginings for reality. As Rabbi Wine puts it, the Jews appear as “pious Bible lovers who can hardly wait for their next installment of Midrashic commentary.” Books on Jewish life in America deal in depth with the covenant between God and Israel and the centrality of Torah in Jewish life. Yet honesty demands a revision of these nostalgic musings. 

“If a person claims to love prayer but rarely prays, if an individual lauds the meaningfulness of God but never invokes God for the solution of his daily problems, if a man describes Torah as the greatest of all possible books but never reads it, he is either lying or self-deceived.” (Wine, p.18). 

Rabbi Wine believes it is self-deception that leads to this hiatus between espoused belief and exposed behavior; and self-deception is the most difficult deception to correct. If one believes the world is flat, only not falling off its edge will prove otherwise. 

In the case of Humanistic Judaism, however, Rabbi Wine is more apt to push one over the edge than to ask one to make that step on one’s own. With a combination of gestalt reality punching and fluid style, Wine pushes the reader to look objectively at his or her beliefs, and compare them to his or her behavior. If they are not consistent, one of them must go. And in a toss-up between belief and behavior, belief is usually the loser. 

“The lifestyles of most contemporary Jews, even those who profess a love of tradition, are in total opposition to the decrees of both the Bible and the Talmud. A nude bathing pre-medical student who lives with her boyfriend and refuses to eat pork as an affirmation of her Jewish identity is hardly a return to tradition. Even without pork she would give Hillel a heart  

attack.” (p. 4) 

The actual behavior of the Jews is a more accurate measure of our mores and beliefs than our rote mouthing of pious platitudes, and present Jewish practice does not point to a community motivated by the standards of the past. Despite wishful thinking to the contrary, “preferring Moses to Freud is irrelevant in an environment where nobody reads Moses.“ (p. 10). 

The point, then, is not very esoteric: our behavior suggests, or rather heralds, a break with the past. The mores and styles of medieval Jewry no longer apply to our lifestyle. And why should they? The rabbis never tried to mold their post-Biblical world to fit the Bible’s environs of priest and prophet. Quite the opposite: they created the talmudic dialectic in order to metamorphose pastoral patriarchs into urban savants. No Jewish society felt so bound to tradition that they refused to alter it to suit their own ends. It is only in the 20th century that we Jews have deified our heroes, and built a fence of guilt around our tradition; a fence which corrals fewer and fewer Jews, leaving those within comfortable and self-righteous, while the escapees flounder about seeking a cogent alternative to help them coordinate and articulate their break with tradition and their coming to grips with reality. 

It is Rabbi Wine’s hope that Humanistic Judaism will meet the need of these refugees by affirming a dynamic and creative alternative to tradition bound Judaism. Whether Humanistic Judaism will succeed in uniting these people is questionable. No inkling of success or failure can be garnished from Rabbi Wine’s book. Yet there is a precedent for this attempt to make Jews honestly confront the split between their actions and their words. This precedent is Reconstructionism, and it is a precedent which failed. 

Reconstructionism strove to articulate in a consistent philosophic framework the functions and needs of the folk. It, like Humanistic Judaism, is an elucidation of Jewish folk religion: what the Jews do religiously as opposed to what they say they are doing. Yet folk religion is by its very nature comprised of inconsistencies in practice, principles and beliefs. Kaplan and Wine are uncomfortable with inconsistencies, however, and hence a little uncomfortable with the folk as well. 

What makes the situation all the more fascinating is that both Humanistic Judaism and Reconstructionism claim to support the folk and their behavior. Their only desire is to consciously guide the development of that behavior in order to achieve swiftly and more efficiently the very goals for which religion unconsciously strives; the establishment of a society in which the individual can achieve happiness, balance, and self-actualization. Yet it is this conscious elitist ideological formulation of folkr practice that causes the folk to reject the elitists. 

Elitist religions like Humanistic Judaism and Reconstructionism are expressed in terms of ideology. Folk religion is expressed in terms of everyday behavior, customs and rituals. In fact the beliefs underlying the behavior of the people may well be incompatible with each other, and Even incompatible with the higher rationalism of the individual doing the action, yet this is never a problem until someone insists on formulating folk religion philosophically. 

Once such formulations are made, the contradictions become obvious, and then the ideologue seeks to adjust the behavior and beliefs to fit a more philosophically consistent system. This is done by establishing the primacy of ideology over behavior, which by definition does violence to the folk religion the ideologist sought  to help. 

In other words, Wine’s reliance on the people’s behavior to put the lie to the people’s espoused beliefs may very well backfire (as it did with Reconstructionism), leaving him with a small nucleus of ideology conscious Jews who cannot relate to the rest of us no matter how violently we transgress our pious mouthings. Nobody wants to be shown how inconsistent she or he is, and she or he will reject any attempt to do so. Being stripped of one’s inconsistencies may be ideologically necessary, but it isn’t very comfortable. Stripped of the theologically meaningless, yet psychologically comforting language of classical faith one is confronted with the awesome task of creating one’s own meaning in the world. Such a task may well prove to foreboding and harsh light of Humanistic Judaism which illuminates this very area may be too stark to capture the hearts as well as the minds of the Jewish people, even those who have left traditional modes behind. In a word, then, if one were to critique Humanistic Judaism as a religion, one could attack it for being so very elitist and so very discomforting. 

But then one has to choose. Which will it be: to etch out our own self-actualization and meaning in the uncarved block of the Real, or to lay back on the soft cushions of tradition and medieval godspeak, mouthing one thing while practicing another, and taking care to avoid noticing the contradictions? I, for one, prefer reality to illusion, and hence welcome Rabbi Wine and his challenging call for honesty.  

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Rami Shapiro is a third year rabbinical student at the Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. 

Vladimir Lenin: Tsar of the Bolsheviks

Recorded May 2007 by the Center for New Thinking.

Ulyanov was his real name. Lenin was his revolutionary name. His body still lies embalmed for public view in Red Square. Born to a bourgeois family, Lenin turned radical when his revolutionary brother was killed. Embracing Marxism, he became the boldest Marxist leader in Europe. The trauma of the First World War gave him an unexpected opportunity to seize power with his Bolshevik faction. Once in power, he became a dictator who transformed Russia. Would the story of Bolshevik Russia have been different had he not died early from a stroke?

Click HERE to download and listen to this audio lecture.

Karl Marx: The Promise of Utopia

Recorded in February 2007 by the Center for New Thinking.

When Karl Marx died, his disciples were few in numbers. But within ten years his followers were numerous. And within 20 years they constituted millions. Of all the varieties of socialism, Marx’s scientific socialism was the most successful. The drama of revolution, the clash of the classes and the ultimate emergence of Utopia invited popular enthusiasm. Marx believed that progress was inevitable, guided by the inexorable laws of history. Fashioned in academic isolation, the vision of Marx became the philosophy of a brutal empire.

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Bill and Hillary: Love, Hate and Opportunism (1999)

Recorded on 11-2-1999 by the Center for New Thinking.

Do Bill and Hillary really love each other? Or are they rank opportunists whose ambitions for power are disguised by sweet talk? Sex scandals and impeachment have made their public devotion less than credible. What is the real story behind the faces? Is there passion and disgust, love and hate? What have people who really know said about their relationship?

 

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Shulamit Aloni

The Jewish Humanist, May/June 1993

SHUALMIT ALONI IS COMING! YOU WILL NOT WANT TO MISS HER!

Aloni is the leader of the Meretz coalition in the Israeli Knesset She is the controversial Minister of Education and Culture, whose defense of a secular state has aroused the passionate hostility of the ultra-Orthodox. Over the past few months a public battle has been waged between liberals and religious conservatives over her membership in the Israeli government. The Orthodox want her head. The moderates see her as the one guarantee that the present regime will defend civil liberties and begin to dismantle the state support of traditional religion. This controversy has been featured on the front pages of most newspapers and given Aloni international fame.

Shula is a native Israeli who grew up in Jerusalem. Her early years were the formative years of the Jewish state. Reared in the secular Zionism of the Zionist pioneers, she hoped that the state of Israel would fulfill the humanistic dreams of the founders. To her dismay the Labor government of David Ben-Gurion compromised these ideals for political expediency and turned over the regulation of family life to the Orthodox. Her response to this betrayal was not the cynical resignation of most Labor politicians, but open defiance. She committed her life to politics, to feminism, to personal freedom and to the defense of the liberal democratic tradition of the modern Enlightenment.

This defiance was not easy. Given her talents and charisma, she could have, with little effort, achieved political power If had been willing to compromise the Integrity of her ideals. Her punishment was that she was banished by the leaders of the Labor Party to the periphery of Israeli political Golda Meir, in particular, was incensed her disobedience and by her embarrassing persistence. Golda, as Aloni points out, saw herself as the ultimate Jewish mother of the Jewish nation, whose children were not as wise as she was. When she encountered political resistance, especially within her own camp, her response could be ruthless. Golda believed that pursuing the cause of either feminism or civil liberties was a harmful division from the main task of Unifying the Israeli people in defense of the Jewish state against the Arab aggressors.

Shula expressed her defiance in many ways. She wrote books and newspaper articles and hosted a provocative radio show. She counseled the marriage and divorce victims of Orthodox law, finding creative ways for secular Jews to avoid Orthodox jurisdiction. She became a consumer advocate, mobilizing thousands of followers to press for domestic reform. She was elected to Knesset where she remained, for a long time, a sole advocate for women’s rights and Separation of religion and government. She organized a new political party, the Citizens Rights Movement (Ratz), which provided a clear public voice for the elementary personal freedom which we in America take for granted. For over a decade she was treated as a political pariah, a solo prophetic voice in a sea of cynics and chauvinists. But, in the last election, her party helped to create a coalition of the liberal left – Ratz and Mapam and Shinui – which named itself Merétz and went on to win ten seats in the Knesset. With Meretz, the Labor Party and Rabin were able to unseal the Likud and to achieve political supremacy. Aloni’s reward was the Ministry of Education and Culture, a crucial ministry which had been under Orthodox control in the previous government and which had wrought havoc with the secular curriculum of the state schools. The battle lines were now drawn, especially when she proclaimed that feministic values needed to re-enter the Israeli school system. She has now become the chief target of Orthodox hate. Even Rabin has wavered in support of her and has tried to censor her.’ Power has brought her no relief from continuous assault.

Now Shula is more to us than a brave Jewish defender of freedom and human dignity. She is the longtime friend of the Birmingham Temple and one of the founders of the Humanistic Jewish movement in Israel.

We first met her in 1979 when she consented to come from Israel to be our special guest at the annual meeting of the Society for Humanistic Judaism. Her appearance was transforming. The rapport between her and her American audience was electric. We loved her from the start. And she loved us.

In 1981, enthusiastic about the prospects For Humanistic Judaism in Israel, she helped to organize a dialogue between secular Jews from America and secular Jews from Israel at Shefayim, a seaside kibbutz north of Tel Aviv. Many important Israeli intellectuals and writers attended. Within two years the Israeli Association for Secular Humanistic Judaism was born.

Shula’s coming is part of our celebration of our Temple’s thirtieth birthday anniversary. One of the best things that has happened to us in the past thirty years is that we made the Shula connection. Her participation in our celebration is testimony to the fact that Humanistic Judaism has an important part to play In the Jewish world.