MEIR KAHANE came onto the stage to applause and boos, supporters and opponents vying for volume. This he ignored. He stood at the podium and didn't have two sentences out when a woman in the back yelled, "Fascist! Racist!"
"I hope that all of you by the end of this evening will see who the real democrats are," he said.
Kahane, the 52-year-old American-born rabbi, founder of the violent Jewish Defense League and now a member of the Israeli Knesset, had come to the Silver Spring Jewish Center Sunday night to preach his message to a crowd of about 250: the need to expel the Arabs from Israel and its occupied territories.
By the end of an evening fraught with emotion and hostility, in a room dotted with uniformed and plainclothes police, Kahane was calling his vocal opponents "fascists" and "mentally ill."
"Don't talk to me, you leftists, about love of Jews," he cried midway through a speech filled with examples of Arab violence in Israel. "I know what you are! Fascists? Those are the fascists!" He pointed to the back of the room, toward many of his noisier opponents.
He also managed to insult Israeli Jews, American Jews and Arabs. The only people he didn't insult were Israel's Sephardim -- the eastern Jews -- who gave Kahane most of his votes. "The Sephardim -- the last mentally sane people of Israel," he said.
His opponents, some eventually removed by police, screamed back at him -- some in Hebrew, some near tears. They interrupted his speech -- you can say anything to him when it's your turn, he said later, just don't interrupt him.
During the question-and-answer period -- which was no sedate pass-your-index-cards-to-the-front routine -- his opponents made impassioned statements. His supporters, outraged, scolded, "Ask your question!" or "Sit down!" One opponent was running longer than two minutes when a Kahane supporter jumped up from his seat, brandishing Kahane's book (autographed copies of which the synagogue was selling for $50) and shouted, "Read the book!" ("I've read the book," the man responded.)
His effect is nothing if not incendiary, and everyone coming to hear him had been carefully scanned by a policeman holding an electronic metal detector. At the end, a third of the room gave him a standing ovation; and sedate-looking suburban citizens, risking forcible expulsion by police, screamed their disapproval.
It is, of course, his words -- mainly his wish to expel all Arabs from Israel -- that provoke such reactions. But his manner is something else. He makes cracks that send his supporters into prolonged titters. His delivery sometimes sounds almost like a Catskill comedian. In his litany of violence, he spoke of Israeli posters asking the whereabouts of young people missing for more than two years. He grimaced, scrunched up his eyes, raised his right hand in befuddlement and said, "How can you be missing for more than two years in Israel? What is this? Texas?" (Laughter.)
And during a calmer moment in the Center, he asked, "Now, how do we get the Arabs out?"
"Picture Arabs putting on the radio one morning and hearing that the new minister of defense is Meir Kahane." The audience broke into laughter and applause. "How will we get them out? When they hear that, they'll pack themselves. I understand the Arabs. They understand me . . . We both can't understand Jews." There was wild applause.
He shrugged. "They say, 'He's crazy,' " said Kahane. "I like that image. I don't want a nice image. The Arabs understand what Kach his party is! . . .
"The rapes and the murders and the horrors, that will NEVER, EVER," he banged the lectern, "happen again." He banged it once more.
As for the Arabs, he said, "Any Arab willing to leave will get full compensation for his property -- which is more than they gave Jews leaving Egypt and Iraq."
Ten police officers escorted him as he left.
Kahane has spoken at the Center 15 times in nearly as many years at the invitation of Orthodox Rabbi Herzel Kranz. Late Sunday night, in the dining room of Kranz's house, Kahane has become soft-spoken. A variety of admirers gather around the table: a young Orthodox Jew in dark suit and hat, an interior designer in a cowboy-like hat, a pregnant woman, Kranz and others. Kahane had planned a 2 1/2-week tour, but says he must return to Israel to vote on the formation of the government.
He says there is one "simple question" none of his detractors seems capable of answering: "Do the Arabs have a right to be a majority in Israel? Yes or no? If they say yes, they are of course democrats but anti-Zionist. If they say no they are Kahane except," he chuckles, "they are not quite as bright.
"So what we're doing is we have printed up both in Hebrew and English a referendum . . . It would say One: I believe that Israel must always be a democracy and the Arabs have a right, should they become a majority, to do away with the Jewish state.
"Two: I believe that Israel is the Jewish state and under no circumstances can it ever allow Arabs to become a majority. Ask everybody to vote on this thing. And no Jewish leader will vote on it. And that's what I want the Jews to see."
The image of his irrationality is important to him:
"If the Arabs are convinced that I am that determined to move them out, that nothing will stop me -- 'He's so mad, he's so insane, nothing will stop him' -- then they'll stop and say to themselves, 'Now, look, the man will throw us out. Maybe it's better to leave with the money and leave quietly than to be thrown out without the money, since he apparently will do it anyhow.'
"In short," he continues, "if they believe that I was the kind of person who somehow would back off under the logic of 'What will America say? What will the world say?' they assume such people are rational people and people that don't care are not rational.
"Now, I know I am a rational person," he says. "Nevertheless, it's so good to have an image. For example, with the Jewish Defense League , when we first formed it we were very very happy about having an image as a tough gang."
A terrorist image, some would say.
"Right," he says. "Because the anti-Semite is afraid of him. And I would rather have the anti-Semite afraid of me but not hurt the Jews than have a good image among Jews. In short, if the image is bad for JDL but good for the Jewish people, I'd rather have it good for the Jewish people."
Prominent American Jewish leaders use words like "heartsick" and "ashamed" to describe how they feel about Kahane's ascendancy to the Knesset.
"He's espousing views that are repugnant to Jews in 90 percent of the world," says Rabbi Michael Berenbaum, Georgetown professor of theology and opinion page editor of the Washington Jewish Week. "And he's espousing them in the name of God and the name of religion. He's misrepresenting a religious tradition and he's giving our religious tradition a miserable name.
"The task of Israeli society will be to isolate him, contain him, make sure his views do not spread."
"The tone of racism in his comments has no part in Jewish life," says Rabbi David Saperstein, codirector of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations' Religious Action Center. ". . . I'm absolutely heartsick that he will be given a platform in Israel to speak views that are anathema to Jewish life."
Israeli president Chaim Herzog refused to grant Kahane the traditional meeting that new Knesset members get. The boisterous Israeli press has informally decided not to give him more attention than is necessary. In Israel he carries a pistol and travels with two Sephardic bodyguards. He says he gets telephone threats against his life. "We have an answering machine which says, 'Please leave your name and address,' " he chuckles.
His family lives in Jerusalem: his mother, Sonia, his wife, Libby, his four children, their seven grandchildren. ("We will beat the Arabs at their own game," he says, referring to the Arab prolificacy he mentions so much.)
"She's very very calm," he says of his wife, whom he met in New York when both were members of a Zionist youth group. She works at the Hebrew University library. "That's how she can survive all this."
Yet, he says, he has many friends; and his neighbors in Jerusalem "are all happy to have a Knesset member in the neighborhood." When he walks through the marketplace, Sephardic Jews greet him with hugs and kisses, he says.
Kahane won 1.2 percent of the vote (26,000 votes), but he refers to his support as "enormous." In his words, his potential is "enormous" and he openly relishes the thought of the next election.
He is banned, he says, from Great Britain, Canada and Belgium. In the United States -- where he proclaims he has the right to maintain his citizenship despite holding office in Israel -- he has spoken in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and here, winding up a nine-day tour.
He was raised an Orthodox Jew, the son of a rabbi, in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn at a time when Flatbush was mostly non-Jewish. "All my friends," he says, "were either Gentiles or non-Orthodox Jews."
". . . I grew up in the streets. And had kind of a dual kind of an education. On the one hand, in the house, in the school, very, very Jewish. And outside, very, very non-. And I learned about the world. I had the fights regularly over my yarmulke, and then afterwards I'd drink beer with them. I had for the most part a very, very pleasant childhood. Very very pleasant. No trauma."
The fights weren't traumatic?
"Nah, it wasn't every single day. Once you did it two, three, four times, then it was over. Once you fight, and you get bloodied, if you bloody back, then you're okay. Just, God help the guy that let's lets himself get pushed around. Then there's no end to it."
His father was an admirer of Ze'ev Jabotinsky, the fiery leader of the Zionist Revisionists, the ultranationalist group that came to prominence in the first half of this century. (The Revisionists later came to be identified with the Irgun, the militant, often violent Zionist underground.
"I knew about the Holocaust when I was a boy of 10. So when Jewish leaders say, 'We didn't know,' that's all baloney. I remember hearing about it."
In 1946, he joined Betar, the militant Jewish youth organization. His first arrest came a year later at age 15. British foreign minister Ernest Bevin, who had been turning away Jewish refugee ships from British ports, came to the United Nations to speak. Bevin arrived on the Queen Mary, and when his car came down the gangplank, it was smashed by a group that included Kahane. Kahane got his head bashed by a police officer on the scene.
At the police station, "My father yelled at me, and I said, 'It was your fault. You taught me all this.' He never yelled at me again," says Kahane, chuckling.
He attended Brooklyn College at night and then night law school at New York University. He got the law degree because he thought it might help him when he moved to Israel which he did in 1971. But three years before that, he founded the Jewish Defense League in response, he says, to vicious outbreaks of anti-Semitism throughout New York and "a great need to change the Jewish image. The Jewish guy gets pushed around. It's the Jewish kid who gets shaken down for his lunch money . . . I believed we needed groups to stand up for Jewish rights. Jews were fighting for blacks and Puerto Ricans and lettuce and grapes and Vietnam. There was no Jewish consciousness."
The JDL became known for its violent methods, particularly to publicize the plight of Soviet Jews: "We bombed the Russian mission in New York, the Russian cultural mission here in 1970, the Soviet trade offices," he says. The result was to "put Soviet Jews on page one," he says. "Our violence was a very well-thought-out political movement."
Though it's not the organization it once was, Kahane says, "When I get back in November, I plan to establish U.S. Kach groups and JDL will be the youth aspects. JDL will handle the physical aspects. There's a lot of anti-Semitism."
In Israel he has been arrested more than 20 times and served several months in prison in 1981 under preventive detention for threatening violence against Palestinian protesters in the occupied West Bank.
One of Kahane's latest encounters with the police occurred last month when he was barred from entering the Arab village of Umm el Fahm. "I have no intention of not going to Umm el Fahm," he says. "I intend to go. I don't care if the whole army comes out."
And this is his plan for the Arabs: The Israeli government would compensate them for the property they lose -- the money coming from world Jewry. The government, he says, could say, " 'Look, we have this terrible, terrible problem which you can solve. Finally here is something that can be solved -- not with bullets but with money. We are asking you to raise in the course of five years, six years, seven years, $3 billion.' The Jews would do that. No question about it."
What if the Arabs won't go?
"I'm not asking them," Kahane says. "They'll be thrown out."
Where would they go?
"There are areas in the Arab world that would take them," he says. "Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Iraq."
He bases his justification on Scripture -- he considers it divine word -- which he says supports his reading of what a Jewish state is. "I also base it on cold, hard logic. Self-preservation. You don't have to have scripture to say, 'I'm not going to lose my state to a second people in any way, in any way.' "
Kahane says he wants the Arabs out not solely because of the violence they have perpetrated against Jews, but simply because their numbers indicate they will soon be a majority. There are 3 million Jews and 700,000 Arabs who are Israeli citizens -- with another 1.3 million who live in the occupied territories. In 1948, Israel's founders granted full political rights to Arab citizens. But Kahane wants them out unless they're prepared to live as non-citizens -- or convert to Judaism.
"Let's assume tomorrow morning, every Arab turned into a real saint. I mean, a real saint. I'm not about to live under a majority of Arab saints. The state of Israel came into being as a Jewish state. It said a Jewish state with Jews as a majority. That's what a Jewish state is. If it's not that, who needs it? I mean, Brooklyn really is better."