Rabbi Meir Kahane, slain founder of the militant Jewish Defense League, was described yesterday by Jewish leaders and scholars as a confrontational, sometimes bigoted man but also as one who focused public attention on Jewish nationalism and treatment of Soviet Jews years before the mainstream Jewish leadership.
Twenty years ago, Kahane bused to Washington 100 teenagers dressed in Army fatigues to demonstrate against the plight of Soviet Jews in front of the Soviet Embassy, according to Rabbi Herzel Kranz of Silver Spring, a Kahane supporter.
Kahane's "bizarre ideas" about banning all Arabs from Israel and the occupied territories gradually gained enough legitimacy in Israel that in the 1988 Israeli elections one political party made Arab eviction part of its platform, said Ehud Sprinzak, a political science professor at Hebrew University.
Brooklyn-born Kahane, who emigrated to Israel in 1971, was elected to the Israeli Knesset, or parliament, in 1984 with 1 percent of the vote. "Many people would not vote for him," said Sprinzak, an expert on extremist groups. "But he influenced their thinking."
"He was very adept at working with the media and drawing attention to himself and his causes," said David Harris, executive vice president of the American Jewish Committee. Jews everywhere adopted Kahane's early slogan, "Never again," as a reminder that they must not allow the Holocaust to be repeated, Harris said. "In that sense, Kahane did have an impact on groups well beyond his small band of followers."
Even as the young son of a rabbi growing up in Flatbush, Martin David Kahane was a militant.
He was arrested in 1947, at age 15, for throwing rocks at a limousine carrying the visiting British foreign minister -- part of a protest against British occupation of Palestine. He traveled with the Zionist youth group Betar to the Catskill mountains, where he received ideological and military training. He followed closely the moves of his father's radical friend, Zev Jabotinsky, founder of a revisionist Zionist movement.
After earning a rabbinical degree, a law degree and a master's degree in international affairs, Kahane -- who changed his name to Meir after being ordained a rabbi -- went to work as an Orthodox rabbi in Queens, N.Y. He founded the Jewish Defense League in 1968, originally as an advocacy organization for elderly Jews who were being mugged on New York streets. The JDL told Jews to arm themselves, using the motto, "Every Jew a .22."
Caught up in the anti-establishment rhetoric of his time, Kahane quickly turned the league into a nationalist organization that championed the idea of making Israel a purely Jewish state by whatever means necessary. "I want to remove the Arabs -- including Israeli Arabs -- from the entire land of Israel," he said in one interview.
The JDL attracted publicity and membership in major U.S. cities because of its confrontational tactics, which included a terrorist campaign against Soviet offices and diplomats in this country.
In 1971, Kahane was convicted in New York for making bombs and he fled to Israel. In 1975 he was brought back to the United States to serve a year in federal prison for parole violations. He traveled back and forth between the countries from then on, using his platforms here to raise money, sometimes as much as $500,000 at a time, according to Sprinzak. He had a wife and four children, all living in Israel.
Following the Camp David accords that led to a peace treaty between Israel and Egypt in 1978, Kahane began to believe he was the only one who could save Israel, according to Sprinzak.
A slightly built man with statesmanlike oratorical skills, Kahane frequently was compared to slain black nationalist Malcolm X, both in method and message, according to Richard Cohen, spokesman for the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. But Kahane never commanded the number of followers that Malcolm X did.
Many, if not most, U.S. and Israeli Jews wanted nothing to do with Kahane. American Jewish leaders refused to speak on the same platform with him. Only a handful of American synagogues would allow him in their doors. His fund-raising speeches often took place in hotels before small groups of supporters.
When he was elected to the Knesset (for one term), president Chaim Herzog refused to shake his hand -- a courtesy extended to other new parliament members. Following his election, the Knesset passed two laws to make sure Kahane could not be reelected. One made it a crime to use racist slogans or propaganda; the other made it impossible for anyone with dual nationality to run for the Knesset. In 1988, Kahane renounced his U.S. citizenship in a quest for a seat, but his party was barred from the election.
Kahane's popularity in this country has diminished over the years as mainstream U.S. Jewish leaders have become more politically active and more outspoken on issues he championed early on, according to some of those leaders. But Kahane's political followers in Israel continue to stir up extremist acts against Arabs, they said, and are pushing right-wing parties in Israel further to the right.
Kahane's "most dangerous impact," Sprinzak said, "has been to let the dark side of the Israeli psyche out in the open: a combination of religiosity, ultranationalism, anti-Arab sentiment and violence."