Juxtaposing the Rise of Kahanism and Purim

Posted on Mar 2, 2019

by Joshua Shanes, February 28, 2019

Editor’s note: The rise of a political party in Israel that inherits the racist ideas of Kahane would have seemed impossible just a few decades ago when Kahane was excluded from the Knesset because of his racism. But in today’s Israeli politics, there is a reasonable chance that some of these Kahanists may end up as ministers in the next government. Purim, with its description of Jewish violence, has been appropriated by right-wing extremists to provide a religious cover for their hateful attitude toward Palestinians. Please read the article below and encourage others to join you in questioning whether and in what ways Jews should transform this holiday (Purim begins on the eve of Wednesday, March 20) into one that acknowledges the slippery slope from ultra-nationalism to racism and hatred. –Rabbi Michael Lerner

This week is twenty-five years since a “hasid” of Meir Kahane murdered 29 Muslims (and wounded 125 more) praying in a space deemed holy by both Jews and Muslims. The recitation of the commandment to “wipe out” Amalek read the previous Shabbat, reinforced in Megillah Esther the evening before, undoubtedly played a part in his decision. Palestinians were frequently – and are still frequently in religious spaces I inhabit – labeled Amalek. This is a known phenomenon already analyzed at length in Elliot Horowitz’s classic book, Reckless Rites: Purim and the Legacy of Jewish Violence (Princeton, 2006).

I was living in Jerusalem at the time, just beginning my journey in the interconnected Orthodox and religious Zionist worlds. That night I attended the popular Purim party off the midrachov, run by an individual engaged in kiruv work for the secular overseas students, and a rabbi from Bet El showed up dressed as Rambo (!). He told me that a Jew had been murdered in Hebron, meaning Goldstein, as if there was no context of his being in the middle of committing mass murder in an unprovoked attack! Even then, he reminded me of a childhood bully who finally – with the backing the state – got to play out violent fantasies of his youth.

The next year, I spent a Shabbat with a rabbi in Kfar Chabad, famous for attracting baalei teshuva with his guitar. After the end of Shabbat and Havdala, he performed an original song for me, one verse of which belted out “I prefer heroes like Yehuda Hamaccabee and Baruch Goldstein.” I guess he saw the shock in my face, and he explained how Goldstein had uncovered and stopped a terrorist plot. (This is a widely held conspiracy theory among Kahanists today). He remains still a popular, widely respected member of that community.

Image: Grave of Baruch Goldstein. Image courtesy of Yoni Lerner/Flickr.

Grave of Baruch Goldstein. Image courtesy of Yoni Lerner/Flickr.

Pictured here is the grave of Goldstein, a pilgrimage site today. “The holy doctor Baruch Goldstein, may God avenge his blood … who gave his life for the Jewish nation, its Torah and its land. With clean hands and pure heart.” It’s located across the street from the state-funded Meir Kahane Park. The dedication monument reads that the park is named for “Meir Kahane, lover of Israel, great in Torah, hero in action, killed sanctifying God’s name.”

These are the words and faith of the men now legitimated in Israel. Much has been written in the last week explaining the violent theology of this movement, the elevation of power and land as supreme religious values, the parallels between Kahane’s proposed laws and the Nuremberg Laws, and their behavior with Russian pogromists. Here I mean not only the massive Jerusalem Day parade, which has devolved into an annual pogrom against Arab shopkeepers, but also Baruch Marzel’s campaign video in which he proudly demonstrates how to commit a pogrom in the Hebron market, or rather his devotion to such actions. The leaders of “Jewish Power” glorify both Goldstein and Kahane, with one hanging a large shrine/painting of him in his home.

I am sincerely drawing hope from the many religious Zionist leaders – including rabbis Benny Lau and Moshe Lichtenstein in Israel as well as scores of Religious Zionist rabbis in America including Irving (Yitz) Greenberg – decrying this movement, its merger with the heir to the Religious Zionist Party, Habayit Hayehudi (Jewish Home), and (far less commonly) Netanyahu’s having brought them together with promises of ministries.

Nevertheless, reflecting on a quarter century of my own experiences in Jewish and Zionist circles, the normalization of these views is far more widespread than we are willing to admit. This moment can serve as a wake-up call to something rotten inside us. Even if Otzma Yehudit is defeated in this election, their rise is not a sudden aberration and it will not easily go away. According to the Pew survey in 2015, 48% of Israeli Jews favor the expulsion of all Palestinians from Israel, with a vast majority of Haredi and religious Zionist Jews favoring this. Only 43% of Israeli Jews polled even favor a two-state solution. Many of Kahane’s ideals have been advanced in less grotesque fashion by parties of the “mainstream” Right, especially Naftali Bennet, who left the Habayit Hayehudi party he founded to start a New Right party, as well as the existing Habayit Hayehudi (even before this merger with Otzma Yedudit) and many others. Netanyahu, for example, has repeatedly campaigned on fear-mongering about the Arab vote, whose legitimacy he explicitly denies. The mainstream “blue and white” opposition has likewise declared that it will never include Arab parties in its coalition but if elected would instead seek to welcome Likud, sans Netanyahu!

Meanwhile, in America, Kahane grows more accepted every day, especially (but not only) in Orthodox spaces. A popular Orthodox paper recently asked a panel to word associate with him, for example, and the responses expressed pure adoration. The rabbi of the largest synagogue in Teaneck teaches and defends Kahane, and this year’s annual Yeshiva University Seforim Sale includes a variety of works by Kahane, a fact celebrated by the Kahanist editor of the popular Jewish Press paper in New York. The National Council of Young Israel – representing 175 member synagogues – issued a statement backing Netanyahu’s elevation of these racist extremists, while the Rabbinical Council of America, the Orthodox Union and Agudat Yisrael have remained silent. And while AIPAC – which hosts the largest annual gathering of Jews in America – helpfully condemned the party of kahanists as beyond the pale, they refused to call out Netanyahu for legitimizing them, and responded to Netanyahu accusing them of being leftist hypocrites by immediately issuing a statement that he would be their featured speaker just two weeks before the election.

In short, active and passive support for this ideology has been growing, and we have been downplaying this threat at our peril. Zionism has always existed not merely as a political ideology, but also as a religious one. Even its secular varieties presented themselves as constituting the most authentic form of Jewishness, drawing selectively on prooftexts and history to compete with other Jewish denominations. Today it has conquered most of them. It is not atheism but anti-Zionism that is the unforgiveable heresy for most congregations, even those that do not celebrate Israel as “the beginning of the flowering of our redemption.” The problem is that as “mainstream” Zionism grows ever more rightwing, its nationalist and racist interpretations of the Torah increasingly drown out the more humanist ones.

This was all entirely predictable. Indeed, Israeli philosopher, scientist and life-long Zionist Professor Yeshayahu Leibowitz famously predicted it over half a century ago. Politically, he anticipated the inevitable corruption of an extended occupation – growing brutality, exploitation of Arab quislings, the rise of a police-state, and more. “The only concern of this monstrosity called “the Undivided Land of Israel,” he wrote, “would be the maintenance of its system of rule and administration.” Scholar of Jewish mysticism and Zionist Gershom Scholem likewise famously referred to many of the settlers as “neo-Sabbateans” (Sabbatai Zvi was a false messiah and heretic from the 17th century), worried that they would undermine the Zionist aspirations of many in his generation.

More importantly, perhaps, Leibowitz emphasized the destructive transvaluation of Judaism itself, elevating land, power and nation over God and our fidelity to God’s covenant with Israel. Such a Zionism was the Judaism of Korach (the villainous character in the Book of Numbers), which “allows every Jew to be proud and boast that he is a member of the holy people, which is holy by its very nature.” Instead of a Judaism of obligation, it is merely, “an expression of racist chauvinism.” “Pagans in tsitsit,” one might say.

Most Jews, good people, rejected these predictions as its own form of political and religious extremism, the ravings of a radical curmudgeon. In light of recent events, I think we need to admit the religious danger looms larger than most realized. Meir Kahane was banned from the Knesset in 1986, a generation ago. Today the Prime Minister invites his heirs into the majority, even offering his own party’s excess votes to help them get there. The party of Religious Zionism overwhelmingly voted to join them, some followers embracing the decision, others defending it, and still others condemning while still defending the settlement enterprise that serves as its backbone.

Growing condemnation of the most grotesque Kahanists and their party is a good start, though one that is sad to be necessary. Understanding how Zionism has integrated into Judaism, selectively choosing and reinterpreting texts and traditions, and the theological reasons that wider and wider circles of Jews are sympathetic to Kahane’s worldview and institutions even as they reject his disciple’s most grotesque expressions of it – this is an urgently needed next step.

In three weeks, we will recite Parshat Zakhor, the portion about destroying Amalek, that immediately precedes Purim. What percentage of Jews, like Goldstein, will be thinking about Palestinians and praying for their destruction? I don’t know the answer, but I know it is far larger than the voting base of “Jewish Power.” The Bible demands that Jews see to this destruction themselves; how many will hear that call literally, God forbid? It is the only definitively Torah-commanded (“d’oreisa”) Torah reading of the year – and thus any serious Jew must grapple with this. For me, tapping rabbinic ideas about the yetzer hara (“evil inclination”), I think of the Amalek inside myself and my communities. I pray that we remember what this metaphor has caused and that we find the strength (with Divine help) to overcome it.