On Rabin anniversary, warnings of a former extremist
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Interview

On Rabin anniversary, warnings of a former extremist

Yossi Klein Halevi’s first book, on his militant youth in Meir Kahane’s JDL, was initially published two days after the Rabin assassination in 1995. Now it is being re-released — coincidentally, terribly, amid a resurgence of Jewish radicalism

David Horovitz

David Horovitz is the founding editor of The Times of Israel. He is the author of "Still Life with Bombers" (2004) and "A Little Too Close to God" (2000), and co-author of "Shalom Friend: The Life and Legacy of Yitzhak Rabin" (1996). He previously edited The Jerusalem Post (2004-2011) and The Jerusalem Report (1998-2004).

Rabbi Meir Kahane, center,  stands in the midst of Jewish Defense League protesters in Washington, March 20, 1977. (photo credit: AP Photo/Charles Tasnadi)
Rabbi Meir Kahane, center, stands in the midst of Jewish Defense League protesters in Washington, March 20, 1977. (photo credit: AP Photo/Charles Tasnadi)

Yossi Klein Halevi’s first book, “Memoirs of a Jewish Extremist,” was initially published on November 6, 1995 — two days after the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin. An account of his youthful involvement in the violent activism fostered by Rabbi Meir Kahane in the Jewish Defense League at the turn of the 1970s, and his subsequent sobering up, it was commercially doomed by the appalling coincidence. Because of its title, a much-needed warning about the terrible appeal of Jewish extremism and its horrific potential consequences was misperceived as a justification of such radicalism.

Klein Halevi recalls walking into a New York bookstore and being told by the owner, “That book… will never appear in my store.” The author attempted to reason with him: “I said to him, ‘It’s actually a book against Jewish extremism.’ And he said, ‘I don’t care what it is. That book, with that title, is not going to be in this store.'”

Nineteen years later, “Memoirs…” is now being re-released, with a new introduction that documents its “strange history.” Dismally, its author believes, it is actually more relevant today than it was even then, when an Israeli Jewish extremist had just gunned down the prime minister in cold blood. How so? Because, argues Halevi, Israel again finds itself embroiled in Jewish extremism, amid rising anti-democratic, violent tendencies among some of its youth, culminating earlier this summer in what he calls an “unthinkable” act: Jews kidnapping a 16-year-old Palestinian boy, Muhammed Abu Khdeir, and burning him alive. “None of us would have believed before that happened that Jews — any Jews — would be capable of doing that,” Halevi says. “I don’t believe that the Jews I knew in the JDL would have been capable of doing that.”

I sat down last week with Halevi — a senior fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, and the author of last year’s acclaimed “Like Dreamers” — to talk about the impressionable youth whose story he recounts in “Memoirs…,” and the anguished adult he has become. We began by discussing the struggle for the release of Soviet Jewry, whose cause first inflamed him more than four decades ago, and the conversation moved on to the wider Jewish relationship with the rest of the world, and on through subsequent violent punctuations of the Jewish-Israeli narrative.

Yossi Klein Halevi's re-released Memoirs...
Yossi Klein Halevi’s re-released Memoirs…

The interview is partly a confessional, as is the re-released “Memoirs…,” since Klein Halevi acknowledges that “There’s a link between the world I come from, the story that I tell in this book, from the Meir Kahane of Brooklyn in the late 1960s, to the Meir Kahane of Israel in the 70s and the 80s, and then to Baruch Goldstein in Hebron in 1994, to the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin in 1995, to the burning of this boy…

“We opened the door to self-righteous violence,” he laments, “the mentality that says, the whole world hates us and therefore there are no innocents in the world, there are no innocent passersby. That’s the ground from which all forms of terrorism emerge.”

But it is, mainly, a cautionary tale — again, as is the book — a warning that it is imperative “to deal with the extremist temptation and the release of moral restraint within parts of the Jewish community,” which Halevi considers “a threat to our soul” as well as to our safety here in Israel.

When did you write “Memoirs…”? In contrast to “Like Dreamers,” this wasn’t a book you worked on for 11 years.

This was actually more like a 25-year book project. I started writing “Memoirs…” in 1972, when I was 19, and I was very much in the world of Jewish militancy. I intended the book as a defense of the JDL and Meir Kahane. To my good fortune, I started taking notes. Many of the incidents and conversations that appear in the book from those years were not based on memory but on notes taken in live time.

Yossi Klein Halevi (photo: Courtesy)
Yossi Klein Halevi (photo: Courtesy)

And Jewish militancy needed adherents because the great mass of the Jews were not aware of how perilous our position was?

This was the heyday of the Soviet Jewry movement. It was just breaking out from relative obscurity to the front pages. It was the period following the Leningrad Trial, when a group of Soviet Jews was sentenced to long prison terms for intending to hijack a plane to Israel. Inspired by the sacrifices of Soviet Jews, part of the American Jewish protest movement was shifting from peaceful demonstrations to violence. Kahane was shifting the movement in a violent direction.

And you at the time thought that was necessary?

I completely bought in to Kahane’s argument, which was that the media will not pay attention to us if we don’t give the media what it wants. And the media wants action and blood.

The cause being to get the Jews out of the Soviet Union?

Let My People Go. I also participated in vigilante patrols in Jewish neighborhoods against attacks on Jews. But the center of gravity for me was the Soviet Jewry movement. I had grown up in the peaceful side of the movement — the Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry, which was the ultimate polite protest movement. And then Kahane came along. Kahane had been one of the early activists in the Student Struggle, and broke away because he perceived it as too peaceful. Kahane’s classic line was: ‘It’s time to take the Soviet Jewry issue out of the obituary pages and onto page one.’ And he did. He put the Soviet Jewry movement on page one.

What were the most headline-making acts in which you were directly involved?

The first time I was arrested was an act of civil disobedience: March 21, 1971, when 1,300 young people sat down in the streets of Washington. Until that moment it was the largest mass arrest in American history… an historic moment in the evolution of the American Jewish community. For the first time, large numbers of young American Jews were prepared to see the inside of a prison for the sake of a Jewish cause.

Remember that we were coming out of the 1960s. That was a time when every aggrieved group in American society seemed to be breaking the law — except American Jews. They were still playing by the rules. Kahane had a very powerful argument. He said that when blacks were forbidden to sit in the front of the bus, black leaders sat in the streets of Washington. But when Jews were being sent to the gas chambers, American Jewish leaders didn’t break the rules. This had tremendous resonance for me, as the son of a Holocaust survivor, and for my friends, for my generation.

Rabbi Meir Kahane (photo credit: Yossi Zamir/Flash90)
Rabbi Meir Kahane (photo credit: Yossi Zamir/Flash90)

What Kahane did, though, was lead us from peaceful protest to legitimate civil disobedience, to illegitimate violence. It was a calculated plan. He started getting young American Jews used to breaking the law, and his goal was to turn us into thugs.

So that was your first arrest. And then…?

And then I began to be pulled into Kahane’s orbit. By the time I quit that world a few years later, I had been seriously contemplating getting involved in anti-Soviet terrorism. Fortunately, it never got to that point.

In one instance I was involved in reconnaissance of a Soviet ship that had docked on the West Side of Manhattan. The idea was that somebody would shoot at the ship. It never happened.

People, some in wheelchairs, gather at Lincoln Center as they protest "Death of Klinghoffer" Monday, Oct 20, 2014, in New York. (Photo credit: AP/Craig Ruttle)
People, some in wheelchairs, gather at Lincoln Center as they protest “Death of Klinghoffer” Monday, Oct 20, 2014, in New York. (Photo credit: AP/Craig Ruttle)

Less dangerously, I was involved in disrupting concerts by Soviet artists. In one incident, four of us went to the Metropolitan Opera and threw bags of chicken blood at Ukrainian dancers. I went into the Metropolitan Opera on another occasion with a suitcase that had a fake bomb in it, to try to get people to clear out. Somebody phoned in a bomb threat. It didn’t work. I was thinking about all this during the protests over the Klinghoffer opera at the Met a couple of weeks ago. God knows what the JDL would have done.

You went to Moscow.

On Passover 1973. We were eight JDLers. We sat in at the Emigration Office and were arrested, of course, and held … for eight hours. And then, inexplicably, released. We thought we would be, at the very least, deported. And instead, they just sent us back to our hotel room, and told the press that it was just a prank.

Not so stupid.

‘A group of wild teenagers led by a half-mad rabbi from Brooklyn sabotaged détente between the two superpowers’

Right. But we had friends in New York who called a press conference to announce that we had taken over part of the Emigration Office. So it got quite a lot of attention. We also called a press conference– that same night in our hotel room. And foreign correspondents came. The next day was a Shabbat, and we went to the Moscow synagogue — the Moscow synagogue; there was only one in those years that was allowed to function, a kind of showcase for the West. And someone comes up to us, and asks Ovir? (a reference to the Emigration Office), and we say da. He runs back to tell everyone else. They had heard about the demonstration on Voice of America.

We were taken from shul to a meeting of the leading refuseniks in Moscow. For me, that was the culminating moment of my life as an activist. I had grown up in the Soviet Jewry movement from age 12, and there I am sitting in Moscow with my heroes.

I saw the Moscow sit-in as my last, culminating act of civil disobedience.

So you then returned to New York and became more extreme.

Yes, but luckily nothing came of those violent fantasies.

But there were things that Jewish extremists did in the JDL that did result in people being hurt?

In 1972, a smoke bomb was thrown into the lobby of the [Manhattan] offices of the impresario Sol Hurok, the main figure in bringing in Soviet artistic performers to the United States. The smoke bomb landed on a couch and it caught fire. And a secretary died of smoke inhalation.

You had nothing to do with this.

No. The woman who died happened to be Jewish. Her name was Irene Kones. And to fast forward, I was giving a talk one evening at a bookstore in a Philadelphia suburb, and a woman comes over to me, and she says, I was Irene Kones’s roommate. And I froze. I didn’t know what to say to her. All I could say was, I’m so sorry.

She wasn’t angry or bitter. She just wanted to tell me about Irene, wanted me to know what a wonderful person Irene was.

Baruch Goldstein (photo credit: Flash90)
Baruch Goldstein (photo credit: Flash90)

That was the only person they killed?

In my time. Later on, when JDL moved more in an anti-Arab direction, the atrocities got worse. There were terrorist attacks against Palestinians. The worst was committed by Baruch Goldstein, who massacred 29 Muslims praying in the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron in 1994. Goldstein was a JDLer from Brooklyn.

But in my years, JDL focused on liberating Soviet Jewry.

And how successful was the JDL in that effort?

The early 1970s was the era of détente — of trying to draw the United States and the Soviet Union closer together. And our goal was to sabotage détente, which was an extraordinary act of chutzpah. A group of wild teenagers led by a half-mad rabbi from Brooklyn sabotaged détente between the two superpowers.

Really?

Oh, no question.

Immediately following the Leningrad Trial in December 1970, Kahane announced a new strategy: harassment of Soviet diplomats. The harassment tactic was probably the JDL’s single most effective tactic. We would follow Soviet diplomats as they emerged from the Soviet UN mission, and we would follow them. You had this bizarre procession of a guy in a fur hat, with Jewish teenagers cursing him in Russian, followed behind by police to make sure that we wouldn’t physically attack the diplomat. As long as we were cursing him, it was more or less allowed. And then after a block or two of this, the cop would say, ‘Okay boys, that’s enough fun for today. Let’s break it up.’

‘Today, I have a far less generous sense of Kahane’s impact on the Soviet Jewry movement. I think that his role was vastly overstated by us, his followers. The main credit belongs to the heroism of the Soviet Jews themselves’

The Kremlin was convinced that the American government was encouraging us. So they began to harass American diplomats. But the harassment of American diplomats in Moscow, by supposedly spontaneous outraged crowds, was organized of course by the KGB. That turned this into a full-blown crisis.

Who taught you the Russian?

We all knew the Russian curses.

And American media paid attention to this?

It was front page news for weeks, in the New York Times…

And this impacted détente, slowed it?

A deep level of mistrust set in as a result of this. It was a crazed dynamic that was set in motion. It created a superpower crisis.

And then what happened?

The emigration numbers started to rise. You had, in 1971, the largest number of Jews leaving the Soviet Union until that time — something like 15,000. Minuscule, but for us, this was a breakthrough.

So was something beyond peaceful protest and civil disobedience critical?

The harassment was undeniably effective. But I’m not at all convinced about the violence – the bombings and shootings and other acts of terrorism. The breakthrough moment in the Soviet Jewry movement was the attempt of a group of Soviet Jews to hijack a plane from Leningrad. That plan was thwarted; they never got near the plane. They bought all the tickets to this flight — it was a 12-seat plane — and one of them was a pilot. In other words, it wasn’t going to be a hijacking with innocent people on board. They planned to hijack the plane, with only themselves aboard. This was the breakthrough moment: Soviet Jews acting out of such desperation that they were ready to risk their lives to escape the Soviet Union. And they got world attention.

Jewish students rally in support of Soviet Jewry during a speech by US president Gerald Ford outside the Yeshiva of Flatbush in Brooklyn, NY, in 1976. (photo credit: AP)
Jewish students rally in support of Soviet Jewry during a speech by US president Gerald Ford outside the Yeshiva of Flatbush in Brooklyn, NY, in 1976. (photo credit: AP)

In retrospect I realize that JDL took excessive credit for that breakthrough. Today, I have a far less generous sense of Kahane’s impact on the Soviet Jewry movement. I think that his role was vastly overstated by us, his followers. The main credit belongs to the heroism of the Soviet Jews themselves. The breakthrough would have happened anyway, even without the JDL. Maybe it would have taken more time. But the movement would not have had blood on its hands.

Kahane’s motto could have been: Why solve any problem peacefully when you can solve it with violence? For Kahane, violence was almost always a first resort.

I used to make a distinction between the good Kahane and the bad Kahane. The good Kahane had been the Kahane of the Soviet Jewry movement, the Kahane who fought for Jewish liberation. The bad Kahane came to Israel and became a racist and wanted to expel the Palestinians and became the leader of the farthest right.

The good Kahane/bad Kahane motif is something that you’ll hear from most of the people who were with him in the early years. When he became the leader of the farthest right in Israel, he lost almost all of his American followers, including those who moved to Israel. But I now see a clear line linking the Kahane of the Jewish Defense League and the Kahane of Kach, and that is a love of violence, almost for its own sake. To prove to ourselves that Jews could be tough. Conceptually, the link between Kahane in America and in Israel was his overwhelming sense of the radical aloneness of the Jews in the world.

‘For the Jewish psyche, that remains the great, enduring wound of the Shoah to this day — the sense that we were abandoned’

Beyond the argument over tactics, the Soviet Jewry movement was divided over exactly that question — our relationship to the rest of the world. And the question was: Will we save Soviet Jewry on our own because we are friendless and therefore all tactics are legitimate, or are we a people capable of forming alliances? I spent my first years as an activist in the Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry. SSSJ’s approach was to build alliances with the Civil Rights movement. Martin Luther King spoke out repeatedly for Soviet Jewry. Bayard Rustin and other leaders of the Civil Rights movement were regulars at Soviet Jewry demonstrations. One of the first SSSJ demonstrations was a week-long interfaith fast. So, I grew up with that sense of ‘we’re not alone in the world.’

For me, coming from a survivor family, with my father teaching me that the Jews are alone in the world, the notion of non-Jewish allies was almost messianic. It was this sense of healing from the Shoah, from that feeling of radical aloneness. For the Jewish psyche, that remains the great, enduring wound of the Shoah to this day — the sense that we were abandoned, and that the world was essentially divided into two camps, as my father put it: those who actively wanted to kill us, and those who were glad that someone else was doing the job. So I had this tug in my soul, like many Jews of my generation, between this sense of aloneness, on the one hand, and of new possibilities on the other. The Jewish experience in America, the Soviet Jewry movement, most of all the creation of Israel, all helped counter-balance the impact of the Shoah, and offered the hope that we can find our place in the world.

Now Kahane comes along and says it’s all nonsense: The SSSJ approach is an illusion and there are no allies and that’s why we have to resort to violence. I was torn. Part of me really wanted to believe in a SSSJ model of a transformed Jewish relationship with the world, and part of me said, ‘It’s all nonsense. Go with Kahane.’

So, the real drama for me, which I write about in the book, is not so much over this tactic or the other. The drama is: What is the Soviet Jewry movement playing out in terms of our relationship with the world? Does the Soviet Jewry movement represent a healing from the Shoah, or are we going to free Soviet Jews completely on our own? The question of the Jewish relationship with the rest of the world has profound relevance for Jews today.

A picture of late Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, at a memorial ceremony to commemorate the18th anniversary of Rabin's assassination, on October 15, 2013. (Photo credit: Miriam Alster/FLASH90)
A picture of late Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, at a memorial ceremony to commemorate the18th anniversary of Rabin’s assassination, on October 15, 2013. (Photo credit: Miriam Alster/FLASH90)

Let’s look at that question of whether we are a people who dwell alone and are hated perennially or whether we can build alliances. And first of all, let’s remark upon that unfortunate coincidence of this book initially being published around the time that Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated.

Two days after the assassination. November 6, 1995.

Which doomed the book first time around, because it was perceived in America as a justification for Jewish extremism.

No one wanted to be seen walking into a bookstore the week of the Rabin assassination buying a book called “Memoirs of a Jewish Extremist.” The original sub-title – “An American Story” – didn’t give an indication that the book was actually a critical judgment on extremism. I have now changed the sub-title to ‘The Story of a Transformation.’

That sub-title would not have saved you then, either. People might have thought you were a once very peaceful bloke who got transformed into a Jewish extremist…

(Laughs.) I walked into a bookstore right after “Memoirs…” appeared. My agent had said to me, Go to bookstores, introduce yourself, speak to the manager or the owner. Those were the years when there were still privately owned bookstores. So, I went into a bookstore on Lexington Avenue and I said, ‘Look, I just published this book, it got a very nice review in the Times. And he said, ‘I know about that book and it will never appear in my store.’

‘I don’t minimize the crisis we are in today. Anti-semitism is spreading in the Muslim world, and increasingly in Europe, which has its own pathological, unresolved issues to work out with us. But I don’t see us as being hated universally, by any means. India and China are both quite friendly to us’

I said to him, ‘It’s actually a book against Jewish extremism.’ And he said, ‘I don’t care what it is. That book, with that title, is not going to be in this store.’

So I realized, that’s it. The reviews were very good and almost nobody bought it. (Laughs.) I literally got a letter in the mail from my previous publisher: ‘Dear Author, We know this is a painful moment, but we are about to turn your book into pulp. And you can buy as many copies as you want for a dollar.’ I bought a thousand copies, thinking, what am I ever going to do with a thousand copies? And I have two left. So to see this book coming out in paperback, this literary resurrection, is deeply satisfying for me.

You’ve subsequently written a book about exploring avenues of interfaith dialogue (At the Entrance to the Garden of Eden: A Jew’s Search for Hope with Christians and Muslims in the Holy Land), in an Israel led by a prime minister who tends to a very bleak view of the Jewish condition. I wonder if he thinks the Jews are fated to live alone and to protect themselves because alliances are not dependable. From his rhetoric, he clearly believes that ultimately we have to be able to look after ourselves, by ourselves, because friends come and go.

Obviously we need to rely on ourselves. That’s true for any nation, but especially us. But we do have friends. There’s a vast gap between the need for Jewish self-reliance and saying that the whole world hates us and always did and always will.

‘I try not to look at Europe. I don’t go to lecture there anymore. Emotionally I can’t bear it. I don’t know if I can face hearing Israel denounced as Nazi Germany in a German accent’

That’s the mentality that I’m rejecting, and “Memoirs…” is really the story of a psychological, ideological and ultimately spiritual shift away from that sense of Jewish isolationism.

I don’t minimize the crisis we are in today. Anti-semitism is spreading in the Muslim world, and increasingly in Europe, which has its own pathological, unresolved issues to work out with us. But I don’t see us as being hated universally, by any means. India and China, which happen to represent a substantial part of the planet, are both quite friendly to us. I read in the Times of Israel that China’s social media during the war this summer was overwhelmingly pro-Israel. The largest pro-Israel demonstration, during the Gaza war, was in a city without Jews – Calcutta.

Frankly, I try not to look at Europe. I don’t go to lecture there anymore.

Because it’s a lost cause?

Because emotionally I can’t bear it. I don’t know if I can face hearing Israel denounced as Nazi Germany in a German accent.

I want to come back to something you said about those who see the world as divided between those who want to kill us and those who are happy to have other people kill us. I think that’s a little too bleak! There’s a third category: people who don’t really give a damn one way or another. And you would add a fourth category, of people who really care and really would actually step in to protect us?

Israel probably has more active enemies around the world than any other country. But I believe we also have more active friends around the world – people who pray for us, people who actively wish us well, who see in us, despite our flaws, as a significant place of hope for humanity.

Okay, but if we break it down: You cite India and China…

And America.

Well, broadly speaking in the West, it doesn’t look so good.

It doesn’t look so good if we’re speaking about Europe.

But there is anti-semitism in America too. And anti-Israel sentiment is growing.

Yes, something is changing. There’s a nip in the air. Nevertheless, when I travel around America and I sit on a plane next to someone, and we get to chatting. ‘Where are you from?’ The response is almost always ‘Israel? That’s fantastic!’ There’s still a deep admiration, even love, for Israel among ordinary Americans. But I also speak on campuses and have a first-hand sense of some of the nastiness.

Which does not bode well for 15-20 years from now.

All true. But we haven’t lost. Though we may well have already lost in Europe.

We’ve ‘lost’ suggests that we’ve done something wrong.

I think it’s more about Europe than about us. Europe needs us to be Nazis.

To alleviate the Holocaust guilt?

Europe is carrying two humps on its back — the Holocaust and colonialism. And by posing as anti-colonialists in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, they get rid of both humps. They portray us now as Nazis and themselves as the anti-Nazi, the anti-colonialist. Europe is Jew-sick.

Which means?

Europeans are acting out pathologies that they don’t even know they are carrying. The criminalization of Israel precisely fits the pattern that Europe has always played out in relation to the Jews, which is treating us as humanity’s symbol of evil – whether it is as Christ killers or race polluters. Now we are the arch human rights violators.

‘We’re doing an enormous disservice to our story by continuing to link the Holocaust as the central event that explains Israel’s existence… A majority of Israelis don’t come from Europe. They come from the Middle East. Tens of thousands of Ethiopian Jews walking across desert and jungle to reach Zion: That’s the Israel story we need to tell the world’

One of the reasons I don’t want to deal with Europe is because I have worked very hard these last 30-plus years to try to heal myself from Jewish rage. Nothing sends me back to my teenage years more than European anti-Zionism. And that I think is the real reason why I have imposed a one-person boycott on Europe.

So that the transformation documented in this book is not reversed?

Yes. European anti-Zionism pushes every wrong button for me. And I become 18 years old again.

The central theme of “Memoirs…” is a search for Jewish identity in a post-Holocaust world. And my struggle growing up was, How does one live as a Jew after that? And how do you relate to the non-Jewish world?

Increasingly, though, it’s clear that we are no longer living in the post-Holocaust era. Even the aftermath of the Shoah is over.

There are important implications for how Jews understand and explain Israel to the world. I think we’re doing an enormous disservice to our story by continuing to link the Holocaust as the central event that explains Israel’s existence.

US President Barack Obama pays his respects in the Hall of Remembrance as marines lay a wreath on his behalf during a visit to the Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum on March 22, 2013 (photo credit: Amos Ben Gershom/GPO/Flash90)
US President Barack Obama pays his respects in the Hall of Remembrance as marines lay a wreath on his behalf during a visit to the Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum on March 22, 2013 (photo credit: Amos Ben Gershom/GPO/Flash90)

I would not bring foreign dignitaries to Yad Vashem (the Holocaust memorial museum in Jerusalem). That’s become counter-productive. It’s a narrative that doesn’t quite work anymore. Now the Holocaust is used against us: How could you, the people that went through that, now be doing the same thing to another people. It’s an outrageous manipulation, but that’s the reality we live in.

When Obama made his speech in Cairo and spoke in defense of Zionism only in terms of the Shoah, Israelis were justifiably outraged. What about our 3,000 year connection to this land? The fact is that a majority of Israelis don’t come from Europe. They come from the Middle East. Tens of thousands of Ethiopian Jews walking across desert and jungle to reach Zion: That’s the Israel story we need to tell the world.

We need to start breaking away from a Holocaust-centered Zionism, a Holocaust-centered identity, and “Memoirs…” tells the story of one second generation Jew who tried to do that. That story is, if anything, more urgent today than it was when I wrote this 20 years ago.

It must be bizarre re-releasing a youthful memoir so many years later.

Very strange. I started writing this book when I was nineteen and completed it when I was 40. And now I’m 61. This was my first book. I would not have written it this way today. I would have written very differently. I would have probably been much less brazen in exposing myself. A young writer’s tendency is to be provocative. There are parts of that book that are frankly embarrassing. My two older kids are now reading “Memoirs…” Do I really want them to know what I did in the 1960s? There are parts of that book that are so foreign to my life now that it’s almost as if it’s about someone else.

So, it’s not an unequivocal celebration for me to be re-releasing this book. But I feel that the story that “Memoirs…” tries to tell is more relevant today than it was then. Jewish extremism is on the rise again. The irony of this book’s trajectory is that it came out (originally) two days after the Rabin assassination, that peak moment in Jewish extremism, and now has been re-released at a moment when many of us are very worried about the rise of anti-democratic extremist tendencies among young Israelis.

16-year-old Muhammad Abu Khdeir, a Palestinian teenager whose burned body was found Wednesday, July 2, 2014, in the Jerusalem Forest (photo credit: AFP via family handout)
16-year-old Muhammad Abu Khdeir, a Palestinian teenager whose burned body was found Wednesday, July 2, 2014, in the Jerusalem Forest (photo credit: AFP via family handout)

We’ve just experienced the unthinkable – Jews kidnapping a 16-year old boy and burning him alive. None of us would have believed before that happened that Jews — any Jews — would be capable of doing that. I don’t believe that the Jews I knew in the JDL would have been capable of doing that.

Not even the Jewish terrorist underground of the 1980s?

No, not even them. I knew Jews who were capable of killing people, but not of burning someone alive.

What’s changed?

A combination of the experience of power and sovereignty, along with relentless siege and terrorism and de-legitimization. When you combine the kind of assault that Israel is under with power, and then you throw into the mix the poisonous religious teachings circulating on the fringes of the Orthodox world in Israel, you have a very dangerous brew.

You think this was an isolated case, or part of a trend?

The day after this boy’s burned body was found, I was in Zion Square in Jerusalem and there was a memorial protest for the three Israeli teenagers (who had been kidnapped and killed in the West Bank by a Hamas cell, and whose killings the alleged Jewish terrorists who killed Muhammed Abu Khdeir were ostensibly avenging). They had laid memorial candles on the pavement to spell the words ‘Mavet l’Aravim’ (Death to Arabs). The day after Khdeir’s body was found.

Now for me there were two shocks about the burning. The first of course that it had happened. And the second, that apparently not every Jew was shocked. There were even some Jews calling, in effect, for more.

‘Governing Jerusalem means also knowing when to show self-restraint’

The challenge that we’re facing is, on the one hand, to deal with the growing assault on our legitimacy and, on the other hand, to deal with the extremist temptation and the release of moral restraint within parts of the Jewish community. We need to learn how to develop a two-pronged approach, to develop two parallel discourses.

We need to have one way of speaking to those who are criminalizing Israel, and to tell them we will not acquiesce in the Jews being quarantined again and treated as the symbol of evil in the world. We will not allow our critics to hold us to a higher standard than our enemies, for the purpose of treating us as the world’s worst criminals.

But in our Jewish internal conversation, the moral state of our enemies doesn’t matter. I’m not interested in what Assad is doing in Syria as a way of avoiding a self-confrontation. I’m interested in the moral state of the Jewish people.

An extremist – whether right or left – despises complexity. But that’s exactly the kind of discourse we need in this time.

We need to act according to the moral principles of Judaism. I wouldn’t mind being judged by anybody’s standards internationally if they were judging us fairly.

Exactly.

But I take your point about their asserting that they’re holding us to a western/moral standard, when in fact it’s a dishonest and disingenuous approach because it is de-contextualizing and skewing our reality in order to delegitimize us, in order to ultimately bring us down.

One of the deep arguments I have with the Jewish religious right is that it celebrates our chosenness and yet rejects any notion of being held to a higher standard, even by ourselves. That, to my mind, is a deep contradiction.

The resurgence of Jewish extremism isn’t only a threat to our soul but to our physical safety, and to our ability to maintain a united Jerusalem. I don’t see any alternative for the foreseeable future to continued Israeli rule over all of Jerusalem – unless we want to find ourselves sharing the city with Hamas, because that is likely to happen if we withdraw now. Jewish extremists provoke even Palestinians who are prepared to live for now with the status quo.

There’s a link between the world I come from, the story that I tell in this book, from Meir Kahane of Brooklyn, to Baruch Goldstein in Hebron, to the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, to the burning of this boy… The world I come from is somehow implicated… We opened the door to self-righteous violence

I don’t only mean those Jewish thugs who chant “Death to the Arabs.” I also mean those who settle in Arab neighborhoods waving Israeli flags. Of course Jews have the right to live anywhere in Jerusalem, just as Arabs do. But there was an old Israeli slogan to promote road safety: Don’t be right, be smart. What applies on the road applies to our governance of Jerusalem.

And nowhere more than on the Temple Mount. I understand the frustration of those Jews who see us denied the right to pray on our holiest site. But nothing is guaranteed to destroy the fragile peace of Jerusalem as much as a change to the status quo on the Temple Mount. Governing Jerusalem means also knowing when to show self-restraint.

We’re again marking the Rabin assassination anniversary. Do you think the burning of this boy, Muhammed Abu Khdeir, was a new nadir?

I’m going to take a deep breath before I say this but I think it needs to be said: There’s a link between the world I come from, the story that I tell in this book, from the Meir Kahane of Brooklyn in the late 1960s, to the Meir Kahane of Israel in the 70s and the 80s, and then to Baruch Goldstein in Hebron in 1994, to the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin in 1995, to the burning of this boy.

Maybe one of the reasons I am so tormented by this burning is because in some way, the world I come from is somehow implicated. Even though, I need to emphasize, the people that I knew in Brooklyn in the 60s, even the terrorists among them, would not have burned a 16-year old boy alive. Still, the ground was laid back then.

We opened the door to self-righteous violence — the mentality that says, the whole world hates us and therefore there are no innocents in the world, there are no innocent passersby. That’s the ground from which all forms of terrorism emerge.

Because of the mindset that says all these people are criminals…?

‘Everyone hates us. Therefore there are no innocent passersby. Therefore, we’re not killing innocents.’ That’s how a doctor, Baruch Goldstein, could walk into the Tomb of the Patriarchs and not see dozens of men bent in prayer, but Jew-haters, pogromists. Goldstein saw a room full of Nazis. That’s the mentality that would allow a group of Jews to grab a 16-year old boy off the street and burn him alive, because, to them, he’s not a 16-year old boy but a symbol of all those who hate us.

A terrorist lives in a world of metaphor: People are symbols. They are acting out some kind of a passion play for your trauma. That gives terrorists license to harm innocents. That’s why I feel that it’s right that “Memoirs…” is coming out again now.

As a cautionary tale?

As an attempt to examine the roots of Jewish rage, and start a process of healing ourselves.

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