Meir Kahane and Jacob Taubes were prophets of an unsettling vision. To them, human history did not follow a trajectory of incremental progress, where things generally improve over time. Rather, Jewish history taught them that human events can change radically, for good or bad, and that such change was not the result of a general, progressive providence, but of a transcendent yet unpredictable God—the God of the Hebrew Bible.
In line with their vision, Kahane and Taubes liked to pose “uncomfortable questions for comfortable Jews,” as Samuel Goldman reminds us in his feature essay this month. To more deeply understand these two fascinating and controversial figures, and how their ideas and legacies affect American Jews today, we’re bringing Goldman together in conversation with the Harvard scholar J.J. Kimche and the Jewish studies professor Sara Yael Hirschhorn, each of whom wrote reviews of a recent biography of Kahane.
The discussion took place on Thursday, July 21, at 12 pm Eastern time. You can read and watch it below.
My name is Jonathan Silver. I’m the editor of Mosaic and the host of today’s conversation about two very interesting mid-century Jewish figures, Meir Kahane and Jacob Taubes. I’m not sure that these two figures have ever been quite juxtaposed before, but for our featured essay this month, Professor Samuel Goldman has attempted to compare them using two recently published biographies as his point of departure. The biographies are Professor of Apocalypse by Jerry Muller, and Meir Kahane: The Public Life and Political Thought of an American Radical by Shaul Magid.
Now, just why they’re so unalike given their professions, their political orientations, their modes of address and their rhetoric, their view of religious life, their animating purposes Professor Goldman will spell this out in due course, but already in the very titles of these biographies one can begin to intuit impulses that lead in directions that could be compared. For Muller, Taubes deals in things apocalyptic. For Magid, Kahane is a kind of radical. It was Professor Goldman’s insight to put these two men together and by observing them in a single line of sight, he attempts to bring out what they share. Now, is Goldman right in his comparison? Is his comparison altogether successful?
We’re also joined today by two other scholars, writers who have each reviewed Shaul Magid’s recent biography and so have engaged with the career and the substance of Meir Kahane’s thought, writing, and activism. Professor Sara Hirschhorn from Northwestern University, whose review of Magid’s book appears in the most recent issue of the Jewish Review of Books. And J.J. Kimche at work on his PhD at Harvard. His recently published review of Magid’s book appeared in First Things.
First I’ll ask Sam to remind us about the lives and the careers of Jacob Taubes and Meir Kahane and we’ll talk together for a few minutes. Then I’d like to ask Sara and J.J. to pose their own questions for Sam. Hopefully, we’ll have a little time at the end for questions from the audience.
Sam, I turn it over to you to tell us about each of these men and then lead us through your wonderful essay.
To set the stage I thought that I would talk a little bit more about some of the differences but also the similarities between Taubes and Kahane because I think that at first glance the differences outweigh the similarities to the extent that it might appear that I’m making a forced or misleading comparison. And those differences, some of which you’ve already begun to discuss, are considerable.
To begin with, Kahane was very much an activist, both in his relatively brief career in American politics and his longer career in Israel. Taubes was very much an intellectual who occupied a series of academic posts and maintained significant but also somewhat tenuous influence over intellectual circles, both in the United States and in Europe. That’s partly because—despite the academic posts that he held—he actually published very little. Contrary to his reputation as an activist, Kahane actually wrote a great deal and very effectively.
There’s also a corresponding difference in the audiences whom they attempted to reach. Taubes wrote and, even more, spoke to other intellectuals, professors, writers, graduate students, and so on. Kahane intentionally cultivated a reputation as a street Jew and addressed himself largely if not exclusively to tough young men who might not be particularly learned either in Jewish or secular matters, but who felt directly the defects of liberalism, both in the United States and perhaps also in Israel. And we’ll talk more about that, I’m sure.
There were also ideological differences between them. Taubes was very much a man of the left who identified himself at least to some degree with the Marxist tradition. Kahane was a man of the right, not only in Israeli terms, which are more familiar, but also in American political terms. And one of the things that I point out in the essay is that although he’s best known for his role in founding and leading the Jewish Defense League in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Kahane’s point of entry into political activism was anti-Communism, which was the definitive issue of the American right at that time. And I even venture to suggest that Kahane was that rare thing among American or American-born Jews: a consistent man of the right.
Those ideological differences extended to disagreements about the status and significance of the state of Israel. Both Kahane and Taubes were extremely eccentric in their politics, and it’s difficult to classify either using generic ideological terms. But broadly speaking, I think Taubes can be described as anti-Zionist or as critical of Zionism, whereas Kahane famously embraced a particularly militant, aggressive, and exclusive vision of Zionism.
For all of those reasons, one might look at these figures and conclude that they don’t belong in the same conversation, but I think there are some really striking similarities between them. And we can begin simply with a generational observation. They are of relatively similar age. Taubes was born in 1923, Kahane in 1932, which meant they belonged to the first generation of Jewish thinkers whose careers were conducted entirely in the shadow of the Holocaust. And now many decades later, we probably take the importance of those events for granted. But at the time they really caused a fundamental reevaluation and confrontation, not only with modern politics, but also with Jewish sources, and Taubes and Kahane in different ways were engaged in that confrontation.
They also both enjoyed distinguished rabbinic lineages extending back into the heartland of eastern European Jewry. Taubes was born in Vienna where his parents, including his father, who was a prominent rabbi, had immigrated from Galicia, one of the provinces of the old Austria-Hungarian empire. He was raised mostly in Switzerland where his father answered a call to serve as leader of the local Jewish community, thus escaping the Holocaust himself and saving his family.
Kahane was born in Brooklyn where his father was a prominent local rabbi, but he too enjoyed distinguished descent and seems to have cultivated a reputation not only as a thinker, but as an heir to a much older tradition.
Both Taubes and Kahane also were closely connected to the early religious Zionist movement. Taubes’s father was the local leader of the Mizrahi religious Zionist organization in Switzerland. Kahane’s father was a friend and colleague of Vladimir Jabotinsky and other early Zionist leaders. And I think both those connections continued to resonate through their careers. Both of them were, in certain ways, insiders to Zionism and Jewish politics, but in other ways, lifelong outsiders. That may explain why they were both drawn to political extremes of the right and left and indeed to violence.
I should caution, however, that the attraction for Taubes wasalways more theoretical than actual. He, especially when teaching in Berlin, was linked at more or less remove to some of the radicals of the German New Left, including those who went on to engage in terrorist activities as the Red Army Faction and other groups. But he wasn’t personally involved in any of those activities. Kahane, of course, was infamous for his direct participation in illegal, disruptive, and potentially violent activities, both as leader of the Jewish Defense League in the United States and in Israel, and perhaps indirectly for its inspiring even more extreme violence in Israel, including the 1994 massacre at the mosque at the Cave of the Patriarchs.
Their marginal positions, this quality of being both insiders and outsiders, seems to have driven them in different ways to the extremes. And in that respect, I think that we’re dealing with a sort of elective affinity, or with two figures who are reverse images of each other, rather than with a direct and straightforward similarity.
Both were driven to their respective positions by their disgust with the mainstream of midcentury American Jewish life, which Kahane encountered as a native, observing the increasing upward mobility and assimilation and, as he thought, secularization of American Jews. Taubes as a visitor, who came to the United States in the late 1940s to take up a research position at the Jewish Theological Seminary.
Behind that relatively specific shared object of disgust was a broader rejection of liberalism, which both Kahane and Taubes understood as a sort of moral universalism that sought to subject society to rational institutions. And both believed in different ways that this vision really left no place for Judaism as it had been understood before the 20th and perhaps before the 19th century.
So what was the alternative? Again, they gave different answers, but they’re structurally similar, both Kahanes and Taubes appealed to a transcendent non-rational authority personified by the biblical God. And in their view what God calls for is obligation and obedience, including a relationship of enmity, of violent opposition to those who reject that call.
This understanding of the religious alternative to liberalism is very similar to what the German legal and political theorist Carl Schmitt called “political theology” in his famous work of that name published in the 1920s. And it’s one of the ironies of this story that Taubes played an important role in legitimizing Schmitt who had collaborated closely with the national socialist regime in the 30s. Taubes helped recover and legitimize Schmitt’s ideas in the 70s and 80s, and it’s partly as a result of Taubes’s influence that Schmitt’s name has again entered mainstream discussions on both the right and the left of political theory.
But here again, the differences emerge. Kahane, especially in the later works that he composed in Israel—where he had a lot of time on his hands because he was serving prison sentences—develops what I dare say is a terrifying vision of Zionism and of the Jewish state as a fundamental alternative to liberal democracy. Taubes goes in the other direction. He rejects divine authority in the name of what he calls antinomianism, opposition to the law. And in his scholarly works, Taubes identifies a series of figures and historical movements that he argues expressed the antinomian tendency. But he concentrates on the apostle Paul, whose proclamation that Christians have been absolved from the law, and the law is indeed a curse, as Paul says. Taubes sees that as a kind of paradoxical tribute to the seriousness and importance of revealed law, and the Jewish idea. So he develops a distinctive account of Paul as simultaneously a Christian who rejected Judaism and a serious Jew. It’s only by virtue of his commitment to the law, that Paul’s rejection of constraint could be meaningful.
Now that is a controversial argument in scholarship about Paul and the early church and other religious movements. And I think there are very few readers of Taubes who accept it on its own terms. But in different ways, Taubes and Kahane both pose a fundamental challenge that seems to recur in different forms. And that’s really the question that the essay poses, but doesn’t attempt to answer. Kahane liked to describe himself as asking uncomfortable questions to comfortable Jews, and not least of those questions was what it meant to be a Jew once one has distanced oneself from obligation to law. For Taubes, the question was the same.
Taubes published an essay about this subject in Commentary in 1953, and it’s a brutal and damning critique of the idea of Judeo-Christian civilization. Taubes argues that there’s no such thing as Judeo-Christian civilization or Judeo-Christian religion. Rather, there is a hard division requiring a decision between those options. And yet neither figure seems very appealing as an avatar of the alternative. Kahane himself died as he lived, a man of violence who was murdered in 1990. His killer actually went on to participate in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. Thus in a certain ironic sense, Kahane was among the first victims of the American War on Terror—or of terror’s war on America. Taubes, as Mueller and other writers have recounted, exercised a magnetic but ultimately dangerous and quite frightening influence on those who were close to him. And the late educator Richard Rubinstein wrote a vaguely fictionalized account of this in his own memoir, which I think was republished, or republished in part, just last year.
I’ll conclude by saying that what the essay tries to do is not to solve these problems, which I think are perennial and inescapable, but to encourage readers to take seriously these two eccentric, flawed, dangerous, maybe even crazy figures who precisely because they were so eccentric were unwilling to look away at dilemmas that many of us would prefer to avoid.
Sam, thank you for guiding us through the essay so masterfully. I’d like to add that, by highlighting these two intellectual tendencies in extremists, one can attune one’s eyes to them in their less extreme manifestations. And surely the endemic, enduring qualities and impulses that these two men carried so far are present still, even in less extreme forms.
Yes. And further, we seem to be in a political and cultural moment that echoes some of the same tendencies and situations that characterized the late 60s and early 70s, when both of these figures emerged onto larger stages. And that includes the breakdown of order in American cities, which was the motivating issue for Kahane in his JDL phase, and a broader sense of the incapacity of liberal institutions to meet the challenges of the moment. But maybe above all a sense that the moral and religious options that are made available in a modern, liberal democratic society are simply unsatisfying.
And in turning to these extreme radical, dangerous ideas that we can find the meaning and direction that so many people seem to find absent. And in that respect, in the essay I make a point echoing Leo Strauss, who had a friendly relationship with Taubes, but came to suspect him as being a person of bad character later, and who also had his own engagement with Carl Schmitt: that this antinomian or apocalyptic impulse appeals most powerfully to young men for whom liberal society is unsatisfying.
And even though they are drawn to unspeakable acts in some cases, they are driven, according to Strauss’s account, by a moral impulse, by a search for direction, for purpose, for authority, and for depth. And it’s my suspicion that we see a version of that today, including (but not exclusively) on the so-called new right, where some of these figures and texts and ideas, including those of Schmitt himself, have resurfaced in ways that would have been quite unlikely ten or twenty years ago. So as with the comparison of Taubes to Kahane, I’m not suggesting that we are in exactly the same position now that we were in the 60s and 70s, or for that matter in the 1920s and 1930s. But this does seem to be a kind of crisis that keeps coming back in different forms. And in developing our own responses, it’s helpful to look at the responses of those who’ve faced earlier versions.
One can see it as one of the consequences of the liberal order: liberalism does not provide, and does not aim to provide, ultimate meaning for individuals who live in the liberal regime, the women and men who yearn for that ultimate meeting will have to look for it elsewhere. Some of those directions will turn on liberalism itself.
One thing that I want to draw out and emphasize is that the sort of young men whom Strauss described as being attracted to this kind anti-liberal thinking are not nihilists. They are not like the revolutionaries that one would read about in Dostoevsky’s Demons, or something like that. They’re looking for some kind of redemptive moral purpose that can rescue them from the messiness of history, and liberal boringness. But they don’t seek chaos for the sake of chaos. It’s something else.
Kahane has a wonderful line in one of his books. I quote it in the essay, but I don’t recall the specific source offhand, which is something like, “Boredom is the greatest enemy of modern man.” And your remark makes me think that comment would not have been out of place in the mouth of one of Dostoevsky’s characters or indeed out of place in the mouth of Strauss or Schmitt, because it combines several of these different phenomena. Or if boredom isn’t quite the right word, then a dissatisfaction with the absence of purpose and commitment and the idea this absence is a fundamentally modern condition that pre-modern societies we’re able to evade. And in addition there’s enmity—the idea that it’s only through opposition and fighting that you redeem yourself.
And I think that’s precisely the characteristic that you’re describing. I agree with Strauss that it is not exactly nihilistic; it doesn’t revel in destruction or disorder for its own sake. It’s instead a reaching for something else, something beyond what modernity, or liberalism, or democracy can offer us.
I want to come to Sara and J.J. in just a minute. My last question for you, Sam, is this: we’ve been talking at a very abstract intellectual level, and I want, in the case of Meir Kahane, to bring our conversation back to earth in a rather more practical way. In his mind, standing up for Soviet Jewry was connected to standing up for American Jews persecuted or attacked in the streets of New York and the United States. And as that kind of urban anti-Semitism has reemerged in our times, combined with the inadequate response of law enforcement in some cases, one wonders if the conditions have reemerged such that the very frustrations that Kahane allowed to be vented in his activist movement are present again.
That’s a great question. And I don’t know the answer. And what makes me hesitate is that I think, sociologically speaking, the group of Jews to whom Kahane appealed with some success in that period no longer really exists in the same way. And Magid is quite good in the book in emphasizing this. Kahane’s following was not drawn primarily, especially at that stage, from the traditionally religious. And it certainly wasn’t drawn from the assimilated, upwardly mobile Jews of the suburbs. His support came from a more-or-less assimilated working-class Jewish milieu in outer-borough New York that felt abandoned by political institutions for good reason. But it also did not live a sort of communal life organized around Jewish institutions or Jewish observance.
And I just don’t know to what extent that world exists anymore. The American Jewish condition today seems much more bifurcated than even in Kahane’s time between an assimilated liberal majority and am Orthodox minority. And I don’t know where Kahane would fit into that.
Professor Hirschhorn, what do you make of the essay and Sam’s remarks just now?
Sara Yael Hirschhorn:
I have a few questions for Sam. He certainly laid out some very interesting dichotomies in the beginning of his exposition between an activist and an academic, a man of the word and a man of deed, a man of scholars and a man of the streets. I say in all these cases “a man of,” because this is an almost exclusively male story in both of the cases of these individuals. And last but not least, despite I think the fact that both of them tried out many ideological paths over the course of their time and their careers, there’s, roughly speaking, dichotomy between a man of the left versus a man of the right.
But one dichotomy, I think that we didn’t touch on sufficiently that I’d like to ask you more about is the question of a man of Europe and a man of America—at least at the beginning of their lives, though both, I think, were quite peripatetic individuals over the course of their careers.
The first was Taubes who’s a man of Europe. And he’s one—I think in your essay that you touch on this more deeply—who really quite narrowly escaped the Holocaust by dint of his father’s lucky position in Switzerland. His fate could have been quite, quite different. And it seems to me that the fate of most of his family probably was quite different. But Taubes seems to emerge from the Shoah relatively untouched compared to Kahane, a man born a decade later in the United States, in Brooklyn, who never experiences the persecution of Jews in Europe, but who replays the Holocaust in his head throughout his life. And to my mind he sees anti-Semitism as a kind of totalitarian worldview that hovers over all writing. And it certainly hovers over most of his activities, even in Israel, although we can discuss how definitions of anti-Semitism there look somewhat different here than in the United States.
Because of that, it also seems to me that their affinities are somewhat different and the way they think about what happens mostly in a third continent plays out quite differently. One question I was quite interested in is, why doesn’t Taubes see Zionism as a revolutionary movement? Why is he not really interested in it compared to Kahane, who certainly is? Because it would seem to me that Taubes’s reading of Zionism is a little bit flat, and he’s missing some of the larger Jewish historical dimensions of what Zionism meant during the time preceding his birth. But certainly even in the 1920s and 30s, when he was a child, Zionism was a revolutionary movement of the same caliber as many of the others that he was attracted to throughout his life. I was wondering if you could tell us more about this, and then I have a few more questions for you.
As your comments suggest, there are many ways in which the two come close and then diverge, and this may actually be another one. I think as a very young man, and in his father’s house, Taubes did have some affinity for Zionism as a modern revolutionary movement that captured or expressed some of the same energies that interested him as a historian. But then he goes to what is now the state of Israel, I think in 1948. And he returns every few years for the next decade. And he’s disappointed because what he sees is not a revolutionary antinomian movement. What he sees is, in his view, a boring normal country filled with Jews who just want to live in peace and comfort.
One might have hoped that having narrowly escaped the Holocaust he would’ve had more sympathy for that result, but he didn’t. His critical response to Zionism, I think, is grounded not so much in criticism of the theory or idea of Zionism then in what he sees as the flat, boring, liberal reality of Zionism. And that’s why in Israel, and also in New York, he’s drawn to anti-Zionist ḥaredi communities, including the Satmar Ḥasidim with whom he had a family connection, because he thinks that they somehow way have more of what he’s looking for than these boring Israelis with their boring, comfortable little state.
In this, I think, he is actually quite similar to Kahane who also had both an inherited and derivative version of Zionism and his own apocalyptic vision of what Israel could or should be, and was disappointed and outraged by the reality that he found.
And you point this out in your review, this is one of the reasons that he struggled politically for at least a decade after his permanent move to Israel, because he was speaking in terms that didn’t correspond to much that was really happening there. As for Taubes and America, I think you’re right. He was very much a man of Europe and was proud of himself as a cultured European among these barbarians—and not only Jews, but these Americans who don’t really know anything, who haven’t read anything—but his intellectual trajectory really was driven by his encounter with America, and especially this liberal mid-century milieu where he couldn’t, or wouldn’t, fit in when many of the other emigre scholars of more or less of his generation were willing and able to do so.
Kahane was, as you say, born in the United States, and at least through the late sixties cultivated a kind of American patriotism. “We just want the American dream, but for us.” But he, too, was disillusioned by the reality of America, not least because of the genuine social problems of his time. I think that’s another way in which they’re moving along parallel trajectories, even though their starting points are quite different.
Sara Yael Hirschhorn:
I guess I would say that Kahane ultimately finds the antinomian tendencies within Israel, or what we might call the culture of legalism, that might also be an element of the Zionism that he speaks to later. I would guess that Taubes never really saw that. He only saw the surface, secular Zionist vision, as it existed right after 1948. I think it’s also interesting that you’re saying, in a way, that each had his own individual quest for authenticity. And they found it in very different places. I think connected to that question, though, is how they project their power and maybe their authentic vision onto others. This may be more of a psychological question or psychological dimension of this argument, but both, as you explain, are quite charismatic figures, even if these are figures who for one reason or another—and I think for very different reasons—need to be restored to the public conversation. I should be quite careful to say: not rehabilitated, but only restored.
They were quite charismatic figures who even had something of a cult following and were able to cultivate a kind of persona that, in Kahane’s case, transcended in my opinion the value of his scholarship. I don’t know if you feel the same way about Taubes’s limited publications, but I’m not sure that scholars found his writing to be all that influential. And while both were charismatic figures, only Kahane was able to galvanize a movement behind him. And I was wondering if you could speak more to the reasons for that. We could just say that they have different audiences, they had different styles, certainly, but you wonder why one was so extreme but managed to mobilize a movement, while the other’s ideas seemed to mostly fall on deaf ears.
Taubes was quite an important figure in the German New Left in the late 60s and early 70s. And that was. if not a mass movement, a genuine and significant organized political movement. It wouldn’t be quite accurate to leave people with the impression that he just went to libraries and hung out in cafés. He was involved with organized politics, but I think—and this is a genuine difference between him and Kahane—he just wasn’t that interested. Although he talks about politics and political theology in a very abstract sense, Taubes was just not interested in any sort of concrete political organization or activism. And even in his relations with the German New Left, he played the largest role in faculty politics and in university politics.
Whereas Kahane, whether for personal reasons or because he was inspired by figures like Jabotinsky and other members of the old Zionist Right, really did see political organization as his mission and made it the focus of his energy in a way that Taubes didn’t and maybe couldn’t—his gifts were as a conversationalist and seminar speaker, not as a rabble-rouser.
Sara, thank you. J.J., what do you make of all this?
First I would like to congratulate you on this very interesting and thought-provoking piece. You brought into conversation two disparate figures who under normal circumstances wouldn’t have any rights to be in dialogue with each other, but creatively you put them in dialogue with each other. Also, I think you came up with the best definition of the word Sitzfleisch that I’ve ever heard, and I shall certainly be using in the future. The first think I want to mention is the shared preoccupation of both Kahane and Taubes with Communism or Marxism. You touched upon this very briefly in your essay in the sense that Taubes already from an early age, had a romantic or perhaps nostalgic intellectual attachment to Marxism, whereas Kahane saw it as the great devil, as the great opponent of everything he saw there.
There are a few reasons for this. Obviously, Kahane, as you said, was a man of the right growing up during the cold war. Secondly, Communism, as you mentioned in your essay, was suddenly imprisoning many Jews behind the iron curtain who were struggling to escape. There’s all that. But I wonder if there’s another aspect to this, which I’d put this way: both Kahane and Taubes seems to have recognized that Marxism is a very convincing, and very convenient place for Jews to go ideologically. It is a sort of a pseudo-religion or an ideology, which borrows quite heavily, let’s say, from the prophetic and messianic Jewish traditions, and therefore many Jews in the late 19th and early 20th century moved fairly seamlessly from a traditional Jewish milieu into a Communist or Marxist milieu.
Many writers have written about this, and there’s something very powerful in the argument that Communism is the best ersatz Judaism available on the ideological market. And I think it’s plausible to say that both Taubes and Kahane recognized this, except Taubes celebrated it and Kahane abhorred it, and much of Kahane’s energy—and this isn’t appreciated enough, I think, by his biographers—was invested in bringing Jews, especially young Jews, closer to Judaism. He was after all a rabbi. He did tour around campuses in North America trying to bring Jews to Zionism, to Judaism, et cetera. And I think he saw Communism not only as a force imprisoning Jews, but as a force seducing Jews away from traditional Judaism. Whereas Taubes, as what we might call a fallen Jew, embraced Communism because it was an ideological construct he saw as close enough to Judaism. Do you think this is a plausible explanation, or do you think I’m entirely on the wrong track?
I think that’s very much on the right track. And another figure with whom Taubes was connected—although that’s not saying much because he knew everyone—was the German émigré political theorist Eric Voegelin, who developed an account of Marxism, and not only Marxism, as a political religion. I think Taubes may actually have read and commented on the proofs of The Political Religions. The difference as you say, is that Voegelin and Kahane in saw that as a bad thing and saw Marxism and modern ideology more broadly as an unsatisfactory and dangerous replacement for religion, especially for Jews.
And with regard to Judaism, Kahane thought it was a good thing. And one of Taubes’s disputes with Gershom Scholem, who was another figure with whom he had initially favorable relations, and then they had a bitter personal break, had to do with Taubes’s emphasis on the suggestion made by Walter Benjamin that there is a subterranean theological affinity between Judaism and Marxism. This was an idea that made Scholem, and Benjamin’s other friends and associates, including Theodor Adorno, very uncomfortable. Taubes thought it was great thing.
I’m sure it made Scholem and Adorno uncomfortable for exactly the opposite reasons. Scholem couldn’t bear the fact that Judaism was tainted with Marxism and Adorno precisely the opposite.
I think that’s right.
I wanted also to touch on something that you wrote and that Professor Hirschhorn mentioned, which I’d like to push back against, namely the dichotomy that you proposed between the European Taubes and the American Kahane. Taubes came from Europe, was a man of European culture, spent his early years in several of the major hubs of European pre- and post-war culture, and came to the United States and was somewhat disappointed by the cultural and linguistic poverty that he found. The American ethos was certainly not to his taste. But I would like to perhaps propose that Kahane was, in some sense, also an immigrant to the United States. Yes, he was born in New York, in Brooklyn, but he was born in a very heavily Orthodox Jewish milieu and brought up in that ambience. He attended the Mir yeshiva for many years and he, at a certain point in his young adulthood, went out into American culture and tried to reckon with it. And this also is a form of immigration to a certain degree.
We see this now even on Netflix: in various ways if you live an ultra-Orthodox life, you can be living in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, but fundamentally you’re not really living in the United States.
Thus it seems to me that both Taubes and Kahane were coming into American culture from a foreign culture that they viewed as far deeper, far richer, with better ideas, and they were suddenly confronted with the vapid nature of, let’s say, 1960s American culture, and this repulsed them both. And I think that maybe such a paradigm could be useful in analyzing why they rejected it in favor of something they saw as deeper and richer. For Taubes, a European Marxist, leftist ideology; and for Kahane a return to what he saw as authentic, Orthodox, untainted Jewish values.
I think that’s very well put. Taubes, by the way, was not the citizen of any state until he married an American citizen in 1951 or 1952. I mean, if you were looking for a caricature of the rootless cosmopolitan, it would be hard to find a better example than Taubes. But Kahane emerged from this milieu that was in America, but not of America, and both his enthusiastic, maybe exaggerated patriotism of the early 60s and his exaggerated rejection and opposition later on—I don’t want to say that they can be explained by that, because I don’t want to be reductionist, but are consistent with that. He was entering American life in a way that was not simply consistent with his upbringing and what he found, especially at that moment, was not to his taste.
One brief anecdote I can’t resist bringing up, because it’s just such an extraordinary coincidenceAfter his rabbinical ordination, Kahane took a job as a pulpit rabbi of a congregation in Howard Beach. It was a Conservative congregation although he himself was Orthodox and it was not a great fit for that reason, even though such arrangements were quite common at the time. While he was in that position, he prepared Arlo Guthrie—the son of the folk singer Woody Guthrie and later a successful musician himself—for his bar mitzvah. Arlo’s mother was Jewish; his father Woody was not. And I hadn’t even thought of this when I was writing it, but I think that anecdote reflects his anomalous position of proximity and contact with mainstream American or mainstream American Jewish life, but not really being of that world.
Sara Yael Hirschhorn:
If I can just jump in, I’ll also add that Bob Dylan studied the work of Meir Kahane for a very short period as well. There are a lot of interesting vignettes here.
Although I think Dylan later, distanced himself from Kahane.
I’d like to pose a question, generated by our audience, to all three of you: one of the reasons that we rightly remember Kahane in such bad odor is because of the role race played in his thought and activism. And we should address that..
I think since J.J. wrote about this point in particular, in his review, he should answer fits.
It’s an unpopular thing to say, but, astonishingly, race is something that appears very little in Kahane’s writings. His writings contain all kinds of bigotry, bigotry based on nationalism, bigotry based on religion, based on all sorts of things, but race is very difficult to find. In his biography of Kahane, I comment on this in my article in First Things, Shaul Magid has to contort himself in very unusual and really quite strange positions to make race a key element of Kahane’s thinking. In my opinion, Magid has simply swallowed wholesale the necessity of making everything about race—a tendency that seems to characterize certain corners of academia at the moment.
But actually race plays a very small part in Kahane’s thought. One key piece of evidence is that Kahane had enormous—and, I would say, hateful antipathy towards Israeli Arabs—but his core supporting base in Israel were the Mizrahim, Middle Eastern Jews. They loved Kahane. They voted for him in massive numbers. And again, if it were about race, that would be at least somewhat contradictory. But race really wasn’t that important to Kahane’s thought. His venom was based mainly on religion, meaning he had a very strong dislike for other Jews, for assimilated Jews. He had real venom towards them, and towards those whom he saw as national enemies, who in his mind posed a danger to the state of Israel—namely Arabs or Palestinians. Obviously he had a lot of appalling things to say about both of these groups, but race, I think, is a category which, if you really read Kahane carefully, is almost entirely absent. Magid’s book is extraordinary in that it elevates a facet which simply is almost nonexistent.
I think I would take a middle position here. I am convinced by Magid to the extent that in Kahane’s JDL period in the late 60s he is consciously participating in, and in some ways imitating, a sort of American race politics that I agree has very little counterpart in Israel. Although you don’t find it, so far as I know, in his formal statements, in speeches and interviews he does say things like, “People say we’re like the Black Panthers. I say, sure. You know, why not?”
In that respect, I don’t think the comparison is inappropriate. And Magid says that Kahane in this period is something like a right-wing multiculturalist—I’m not sure if that’s the exact phrase—and I think there’s a certain justice to that. Where I agree with you, J.J., is that race doesn’t play that role in his formal statements. On the contrary, one of Kahane’s rhetorical inversions, which is very powerful, in his debates with mainstream American Jews, is to say “I’m not a racist. I’m a Jew. You’re the racist because you think mere descent or mere culture should be morally and politically significant. I don’t care about those things. I care about Jewish learning and Jewish observance, which have nothing to do with who your grandparents or great-grandparents are.”
In that respect, I think you’re right that he is distancing himself explicitly from racial categories and racial distinctions. And that gets at more generally at the question of how American he really was. And I think part of the debate about Magid’s book stems from that question. Should we read him backward from his Israeli phase, and especially the last years of his Israeli phase, or read him forward through his American experience?
Sara Yael Hirschhorn:
I just want to ad that J.J. is correct that race as a word doesn’t really appear in Kahane’s writings and speeches, because what really frames his thought is anti-Semitism. He was looking for anti-Semites under the bed, whether he found them in Black nationalism or whether he found them among Palestinians or Arab Israelis, or wherever. I think in some ways he was almost colorblind. He just was obsessed with anti-Semitism and would project his fears onto anyone he viewed as an enemy of the Jewish people and then later as an enemy of Israel. At the same time, he was able to appropriate certain ideas from other ethnic traditions, particularly, as Professor Goldman has stated, from the Black Panthers and the Black Power movement, which he saw as a very powerful model for Jews of the late 1960s, and reclaiming a kind of hyphenated identity alongside others in the 1967 moment.
The only place where I think race or racism really appears is when Kahane full-throatedly admits that secular Zionism, as he sees it, is racism. The idea that the state of Israel will separate from Palestinians, that there’s no desire to live together or among one another, is to him a racist concept. The only caveat to this is that he endorses it nonetheless. He believes that is the correct path for Zionism, and those in the peace camp in Israel, who are considering whether this is a possible accommodation, especially later in Kahane’s career in Israel, that’s his objection. But he finds himself in a strange situation around 1975 where he’s one of the only right-wingers in any Jewish community walking around basically saying, “Yes, it’s true, Zionism is racism, and I will probably defend that, but just not for the reasons that others think.” I think Kahane is one of those figures who appear sometimes and show that the left and the right are not so far apart. They just think about things a little bit differently.
I think you’re largely correct. I think both of you are correct in the sense that he sees a Judaism or an Israel based solely on descent—what used to be called race but might now be called tribe or family or nation—as not worth pursuing, unless there’s some other claim that a society or culture can make to distinguish itself from other cultures. To be worth defending, a collective identity must offer something more; it must be based on beliefs, on values and actions, which he identified with Judaism and a very, I would say, firm and uncompromising form of Orthodox Judaism in a cheaper suit.
I want to ask a final question from the audience, posed Leonard Oaken, that I find interesting. Sam, you’ve mentioned the prominence of Holocaust survivors among Rabbi Kahane’s formative environment and his immediate audience. Many of them were constitutionally imbued with a form of anger and guilt and a certain orientation toward America and the world. The prominence of those sentiments has faded as that generation is less and less active in our politics and public life.
Taking its place is a new orientation toward Jewish nationalism. The Jews were once beleaguered and weak; now Israel is now strong. They were then seen as oppressed; they’re now seen as oppressors. I wonder how that generational shift would affect Kahane’s appeal.
That’s a hard question from you and Mr. Oaken, but I’ll return to what I said at the beginning, which is that I think the value of reading and thinking about these figures is not that their particular proposals or examples can or should be adopted, far from it. I don’t think anyone could read the essay and think that I’m endorsing either possibility. But they pose questions and dilemmas that can’t be escaped, as nice as it would be to do that. And in that respect, I do think there is a way in which each can, despite their divergences from traditional Judaism, be described as authentically Jewish thinkers, because they are insisting that history does not have the progressive arc that I think emerges from certain forms of Christianity and then is secularized in modern liberalism. History is dangerous, history is catastrophic, and there is no safe harbor. And in that respect, I think they remain very timely and relevant.