The Last Rebbes: Life among The Hasidic Jews, Part IX

By Ray Schultz

On the first night of Rosh Hashanah 1973, the Lubavitcher Rebbe came down from his study and said, “Good Yontif” to the men assembled there. That greeting is hardly unusual, but everything said by the Rebbe was subject to interpretation, even this. “It was strange,” a Lubavitcher man told me. “It was almost as if he knew what was about to happen, and he wanted to make the best of it.”

They soon found out what was going to happen: Like Henry Kissinger, we in New York awoke on Yom Kippur morning, October 6, to the news that Egypt and Syria had attacked Israel on multiple fronts. I felt a shaft of cold fear when I saw the headline: “Egypt Crosses Bar Lev Line,” the sandy build-up on the Sinai side of the Suez canal.

As a lefty, I had complicated feelings about Israel. Like many, I exulted in the Israeli success in the Six-Day War in 1967. Israel had destroyed Egypt’s air force with a preemptive strike on June 5. By Saturday June 10, the Israelis had occupied the Sinai, the West Bank and the Golan Heights. On a newsstand, I found a one-shot pulp magazine that featured pictures from the war, accompanied by funny captions, the running joke being that everything in the Middle East was occupied by Israel. One photo showed Egyptian strongman Gamal Abdul Nasser walking down a hall, and saying, “I have to use the men’s room.” A cowering aide says, “I’m sorry, sir, the men’s room is occupied.”

The laughter didn’t last, and I took on what I thought was a broader world view. But I was brought back to Zionism by a strange influence: Rabbi Meir Kahane, the founder of the Jewish Defense League, a friend of Samuel Shrage’s and an alleged racist.

This happened in 1971, a time when things seemed relatively peaceful in the Middle East. Terry Noble, who had lost a leg on a kibbutz in Israel and was now said to be Bob Dylan’s Hebrew teacher, persuaded ABC to let him make a pilot tape for a radio talk show. It never aired. But Terry assembled a formidable panel: Kahane, the Arab spokesman Dr. Muhammad Medhi, a couple of other people on both sides and the Yippies Abbie Hoffman and Paul Krassner. Bob Dylan spent the evening listening in a corner control booth.

It started with Kahane, a man who rivaled anyone in the studio, including Dylan himself, in charisma. “What we have here with our group is a very strange concept: To bring back the old Jew,” he said. “The old Jew is that Jew who lives again in Israel, who fought for it, defended it, lost it, won it, and wanted it back again.”

Dr. Medhi promptly countered.

“We believe that American policy towards the middle-east has been morally wrong and politically detrimental to the interests of the United States, to the Arabs, to the interests of the Jewish people, to the interests of international peace,” he said. “Our concern really is not with the Arabs. The Arabs are at best, a small portion of this beautiful human race. Our concern is really with the human being.”

“I’ve followed you for about seven years, and I’ve always felt that you’re an extremely clever man,” Kahane broke in. “You know exactly what issues to press at the proper time.. When you first began, there was no hint of this sudden love for all people. Dr. Medhi, you’re first and foremost for the Arabs. And you’re using humanism to hopefully catch all our young Jewish friends. And that is dishonest.”

One of those young Jewish friends, Abbie Hoffman, seemed amused by Kahane despite their political differences, and Kahane appeared to aim some of his remarks at him.

“It’s about time that young Jews who march for every miserable cause in the whole world, who bleed for Mozambique and Angola, Biafra, Vietnam and Antarctica and Angela Davis—that’s beautiful,” Kahane said, “But we’d like to see them put in a day, just a day a year, bleeding for something Jewish, too.”

Abbie would later joke, “He implied that to stick up for Angela Davis is bleeding-heartism which I always associated with Hadassah because of my background.” But Abbie had a serious answer, too.

“Within the Jewish tradition, and I certainly consider myself Jewish, there’s a history of identification with the oppressed that the rabbi sort of passes on in one broad sweep,” he said. “You can’t have it both ways. You can’t say that we are American Jews and we are a minority and the victims of oppression and on the other hand identify wholeheartedly with that oppressor, the United States, with its imperialist policies around the world.”

Abbie moved on to the “drawing-room intellectualization” of Zionism in the early 20th Century. “To talk about Zionism. I think that on paper it was a good idea,” he said. “From Herzl and Chaim Weizmann right up to Moshe Dayan, the problem is that in recognizing this Jewish state would be in Palestine, they overlooked one problem—mainly, that there were people already living there. When Ben Gurian and Moshe Dayan and Golda Meir from Milwaukee stand up in Israel and say there will be tens of millions coming, if you are an Arab sitting there, you get a goddamned gun.”

I knew Abbie slightly, and thought of him as a lovable rogue. I was surprised he knew all that history, but he admitted later that he had boned up on it the night before.

The teacher Kahane promptly corrected him. “There are several errors, Abbie,” he said. “First, Zionism did not start with Herzl. Zionism started the day after the second temple was burned, when that Jew turned not to Mecca, as Arabs of Palestine turn, but to Zion. From that day on, Jews said, ‘We want to go home.’ It’s our home. We Jews want nothing more than what Arabs have except that Arabs have a great deal more than we have. They have not only one country, they have many countries. We don’t begrudge the Arabs their countries. They can have Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, Libya and Sudan and Algeria. Wonderful. Beautiful. Do what you will there. You can fight with each other. You can have monarchies or Marxist states. All we ask is one little thing: we want our land back. Back. Back. Back.”

Mehdi weakly countered that Kahane and others had “recently rediscovered themselves and they have become nationalist, while the rest of us, having discovered ourselves over hundreds of years, were getting out of the narrow isms, and become more members of the human race. The rabbi and the others have gone backward, a sort of a regression, whereas the rest of mankind is moving forward to a more universalist pattern of life.”

Kahane blew that right away. “We Jews, quite to the contrary, doctor, are not backward, but quite forward. We’ve been where you’re trying to be. Fifty years ago we leaped into the great humanity business. When the first Politboro met at the Kremlin, there were so many Jews there that we could have prayed the afternoon Jewish service. We really did say, this nonsense of narrow racism has got to end. We learned the hard way. We learned the hard way. Stalin taught it to us. We learned the hard way.”

The question arose of why Abba Eban, from England, was allowed into Israel. Kahne answered, “We are both a nation and a faith. That’s why Abba Eban has a right to come back.”

“How about Sammy Davis Jr.?” Paul Krassner asked, referring to the African American entertainer who had converted to Judaism.

“”Sammy? Beautiful. Right on. He can come right home. He’s a Jew.”

“Could I go there?” Hoffman asked.

“Sure.”

“I have a doubt because of Israel’s political ties with the United States, that I would quickly extradited and the doors would be closed.”

“You are wrong. We’ve had far worse than you.”

“It’s a sacrilege!” Abbie shouted. “The Macabees are puking in their graves when they see an Israeli fighter-jet made right here in the U.S. dropping napalm on an Arab village.”

“I haven’t visited their graves recently so I don’t know if they’re puking or not,” Kahane said.

Kahane made a final. point: “The question is not whether one is Jewish because Herzl said so or the Bible said so. When you get right down to it, you are Jewish because non-Jews said so.”

As often happened in those years, it fell upon Krassner to sum it up.

“Not only may Jews not be the chosen people, people may not even be the chosen species,” he said.

Now, two years later, Israel was being threatened again, and a similar debate was going on right within Hasidic ranks. A day or two after the war started, the Lubavitcher Rebbe told a couple of men that if Israeli meant business, it should go right on to Damascus and hold it as a bargaining point. If true, that statement placed the Rebbe clearly within the Zionist camp. Of course the Satmar maintained their usual antipathy toward Israel.

“I will say it bluntly—our position has not changed,” said Rabbi Chaim Stauber when I called him. “As a matter of fact, this all substantiates our claim that ultimate redemption cannot be man-made. We cannot redeem ourselves from Disapora—it’s a part of our age-old prohibition against rebelling against rulers. Of course, our hearts bleed. Jewish blood has been spilled, life taken once again. We would like to see the war end as soon as possible. But our de facto position has been steadfast. Of course, there is concern for safety, not only for religious Jews. A Jew is a Jew. It’s a part of us, mercy, benevolence, within us, our heritage. Most certainly, this has been heartbreaking.”

 

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