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Kahane, Dershowitz Clash in Synagogue Debate over Use of Violence; Future of Israel, Jewry

November 14, 1984
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

Rabbi Meir Kahane, Knesset member and leader of the extremist Kach Party, clashed in a dramatic two-hour, sometimes heated, debate here with Harvard Law School professor Alan Dershowitz on a wide range of topics concerning Israel and American Jewry before more than 1,000 persons at the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale in the Bronx.

The debate, moderated by Rabbi Avraham Weiss, spirtual leader of the Hebrew Institute, consisted of a question and answer format that included time for rebuttal. Many in the overflow crowd had to observe the proceedings via closed circuit television. The attendees, who were searched by synagogue volunteers before being allowed to enter the building Sunday night, applauded enthusiastically throughout the debate but remained orderly.

Much of the discussion focussed on Kahane’s proposal to expel Arabs from Israel and the West Bank. The Brooklyn-born founder of the Jewish Defense League, asserting that “no Arab wants to live in a Jewish State,” reminded the audience of the massacres of Jews in Palestine in the 1920s and 1930s. He asserted that Halacha forbids the granting of Israeli citizenship to non-Jews.


Asked why “not one great Halachic authority” has supported his proposal, Kahane replied that many rabbis agree with him in private “but are afraid to say so.” He termed the plan a continuation of the “population exchange” that began after 1948, when 700,000 Jews were expelled from Arab countries. “They weren’t compensated,” he said. He also called for the establishment of a theocracy in Israel, asserting that Israel must “do what is Judaism, not that which is gentilized Western civilization.”

Dershowitz, a prominent defense attorney, rejected the notion that Israel must choose between its Jewish character and democratic values. “Zionism is a great challenge to keep both,” he said. “Rabbi Kahane seeks a false dichotomy.” Calling himself neither a toal secularist nor a total disbeliever in a theocratic state, the civil rights advocate expressed support for a modified synagogue-state separation that takes into account Israel’s Jewish nature.

Dershowitz warned that if Kahane’s plan for the expulsion of Arabs from Israel is implemented, Jews not fitting the rabbi’s “particular definition” of Jewishness might also eventually be expelled. He called for territorial compromise in exchange for peace along the lines of the Allon Plan. He urged aliya and intensified efforts to free Soviet, Syrian and Ethiopian Jewry as a means of ensuring a Jewish majority in Israel.

In an exchange on the recently uncovered Jewish terrorist underground on the West Bank, Dershowitz expressed grave doubts that the “alleged terrorists” would be able to receive a fair trial in Israel, but also expressed his “great respect” for the Israeli judicial system. “If their acts are proved, I deplore them,” he asserted.


Denouncing those who take the law into their own hands, he predicted that such actions would “absolutely guarantee” escalated “holy war” against the Jews. He called Jewish terrorism a “denigration of the Israeli armed forces, “and stated that a “mature state” must reject the doctrine of collective responsibility and distinguish between the guilty and the innocent.

Kahane countered that it is a “disgrace” to the Jewish people that the trial will take place at all. He accused the Israeli government of necessitating the actions of the alleged Jewish underground. “If the government won’t expel the Arabs, that guarantees the killing of Jews,” he declared.

Dershowitz forcefully attacked Kahane for advocating violence, referring several times to the death of Iris Cohen, a secretary in the New York office of impresario Sol Hurok. Cohen died when bombs placed by the Jewish Defense League in a 1972 protest against a performance by a Russian orchestra exploded.

Such violence, the Harvard professor continued, set back the casue of Soviet Jewry “because it failed to distinguish between the critical and the frivolous.” Citing Kahane’s praise for last month’s killing of a Palestinian on a bus in East Jerusalem, he called such statements “despicable, anti-Jewish and racist.” The death of any innocent person, Jew or non-Jew, is a “tragedy,” he said.


Kahane defended the occasional use of violence to protect Jewish lives and rights. “It is a terrible thing,” he declared, “but sometimes it is a terribly necessary thing.” Stating that only violence brought the issue of Soviet Jewry to “page one of the New York Times,” he compared the death of Cohen to the inadvertent killing of Jews by the Irgun during the King David Hote bombing in pre-state days. But he asserted that if he became Premier of Israel, not one Arab would be injured. “I don’t want to kill them, I want to expel them,” he reiterated.

Other topics covered in the debate included the future of American Jewry, Black-Jewish relations, and the rise of Christian fundamentalism. Throughout, Dershowitz defended Kahane’s right to speek. “The democratic response is to answer him (Kahane)… to persuade people to reject his views on their demerits,” he said.

Kahane in turn called it “the greatest of tragedies” that there are those who would permit him to speak “because they’d also grant (Nation of Islam leader Louis) Farrakhan and (PLO chief Yasir) Arafat the right to speak.”

Outside the synagogue, a group of 25 people demonstrated quietly, carrying anti-Kahane placards. Some of the protesters joined the audience, police said. According to local sources, area rabbis had called on their congregants to boycott the meeting because of the participation of Kahane.

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