Search JTA's historical archive dating back to 1923

Kahane, Though Vilified by Many, is Remembered As Protector of Jews

November 7, 1990
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

Rabbi Meir Kahane, the former Knesset member and Jewish Defense League founder who was assassinated Monday night, was eulogized Tuesday in Brooklyn as a man who stood up for Jewish pride and principles.

“He was the second Moshe Rabbeinu — Moses took the Jews out of Egypt and Kahane took the Jews out of anti-Semitic countries,” said Bernard Berkowitz, 58, a mourner at the funeral.

Only a few hundred people were able to enter the small Orthodox Young Israel synagogue, where Kahane spoke in the early years of the IDL.

The service was broadcast to the crowd outside, estimated by police at around 5,000. The crowd frequently broke into applause and loud cheers as Kahane was remembered as a great man, great teacher and protector of the Jews.

The 58-year-old firebrand orator, who was deified and vilified with equal fervor by supporters and detractors alike, was gunned down by a 34-year-old Arab on Monday night, at the conclusion of an hourlong lecture he gave to a group of some 60 supporters at a midtown Manhattan hotel.

El-Sayyid Nosair, a naturalized citizen originally from Egypt, was listed in critical but stable condition at Bellevue Hospital on Tuesday, where he underwent surgery for a gunshot wound to the chin.


Nosair was injured in a short gun battle with a police officer from the U.S. Postal Service as he fled the hotel and tried to escape in a taxi.

“I was standing next to Kahane,” Shannon Taylor, a close friend and one of Kahane’s American lawyers, told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

“He had just stepped down from the podium after taking questions for an hour. I heard a bang, then I turned and saw a man running away with a gun,” Taylor said. Another man was wounded as the gunman fled.

The alleged assassin, who police say acted alone, was charged with murder, attempted murder and criminal possession of a weapon.

The assailant, who worked for New York’s Department of General Services as an air conditioning and heating maintenance worker, apparently stood up at the end of the question-and-answer session and fired two shots from close range, hitting Kahane in the head.

Kahane and the others wounded were rushed to Bellevue, where Kahane was pronounced dead at 9:57 p.m. At the hospital, hundreds of people, some carrying Israeli flags, gathered at the emergency room entrance as news of the shooting spread throughout the area.

One observer said he feared for the consequences. “I’m sure there will be some type of retaliation for this murder,” he said. “It will be bad tidings for everyone.”

At the funeral, a mix of people including Orthodox and secular, the old and young, surged against police barricades in a futile attempt to follow the plain coffin draped with a black velvet cover inside ther synagogue.

The coffin was draped with an Israeli flag as it was carried out of the synagogue on the shoulders of a dozen men, who could barely reach the hearse in the face of hundreds of people crowding around them and the synagogue gates.

As the hearse finally pulled away, people waved Israeli flags, chanting “Am Yisrael Chai.” Others clenched their fists and shouted “An eye for an eye” in Hebrew, and “Never again!”

The body was to be flown to Israel on a 7:30 El Al flight. Kahane was to be buried Wednesday at Har Hamenuhot cemetery on Jerusalem’s Mount of Olives.


The outspoken Kahane, whose political platform called for the transfer of Arabs from inside Israel to beyond the administered territories, was largely ostracized by the mainstream Jewish establishment, both here and in Israel, for his radical political views.

“I had a lot of admiration for his willingness to ask the hardest questions,” said Alan Dershowitz, a law professor at Harvard University who defended Kahane a number of times over the years.

It was the right to say what he felt that made Kahane a pariah in most circles. After being elected to Israel’s Knesset in 1984, Kahane was later banned from the Knesset for advocating what Israeli courts declared were racist views. He was also barred from appearing in many synagogues around the United States.

“Part of the blame (for the assassination) lies with those who wanted to censor him,” Dershowitz said. “Jews and non-Jews who wanted to censor him bear some moral responsibility for starting down a path that inevitably leads to this.”

The militant leader first gained national prominence in 1968 in New York, where he founded the Jewish Defense League with a clenched fist as its symbol and “Never Again!” as its slogan.


“They were good days,” said 60-year-old Bertram Zweibon, a co-founder of the JDL who knew Kahane for close to 30 years. “We set out to accomplish certain objectives, and by-and-by we were relatively successful. One was to raise the level of Jewish pride, so that the physical assault on Jews, which were on the rise in 1968-1969 when JDL was founded, could be properly prevented.

“Second, the question of the Jews imprisoned in various lands, the Soviet Union in particular. He could not sleep, none of us could who grew up in the shadow of the Shoah and let it happen. Let it happen again and do nothing? So we did something, those of us who heard the different shofar,” Zweibon said in an interview.

Jewish organizational leaders on Tuesday universally deplored the assassination, regardless of political persuasion.

“We rejected Rabbi Kahane’s views and found them to be repulsive precisely because believe the use of force and violence is intolerable and despicable, regardless of the political perspectives of the parties,” the American Jews Congress said in a statement.

“We have had frequent occasion in the past to criticize the acts and policies of Rabbi Kahane and the JDL. But the way to repel abhorrent ideas is to expose them as fallacious and ill-conceived, not through murder and terrorism,” the group said.

Rabbi Marc Angel, president of the Rabbinical Council of America, the rabbinic arm of Orthodox Jewry, issued a statement saying, “I believe it was Kierkegaard who said that when a tyrant dies his rule ends; but when a martyr dies, his rule begins. An Arab assassin has now made a martyr of Rabbi Meir Kahane.”

The Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry said in its statement, “Although we disagreed from our beginning in 1964 most strongly with Rabbi Kahane over the use of violence to achieve freedom for Soviet Jews, the historic fact clearly remains that he brought their plight dramatically to world attention. Rabbi Kahane strode where many others feared to tread.”

Rabbi Sholom Klass, editor and publisher of the Jewish Press, where Kahane wrote a weekly column for 20 years, said, “Meir Kahane was a man with a dream, that his people could dwell in peace in their ancestral homeland, the Holy Land, the land of Israel, of Jerusalem. He died for that dream.”

In Los Angeles, local supporters and opponents echoed feelings of shock at the murder of Kahane, who was scheduled to speak there on Sunday.

At a news conference called by the Los Angeles chapter of Kach International, a speaker compared Kahane’s fate to that of Presidents John Kennedy and Abraham Lincoln, whose assassinations assured their historical greatness.


“Our children and grandchildren will read about Rabbi Kahane in their history books, and they will see the Arabs thrown out of Israel,” said Rabbi Dov Aharoni, the local chapter president of Americans for a Safe Israel.

In Washington, the State Department’s deputy spokesman, Richard Boucher, said, “We deplore the killing. We see it as a despicable, cowardly action.”

On Tuesday, the Knesset rose for one minute of silence when its session began, as is customary on the deaths of all serving or former Knesset members. Many absented themselves from the session.

Born Martin David Kahane in New York on Aug. 1, 1932, Meir Kahane grew up in Brooklyn, the first-born son of a respected Talmudist, Rabbi Charles Kahane, and a Latvian immigrant mother.

Other Jewish groups issuing statements of regret and calls for a cessation of violence were Americans for Peace Now; American Jewish Committee; B’nai B’rith International; B’nai Brith Canada; Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations; Jewish Community Relations Council of New York; National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council; Rabbinical Assembly; Simon Wiesenthal Center; Union for Traditional Judaism; Union of American Hebrew Congregations; United Synagogue of America; and World Zionist Organization.

(Contributing to this report were JTA staff writers Aliza Marcus and Susan Birnbaum in New York; correspondents Tom Tugend in Los Angeles and Hugh Orgel in Tel Aviv: and intern Andrew Goldsmith in New York.)

Recommended from JTA