Talk about bad timing.
Yossi Klein Halevi’s re-released book, “Memoirs of a Jewish Extremist: The Story of a Transformation,” was first published 19 years ago, two days after Israeli Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin was assassinated. It should have become a best seller for at least two reasons.
First, its clear, perceptive writing offers up a remarkable self-portrait of a teenage Jewish Defense League activist in the mid-1960s through the early ’70s. Halevi at first is captivated by the militancy of the group’s charismatic leader, Rabbi Meir Kahane. But his admiration eventually turns to disillusionment and he comes to repudiate both the movement and its leader.
Second, its understanding of Jewish rage and violence sheds eerie light on tragedies, then and now. Rabin’s murderer, who was influenced by Rabbi Kahane, was an Orthodox Jew who believed he was saving Israel by killing its prime minister. Almost two decades later Israeli society was shocked to learn that Jews were responsible for what Halevi calls an “unthinkable” act, burning alive an innocent Palestinian teenager in revenge for the murder of three Jewish boys this past June.
Halevi’s book shows the link between these violent acts and how “self-righteous violence,” in his words, is the source of all terrorism; that self-righteousness promotes the false notion that there are no innocents among one’s enemies.
In the wake of the Rabin murder few people wanted to buy “Memoirs,” a book that appeared to justify extremism. It soon went out of print, and Halevi, an American-born journalist, author and senior fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, never thought it would have another chance. But after the success of his most recent book, “Like Dreamers: The Story of the Israeli Paratroopers Who Reunited Jerusalem and Divided a Nation,” which won high critical praise and the National Jewish Book Council’s Jewish Book of the Year award, HarperCollins has brought out paperback editions of “Memoirs” as well as Halevi’s second book, “At The Entrance To The Garden of Eden.” (Also ill fated, its personal account of the author’s efforts to search for spiritual connections with Christians and Muslims came out the day after 9/11, and quickly disappeared.)
“This is an account of the inner life of an angry American Jew,” Halevi told me the other day in reference to his “Memoirs.”
“And I want this generation to hear that voice and understand it.”
Us vs. Them
It begins as the voice of a teenage son of a Holocaust survivor living in the self-imposed Orthodox ghetto of Brooklyn’s Borough Park. The young Halevi is bright and rebellious, deeply influenced by his survivor father who sees the world as divided between us and them, Jewish victims and the murderous goyim. At the age of 14, Yossi Klein — he added “Halevi” when he moved to Israel years later — channeled his fear of and anger toward the non-Jewish world into activism for the fledgling Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry (SSSJ) organization. Soviet Jewry became the noble cause for a new generation of American Jews who felt both post-Holocaust guilt and post-Six-Day War pride as they sought to save the three million Jews of the Soviet Union from spiritual destruction.
Although the Soviet Jewry movement became the greatest post-Holocaust success for American Jewry, Halevi believes it remains “the lost chapter in Jewish history,” in Israel as well as America. And in those early days he was frustrated with SSSJ’s idealistic, and often ignored, rallies and other efforts to stir interfaith and American Jewish establishment support. He became increasingly intrigued by and enamored with the swagger and success of Rabbi Kahane, the founder of the JDL, who fed on the turbulent anger of the times — black nationalism, the anti-Vietnam movement, student protests and feminist activities. Kahane and his “boys,” often thuggish yeshiva students, attracted media attention and communal outrage with their violent protests and actions — first against black threats toward Jews and later for the Soviet Jewry cause.
Halevi recounts how he became a JDL activist and hero when he and several others traveled to Russia and were arrested for their sit-in on behalf of Soviet Jews. But over time his initial admiration for Kahane faded. He came to see the JDL leader as more brute than liberator, abandoning his followers when they were in trouble, and not the protector of Jews he made himself out to be.
“No Jewish leader spoke so incessantly of love for the Jewish people as he did, and none so despised his fellow Jews,” Halevi writes. To Kahane, the Orthodox Jews who didn’t follow him weren’t really religious; secular Israelis were “Hebrew-speaking Gentiles,” and Israelis on the left were “worse than anti-Semites.”
“Kahane became my teacher in ahavat Yisrael [love of the Jewish people] in reverse,” Halevi told me. After going to Israel in 1973 and helping the rabbi’s run for the Knesset, which was based in part on the “transfer” of Arabs out of the country, he broke with him for good. He was 20.
Halevi returned to New York and tried to find himself through journalism and his studies. It was in a graduate course at City College on creative writing where he met the young woman who would become his wife. She was not Jewish. Through her, though, he learned to let go of his anger and narrow, distrustful vision of the world. Theirs was not only a personal love story but also a tale of falling in love with Israel. The couple made aliyah, she converted, they married, changed their names to Hebrew ones, and raised a new generation of sabras in Jerusalem.
Writing For Two Audiences
In his new Introduction to “Memoirs,” recounting its “strange history,” Halevi writes of his transition “from the heart of Jewish self-ghettoization to an attempt to make peace with the world, embracing not only my Jewish identity but also my place within humanity.” He added that “for many Holocaust survivors and their children, being part of humanity was by no means a given.”
Halevi says he has two audiences in mind for his book. One is the Orthodox world in which he was raised, “and my hope is to put on the agenda the question of our relationship with the non-Jewish world.” He seeks to challenge “a certain smugness” among the Orthodox, and “an extreme response, an understandable but destructive response to the Shoah — to cut oneself off from the rest of the world.”
He hopes liberal Jews will come to understand that “it’s OK to get angry about anti-Semitism.” He recalled speaking to a group of American Jewish college students soon after the brutal murder in November of rabbis at prayer in a synagogue in Jerusalem. Halevi asked the students to describe, in a word, their response to the massacre. “It was a long list of words like ‘sadness’ and ‘disappointment,’ but what was missing were words that showed emotion and anger,” he said.
“Why is that so many young American Jews seem incapable of outrage at attacks against Jews?” Halevi asks rhetorically, noting that “there is more anguish about the occupation than atrocities against Jews.”
He says the great internal problem in Jewish life today is a lack of balance. One extreme is “xenophobic, with no connection to the world, and the other is so open to the rest of the world that they [the universalists] risk fading out of the Jewish story altogether.”
“Memoirs,” Halevi said, is an attempt to describe the transition from the black-and-white clarity of his father’s generation, one of good vs. evil, to the “unbearable ambiguity” of today, between the moral burden of occupation and the moral imperative of protecting one’s own people. For Halevi, the story of his struggle to move from a sense of Jewish isolationism and to heal himself from Jewish rage, makes the book more relevant now, with Jewish extremism seemingly increasing, than when it was first published.
All extremists, he says, hate complexity. “But that’s exactly the discourse we need today.”