Robert Friedman
Robert Friedman

Fellowship Title:

Rabbi Kahane

Robert Friedman
August 3, 1987

Fellowship Year

At daybreak on April 1, 1987, a dozen FBI agents pulled up in front of the sprawling East Meadow, New York home of’ Murray Young, a 59-year-old member of the Jewish Defense League. Acting on an informant’s tip, federal agents seized 17 firearms in Young’s home, including several rifles, an Uzi submachine gun, stun guns, as well as JDL bank records and membership lists, and detailed notes about JDL bombings directed at organizations affiliated with the Soviet Union. Last month, Young pleaded guilty to federal charges connected to a New York string of bombings between 1984 and 1986, including an attack on Avery Fisher Hall on Oct. 20, 1986, just before the Moscow State Symphony was to appear.

The same day that Young was arrested on a federal weapons violation charge, JDL founder Rabbi Meir Kahane was soliciting donations at his cousin’s synagogue, the West Side Jewish Community Center on 34thStreet in Manhattan. Kahane did not tell the overflow crowd of enthusiastic supporters that Murray Young–his trusted lieutenant and the man who organizes his security in the New York area during his numerous fund raising tours–had been arrested for participating in JDL terrorist incidents. For Kahane, it was business as usual. He was free to raise money in the United States for his stridently anti-Arab Kach Party, which has one seat in Israel’s 120-seat Knesset, while one of his confederates was on his way to jail.

Much of the secret of Kahane’s amazing political success has been his ability to raise money from wealthy Jews in America. Amnon Rubinstein, who resigned as Israeli minister of communications last May, estimates that Kahane brings into Israel about $500,000 a year–enough money to set up more than 50 branch offices around Israel, buy a sound truck, sophisticated telecommunications equipment, and a printing press that issues a stream of the inflammatory rabbi’s political pronouncements. “I visit two Israeli towns a day, five-days a week,” the rabbi has said. “I shake every hand I can, and that adds up to a lot of hands.”

It may also add up to a lot of votes. Though recent polls in Israel indicate that Kahane’s Kach party, which calls for the expulsion of Israel’s Arabs, would win two Knesset seats if early elections were held, his ideas are gaining ground. A recent poll published in the Israeli magazine Monitin revealed that 21% of the Israeli public approve of Kahane’s political views. A poll conducted by the prestigious Van Leer Institute in Jerusalem last year found that 33% of Israel’s Jewish youth between the ages of 15-18 support the Brooklyn-born rabbi’s fiercely anti-Arab stance. “We cannot ignore the fact that one-third of’ adolescents still support Kahane’s views,” the report said. “In some groups the proportion is much larger. The public climate in the future can affect the size of this support in both directions.” Kahane’s once taboo views on Arabs have even begun seeping into the Israeli government. Last July Israel’s Deputy Defense Minister Michael Dekel, a Likud senior member, called for the expulsion of Arabs living in the occupied territories.

Over the years, Kahane has attracted a diverse collection of admirers, including Haagen-Dazs ice cream baron Reuben Mattus. 1987 Tony award winner Jackie Mason. and Barry Ivan Slotnick, an attorney who this year successfully defended subway gunman Bernhard Goetz and reputed mobster John Gotti. In the early 1970s, with Slotnick’s help, Kahane even forged a mutually beneficial relationship with Joseph Colombo Sr., the late head of the Colombo crime family.

A six-month investigation of Kahane’s political activities in the United States reveals that the rabbi’s support is far broader than the radical, ultra-nationalist fringes of New York’s Jewish community. There also is evidence indicating that the fundraising methods of some of his organizations may skirt the edges of’ propriety. According to ex-JDL officials, Kach Party activists and police investigators, Kahane’s organizations have set up several charitable tax-exempt foundations in the United States that have been used to funnel hundreds of thousands of dollars to his movement in Israel. According to IRS tax codes, charitable tax-exempt foundations cannot be used to finance political campaigns. There also is a strict limitation on lobbying. Furthermore, foreign political parties and their agents raising money in the United States are required to register with the Justice Department. Neither Kahane nor Kach nor other groups affiliated with Kahane have registered, according to Justice Department spokesman Bob Sharp. Kahane associates referred questions about the registration issue to the rabbi, who would not comment.

Currently. a federal grand jury in Brooklyn is looking into whether money collected by Kahane or members of Kahane’s front organizations has been used to finance JDL terror cells operating in America. Because of Kahane’s obsessive secrecy about fundraising, his autocratic style of rule, and the devotion of his followers, some details about where his organizations get their money and how they spend it remain murky. Kahane refused numerous requests for an interview. “If they gave out Nobel prizes for chutzpah,” he said when contacted by phone for comment, “you would certainly win one.”

Kahane has long been a thorn in the side of the governments of Israel and America. The JDL, which he founded in New York in 1968 to protect poor and elderly Jews left behind in America’s decaying urban centers, was soon taking credit for the bombing of Russian embassies and the beating and harassment of Russian diplomats. So numerous were JDL attacks against Soviet targets that by the fall of 1971, President Nixon feared that Kahane would wreck the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks, according to documents released under the Freedom of Information Act.

In 1971, Kahane was convicted in a New York federal court for conspiracy to manufacture explosives. He received 5 years probation. The following year he was arrested in Israel for attempting to smuggle explosives to Europe to blow up the Libyan Embassy in Brussels in revenge for the murder of 11 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich. Kahane’s lawyer argued that he had acted out of patriotism. He received a two-year suspended sentence. Kahane has been arrested more than two dozen times in Israel for a wide range of offenses.

In recent years, according to sources familiar with the federal grand jury probe into JDL activities, a hard-core group of about 35 young men and women who were members of the JDL in America before they went to Israel to be with Kahane, has ferried back and forth between Israel and America. They often travel on Israeli passports made out to their Hebrew names, making it more difficult for U.S. authorities to track their movements. Many of these young people have been arrested for terrorist violence in Israel and some have received Israeli army training.

According to sources, several individuals from this core group are the prime suspects in the Oct. 1985 pipe-bomb murder of Alex Odeh, an official of the Arab-American Anti-Discrimination Committee. in Santa Ana, California; the Aug. 1985, house-bomb slaying, of Tscherim Soobzokov of Patterson, N.J., an alleged Nazi war criminal; the Sept. 1985, bomb explosion at the Brentwood, L.I., home of Elmars Sprogis, in which a 23-year-old musician who had been passing by lost his leg; and the Aug. 1985, attempted bombing of an ADC office in Boston in which two police officers were severely wounded when the bomb blew up in their hands.

The JDL took credit for these bombings in anonymous calls to the media. Later, however, JDL officials denied responsibility for the acts, but applauded the attacks on Odeh, Soobzokov and Sprogis. When pressed, JDL officials say that the unintended injuries and murder of innocent victims are the unfortunate byproduct of the “Jewish struggle.”

Since 1981, there have been more than 20 bombings attributed to the JDL in the New York area alone, according to the FBI, including the April 6, 1982, firebombing of an Arab-American owned restaurant in Brooklyn in which a young, woman died. Kahane, who stepped down as head of the JDL following his Knesset victory in 1984, publicly cheered the bombings of Odeh, Soobzokov and Sprogis. In later statements, while involved in litigation with the State Department to maintain his U.S. citizenship, he condemned the bombings. However, in one of Kahane’s weekly columns last May for the Brooklyn-based Jewish Press, the largest anglo-Jewish weekly in the world, he vowed that Kach would set up a “Mossad type unit” to assassinate perceived enemies of the Jewish people wherever they reside. “Let the Nazi groups that have arisen in the United States and Canada and France and Britain and Latin America know that they are in the cross hairs of the Israeli gun,” he wrote.

Kahane’s growing popularity in Israel and his violent, hate-filled rhetoric have spurred the Israeli government to launch a campaign to delegitimize the inflammatory rabbi and his fiercely anti-Arab views. Ironically, Kahane’s victimization by Israeli authorities has played well with the Sephardic underclass who make up the bulk of his support. Many of Israel’s young Sephardic Jews, who originally come from Arab or Islamic countries, are unemployed, hate Arabs, and resent the Ashkanazi or European Jewish ruling establishment. They worship Kahane as their anti-hero. “Kahane has put into leadership positions the most hardened, socially bitter of these Sephardic slum youth,” said Nachum Barnea, editor of Koteret Rashit, a liberal, weekly news magazine published in Jerusalem. “They are criminals from Israel’s underworld–pushers, pimps, strong-arm men–and politically more extreme than Kahane. He hasn’t control over them. They see him as more their friend than their rabbi.”

Kahane’s mainstream supporters in America bear little resemblance to their Sephardic Counterpart in Israel. “You wouldn’t believe how many professionals–doctors, dentists, lawyers–are coining out of the closet” to support Kahane, boasted Madeline Abraham, Kach’s Washington D.C. chapter president. “The media image is that everyone who joins Kach has whips and chains and is into S&M,” added Shifra Hoffman, a 52-year-old New Yorker who has served on the board of several Kahane-headed organizations. “We believe in Judaism” and that’s why we are in Kach, she said.

Among the wealthy Jews who have generously supported various Kahane organizations is Reuben Mattus, the founder of Haagen-Dazs ice cream. “If they (the JDL) needed money, I gave it,” Mattus told me in 1985. Mattus says he no longer supports the JDL or Kahane.

Kahane told me in November 1984 that donations to him have increased “especially from Jewish millionaires,” since his election to the Knesset. “Everybody loves a winner,” he quipped.

Kahane sweeps across the United States four or five times a year in search of funds. His largest bastions of support are in New York, South Florida, the Baltimore-Washington D.C. area and Los Angeles. Kach currently has chapters in more than two dozen cities and publishes a monthly newsletter and a bimonthly magazine called Kahane. Last May, after speaking in more than a dozen U.S. cities, he held a conclave for 140 supporters from around the country at the Chalet Vim, a modest Catskill resort hotel.

Kahane expertly tailors his appeal for funds to fit the audience. In front of middle and upper middle class groups, he mixes stinging criticism of the “pygmies and dwarfs” he says run the major America Jewish organizations with Borscht Belt one liners ridiculing mixed marriages. For Orthodox Jews, he throws in Biblical injunctions against the Gentile, and declares Israel should be a theocratic state. His constant theme is that Arabs must leave Israel because they are a threat to the state’s existence. If they do not leave willingly, he says, they should be deported at gun point.

Rabbi Gabriel Maza of the Suffolk, Jewish Center on Long Island, said Kahane’s May 11 appearance at his synagogue was “subdued and dignified.” “He talked about exchange of populations, of the Arab demographic threat to Israel,” said Rabbi Maza, who noted that about 100 people attended at $50 a head, half of which went to Kahane. Appeals for funds from the floor followed Kahane’s speech, with one man handing him a personal check for $10,000, said Rabbi Maza.

Maza’s brother, Jackie Mason, who recently won a Tony Award for his one man performance in “The World According to Me!,” which is currently playing on Broadway, drove from Manhattan to hear the mercurial Kach leader. Mason told me during an interview in his dressing room at the Brooks Atkinson Theater last June, that Kahane’s analysis of why Arabs pose a demographic threat to Israel is essentially correct. “Democratic principles shouldn’t apply to Israel like they do in America,” said Mason, an ordained rabbi who grew up on New York’s Lower East Side. “If Arabs multiply to such an extent where they become as numerous as Israeli Jews, they can vote out the Jews and end the Jewish state. Jews would become enemy aliens in their own country. And that’s the problem, and that’s why Meir Kahane is right! You are stupid, and so are people like yourself who say how terrible we are to the Arabs.”

Last March Mason went on Kach’s Monday evening FM radio program in New York, praising Kahane’s political wisdom. In 1972, Mason did a benefit for the JDL legal defense fund at a Queens theater over the protest of his agent. “I was eager to do it,” he told me, because he said the JDL was doing good work defending persecuted Jews. Last August, Mason was asked to do another benefit for the JDL but refused, saying that he objects to the violent behavior of some of its members. (Several other well-known entertainers performed at benefits for the JDL in the 1970s.)

The backbone of Kahane’s support in America, however, is unquestionably the Orthodox Jewish community. It is not so much the money he gets from prominent rabbis, but their seal of approval that is so important. His personal appearances in Orthodox synagogues sometimes take on a carnival-like atmosphere. “There is no individual I know who can attract an audience like Kahane,” says Rabbi Max N. Schreier, Vice President of the Rabbinical Council of America, the largest body of Orthodox Rabbis in America. Schreier’s own synagogue, the Avenue N Jewish Center in Flatbush, has been the scene of frequent Kahane appearances. “Once he spoke in my schul and it was filled like Yom Kippur!” Schreier says Kahane’s work with the JDL helped instill a sense of pride in the American Jewish community. “When he urged Jews to stand up to the challenge of the blacks and to the challenge of anti-Semites, it made a great deal of sense.” But Schreier, who believes Israel should annex the West Bank, is uncomfortable with Kahane’s call to expel the Arabs because, he says, “It arouses violent animosity among non-Jews and doesn’t enhance the position of Jews in America.”

One of’ Kahane’s most stunning successes has been to attract major financial support from the Allepo, Syrian Jewish community of Flatbush, perhaps the wealthiest Jewish community in the world. Until last year, Syrian Jewish leaders barred Kahane from even speaking in neighborhood synagogues. Opposition to him slackened however, with his growth in the Israeli polls. A Sunday afternoon fund-raiser last February in the home of electronics magnate Ralph Betesh, Kahane’s key organizer in the New York Syrian Jewish community, netted some $20,000. Every major rabbi from the community attended, as well as prominent businessmen. Betesh says that some donors are so worried about being tied to Kahane that they have passed money to him through a sympathetic New York yeshiva rather than make out checks or give cash to his organizations.

According to Bertram Zweibon, an attorney, co-founder and former general counsel of the JDL who broke with Kahane in the rnid-’70s, the rabbi has set up numerous front groups that were to serve primarily as a means for both Kahane and the JDL to collect funds. In 1981, the Anti-Defamation League identified fifteen fictitious businesses soliciting funds for Jewish “causes” that were associated with the JDL in California. The ADL found that the businesses were no more than a name and a postbox.

Currently, Kahane is overseeing at least four organizations in America to raise money and build support for his party in Israel: Kach International, the Institute for the Authentic Jewish Idea, Jewish Overview and the Jewish Defense League. The organizations have interlocking board members–all of whom are associated with Kahane. JDL national coordinator Victor Vancier, who pleaded guilty last summer in connection with six terrorist bombings in New York, including the September tear-gas bombing of Lincoln Center during an opening night performance of the Moiseyev Dance Company in which 20 people were injured, says three of the JDL’s 10 board members are also on Kach’s board. “Kach equals the JDL equals Kahane,” says New York State assemblyman Dov Hikind, a former JDL member, who is among Kahane’s most fervent supporters.

Kach International, a public stock-holding company incorporated in California, is Kahane’s principal propaganda arm in America. It was created after Kahane’s Knesset victory because “’We felt the Kach name would command more respect than the JDL name among American Jews,” said Ken Sidman, Kach’s 36-year-old director, who died of a heart attack in August. Nevertheless, the JDL–which Kahane claims he left in August 1984–and Kach work closely together with many Kahane supporters joining both organizations. “Certainly the JDL’s concerns and ours overlap,” said Sidman.

One overlapping concern is Jesse Jackson. In 1984 Sidman helped spawn a JDL-Kach front group called Jews Against Jackson. Kahane, who had called Jackson “a vicious fraud,” “a Jew hater,” and “a stain on the Democratic party” unleashed “truth squads” to harass Jackson during his 1984 presidential campaign.

The Institute for the Authentic Jewish Idea, Kahane’s major fundraising arm in the United States, currently shares office space and a post box in Brooklyn with Kach. The Jewish Idea was set up in 1979, after its predecessor, the Jewish Identity Center dissolved, leaving a $25,000 bank overdraft and pending litigation.

According to incorporation papers filed with the New York State Attorney General’s office, the Jewish Idea was set up “to educate and enlighten members of the community in order that they may be better informed as to current world problems and their effect on Judaism and the Jewish community.” The Jewish Idea was to achieve this goal primarily by serving as a clearing house for Kahane’s 12 books, numerous pamphlets and video cassettes as well as arranging his U.S. tours.

The Jewish Idea is currently on the IRS rolls as a charitable, tax-exempt organization that can solicit tax-deductible contributions. According to IRS law, tax-deductible contributions cannot be used to finance, influence or intervene even indirectly in political campaigns. The law also severely limits political lobbying and the dissemination of propaganda. However, numerous Kach donors and other sources familiar with Kahane’s fund raising methods say Rabbi Kahane has used the Jewish Idea primarily to finance his Knesset campaigns and to maintain his political profile in Israel. “Kahane’s been unabashedly raising money under his name and the Jewish Idea for the express purpose of funding his political activities in Israel,” said a source familiar with the Federal grand jury investigation of JDL activities. “He’s conspicuous about it. He goes to fund-raisers and says, ‘Give me money to advance my political interests in Israel.’ Then they write a check and get a tax write-off.” An elderly Kahane supporter from Tucson said, “I would give him everything I have.” He says he has contributed more than $10,000 in checks to the Jewish Idea. “It’s tax deductible and the money goes to him in Israel.”

During Kahane’s successful bid for the Knesset in 1984, the Jewish Idea mailed flyers to prospective contributors asking them to mail tax deductible checks made out to the Jewish Idea in order “to send Kach and Kahane to power in Israel.” At a recent fundraising dinner for Kahane at the prestigious Lincoln Square Synagogue in Manhattan, contributors were told that their tax-exempt donations to the Jewish Idea would help Kahane win 10 Knesset seats in the next election, according to Mal Leibowitz, a Kach activist who was on the dinner steering, committee. Kahane raised $40,000 at the dinner, said Richard Propis, Kach International’s treasurer.

According to the Jewish Idea’s tax returns, it has received $788,115 in contributions between 1980 and June 30, 1986. The Jewish Idea has also received as much as $10,000 per year from the JDL, which is listed on its returns as an affiliated organization.

On Jan. 19, 1987, the Jewish Idea’s director, Adela Levy, who is also Rabbi Kahane’s personal secretary, sent a letter to supporters informing them that the group has created a new, tax-deductible organization called “Jewish Overview,” which henceforth would accept all tax-deductible checks for Rabbi Kahane’s struggle. “To start the new tax year off the right Jewish way,” she wrote, “if you have not yet given the $100 we so need from EVERY supporter of Rabbi Kahane, why not write a check for that now, to JEWISH OVERVIEW? And if you have given already, who says it is forbidden to give more? and where does it say that the maximum has to be $100?”

Some Kahane supporters prefer to give donations directly to the rabbi. “I give my money directly to Kahane,” said Alex Parker, a well-to-do real estate developer who holds the mortgage on One Times Square in Manhattan and is building a resort complex in Jerusalem. Parker said he gives Kahane “substantial” sums of money. “I love the way he shakes up the liberals,” Parker added.

Besides skirting IRS rules governing charitable, tax-exempt foundations, Kahane and his fundraising agents in the United States have also failed to comply with the Foreign Agents Act, which requires agents or organizations of a foreign political party that raise money in the United States to register with the Justice Department. According to Justice Department spokesman Sharp, neither Kahane nor Kach nor other known Kahane-affiliated organizations are registered. By law, registered foreign agents are required to submit annual financial statements, as well as a donors list, with the amount each gave.

Kahane has a history of disputes with other people about money. When he was 16 he was kicked out of Betar, the youth wing of the right-wing Zionist Revisionist movement founded by Zev Jabotinsky, for allegedly diverting funds, according to Morton Dolinsky, who was then Kahane’s leader in Betar and who was head of the Israeli government press office in Jerusalem from 1982-84. In 1968, Kahane founded the Estelle Donna Evans Foundation, which he said raised $200,000 for his activities in the United States and Israel. It was disbanded after tax questions were raised by government officials. (The foundation was created in the name of a gentile woman with whom Kahane was involved romantically. She jumped to her death from the Queensboro Bridge on July 31, 1966 after he broke off their relationship. Ironically, Kahane recently proposed legislation in Israel that would make it a crime punishable by two years imprisonment for a Jew to have “intimate relations, full or partial, in any form, with non Jews, even within a marital framework.”)

The irrepressible rabbi even forged a lucrative relationship with the late Joseph Colombo Sr., the head of the Colombo crime family. The rabbi and the mobster were introduced to each other by Barry Slotnick, who was their attorney. Colombo, who according to Slotnick was attracted to Kahane’s tough Jewish image, showed up in court in 1971 with a bondsman to pay the rabbi’s $25,000 bail on bomb making charges. In the months that followed Kahane and Colombo became, Slotnick said, “close and good friends.” But at the heart of the relationship was money, according to Irving Calderon, who in the early 1970s was Kahane’s chief aide and fund-raiser. Not only did Colombo provide bail money and attorneys for JDL kids in trouble with the law, but the JDL got weapons and money, “tons of money” from Colombo, says Calderon, who today is a trucking executive in Queens. “Colombo thought he got respect from being seen with a famous rabbi, even though at the time most Jews didn’t respect Kahane,” Calderon said.

Most Jews still don’t respect Kahane. His racist tenants and his advocacy of violence are abhorrent to the vast majority of Jews in America. Yet he has a surprisingly large, affluent cadre of supporters who through their donations keep him in the thick of Israeli public life.

Kahane once told me that since he was a boy he has dreamed of becoming Prime Minister of Israel. He is trying to raise $3 million from American Jews to that end. Even with millions of dollars, it remains a desperate dream. Almost no one in Israel except Kahane and his closest associates think he has a chance of ever leading Israel. But many observers on both the right and the left agree he has a tremendous capacity for fomenting social upheaval.

©1987 Robert I. Friedman


Robert I. Friedman is a freelance writer reporting on the rise of the radical right in Israel.

Robert Friedman
Robert Friedman