What the Kahane phenomenon can teach Israelis today

The Israeli far-right prefers to preserve late Meir Kahane as a historical figure, but with his recent production of "Kahane Was Right" playwright Yoav Itamar forces the Israeli public to confront contemporary Israeli stances on Kahane's controversial, far-right ideologies.

al-monitor Candles burn with the image of the late Brooklyn-born Rabbi Meir Kahane, as a follower prays at his grave at the Givat Shaul cemetery on the outskirts of Jerusalem to mark the 16th anniversary of his assassination by an Arab gunman in Manhattan, Nov. 9, 2006. Photo by Getty Images/Menahem Kahana.

Topics covered

theater, right wing, politics, orthodox, left wing, israeli public, israel, elections

Feb 19, 2015

The spirit of the late Rabbi Meir Kahane has returned to Israel's political scene, just in time for the elections.

The reappearance of the extreme right-wing icon, whose political party, Kach, was banned for terrorism shortly before his murder in 1990, comes in the form of a new play showing in Tel Aviv. The production also coincides with a decision barring a former member of Kach from running in the upcoming elections and increased concerns over the return of Kahane's violent message to mainstream society.

“Kahane Was Right” has been showing at the respected venue of the Tzavta theater in Tel Aviv for several weeks now. When I call former member of Knesset and far right-wing activist Michael Ben-Ari, formerly a member of the Kach movement, to ask his opinion of the play, he refuses to respond. He doesn’t want to say anything about it — good or bad.

In the past few days, the media spotlight has been focused on former members of the Kach movement. A few weeks ago, Ben-Ari initiated an electoral alliance with Eli Yishai’s new party. His colleague, Baruch Marzel, was supposed to represent them on the list of candidates for the Knesset, but the Central Elections Committee rejected Marzel’s candidacy on Feb. 12, citing his continuing ideological affiliation with the values of the Kach movement. Despite this highly publicized rejection, Ben-Ari prefers not to speak about the play or the legacy of Kahane as the play represents him.

Yoav Itamar, the playwright who brought the controversial figure of Rabbi Kahane back to life for a profound hour-long monologue about Israel today, says that he called Ben-Ari and invited him to see the play, which opened in September 2014, and maybe even to participate in a conversation with the audience at the end of the show. According to Itamar, Ben-Ari refused and explained that his representatives saw the play and found historical inconsistencies. Ben-Ari himself refuses to confirm or deny that such a phone conversation took place.

Ben-Ari is not the only far right-wing activist Itamar tried to invite to the play. According to him, everyone refuses. “It may be that the Kach people made a calculated decision to ignore the play,” Itamar speculates. “The play presents multiple narratives about Kahane, some of which I invented. They want to maintain him as a historical figure.”

A couple in the audience offers a complementary theory after watching the play. “Yeah, it’s a leftist play,” they say. “While it criticizes the left, it’s leftists. It’s in the nature of liberals to be able to accept criticism and complex views, more so than conservatives.”

One can’t deny the drama produced by such a play, which breaks a grave taboo in Israeli culture: dealing with the figure of Kahane, in any way that is not a complete and utter denunciation, is a kind of transgression of the unwritten rules here. The fact that this play is produced at a respected and well-known institution such as the Tzavta theater is a challenge to the bounds of Israeli public discourse. Ever since Kahane, originally an American, was murdered in 1990 by a Muslim assassin in Manhattan, his figure has been silenced in Israel, and for good reason: he’s a symbol of the depths of extremism that the political system can sink to. Through an especially racist and violent agenda Kahane succeeded in penetrating Israeli politics and becoming a Knesset member in 1984, before the law was passed to prevent this from happening in the following election cycle.

Until recently, the treatment of his person was the domain of the most extreme circles of the right. He simply disappeared from the normative discourse beyond his image as a Jewish terrorist — after the state declared the Kach movement a terrorist organization, a step backed by the United States and Europe.

While the play was written five years ago, with increasing alarm Israelis have watched how in recent months, since Operation Protective Edge (July-August 2014), Kahane’s figure has returned to the mainstream. The slogan “Kahane Was Right” has been appearing more and more as graffiti on walls throughout the country. This play represents, for its creator and for the actor who plays Kahane, a call for the Israeli public to stop burying its head in the sand. To stop ignoring the fact that the figure and teachings of Kahane still exist in Israel, slowly moving from the margins to the center.

One could guess that Itamar would be glad if the play were to get a little more attention from the right. In reality, there are no protests against it and right-wing activists are not bothering to interrupt its run. “Neither I, nor the actor and the director have received threats, even though I thought it might happen.” Itamar admits. He wrote the play over the last five years, and he says it was supposed to be staged even before Operation Protective Edge. “During the war a friend told me that Operation Protective Edge is doing my publicity for me,” he says.

The play shows Rabbi Kahane in present day, after hiding out in his apartment all the years since his supposed 1990 assassination. A group of right-wing activists finds him, arrives at his home and tries to convince him to return to Israel to be a leader. While preparing a zucchini casserole for his guests, the main character gives a long monologue. In the beginning, he declares that he is not Rabbi Kahane, but he slowly assumes his character.

Although it is a fringe play, when it first appeared in Tel Aviv the house was completely full. Most of the audience, so it seemed, align with the left side of the political map. It is not that the play makes life easy for leftists: The goal, Itamare explains, is to dismantle Kahane’s image from its demonization among the Israeli public on the one hand, and its sanctification among elements of the far-right.

Among mainstream Israelis, Kahane is known for establishing an especially racist and violent wing of the right in Israel, one that does not scorn extreme solutions like transferring all of Israel’s Arabs and violent punishment for opponents, including “Death to Arabs,” as Kahane’s successors call for today. The Kach Party won Knesset seats in the 1984 election, but was declared a terrorist organization in Israel in 1988, and then in the United States, Europe and elsewhere. For most Israelis, Kahane is the symbol of the most extreme evil created by a Jew in Israel since the establishment of the state. Itamar obviously does not deny this, but he nonetheless seeks to hold a deep debate over the figure of Kahane, and the result is surprisingly complex.

One could hear the audience shifting in their seats in discomfort when suddenly, in the middle of the monologue, actor Avraham Shalom Levi stops talking about Kahane in the third person, and switches to first person and describes how he is going to come back to lead. At first it would be sweetly, with a show of affection for leftists and Arabs, with a Facebook profile, YouTube videos and Instagram account. When he's gotten some sympathy and his image is accepted again, he’ll hold a press conference where he’ll let us all know the “truth” — if his ideas are accepted, it would save the lives of thousands of people and billions of dollars, explains the character. “It’s a superficial argument,” says one of the audience members at the end of the show, “but there’s no doubt it works on you. It makes you think.”

“Leftists also experience the play like a kick in the stomach, but few people leave in the middle,” Itamar says. “The play isn’t comfortable for anyone. Some people ask after the show, ‘Was he mentally ill?’ But this isn’t an interesting argument for me. Especially since there are so many sane people who believe in his positions even today.”

In one of the dramatic moments, Shalom Levi argues, in the role of Kahane, of course, that indeed all over the country you can see the graffiti “Kahane was right” but not “Rabin was right” or “Ben-Gurion was right.”

“That’s true,” two audience members admit after the show. “But there’s no ‘Rabin was right’ because we don’t spray paint it on walls. We’re nerds. It makes you jealous that on the right there are supposedly leaders they can follow,” they say.

Moshe Nativ of Givat Shmuel, an Orthodox Jew who holds center-left positions, isn’t put off by the subject of the play. “Its title is provocative,” he says before the show begins, “but I don’t know what to expect. I don’t recoil at debates over right-wing or left-wing extremism, as long as it’s a good play.”

“I’m naturally drawn to the figure of Kahane,” Elisha Or-Yam from Yaffa says. “Looking at the margins, at the extremes, allows you to understand the mainstream. The taboo should be examined, turned around, seen in its essence. I don’t know whether Kahane is taboo, but he has a combination that’s seen in the gap between the private person and the huge symbolization in Israeli society in general and the right in particular.”

Despite the complex and controversial topic, the play has been presented 11 times throughout the country, and in upcoming weeks, it will reach Hadera, Haifa and Jerusalem.

It seems that although this is a fringe production, a mainstream audience has also taken interest in it, which enables a real conversation, not just a leftist Tel Aviv conversation, to take place on the topic.

The Sade family of Jerusalem even commissioned the play for a private performance at its home in December for 30 of their friends. “In our circle the play isn’t considered controversial, we’re a leftist audience,” Anat Sade says. “It’s a thought-provoking play. Not in a way that would influence a political stance, but it demands that people answer for themselves for where they stand. The actor enters the role so convincingly, that one of our friends said, ‘I only hope he can come out of the role.’”

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