“I know Jews who go to jail for blacks and Puerto Ricans and Chicanos and Pygmies. I know rabbis who went to Selma to get arrested. But I don’t know of a single rabbi who broke the law when the crematoria were being fed with twelve thousand Jews every day…Never again will Jews watch silently while other Jews die. Never again!”
Thus thundered Rabbi Meir Kahane before a crowd of thousands at a rally for Soviet Jews organized by his militant Jewish Defense League (JDL). In that crowd was a teenager from Borough Park who found himself drawn to the JDL’s embrace of Jewish power and contempt for the American Jewish establishment. That boy, Yossi Klein Halevi, would later move to Israel and become one of the most prominent authors and writers on the Jewish scene—but not before taking a winding journey into and out of the fringes of the Jewish Right.
In 1995, Halevi chronicled his experiences in the Soviet Jewry movement and the JDL in a remarkable book entitled Memoirs of a Jewish Extremist. Republished in 2014, the book traces the trajectory of Halevi’s life and thinking from his childhood in Brooklyn to a sit-in at the Moscow Emigration Office to his current home in Israel. In so doing, it provides a unique glimpse into the complex psychology of the generation of American Jews who came of age in the years immediately after the Holocaust.
In this podcast, Halevi sits down with Tikvah Senior Director Jonathan Silver to discuss his memoir. As Halevi retells the story of what drew him into, and drove him away from, Meir Kahane and JDL, he helps us get a clearer picture of what the Jewish militants of the '60s and '70s got wrong about post-war American Jewry—and gives us valuable insight into what they got right.
Musical selections in this podcast are drawn from the Quintet for Clarinet and Strings, op. 31a, composed by Paul Ben-Haim and performed by the ARC Ensemble as well as “Baruch Habah,” performed by the choir of Congregation Shearith Israel.