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The Brooklyn Avengers

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On November 16, 1992, almost two years to the day after Rabbi Meir Kahane was assassinated in midtown Manhattan, four Jewish teenagers threw a hand grenade into the shop of an Arab shoemaker in East Jerusalem’s Old City, killing him and wounding ten others. The boys, who called themselves the Revenge Commandos, told Israeli police investigators they had thrown the grenade for no other reason than to kill Arabs. Police later learned that the young terrorists were members of a small Jewish extremist group called Kahane Chai (Kahane Lives), which is based in the West Bank settlement of Kfar Tapuach, a collection of shabby prefabricated dwellings situated about fifteen miles south of Nablus on the West Bank. “It’s unfortunate that more people aren’t attacking Arabs,” David Cohen, a leader of Kahane Chai, told me during a recent visit to Tapuach. “As long as the Arabs are fighting us, there has to be a response. The Arabs have no right to be here. Revenge is ours.”

Not long after that grenade attack, Kahane Chai set up a front group in the US called the Committee for the Freedom of the Youths. It solicited contributions for the suspected terrorists’ legal defense in ads placed in the Brooklyn-based, Orthodox weekly newspaper, the Jewish Press. At the time, there was little, if any, controversy about these ads. Kahane, whose US support went far beyond the radical right-wing fringe of New York’s Jewish community, had raised millions of dollars in America. Though the Kach movement broke up into small competing factions after his death in 1990, Kahane Chai, the largest Kahane-linked group, continued to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars, largely from its offices in Brooklyn. The money, according to government officials I talked to in Israel, as well as Kahane Chai members, was used to run the Tapuach settlement, to set up a paramilitary training camp in the Catskill Mountains, and to buy weapons on Israel’s black market. Although the Kahane groups vehemently opposed the Oslo accords, and their members were involved in numerous attacks against Palestinians, including shootings from cars driving near Arab villages, the Rabin government viewed them as little more than a nuisance.

This indifference changed to alarm after the massacre on February 25 of at least twenty-nine worshipers in Hebron’s Ibrahim Mosque by Dr. Baruch Goldstein, a Brooklyn-born disciple of Kahane. Goldstein lived in the nearby settlement of Kiryat Arba, a center of extreme right-wing Jewish fundamentalism, where settlers’ vigilante groups had been attacking Arabs with virtual impunity during the intifada. Goldstein was elected to Kiryat Arba’s town council in 1985 as a representative of the Kach Party, which Kahane set up in Israel in 1974, and in 1988 he ran Kahane’s campaign for the Knesset. That year Goldstein told an Australian journalist why it was necessary to expel the Arabs: “I’m not looking to punish the Arabs,” he said. “I’m looking to rid ourselves of this danger in any way that’s possible…. The Arabs are the Nazis of today. The same thing Hitler wanted to do in Germany they want to do here in Israel…. There is no chance of co-existence.” Goldstein was still closely affiliated with Kach at the time of his death. “Don’t let anyone say he was a psychopath,” Goldstein’s widow has said. “He planned to do this in order to stop the peace talks. He did this for the sake of the people of Israel.”

Soon after the Hebron massacre, the Israeli cabinet voted unanimously to outlaw Kahane Chai and its related Kach Party, designating them as terrorist organizations. The government hoped to calm Palestinian fears of more attacks and protect its investment in the peace process. It is now a crime in Israel not only to give money to the groups but even to wear a T-shirt emblazoned with Kach’s emblem, a clenched first thrust through a Jewish star.

In Washington, Clinton administration officials anxious to coax the Palestine Liberation Organization back to the peace table, promised Nabil Sha’ath, the PLO’s chief negotiator, that the government would try to suppress the fund-raising activities of the Kahane groups in the US. The administration assembled an interagency working group consisting of officials from Justice, the IRS, the State Department, and Treasury to examine how to stop the flow of US money to Jewish terrorist groups in Israel. No law prohibits Americans from funding terrorist organizations, but the government is investigating whether the Kahane groups are raising money fraudulently or violating local or federal tax laws.

Israeli government officials say that a far greater threat to peace comes from charitable, tax-exempt foundations in the US that funnel money to organizations representing Israel’s 144 settlements, many of them built near heavily populated Arab parts of the Gaza Strip and West Bank. Rabin has slowed down the growth of Israel’s settlements. He told Israel Radio on April 13 that “for peace,” he was “prepared to take down settlements,” and that “we will not establish anew the apartheid that disappeared from South Africa.”

About 15 percent of the 136,000 settlers are originally from North America, and many are now prominent in their communities. Few American Jews have moved to the territories for economic reasons; they say they seek to fulfill the Biblical admonition to settle the land, and they are proud to participate in a messianic movement that has changed the political and geographical landscape of Israel. The Americans who have joined the settlement movement represent a cross section of Orthodox Jews, among them doctors and lawyers, teachers and mechanics. The Americans drawn to the Kahane-affiliated movements are predominantly working-class, Brooklyn Jews; many of them seem to have transferred their fears of blacks, and their contempt for them, to Palestinian Arabs.

American Jews who support Greater Israel are donating as much as $10 million a year to purchase real estate from Arabs in the occupied lands, including East Jerusalem, as well as to meet the day-to-day needs of the settlers. Donations to settlement organizations and development funds have come from famous American Jewish businessmen including Michael and Lowell Milken, through the Milken Family Foundation, the Reichmann family, Canadian owners of Olympia and York Developments Ltd., one of the largest privately held real estate companies in the world, and from tens of thousands of people of more modest means whose commitment to the Biblical Land of Israel is no less intense.

Even more troublesome, from the Labor Party’s point of view, are the American foundations that have been created to oppose the Oslo accords and Palestinian self-rule. YESHA (Salvation), the Gush Emunim–dominated settlement council on the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, has helped to establish at least two charitable, tax-exempt foundations in New York that have financed demonstrations in Israel and the US, at which protestors have called for the abrogation of the Oslo accords and Rabin’s ouster. Many Israeli organizations raise money in the United States for religious, cultural, and educational purposes, taking advantage of tax-exempt status that allows donors to claim deductions for their contributions. But the federal tax code prohibits such charitable tax-exempt foundations from using contributions to campaign for or against elected political leaders, or to intervene in—or violate—public policy. It is also illegal to use tax-exempt funds to purchase or improve real estate in order to promote a manifestly political program.

Robert Kobel, an IRS official in Brooklyn, says tax-exempt organizations such as the ones set up by YESHA are expressly prohibited from using their money to finance partisan political activity “of any kind at all. It is absolutely illegal.” They may use it to inform the public but not to finance political movements or parties or try to precipitate early elections and influence the outcome. Taking out ads condemning the peace negotiations and calling for Jews to rise up in opposition to the Rabin government, Kobel says, could be considered a political activity and “would raise a lot of eyebrows” at the IRS.

But Israeli extremist groups and groups supporting the settlements have long used America as a source of money. Nearly a decade before Baruch Goldstein went on his murderous rampage, federal authorities had strong evidence that Kahane was raising tax-exempt funds in the US to promote a political program of racism and terror. In 1985, five years before Kahane was assassinated, a federal grand jury in Brooklyn began to look into the rabbi’s alleged terrorist activities in America. As part of their investigation, federal investigators examined whether tax-exempt funds raised by Kahane’s organizations were being sent to Israel to be used for political activities in violation of federal tax law. The federal grand jury was convened after seven JDL terror bombings in 1985 killed two persons, including Alex Odeh, the West Coast regional director of the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, who was blown in half by a pipe bomb in Santa Ana, California. According to the FBI, the bombers were young American Jews who had moved to Israel, then returned to the US on Israeli passports in order to kill Arab supporters of the PLO and alleged Nazi war criminals.

Kahane had been personally connected with at least four tax-exempt foundations in the US. He never concealed that they were being used to raise money and build support for his Kach Party in Israel, which had won a single Knesset seat in 1984. At a fall 1987 fund-raising dinner for Kahane at the Lincoln Square Synagogue in Manhattan, supporters were told that their tax-exempt donations to the Jewish Idea, a Kach front group, would help him win ten Knesset seats in the 1988 elections. (I was told this by Mal Leibowitz, a Kach activist who was on the dinner’s steering committee.) Kahane raised $40,000 at the dinner, according to Richard Propis, the treasurer of Kach International, another group created by Kahane.

Kach was barred from running for the Knesset in 1988 on the grounds that the party was racist and fascist;1 but that did not slow down Kahane’s fund raising. By the late 1980s, he was bringing into Israel at least $500,000 a year—enough to run two offices in Jerusalem and buy a sound truck, telecommunications equipment, and a printing press.

Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Kahane’s organization, according to Ehud Sprinzak, author of the The Ascendance of Israel’s Radical Right, underwrote literally hundreds of attacks on Arabs, which were, for the most part, carried out at very little cost. An army-surplus rifle, a few rounds of ammunition, and a rented car were often all that was needed to go into an Arab village and attack Arabs or their homes or cars. The heavy cost to Kach came in bail and legal fees after Kahane’s followers were arrested.

In a signed confession to the Shin Bet, Israel’s FBI, Kach activist Craig Leitner described a typical Kach anti-Arab attack organized by himself and Mike Guzofsky, now the much interviewed head of the Kahane Chai organization in Brooklyn:

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    Just before the November 1, 1988, Knesset elections, Kahane’s popularity was surging in the polls. After the intifada began in December 1987, tens of thousands of Israelis became more right wing in their views and Kahane’s violently anti-Arab Kach Party appeared to benefit strongly from the trend. A poll conducted by Modi’in Ezrahi for Ma’ariv during the second week of September 1988 indicated Kach would win six seats. To prevent that from happening, the Knesset’s Central Election Commission banned Kach from participating in the elections. The commission based its ruling on an anti-racism law that was adopted by the Knesset (by a vote of 57 to 22, with seven abstentions) in August 1986.

    A five-member Supreme Court panel unanimously upheld the ban, declaring that Kach’s proposed treatment of Arabs is “shockingly similar” to the horrible crimes “which the Jewish people experienced” in Nazi Germany.

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