The Violence Is the Point | Avi Garelick | The Hypocrite Reader

Avi Garelick

The Violence Is the Point

ISSUE 98 | TEETH | JUL 2021

From Permanent Past, by Mithu Sen

In May 2021, in the midst of a wave of nationalist violence by the Israeli state and vigilantes against Palestinians, a video clip caught fire on the internet. In the background, flames leap near the al-Aqsa Mosque, while in the foreground, throngs of male religious Israeli youths mosh and sing in delight, a grotesque juxtaposition of recognizably buoyant concert culture with an image of destruction at a holy site. The song that boomed from a crane-rigged tower of speakers is an upbeat rock anthem by singer-songwriter Dov Shurin, a self-described “rocker of salvation” who graced the cover of The Economist in 1994 holding an Uzi1 and a Torah. Observers of Israeli far-right youth culture might have experienced a sense of déjà vu, as in December 2015, a video of boys dancing to the same song had inspired a wave of shock and unease. At the wedding of a prominent settler family, celebrants danced to the Shurin song while toting Molotov cocktails and IDF-issued guns and knives. One boy stabbed a picture of a Palestinian toddler recently killed in a firebomb attack by settler terrorists, who were personal friends with many guests at the wedding. The short clip provided undeniable evidence not just of genocidal terrorist violence by settlers (terrorist in the sense that they committed political violence unsanctioned by the state) but also of an endemic culture that condones, celebrates, and even sanctifies it.

What is so special about this song, “Zochreini Na”? Why does it resonate for the new generation of Israel’s far right, and what can it teach us about them? Dov Shurin’s ghastly anthem draws its lyrics from a scriptural source: “Recall me, pray, and strengthen me just this time, O God, that I may avenge myself in one act of vengeance from the Philistines for my two eyes” (Judges 16:28; translation by Robert Alter), a prayer spoken by the super-strong Israelite hero Samson. Weakened, captured, and blinded by his Philistine oppressors, Samson is paraded around for their enjoyment at a large party full of noble men and women. Leaning on two pillars for strength, he calls out to God and summons his old powers, breaking the pillars and collapsing the whole pavilion onto himself and 3,000 revelers—killing more in his death than he had in his life. The song makes one and only one fan-pleasing update to scripture: the replacement of “Philistines” with “Palestinians.”

It seems evident why Samson’s prayer might serve as an nationalistic Jewish ballad: it is a call to God for vengeance and victory over an enemy people. But several questions linger. How did the invincible Samson—who once slew 1,000 Philistines with nothing but the jawbone of a donkey—allow himself to become a victim in the first place? And why do Israeli settlers sing a song about overcoming an oppressor nation even when they enjoy a position of dominance? It is also important to notice what is missing from the prayer: while Samson prays for strength to avenge his blindness, he says nothing about the glory of God or the redemption of the people of Israel. To understand the resonance of the Shurin song more fully, we need to return to Samson’s story, and to the story of Shurin’s intellectual godfather, the infamous rabbi and provocateur Meir Kahane.

* * *

Born to a prestigious Orthodox family in Brooklyn in 1932, Kahane grew up with close ties to right-wing Zionists like Ze’ev Jabotinsky, the progenitor of the modern Likud Party. As a regional leader of the Greater New York B’nei Akiva Zionist youth movement and the congregational rabbi of a Conservative synagogue in Howard Beach, Kahane amassed a following for his charismatic leadership. In 1968, he founded the Jewish Defense League (JDL), a vigilante “self-defense” group that sought to project an image of Jewish strength and virility, polarizing New York City by roaming around with baseball bats and lead pipes. Strongly opposed to the Black Power Movement, the JDL amplified claims of Black antisemitism and Black crime against elderly Jews in changing neighborhoods, using this narrative as a pretext to bully Black people—all while appropriating the Black Power fist for their logo. Kahane even trained young men in a “Chaya” (Hebrew for wild animal) squad that was encouraged to get in touch with their animal instincts and passion for violence. At its height, the group’s membership exceeded 15,000 people. After a Jewish secretary in Manhattan died following a JDL bombing in 1972, however, the group lost most of its public presence and organizational strength.

By then, Kahane had already been convicted in federal court for conspiracy to manufacture explosives and moved to Israel while out on probation. There, he began laying the groundwork for Kach, a political party that would excoriate mainstream parties for tolerating Arab presence in Israel and predict that Arab demographic strength would destroy the Jewish State. Kach gained supporters incrementally until Kahane won a seat in the Knesset in 1984, the first and only parliamentary seat his party would ever gain before being banned outright. Like the JDL, Kach alarmed its opponents through its vigilante and terrorist activities. Members were implicated in stabbings, shootings, and arson attacks against Palestinians and left-wing Israelis. One member plotted to blow up the Dome of the Rock.

Kahane was a demagogue and an instigator who was convinced that rising antisemitism in the U.S. would lead to “another Holocaust.” He wasn’t an armchair proponent of violence and racism—he went out and made it happen, organizing tirelessly towards the purpose of killing Arabs and making it socially acceptable to do so. By the time he was shot to death in a hotel in Manhattan in 1990, he had lost his U.S. citizenship, and Kach had been banned in Israel. He had been arrested more than 60 times and spent time in Israeli prison for what he called “my ideas” (planning violent attacks on Palestinians in Hebron). None of his apocalyptic predictions of recurring Jewish victimhood have come to pass. Yet last Ramadan, as Jewish extremists paraded through the streets of Jerusalem attacking Palestinians and chanting “Death to Arabs,” a number could be seen wearing stickers emblazoned with the slogan “Kahane Tzadak”—Kahane was right. Today, his ideas have greater purchase than ever.

* * *

Samson’s divine gift of super-strength was tempered by a weakness for foreign women. The Philistines finally subdue him after his beloved Delilah pesters him repeatedly to share the secret of his powers—his never-shorn Nazirite hair. Having gained his trust, she promptly cuts his hair off and sells him out to the Philistines, who gouge out his eyes and tie him to a public millstone—setting the stage for his triumphant suicide.

This pattern of seduction, deception, betrayal, and violence is a reprise from an earlier episode in Samson’s career. His very first narrative action is to see a Philistine woman from Timnah and demand to marry her, despite his parents’ consternation: “But his father and his mother did not know that it was from the LORD, for He sought a pretext from the Philistines, and at that time the Philistines were ruling over Israel.”

He performs his first feat of strength on the way to propose to the Timnathite woman. Having separated from his parents during the journey, Samson is alone when he is attacked by a lion. He easily rips it in two “like one would a kid” and rejoins his parents without a word about his miraculous encounter. When he returns to Timnah, however, he finds that the lion’s carcass is now a beehive dripping with honey. He feeds the honey to his parents but doesn’t tell them where it’s from.

At the wedding party, Samson is feeling competitive and proposes a contest to the men of the wedding party: “Let me pose you a riddle. If you actually explain it to me during the seven days of the feast and find the solution, I shall give you thirty fine cloths and thirty changes of garment. And if you are not able to explain it to me, you shall give me thirty fine cloths and thirty changes of garment.”

The riddle is unsolvable: “From the eater food came forth, and from the strong sweet came forth,” a reference to Samson’s secret honeycomb lion. The only way to solve it is by winning his new wife into their confidence; whether he realizes it or not, Samson is baiting his wedding guests into a contest for his wife’s loyalty. When he loses the contest, Samson is furious: “Had you not plowed with my heifer,” he tells them, “you would not have solved my riddle.”

Brimming with divine superstrength and sexual jealousy (as suggested by the heifer metaphor), Samson holds up his end of the bargain by killing 30 other Philistines and taking their garments. Whatever you think about vigilante justice, this was a spate of jealous revenge—not justified retribution. He views the Philistines as collectively responsible for the slight against him; he has no compunctions about killing some to settle a score with others.

Samson’s sexual urgency is a tool for divine action against the enemy. In the pattern of the book’s prior chapters, God inspires a military leader to amass forces and defeat the enemy through acts of bravery and cunning. Those leaders take up the banner of God’s people and draw the tribes of Israel into war behind them. In some cases, such as in the story of Gideon, God or an angel appears to explicitly inform the hero of their purpose. With Samson, God simply supplies super strength to a crude, impulsive person (a philistine, if you will), points him in the direction of a foreign enemy, and lets the chaos unfold. Unlike other heroes, who struggle to align their actions with God’s will, Samson doesn’t so much as blink.

* * *

Kahane was something of an ideological seducer, adept at revealing flashes of his ideology to people who may never have been attracted to the whole thing. This ability is why he continues to pose a threat: precisely because he continuously exerted himself as a public propagandist, presenting toxic and catastrophic violence as a matter of simple self-defense. “In the Bible we find the story of a man named Moses, who saw an Egyptian beating a Jew,” Kahane would say at rallies. “And what did Moses do? Set up a committee to investigate the root causes of Egyptian antisemitism? The Bible says, ‘And he smote the Egyptian.’”

Kahane ran a very effective fundraising circuit among American Jews, speaking to packed synagogue audiences on such subjects as the Holocaust and the plight of Jews in the Soviet Union. He was seen as willing to stand up for the little guy, the Jew, when the pompous Zionist leadership refused to do it. Such credulous figures as Reuben Mattus, the founder of Häagen-Dazs, forked over the big bucks, while Bob Dylan mused to Time that “he’s a really sincere guy. He’s really put it all together.”

Kahane was an expert at pulling at the dark edges of the American Jewish psyche—which in those days was still overwhelmingly liberal and Democratic. Uncomfortable Truths for Comfortable Jews, he sneered in one of his book titles, boldly suggesting that if his audience were not so confused by affluence they would already know what he had come to teach—genocidal violence as plain-spoken common sense.

If a pot-bellied dad on a patio in Westchester has ever scolded you for ignoring the battlefield realities of the world—that’s Kahane talking.

Kahane raised money in the U.S. for “educational purposes” while funneling donations into building the infrastructure for a terrorist political party in Israel. While the Häagen-Dazs guy might have loved the pleasantly chauvinistic pride in Jewishness Kahane peddled in Connecticut, Kahane’s core followers were buying into a catastrophic worldview of eternal strife and violence between Jew and Arab.

Eliminationist racism against Arabs is prevalent in Israel. Zvi Yehuda Kook, principal founder of the religious settler Zionist movement, said at a conference in 1967 that “there is no Arab land here, only the inheritance of our God.” David Ben-Gurion, the first prime minister of Israel, directed paramilitary forces attacking Arab settlements to “deal a decisive blow with each onslaught, destroying the place or driving out the inhabitants and capturing the place.” From its beginning, Zionism has been marred by Jewish supremacy and virulent hatred for Arab peoples who got in the way of the vision of a Jewish society. So what is the reason for Kahane’s singular infamy? What makes him the godfather of today’s murderous teens?

To begin with, there is his penchant for terrorism. While terrorism was practiced ubiquitously by Zionist militia groups in British colonial Palestine, by the time Kahane rose to prominence Zionist leaders were proud of the transition to monopolized state violence. Their strategy at this point was the judicious application of repressive violence balanced with the state’s generous capacity for providing education, welfare, and economic development. Kahane and his followers were a reminder of an earlier era, planting bombs out of their place in history. The return of the repressed.

Kahane delighted in pointing out the contradictions and delusions of liberal Zionism when it came to the “Arab problem”—that is, that liberal Zionists can’t stomach admitting to themselves that they simply wish the Arabs would go away on their own. “[Arab loyalty] is a devoutly desired illusion that every Israeli leader and official spreads,” he wrote in his popular They Must Go. “The soothing legend of ‘our good Arabs who are equal and free and who appreciate and love Israel’ is fed, along with liver, chicken, and stuffed derma, to the Hadassah’s portly and younger suburban matrons.”

Here is the core ideological distinction that drove his terrorist approach: while other Zionist schools of thought had some vision of Jewish autonomy or redemption for which the indigenous Palestinian population was an inconvenient truth, for Kahane, conflict with and domination of a gentile population was at the center of the Zionist project.

This bloody theological attitude was explicated by Ehud Sprinzak in a paper one year after Kahane was shot to death in New York City, using documents that had circulated internally among Kahane’s followers. The mainstream view of the religious Zionist movement, according to Sprinzak, could be called a “redemption theory” of history. God had acted through the early Zionists, secular though they were, to bring about a stage of history where the Jewish people could be redeemed from secularism and sin and drawn into total observance of Torah law. This was how religious settler Zionism has generally made sense of itself and its role in the supposedly secular state of Israel. Insofar as this theory aligns with Whole Land territorial expansionism, eliminationist racism towards Arabs is part of the package.

Kahane’s lens for the emergence of Zionism, by contrast, is what Sprinzak calls the “revenge theory.” For Kahane, thousands of years of history are marked by the domination and humiliation by gentiles of the Jews, God’s chosen people—and therefore the humiliation of God himself. After generations of taking the abuse (it’s never made clear why), God is finally striking back against the gentiles by creating a Zionist force to dominate and humiliate them. This is not meant to redeem the Jewish people—they can stay secular, stupid, and mean as long as they can torture and kill. Kahane thought that Jews were not the purpose for the establishment of the State of Israel, “but, paradoxically, the gentiles.” The Palestinian population is not an unpleasant obstacle for Kahane, and violence against them is not incidental to his vision. The violence is the point.

It should be clear at this point why Samson’s nihilistic revenge fantasy provides the basis for today’s Zionist killer youth anthem, precisely because of its single-minded focus on vengeance. Those ambiguous and difficult elements of the tale—Samson’s impulsiveness, his animality, his selfishness, his role as a blunt instrument in the hand of God—can all be celebrated unreservedly within the framework of Kahanism. Followers of Kahane like Bentzion Gopstein (head of Lehava, an organization opposed to miscegenation between Jews and Arabs) have expounded the tale as a model for their students, celebrating vengeance as the highest form of Jewish authenticity.

Of course, the true paradox of Kahane’s revenge theory is that it needs the gentile to persist as its eternal object of vengeance. Underlying the hatred is magnetic attraction.

* * *

Samson, despite his penchant for killing Philistines, can’t quit loving them.

Once the dust settles on the riddle competition, Samson starts to miss the woman he thinks of as his wife (reminiscent of the drunken foolish king Ahasuerus, cf. Esther 2:1). So he goes back to Timnah, where he is met with the consternation and plain confusion of her clan. After ruining the wedding party and killing a bunch of Philistines in an expression of chauvinist contempt, does Samson really think the marriage is still on?

He does, and when he finds she’s been married off, Samson flies into a rage. He wrangles 300 foxes, sets them on fire, and lets them loose in the Philistine fields, devastating the wheat harvest. Again he expands the circle of Philistine culpability by destroying the harvests of the clan’s neighbors. The neighbors respond by burning the woman and her father alive, in an apparent attempt at appeasing Samson. He doesn’t take it as such. He exacts vengeance against an unspecified number of Philistines in a barehanded, violent rampage whose obscure Hebrew description (“hip upon thigh”) suggests bending people into shapes they’re not meant for.

The Philistines see him as a wanted man at this point, so when he heads back to the territory of Judah, they amass and demand the Judahites give him up, leaving them with the unenviable responsibility of subduing Samson and delivering him up for the Philistines for justice. The Judahites, weaker than the Philistines, have to try and hope for the best. Lucky for them, along with his invincible strength Samson also possesses a sense of national solidarity (not to be underrated in the Book of Judges!). He allows himself to be bound and apprehended by his kinsfolk, but when they hand him over to the Philistines, he breaks the ropes that bind him “like flax burning in fire,” picking up the “fresh jawbone of a donkey” and slaying 1,000 Philistines. He then sings a crude and jubilant chant with an untranslatable pun on “donkey” and “mounds [of bodies].” The jaw of a donkey is a primitive weapon, heavy and sharp, recalling a time before sophisticated forged metal instruments of war. A tradition in Western art renders Cain, the very first murderer, slaying his brother with a jawbone, perhaps because as the first farmer he may have used jawbones as sickles. Samson wrenches the jawbone from its place in history and murders his enemies like it is the very first time.

Depleted after his berserker’s rampage, Samson cries out to God for the first time: “You Yourself gave a great victory in the hand of your servant, and now should I die from thirst and fall into the hand of the uncircumcised?”

It’s an ungracious prayer that reminds us of the rancorous Israelites under Moses’ care in the desert, but God grants him a miracle in the style of Moses. Here is a wonderful ambiguity in translation: water springs forth either from a “hollow” at the place called Lehi (jawbone), or from the jawbone itself, the bloody primitive weapon that Samson had wielded against his enemies.

The cycle of lust and violence continues thereafter. Improbably, Samson follows up the jawbone episode by hiring a Philistine prostitute. He has an apparently limitless capacity for cognitive dissonance about Philistines, carrying a murderous grudge against them while maintaining an appetite for their women. In that case too, he eludes a Philistine plot to capture him, picking up the entire city gate and walking off with it in a bit of Looney Tunes slapstick.

* * *

Kahane himself was fixated on the humiliation of the gentile and railed against intermarriage, even introducing legislation against Jewish-gentile sexual relations during his stint in the Knesset. Eighteen years before that legislative proposal, 10 years after his wedding to Libby Blum, and one year before the Summer of Love, Kahane dabbled in such illicit sexual relations himself. Under the pseudonym of Michael King, the 34-year-old Kahane took off his yarmulke, went to a bar in Manhattan, and met the young Estelle Donna Evans. Estelle had also shed her given name, Gloria Jean D’Argenio, when she came to Manhattan from Bridgeport, Connecticut to try modeling. We don’t know the intimate details of their involvement, but Estelle must have been quite smitten with the disguised rabbi. She believed she had met her fiancé, and she had conceived a child. When he abruptly ended the relationship via a written note, admitting that he wasn’t who he claimed to be, she jumped off a bridge and killed herself—killing no more in her death than she did in life.

Ultimately, Kahane may be tied to Samson most firmly not through virile heroism or through unplacated vengefulness against gentiles but through a libidinous attachment to that revenge in which the pursuit of the gentile was a kind of erotic game. On the other hand, sex with his Jewish wife, as he admitted to reporters, was “unsatisfactory,” and “confined by the strictures of Orthodoxy.” He seemed to take pleasure from Estelle even posthumously, naming a fraudulent U.S. foundation after her that he used to channel donations to political causes in Israel.

This is true not only of Kahane but of the larger movement; Lehava, Gopstein’s Kahanist anti-miscegenation organization, only targets Jewish women for dating Arabs but says nothing about the opposite arrangement. It trumpets its concern for “protecting Jewish women” from predatory Arab men but is curiously mute on the effects of gentile women on the young Jewish men that make up its membership. The Kahanist program claims the mantle of natural instinct (as in the “Chaya” squad) and crafts a new, masculinist ethic of Jewish power, so sexual conquest is a necessary if sometimes unspoken element. For a new generation, this aggression holds the thrills of a rock concert, of losing oneself in passion. In the frenzied throes of singing before the flames at the Temple Mount, in the graphic simulation of a Palestinian child’s murder, killing represents a fulfillment, a peak of excitement that defers the confinements that peace would bring.

1 The Uzi, by the way, presents many of the themes of this essay in compressed form. It is a telescoping machine gun, combining a machine gun’s power with the grip and length of a pistol. It is named after its inventor, Uziel Gal, who gave himself that name having been born Gotthard Glas in Weimar, Germany. Uziel means strength of God and was the name of a grandson in Levi in the Book of Exodus as well as of an apocryphal angel. It had some historical popularity as a family name, but was only adopted as a first name by men like Gotthard, many of whom were in pre-state paramilitaries. When they shorten it to Uzi, it just means strength.