29 years ago today, Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz publicly debated radical Israeli politician Rabbi Meir Kahane on Israel, theocracy, and Jewish identity. The two had attended the same yeshiva high school in New York, where they both captained the debate team, but had taken dramatically different paths. While Dershowitz became the youngest tenured professor in Harvard Law School history, Kahane made a name for himself as a right-wing Jewish ideologue, whose political party “Kach” would be banned from the Knesset for racism. (Among other policies, Kahane advocated expelling Arab residents of the West Bank and Gaza who refused to leave voluntarily, and defended acts of Jewish terrorism against them.)
Despite the extremism of his views–or rather because of them–the charismatic Kahane attracted a growing base of supporters, composed largely of young people disaffected from the Jewish establishment. In 1984, after a failed attempt to ban it, his party won its first Knesset seat, and was soon projected to take more in the next election. But even as Kahane toured campuses in America to drum up support for his program–including imposing his brand of Jewish law on the Israeli populace–many in the Jewish establishment refused to engage him, not wanting to lend legitimacy to his views. (Many Hillels tried, sometimes unsuccessfully, to ban him.)
Rather than diminish Kahane’s influence, however, such reticence only added to his notoriety. And so in 1984, Dershowitz challenged Kahane to the first of a series of public debates. The inaugural one took place at the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale on November 12, 1984. Five months later, they met again in Boston. The ensuing disputation is a testament to how much the Jewish community has changed in the intervening three decades–and how much it has stayed the same.
Some elements are quite familiar: Kahane rails against the purportedly non-representative and feckless mainstream Jewish organizations; Dershowitz defends them. Young people in the audience cheer for Kahane’s radical politics; Dershowitz rejects them. Kahane claims that Judaism and liberal democracy are incompatible and calls for the advent of theocracy; Dershowitz labels this a false choice, and rebuffs Kahane’s attempt to define and legislate a “pure” Judaism.
“I think it’s imperative that the world know not only that the vast majority of Jews repudiate Rabbi Kahane’s views, but also why we repudiate those views,” the professor said. “With God’s help,” countered Kahane, “when I become Prime Minister, not a single Arab will ever be killed in Israel, because not a single Arab will be there.”
Other aspects of the debate are foreign: Dershowitz defends the prospect of a two-state solution in the face of Kahane’s opposition, at a time when many in the broader Jewish community remained deeply skeptical of the concept. Thanks in large part to advocates like Dershowitz who worked to mainstream it, the two-state solution would go on to become the watchword of American Jewry and every major Jewish organization.
The entire debate–whose contents remain just as relevant today and offer a provocative mirror to our own historical moment–is well-worth watching in full: