Memoirs of a Jewish Extremist: The Story of a Transformation
By Yossi Klein Halevi
Yossi Klein Halevi’s new book is actually an old book. First published in 1995, Memoirs of a Jewish Extremist: The Story of a Transformation, the American-born Israeli journalist’s account of his days as a teenaged Jewish Defense League (JDL) activist, has been published for the first time as a paperback and with a new introduction following the success of Like Dreamers, his account of the lives of seven 55th Brigade paratroopers who took part in the capture of the Old City during the Six Day War.
The world that Halevi describes is familiar to anybody who grew up Jewish in the 1970s: Black September, Munich, the Yom Kippur War and the book’s central theme – the campaign to publicize the plight of Soviet refuseniks and to provoke action on their behalf.
But, what goes around comes around. In describing his experiences in and out of the JDL, Halevi uses language that is widely used today, particularly in the context of ideologies propagated by groups like al-Qaida and ISIS. So it’s interesting to look at some of the nuances of that language through the lens of Halevi’s experience.
Halevi calls himself an extremist. However, his extremism is rooted, not in ideology, but in the heart-wrenching reality of his father’s Holocaust memories. “Shabbos,” Halevi writes, “was the only time that my father slept without nightmares.”
Angry, grief-stricken, driven by the absolute imperative of Jewish survival, Halevi is drawn first to the campaign for Soviet Jewry, and from there to its most militant expression, the JDL.
“The Jewish establishment considered us dangerous radicals,” he writes, noting how JDL founder Rabbi Meir Kahane “expropriated the tactics of the … Yippies, the violent pranksters of the New Left.”
Certainly, the JDL had blood on its hands. Among other things, it firebombed the office of ballet impresario Sol Hurok in 1971, killing a Jewish secretary named Iris Kone. But, even so, Halevi evokes a much more innocent time. To call the Yippies, led by Abbie Hoffman, a gifted (and very Jewish) master of absurdist comedy, “violent” seems like a stretch, especially in a world in which the threat of homegrown terrorism and the barbarity of ISIS have become commonplace.
How does Halevi act out his extremism? He marches, he hangs with a bunch of Runyonesque shtarkers, and he takes part in guerrilla theatre outside the Soviet Mission to the United Nations. He even leads an occupation of Hadassah headquarters in New York that draws a huge crowd of reporters “intrigued by young Jews demonstrating against their grandmothers.”
But what defines Halevi’s extremism is an act of remarkable personal courage. Along with seven other young American Jews, he travels to Moscow in 1973 and succeeds in occupying the offices of OVIR, the Office of Visas and Registration, that tormented generations of Jews trying to emigrate from the Soviet Union. Arrested, warned, released, Halevi and his companions go to a reception at the Choral Synagogue, the last Jewish gathering place left in a city of a half-million Jews. “People reached out to touch us,” he writes, “as if we were mezuzahs, protection from harm.” Leaving Moscow, Halevi concludes, “this was our generation’s messianic mission: to violate sealed borders.”
Eventually, Halevi breaks with the JDL, repelled by its cynicism, its thuggery and “mistrusting Kahane as an opportunist, using Soviet Jewry to get headlines for himself and his group.” He wanders to Israel and back again, bereft of a cause, assailed by doubt. The grief and the rage that drove him into the JDL drain away, leaving him feeling a “disorienting commonality” with his fellow human beings. Ultimately, he reflects that the “Soviet Jewry movement taught me that evil has no substance, cannot endure against a vigorous good.”
Was Halevi an extremist? Perhaps. But his extremism was fundamentally life-affirming and his cause, the redemption of Soviet Jewry, was ultimately successful. How different this is from the al-Qaida-inspired extremism we confront today, which manifests in little more than cruelty, violence and death.
And it is important for us to remember that radicalism – Martin Luther King and the U.S. civil rights movement come to mind – often drives meaningful social change, and so often represents the very best of our imperative of tikkun olam.
Memoirs of a Jewish Extremist and Like Dreamers are thematically linked. Both books force us to confront aspects of recent Jewish history that are disturbing, even divisive. Halevi knows that the JDL is a contentious topic. Some of the paratroopers he follows in Like Dreamers become settlers; others move to the far left of Israeli politics. But, where, in Like Dreamers, he asks us to reflect on both sides’ claims of righteousness, in Memoirs of a Jewish Extremist, he is unequivocal: for justice to prevail, those who pursue it must rise above anger. A Jewish heart requires us to choose life, and not just for ourselves.