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Dear Friends,

When I was an undergraduate, the Hillel office was in the basement of the chapel at the center of campus. It was so quiet and out of the way that even when I wasn’t doing Hillel work, I would spend time there studying. (They have since built a large, gorgeous Jewish Center.)

One afternoon I was doing just that when the phone rang. The person on the other end introduced herself and then said, “I want to offer you the chance to bring an inspirational Jewish leader to campus to speak. His name is Rabbi Meir Kahana and we would love for your Hillel to sponsor a talk.”

I was only mildly familiar with the man but I knew he was a problematic figure. I told the woman I would get back to her and set off to do some research.

As I had thought, Meir Kahana was the head of the extremist Jewish Defense League and an ordained Orthodox rabbi. Kahana was an ultra-nationalist who founded the Israeli Kach Movement that advocated the forced removal of Israel’s Arab citizens, served one term in the Israeli Knesset and was convicted of terrorism. Meir Kahana was a Jewish extremist.

This presented me with a problem.

On the one hand, I believe in free speech even if it means the speech is ugly or hard to listen to. On the other hand, I do not believe we owe hate speech a platform.

I returned the earlier call and said, “You are welcome to work with a hateful, racist extremist who wants to treat the Arab residents of Israel as badly as we have been treated throughout history. But let me be clear. Not only will any organization I am helping to lead not sponsor him but, if you do find a student organization to bring him in, I will be the one leading the demonstration against him. Hate has no place on campus.”

The following year I had the occasion to hear Kahana twice. The first time was at a rally in New York. He was a powerful orator and his use of language was almost poetic. Hiding behind his flowery language, however, was rhetoric so hateful toward Arabs and other non-Jews, so militant and so violent, that it was hard to hear.

A few months later I was in Jerusalem and stumbled upon a Kach rally. This time Kahana, who was born and raised in America, was speaking in Hebrew. Because Hebrew was not his native tongue, all the poetry I had heard the first time he spoke was gone. All that remained was the hate and the bigotry. And it was shocking to hear.

As you know, both Israel and America had consequential elections in the past weeks. In both cases, we saw the power of democracy in action. Yes, contrary to what detractors might say, both America and Israel still have robust democracies, albeit more fragile and complex than ever.

Sadly, while both elections, and the peaceful transfer of power that is occurring, should be celebrated, both elections also resulted in extremists sitting in leadership in both Congress and the Knesset.

In a statement last week, the American Jewish Committee captured much of my struggle as I grapple with the Israeli election results. They wrote:

Israel is a vibrant democracy that includes and represents tremendous diversity of thought, belief, ethnicity, and faith. AJC’s advocacy will continue to strengthen Israel’s security and place in the world, enhance the deep bond between Israel and diaspora Jewry, and be centered on the shared values that unite Israel, the United States, and our democratic allies. For AJC, and for many Jews in America, Israel, and around the world, past statements of some potential members of the governing coalition raise serious concerns about issues we prioritize: pluralism, inclusion, and increased opportunities for peace and normalization. Regardless of the composition of any governing coalition, we will continue to work with those in the Israeli government and in Israeli society who are committed to advancing democracy, inclusion, and peace, and to combating efforts to undermine these values.

Reflecting on the results of the US election while speaking at ADL’s Never Is Now Summit on Antisemitism and Hate, Representative Liz Cheney said this:

“We [both political parties] need to have big tents, but we also need to agree that there are some views that don’t belong in the tent in the first place.”

Later, when referring to a House Member who equated mask and vaccine mandates with Nazi Germany, she said,

“When someone in political leadership wears a Star of David on the House floor to compare mask mandates to the Holocaust, we need to be able to say, ‘that person does not belong in Congress.'”

Both elections were a celebration of Democracy and all its rich, messy, imperfect complexity. And both elections resulted in hateful extremists having a voice in shaping policy. My hope and prayer is that as the new governments take shape, the voices that seek to advance democracy, inclusion, and peace will speak louder than ever and that we will all do our part to help combat efforts to undermine these values both here and in Israel.

The familiar quote from the Talmud states, “You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it.” (2:21) The struggle for freedom and equity, for respect and inclusion and for national policies that treat all people equally is ongoing. The elections celebrated the voices of the people. Now we need to use them and engage more fully than ever to ensure the extremists’ voices are kept in the margins… which is as close as they should ever be to the center of power.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Daniel Cohen