Author Archives: Ben Havumaki

Ben Havumaki

About Ben Havumaki

Ben Havumaki works as an investigator in New York City.

Meir Kahane

Perhaps no name is more synonymous with the Jewish radical religious right than Meir Kahane. Born in Brooklyn in 1932, and assassinated in Manhattan in 1990, Kahane’s lasting infamy came mainly from two projects: founding the Jewish Defense League in America and forming Kach, the political party under which he would eventually run for — and win — public office in Israel.

Early Life

Kahane was raised in a traditional Orthodox home where radical politics were common conversation. His father was a strong advocate of militant Zionism, with positions informed by Ze’ev Jabotinsky‘s revisionist Zionist school. Jabotinsky’s politics spoke to central features of the Kahane family’s history: Five of their relatives were killed in a 1938 ambush by anti-Zionist Arabs, and another flank of the Kahane clan perished in the Holocaust.
JDL Founder Meir Kahane
In 1946, Meir joined Betar, Jabotinsky’s youth movement. Kahane did not shirk from the group’s illegal activities. In one early episode, he was arrested in New York City for pelting British Foreign Minister Ernest Bevin with vegetables in protest of Bevin’s anti-Zionist stance.

The First Steps

After receiving rabbinic ordination in 1957, Kahane worked as a pulpit rabbi at a small Conservative congregation in Queens. He was fired in 1960 over religious differences. Kahane soon found work with the Orthodox-oriented Jewish Press. He published partisan editorials, often warning Jews of a coming holocaust at the hands of inner-city Blacks or Hispanics. Through his writing, Kahane achieved modest fame in the New York Jewish world.

During this period, Kahane also moonlighted with the FBI, assuming a false identity to infiltrate the ultra-conservative John Birch Society. And as the student protest movement intensified in 1965, he worked to cultivate pro-Vietnam War sentiment on American college campuses. In 1968 Kahane and his longtime friend Joseph Churba released the book The Jewish Stake in Vietnam.

Kahane believed that the John Birch Society was notoriously anti-Semitic, and that the Vietnam War was a must-win Cold War quagmire that would determine American strength and Israel’s future. So, Kahane explained, his disparate activities were actually united in their aim to protect Jewry in America and abroad.

The Crown Heights Riots

Over several days in late August 1991, the Brooklyn, New York, neighborhood of Crown Heights pulsated with sporadic street violence, as predominantly black protesters targeted members and institutions of the Lubavitch Jewish community.

Though the Crown Heights Riots were concentrated in a small subsection of the inner-city neighborhood that had long been known for its well-heeled brownstones and eclectic ethnic makeup, the three days of strife in 1991 spurred changes that far outstretched their immediate effects.

The Car Accident

Around 8:00 PM on Monday, August 19, 1991, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the international leader and Rebbe of the Chabad Lubavitch movement was returning to his home in Crown Heights, Brooklyn after a visit to the Old Montefiore Cemetery in adjacent Queens

Each time the Rebbe made this trip–his only excursion out of Crown Heights–he was provided a police escort. With the New York Police Department squad car in the lead, the Rebbe riding in the second car, and a station wagon following close behind, the three-vehicle procession advanced west on President Street. Though meant to be a tightly coordinated caravan, the rear station wagon, driven by 22-year-old Yosef Lifsch, briefly lost the group. Lifsch tried to close this gap as he approached the intersection of President Street and Utica Avenue.

crown heights

What happened next remains disputed through today. Whether Lifsch ran through a red light or did not slow at a yellow, his car contacted another that was traveling on Utica Avenue. As Lifsch lost command of his car, the momentum of the impact carried his station wagon into a wall, and then slid it along until it came to rest on the body of seven-year-old Gavin Cato. The son of Guyanese immigrants, Cato had been playing with his cousin on the sidewalk. He was instantly killed.

First on the scene was Hatzolah, a Lubavitch-funded private ambulance service, quickly followed by the police. Passersby gathered, forming a group that soon numbered in the hundreds. Concerned for the safety of Lifsch and his passengers, the police directed Hatzolah to take them–and not Cato or his cousin–to the hospital. Instead of easing the situation, it inflamed the crowd, who suspected preferential treatment.