The Bizarre Rise of the Manhattan Prep School Gangster Turned Enigmatic West Bank Rabbi
As I was sharing this story, my partner repeatedly noted her concern that I was about to join a cult.
The ingredients were there in her defense. First, I am there: a neurotic and impulsive, bisexual, 35-year-old Jew who feels lost in a world that no longer makes sense and is looking for something eternal and powerful that can provide support and orientation.
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Then there is the person I am writing about: a learned, intelligent, and charismatic mystic who has created a compelling melody about the intertwining of soul and body politics while building a loosely organized "movement" of followers - most of them still younger than me - who praise his idiosyncratic ideas to heaven. And there were days when it really felt like I was giving up everything and joining my topic to capture everything that is numinous and revolutionary in human experience.
How the DSA moved from supporting Israel to boycott the Jewish "ethnostat"
Should i get a gun? I would think if the world seemed too much. Should I move to the Holy Land? Should I become an Orthodox Jew? Should I let Yehuda be my spiritual guide?
The Yehuda in question is Rabbi Yehuda HaKohen (born a wealthy Manhattan kid with a completely different name, but we'll come back to that later), who lives in Pisgat Ya'akov, an illegal Jewish settlement in the internationally disputed region of the Middle East as the West Bank.
The handsome 41-year-old with the slightly crossed eyes likes to wear sweaters and khakis with a Newsie hat over the Yarmulke and is just as familiar in Star Wars as in the Talmud. I got to know him both as a journalist and as someone who longed to be one of his followers in ways that I couldn't completely control.
I have spent most of the last five years understanding what it means to me to be Jewish and to be someone who wants to see a just and (relatively) bloodless solution to the seemingly eternal slaughter between the Jews and the Palestinians in and around Israel. A few years ago a friend of a Jewish group I had participated in told me he had heard of a "left settler", Yehuda HaKohen, with whom his friend was studying and whose ideas could speak to me.
I was fascinated by the paradox. "Settler" in this context refers to a Jew who, in violation of international law, moves to exclusively Jewish communities in an area under the military control of Israel. Typically, a settler would be hawkish and chauvinistic, especially when it comes to the issue of equality and opportunity for Palestinians, and would be reluctant to be labeled a leftist, Smolani.
But not much seemed to have been written about this contradicting person my friend talked about in reliable outlets, so I haven't reworked for a while. However, last year when I was doing foreign correspondence for a story about the Israeli left in Israel and the West Bank, I asked my friend if he could connect me with HaKohen to discuss his thoughts as a leftist.
The rabbi and I met for a BLT (lamb bacon, natch) near Jerusalem's bustling Mahane Yehuda market in March last year. It intrigued me precisely for the reason I didn't put it in the finished piece, which means it isn't really part of the Israeli left.
Sure, he said a lot of things about equality and radical democracy that one might expect from a Smolani. But he spoke with some affection about Otzma Yehudit, a hardcore racist Israeli political party; told me the pre-state Jewish terrorist group Lehi was related to egalitarian Maoists; and said that Israel would only serve its purpose if it stopped selling arms to dictators but also built a quasi-theocracy at home.
He told of a future in which Jews and Palestinians could find a kind of Semitic unity and overlap in a single state that was both fundamentally Jewish and fundamentally fair to all of its residents. On the one hand, many things sounded absurd, oxymoronic or offensive; On the other hand, he presented his vision in a bizarrely compelling way.
When the piece came out, HaKohen wrote me a message on Facebook. It was about the contradictions of so-called liberal Zionism, the centrist ideology that tries to find a compromise between Jewish and Palestinian self-determination. I concluded with a quasi-Hegelian prayer that liberal Zionism could one day overcome its contradictions and achieve a synthesis. HaKohen found the conclusion noble but unfounded: "I don't think Liberal Zionism is that synthesis," he wrote.
Over the months he would text me occasionally to talk about Jewish topics I mentioned on social media, and as the situation between the Jews and the Palestinians got worse and more depressing, I kept coming back to my head HaKohen back. His ideas did not sound like those of other Jewish leaders or thinkers, which led me to wonder whether he could be into something or whether a wider discussion of his life and movement could provoke new approaches to the conflict. I decided to profile him.
We met a few times in New York City when he was visiting to promote his message and he always met me with his ideas, his confidence, his charm and what felt like a real lack of cynicism about it the prospect of one feels packed better tomorrow. (By now, I hope you understand why my spouse thought I was joining a cult.) I went to Israel this January to cover him and was half afraid that I might not end up being objective because I wanted to become one of his students.
What I found was a story about a type of person who has recently become and will remain an outstanding force in society and politics everywhere: magnetic, identitarian, proud, advocating traditional values and returning to an imaginary past that He meets his audience there.They are vague enough for people to transfer their goals and ideals to him, and give red meat to his audience with a rhetoric that defies the traditional fork of left and right - and, unfortunately, are often an asset to the tough Right. Donald Trump, Jair Bolsonaro, Tucker Carlson, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, and Bernie Sanders - all wear some or all of these traits.
Still, HaKohen can be more enigmatic than any of them. He is someone who brings hope to refugees out of the liberal consensus, whether they ran right or left, by marrying conflicting ideologies in new ways. He is what appears when the center collapses.
"The goal of the game"
It's an airy, sun-drenched, almost ecstatically beautiful Saturday afternoon in the West Bank, and the zealot is just explaining the rules of the game.
HaKohen and I are sitting at an inexpensive-looking dining table in his house, a ten-year-old, one-story apartment - actually more of a tiered hut - on a mountain top outside the Jewish town of Beit El. We are just a short walk from where the biblical Jacob is said to have rested his head and dreamed.
Around us are HaKohen's second wife and her two children: a 3-year-old girl and a 1-year-old baby, as well as a young boy from his previous marriage. A huge painting of the Second Temple of old Jerusalem hangs on one wall. On others, there are bookshelves where Fidel Castro's memoirs and Noam Chomsky's hegemony or survival reside close to ultra-nationalist books by obscure Zionist rabbis. There isn't much to see of the house, but the view of the Jewish heartland through the windows is exquisite.
Given that it is the Sabbath when observant Jews are not using electricity, options for child-friendly entertainment are limited, but a shelf of worn board games works, and the strategy game Catan is what everyone is voting for. Once known as The Settlers of Catan, the game's name was shortened a few years ago - a happy change for anyone trying to market it in Israel, where the word "Settler" (Mitnakhel in Hebrew) has a strong connotation.
Settlers are viewed by liberals as a reactionary bloc that stands in the way of the establishment of the so-called two-state solution (one Palestinian state next to the Israeli), which HaKohen abhors, as practically all settlers (although he does not) like to use this label and prefer to refer to them only as residents of the land of Israel. "So the object of the game is to build settlements on this island," he says, pointing to the board and then pausing. He giggles, a smile lifts his black beard thicket. "But don't worry," he adds, "there are no indigenous people there."
The location of Catan is in many ways what Jewish emigrants to the Holy Land have long wanted, the reality of this disputed region: a land without people for a people without a land. Ever since a new wave of Jews (there had been an uninterrupted Jewish minority in the region for centuries) arrived in what was then Palestine at the end of the 19th century, they advocated the elusive Jewish ethos of self-determination known as Zionism Address the existence of the Palestinian Arabs, whose communal presence is more than a thousand years before that of the Zionists.
Such is the blood-soaked conflict between the two groups over control of the area between the Jordan and the Mediterranean, which is referred to in various ways as Israel, Palestine or - as is the trend with those who want to protect themselves - Israel / Palestine. HaKohen doesn't care what you call it, as long as he is allowed to live and worship in his entirety. And yet, unlike other settlers, he is vehemently convinced that all Palestinians there also deserve equal rights.
HaKohen is full of contradictions. In one moment he speaks passionately about the need to return to traditional Jewish values and practices. Next time he praises Karl Marx and Frantz Fanon while talking about how Jews should be at the forefront of resistance to Western imperialism. When attending a college campus, his audience includes both right-wing reactionaries and left-wing revolutionaries.
The ideological conceit that brings members of these groups together is simple: in HaKohen's eyes, Zionist Jews are not colonizers, but an indigenous people who are at home in the land in which they live and their struggle to thrive in a world that gone wrong is tied to that of all other indigenous peoples - Palestinians very included.
While HaKohen has not yet become a popular force in Israel, he has built a following among Jewish zoomers and millennials in the US while presiding over a movement - sometimes referred to as "Alternative Action", sometimes "Vision" - with tendrils in Israeli and American media, politics, politics, and education. Talk to any of the myriad people he's engaged to as a teacher, speaker, or leader and they'll likely tell you that they won't soon forget what he has to say about Jewish pride and a just future, whether they are agree with it or not.
His core ideas about indigenousness and unstatism, which five years ago were somewhat marginal in the discourse about Israel, are suddenly popular topics of conversation. In addition, the liberal Zionist consensus that wanted to marry left and right in a two-state compromise is almost dead. There is a void waiting to be filled. In other words, HaKohen is a man whose time seems to have come - for better or for worse.
“I remember being aware that the way I came to the US was very similar to my black friends,” HaKohen told the crowd of about 30 enthusiastic Jewish college students. "A bunch of whites came to my country, destroyed my civilization, uprooted me from my soil and banished me from my country."
He speaks somewhat metaphorically: HaKohen was born in the United States, so he theorises about how Jews ended up there as a whole, and the "white people" he refers to are the Romans who make up much of the Jewish population expelled ancient Palestine in AD 70. "Although my trip was different," he says, "I felt that the experience was very similar." The students nod.
The January breeze is cool and the gathering is taking place outside in a nature reserve in the West Bank called Oz v'Gaon, which was erected as a highly Zionist memorial to three Jewish youth believed to have been murdered in 2014 by the Palestinian Islamist militant group Hamas .
The audience is made up of young American Jews who are part of the Hasbara community, a program that teaches them how to stand up for Israel on their campus (Hasbara is a Hebrew word that roughly translates to "declaration", but colloquially means pro-Israeli topics of conversation). Traditionally, such advocacy has deliberately ignored and marginalized Palestinian voices for obvious reasons.
Today's event is something new to them as HaKohen is not speaking alone but as part of a moderated duet with someone who is not an advocate of Zionism: a longtime Palestinian activist named Antwan Saca. The audience is undoubtedly familiar with the message of Jewish settlers, but it is likely that many of these youth will hear the nuances of the Palestinian cause for the first time. And shockingly, the settlers and Palestinians before them are largely in agreement.
For one thing, both HaKohen and Saca believe that the long-stalled mainstream peace process has been cursed by the fact that it is dominated by foreign powers and moderated by liberal urban centers in Israel / Palestine.
"I don't believe that peace can be achieved when the Western diplomats from Tel Aviv and Ramallah come together to sign an American piece of paper," says HaKohen at one point. “Those of us who truly live Jewish history and Palestinian identity must be the ones having these conversations. We have to be the ones who actually discuss peace. “Saca is asked by the moderator to answer. "Not to answer," says Saca, "but to, in a certain sense, catalyze what Yehuda said: Likewise, on the Palestinian side, there is the experience of being influenced from abroad and bringing agendas to us."
So it goes on. They agree that neither side can move forward unless they acknowledge the Palestinian grievances and trauma. They agree that reflexively defending Israeli politics, as so many American campus activists do, is counterproductive. They agree that pro-Israel advocacy of American Christian law is dangerous. They agree that the massive separation wall that Israel erected almost 20 years ago to separate Jews and Palestinians must fall.
Perhaps the greatest Zionist heresy of the afternoon comes when a student asks about Hamas and, after Saca carefully discusses its aspects and history, HaKohen joins in: “I am not boycotting Hamas. People connected to Hamas are also welcome in our work. I think their voices matter. “The students are so excited I don't see a single one playing on a phone.
"Yehuda is not a person who is shy about looking at a lot of guidelines and saying that they are racist guidelines," Saca later tells me. “He's not shy about looking at the story and saying that something went wrong. He recognizes the past and wants to have a dialogue that creates a different future. “It's shocking how generous Saca is in his assessments of HaKohen:" I haven't seen any stubbornness with him, "he once said. “I've seen him hold on to views and at the same time I see an openness from him to listen. Yehuda is a taboo breaker in a sense. "
Other Palestinian activists have similar warm feelings towards HaKohen. Veteran peace advocate and former militant Sulaiman Khatib, who worked with HaKohen, tells me he admires the settler's unusual willingness to acknowledge the reality of Palestinian suffering. as Khatib puts it, "I want to watch Yehuda's journey and support what he is doing."
Malkon Marizian, a Palestinian activist and spokesman of partial Armenian descent who has carried out events with HaKohen, has even more reservations about his praise for the rabbi: he believes HaKohen talks too much about Jewish victims and not enough about Jewish power and oppression, he thinks HaKohen is a hypocrite who advocates the coexistence of a state while he lives in a settlement for Jews only, and he particularly hates that HaKohen draws what Marizian is as a false equivalence between Jewish and Palestinian violence in the Holy Land looks at.
He is also skeptical whether HaKohen's message will ever reach the Palestinians en masse - and in fact HaKohen does not yet have a mass circle in the Palestinian public in the Holy Land or elsewhere.
Nevertheless, Marizian sees much to admire in the rabbi's approach: "He doesn't say," Hey, you have to go, "" says Marizian. "It's" We can live together. I also want to have access to my historical homeland, my Jewish homeland, and you want to have access to your historical Palestine. Let's all have access together. “These things are very unique to a settler. I mean very rarely. Very, very rare. "
Jewish panthers and zealots
None of these would have made sense to the Yehuda HaKohen just a decade ago, let alone two or three. For one thing, he wasn't Yehuda HaKohen until the turn of the millennium.
Although he doesn't like to talk in depth about his origins or his "slave name" (an indication that surnames were imposed on Jews by anti-Semitic authorities a few centuries ago), his deep dive into publicly available information on the Internet shows that he was in November Born in 1979 under the completely banal American Jewish name Jason Weisbrod. His family ran an art shop and gallery that eventually got into big trouble with the law and led to allegations of sales of counterfeit and altered items, as well as a guilty plea in tax evasion of more than $ 1 million.
But during the young HaKohen's childhood and adolescence, the family lived in the Tony Yorkville neighborhood of Manhattan and rode high. As a teenager, HaKohen attended the renowned Dwight School on the other side of Central Park.
There he intersected with three of the later members of The Strokes: he said he copied Fabrizio Moretti's homework and went to Hebrew school with Nick Valenci, but "the only real relationship I had with Julian [Casablancas] was cigarettes between lessons A closed subway station that the teachers never checked. “(Requests for comments from The Strokes were not returned.) He joined the boxing club, the prom committee, and did student theater.
His high-ranking quote in the 1998 Dwight yearbook is from the Jewish gangster Meyer Lansky: “If you lose your money, you lose nothing; If you lose your character, you lose everything. “It was an appropriate choice as HaKohen apparently did everything possible to be a Jewish thug.
"I think it's important to be clear that it wasn't like Bloods and Crips, which I think is the mental image a lot of people get when they think of gangs," HaKohen says now. “It was closer to something like The Outsiders if you're familiar, but in the '90s in NYC. So, cliques of teenagers doing bad things. "
These roving groups of wealthy white children who also linked up with less privileged street groups became known as "prep school gangsters." “I think it would be a good movie if someone made a film about my life as a teenager. Lots of people would probably see it, ”says HaKohen. “Sometimes it was about money and some kind of business hierarchy. Sometimes it was just about having a good time, getting fame, getting your name out there and being a wild teenager. "
Always aware and proud of being Jewish, he emphasizes that, unlike many American Jews, he did not see Jewish primarily as a religious identity. "I was a Jew like other Puerto Ricans or Albanians," as he puts it. "In contrast to many other Jews in the world in which I grew up and who were really closed about their Jewish identity, I was quite open."
That notion, he says, began to develop as he neared graduation. “As I got older and more influential in the society I was in, I became less concerned with overcoming the negative stigma of being a Jew in such an environment,” he recalls Define A Little or add to the definition in people's minds what it means to be Jewish. "
If he tried to change attitudes about Jews for the better, he chose a strange way of doing so. After enrolling for college at Syracuse University, he joined the infamous national collective of Jewish strong men known as the Jewish Defense League (JDL). Classified as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, an FBI terrorist group and described by the Anti-Defamation League as being founded on a "radical form of Jewish nationalism" by its founder, bellicose Meir Kahane, which reflected racism, violence and political extremism. “The JDL has been linked to numerous hate crimes and acts of violence.
But that's his story, when HaKohen found out about the organization while scouring the internet, he was intrigued.
"I kind of saw it as a Jewish panther," he recalls. “What I understood about the JDL was that they protected Jews in dangerous areas from dangerous non-Jews. I contacted them, I had a meeting, I had a written interview, and then I had a physical test that was more difficult than anything I would do in the army. "
He refuses to elaborate on his activities in the JDL, only saying that at this time he wore a Jewish skullcap and adopted a new public nickname. "Yehuda" (typically anglicized as "Judah") was the Hebrew middle name he received as a baby, and "HaKohen" means "the priest" and refers to a family claim that his ancestors were priests in the holy temple of ancient Jerusalem . "Not everyone knew how to say 'Yehuda'," he says, "so there were a lot of people, especially Puerto Rican friends or Italian friends, who would call me 'Judah'."
In 2000, two years after Yehuda HaKohen's college career, Israel / Palestine exploded in a quasi-war between Jews and Palestinians known as the Second Intifada (a term roughly translated from Arabic as "shaking off") ; the first lasted from 1987 to 1993). "When the [second] Intifada began," says HaKohen, "I was really uncomfortable with the idea that just because I was born in New York, I had the expectation of going to college and graduation while Jews. " My age in Israel should fight in the army. So I just dropped out of school and moved to Israel to join the army. "
He says he visited him before when he was 15 and felt no special connection, but when he emigrated in 2001 he was almost monomaniacal about the Holy Land thanks to his recent Jewish awakening.
Before enrolling in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), "I really wanted to deepen my understanding, strengthen myself in the Torah," he says, using the latter term to describe the full spectrum of Jewish spiritual, ritual and ethical learning . So he studied at an all-male and radically settlement-oriented Jewish academy in Jerusalem called Machon Meir. "That was probably the first time in my life that I really felt I was doing exactly the right thing," he says.
He was eventually ordained rabbinical, but was also affected by his time in the military, where he served in a unit designed for Orthodox Jews, one notorious for its right-handed ideology. (The IDF declined to approve or comment on this article.) "I believe there was a child in the unit who was open to territorial concessions," says HaKohen. "And he was bullied for it."
HaKohen himself acted as a bully of sorts after his release and spent the latter parts of the 00s and early 10s leading a life of hardcore pro-settlement, pro-Jew, pro-Israel, anti-Palestinian activism.
This included becoming Palestinian-majority settlers in the eastern half of Jerusalem, protesting the destruction of settlements in the Gaza Strip, and supporting Jonathan Pollard (who was then serving a life sentence in an American prison for spying for Israel). Moderation of a radio show on Israel-related issues and pro-Israel public relations work at American universities. The campus group he led, the Zionist Freedom Alliance, raised many of the usual right-wing topics of conversation but was headstrong nonetheless.
That is, at that time he formulated a key component of his ideology, namely the idea that people should not focus on the colonial aspects of Zionist action, but on the evils of British imperial rule in what is now Israel / Palestine from 1917 to 1948.
From this point of view, the establishment of Israel in 1948 was an example of successful anti-imperialist action. As HaKohen told an interviewer in 2008, if you put it this way: "Suddenly the Jews are the indigenous people in history, and international pressure to narrow our borders is an act of Western imperialism against an indigenous population."
While living in East Jerusalem, he said he also had his first non-military encounters with a group widely recognized as indigenous, namely the Palestinians. In his story he had "so many conversations" with Palestinians there and in the West Bank, where he moved in the late 00s. Although he lived in a Jewish-only community, he said he had enough contact with Palestinians in the area that "at one point it became apparent that they too had a story".
HaKohen isn't the only settler to have this kind of change of heart. A settler rabbi named Menachem Froman, who died in 2013, was known for his advocacy of dialogue and coexistence between Jews and Palestinians. This also applies to the members and leaders of a group called Roots, which organizes encounters between the two ethnic groups in the West Bank. HaKohen doesn't cite either as an influence or as a partner, and that's not entirely surprising since what he advocates is more radical than what they have called for.
He wants a full review not only of the Israeli-Palestinian situation, but also of the nature of Judaism. He sees it less as a religion or ethnicity than as a whole “civilization” that was brought into a “portable version” during 2000 years of exile.
When the Jewish people "came back to life" through Zionism and "went from a gas to a solid", as he puts it, it was a divine miracle, but in some ways one that has taken its course. Manchmal identifiziert er sich als "Postzionist", jemand, der "das Chaos des Zionismus beseitigen und gleichzeitig seine positiven Errungenschaften schützen will".
Es ist schwer, seine gesamte Weltanschauung kurz zusammenzufassen, aber er glaubt, dass das jüdische Volk seine Identität von westlichen und christlichen Ideen „entkolonialisieren“, seine eigene Indigenität im Heiligen Land anerkennen, die Verbindung zur amerikanischen imperialen Kriegsmaschine trennen und das Zusammenleben eines Staates herstellen sollte mit den Palästinensern (obwohl er wiederum sagt, der Staat wäre irgendwie immer noch grundsätzlich jüdisch; er vergleicht ihn mit der Art und Weise, wie Dänemark dänisch ist) und - vielleicht vor allem - niemals jemandem erlauben, die Siedlungen abzubauen und Juden aus dem Land zu holen Westjordanland, auch wenn das gewalttätigen Widerstand bedeutet. Darin identifiziert er sich als Teil der Linie der Zeloten, der jüdischen Militanten, die vor Jahrtausenden versuchten, den römischen Einfluss zu beenden.
Um diese facettenreiche Botschaft zu verbreiten, trägt HaKohen viele Hüte. Er hält Vorlesungen bei Machon Meir, der jüdischen Jungenschule, an der er selbst studiert hat. Er unterrichtet Klassen für jüdisch-amerikanische Jugendliche, die in Israel studieren. Er betreibt eine Online-Publikation namens Vision Magazine, in der er und andere unkonventionelle Ansichten zu jüdischen Themen schreiben. Er koordinierte eine Liste von Kandidaten für die jüngsten Wahlen zur internationalen Institution, die als World Zionist Congress bekannt ist.
Er hilft bei der Leitung einer Gruppe namens The Home, die sich für eine egalitäre Ein-Staaten-Lösung einsetzt. Er hat ein Jugendprogramm, das mit all diesen anderen Programmen verbunden ist und Brit Hazon heißt. Vor der Pandemie flog er regelmäßig in die USA, um seine Ideen zu verbreiten. Und im Jahr 2020 hat er einen Podcast. Alle diese Programme haben sich in Israel noch nicht wirklich durchgesetzt. Aber seine Anwesenheit in Israel ist ein großer Teil dessen, was ihm das Publikum junger jüdischer Amerikaner legitimiert, die einst wie er waren.
Also, was ist HaKohen jetzt? Als die Dialogveranstaltung in Oz v'Gaon mit HaKohen und Saca endet, kommt einer der amerikanischen Studenten aus dem Publikum auf ihn zu. "Was würdest du sagen, was deine Politik ist?" Sie fragt. Er lächelt. "Wir sind immer noch die Zeloten", sagt er. "Wir haben uns in zweitausend Jahren nicht verändert."
Wie jeder, der sich einer radikalen Bewegung anschließt, suchte Joe Block nach Antworten in einer Gesellschaft, in der anscheinend keine mehr für ihn übrig war. Aufgewachsen als Jude der sogenannten modern-orthodoxen Form in White Plains, New York, war er in das endlos dornige Dilemma geraten, was man über Israel denken und tun sollte. "Im Grunde genommen war Israel mein ganzes Leben lang so wertvoll für mich", sagt der 20-jährige Block am Telefon zu mir, als er an einem ungewöhnlich kühlen Junitag durch Jerusalem geht. „Aber ich habe mit Israel gekämpft. Besonders als jemand, der sich als links vom Zentrum identifizierte Person identifizierte, hatte ich wirklich mit dem palästinensischen Problem zu kämpfen. "
Block war, wie so viele jüdische Zoomer, zwischen dem Zionismus, mit dem er aufgewachsen war, und dem Linkismus, der für seine Generation normativ geworden ist, hin- und hergerissen. Er hörte zum ersten Mal von HaKohen durch einen Freund, der seine eigenen Sehnsüchte und Fragen teilte.
Der Bruder des Freundes war "sehr links, sozialistisch, kommunistisch, viele solche Dinge", wie Block es ausdrückt. "Mein Freund, er erzählte mir, dass sein Bruder, als er in Israel war, diesem Rav nahe kam" - eine Ehre für einen Rabbiner - "der sowohl Siedler war als auch diese interessanten Ansichten über Palästinenser hatte", erinnert sich Block. "Es hat mich sofort fasziniert."
Zu diesem Zeitpunkt war Block bereits in Israel, nachdem er beschlossen hatte, an einer jüdischen Schule in Jerusalem zu studieren. Blocks Freund erzählte ihm, dass HaKohen eine Klasse in der Altstadt unterrichtete. Vielleicht sollte er vorbeischauen, um zu sehen, worum es geht. Also tat er es. "Und sofort war ich umgehauen", intoniert Block vor Aufregung.
„Er hat einen palästinensischen Flüchtling mitgebracht. Woher komme ich und bringe jemanden wie diesen zu einer offenen Diskussion? So etwas würdest du niemals tun. “ Der Flüchtling sprach ausführlich über das Streben der Palästinenser nach Selbstbestimmung und ein Ende der israelischen Menschenrechtsverletzungen. “And to hear his experience,” Block recalls, “from that moment on, I was kind of shook.”
Block was just as struck by the tidbits HaKohen tossed out to the students about his past: “I, personally, really relate to his life story,” Block says. “I didn't grow up in gangs, but I did grow up in a well-to-do, upper-middle-class American lifestyle, and I had everything set up for me. I relate to the message that he went through one thing and then went through a process of deep introspection and made changes based on that.”
Block just joined the IDF. He carries with him both a gun and a system of ideas, fostered by HaKohen, that helps aim it. “When I'm on guard duty, I'm not just looking at a dog, I'm looking at people and families and lives,” Block says. “How is what Rav Yehuda taught me about Palestinians actually going to manifest itself? I can't tell you yet. But I think about it all the time.”
That sense of devotion is shared by many of the young people HaKohen has reached. It’s hard to put numbers to his movement’s size and influence, but there’s no shortage of Jewish American members of Generation Z who have fallen for him. “When he speaks, he's radical, but he's also very, very kind,” says Ethan Shafer, a 19-year-old student at New York University. “Sometimes you hear someone radical and they’re up in your grill, screaming, excited. But he just speaks, has his thoughts, and, although they’re radical, he doesn't put them down your throat.”
The indigeneity component is very appealing to HaKohen’s students, as well—as one named Brooke Schwartz puts it, “I think it was important for me to recognize that, even though we'd been in Europe, even though we'd been in Poland and America and all these different places that in the end, we were still Ashkenazi Jews, we were still Jewish.” Another student disciple, Zev Ross, feels like HaKohen’s gift to him is critical thinking: “I do believe heavily in what he's doing,” Ross says, “because he's asking Israeli people and people who are considered pro-Israel, ‘Can it really be that we reject every criticism that comes to our country? Is it possible that we are doing things wrong? And is it possible that we also need to take part and fix this conflict?’”
There was a time when these people would perhaps have sought a middle path between left and right on Israel by becoming advocates of the two-state solution, which has been the totem of Liberal Zionism.
But today, the two-state solution is a vanishing possibility. After decades of sloppiness, dissembling, and inaction, the prospect of a truly independent and sovereign Palestinian state alongside its Jewish cousin is difficult to realistically contemplate, given massive Israeli resistance to such a thing, a lack of a coherent and cohesive Palestinian leadership, continuing violent acts on both sides albeit with a much higher death toll among Palestinians, and, of course, the presence of what is estimated to be more than half a million Jewish settlers in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.
To make matters more dire, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has spoken often about the prospect of annexing some or all of the West Bank, which would effectively kill the two-state dream. A recent deal with the United Arab Emirates seems to have squashed annexation for the time being, but the fact that it has come so close to happening makes it all the more likely that it might eventually come to pass. The question becomes: if and when that dream dies, what will replace it? Various forms of one-statism have been on the rise in conversations about Israel/Palestine, and HaKohen’s form is arguably the only one that, at least on paper, could appeal to both the far right and far left.
But there are many Jews who are understandably skeptical or outright fearful of HaKohen and what he brings to the table. Some dislike his machismo, some bristle at his conservative social values, but nearly all of them identify him as a kind of Trojan Horse for hard-right settler agendas, or at least as a useful idiot for the people who push such policies. As they see it, he may be advocating for equality in the long run, but, in the short run, he’s justifying and romanticizing Jewish settlement more than he’s accomplishing Palestinian liberation.
“He’s ultimately a white guy from New York who wants to talk about being indigenous to the Middle East and feeling like he has a place in the world,” says one veteran Israel/Palestine activist who has interacted with HaKohen and declined to be named so as not to drag their employer into the story. “It’s the ultimate claim: it’s saying, ‘We are the natives, we are the ones who have been oppressed, we are the ones who have rights—ultimately, this belongs to us.’ And that’s the claim the settler right has been trying to make for many years.”
Then there’s the problem of what HaKohen’s future would look like, and whether any Palestinian would want to live in it. He’s skeptical of representative democracy and instead espouses what he calls “participatory democracy” for his hypothetical single state: “I don't think you have it be based on one-man-one-vote,” he says. “In a participatory democracy, you can opt in to participate on a weekly basis to determine policies from road safety and local schools to diplomacy and defense.” And yet, the state is supposed to remain inherently Jewish, even though the Palestinian population in Israel/Palestine is estimated to be as big, if not bigger, than the Jewish one.
That’s another red flag for people like University of Pennsylvania professor Ian Lustick, who attended a 2017 symposium that featured HaKohen. “The bottom line of [HaKohen’s] thinking is, ‘We'll let the Palestinians think whatever they want, and we'll think whatever we want, and we'll all live in the same country,’” Lustick says. “But he never talks about the fact that that requires an ironclad system of oppression. The vision, the pretty pictures of the future, didn't have any political rights for Arabs, as far as I can see.”
Lustick sees HaKohen as a particular Jewish type, one he describes in terms of condescension and pity. “What you find in the West Bank, in settlements, especially extreme settlements, is a relatively high proportion of American Jewish misfits,” the professor says. “They’re Jews and, because of challenges in their families, or failures, mental health issues, criminal backgrounds, or some combination of that, they buy in to enough of this extreme view and then have taken it in and treat it as a little bit like, ‘This is crazy, but wonderful.’”
HaKohen’s bedfellows set off even more alarms. He may align with Palestinians at speaking events, but his pull among Arabs is very limited; meanwhile, he has close relationships with members of the Jewish far right. The class he teaches in Jerusalem is partially funded by the Central Fund of Israel, an umbrella group for West Bank settlement projects.
He’s still being paid to expound upon Torah with Machon Meir, which vigorously encourages settlement in occupied territory. He does events in coalition with the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA), a racist and Islamophobic organization led by a demagogue named Morton Klein, who has a long history of offensive comments. Although HaKohen says he has also spoken at events organized by pro-Palestinian groups like Jewish Voice for Peace and Students Against Israeli Apartheid, such appearances are fewer and farther between.
Indeed, the ZOA connection led to an incident that chilled Matt Berkman, an academic researcher who wrote a paper about HaKohen’s movement and interacted with him on a number of occasions. Berkman recalls HaKohen inviting him to attend an event the rabbi was doing with the ZOA in New York, one aimed at educating young people in becoming pro-Israel advocates.
“I went and watched him give a talk to these guys and I think he genuinely influenced them in a politically progressive direction without reaffirming the harmful ideas that the ZOA probably was hoping that he would reaffirm,” Berkman says. “But, at the same time, his ZOA handlers were very happy with what he was doing. Even despite the fact that pretty much everything he said was a left-wing, egalitarian, and as he called it, ‘anti-imperialist’ thing.”
I saw this slightly perverse relationship between HaKohen and the settler right myself in Jerusalem. Near the end of my time following him around in Israel/Palestine, I went to a speaking event he was hosting and participating in alongside Palestinians and Jews, including Yishai Fleisher, the brash and argumentative spokesperson for the Jewish settler community in the disputed West Bank city of Hebron.
Afterward, I asked Fleisher what he thought of HaKohen’s thesis about Jewish indigeneity in the Holy Land. “The indigeneity is a very important component; it's actually a massive thing,” Fleisher told me. “One of the main battles of the narrative war against Israel is to cast us as foreigners, occupiers. We are an indigenous people in this land.”
The key, for Fleisher, was HaKohen’s rejection of lefty ideas using the very language of the identitarian left. “I know how to handle problems in a Semitic manner, not necessarily in a Western manner, and to understand that sometimes Western ideas—including Jewish leftist ideas—are actually colonial ideas,” Fleisher tells me. “For example, the two-state solution: That is absolutely a Western, colonial model. And to be able to throw that off, I think that's something that Yehuda really helped me crystallize.” But even as he thanks HaKohen for giving him these rhetorical tools to win arguments, he says nothing about HaKohen waking him up to the call of Palestinian suffering.
And that’s not even getting into the cultural aspects of HaKohen’s message about Jewish identity, which are even muddier. HaKohen is very much a traditionalist when it comes to excluding women from prayer quorums and rabbinic ordination, per millennia-old Jewish law. His current wife (HaKohen married a first wife while in the army, had five kids, and then the two divorced; a topic he wasn’t eager to discuss) changed her last name to “Eshet-Kohen,” which literally translates to “priest’s wife.” And when I ask him about what he thinks of gender equality and LGBTQ rights, he largely balks. “My wife is probably the person to really,” he says, then trails off before beginning again with, “I don't want to mansplain.”
HaKohen says he doesn’t like the Christian right’s vehemence about legislating people’s bodies and choices, but doesn’t specify how he feels about abortion or queer marriage. Indeed, when I ask him about the latter topic and point out that the Torah seems to specifically prohibit male-male sexual union, he says, “That's an act, not an identity,” and doesn’t get into it any further. “It's not my issue,” he says. “It's not something that I'm involved with. There are definitely people in our movement that identify as LGBT or Q. Or plus. And I don't think that any of them have felt offended by me. Or I hope not.”
When I present HaKohen with a list of these political, religious, and moral criticisms, he writes me two eloquent, thoughtful, and extremely long emails, one off the record and one on it. It’s beyond the scope of this article to get into every detail, but his overall summary sheds light on what makes him tick. “Most of these criticisms are clearly coming from a perspective that doesn't recognize the Jewish people's story as a real story,” he writes. “They seem dismissive of the fact that we were uprooted from our country and that we've spent roughly 2,000 years living with that pain and infusing our children with a determination to return and free our land.”
HaKohen is especially perturbed by the critique that he has no indigenous right to live in the West Bank: “Jews have experienced our displacement from our land and commitment to return as a very real and very powerful driving force for thousands of years,” he writes. “Denying the Jewish story isn't likely to help Palestinians or bring the sides closer together. In fact, I see denying each other's identities and national stories as one of the central barriers we need to overcome.”
His second wife, Sharona Eshet-Kohen, presents a perfect example of the promise and peril of HaKohen’s movement. She was born Jessica Felber in the United States and first met HaKohen while she was involved in fevered pro-Israel action on campus at the University of California, Berkeley about a decade ago. She even became one of the founders of Tikvah, a right-wing group that has gained both fame and infamy for its strategy of waging “lawfare” on pro-Palestinian individuals and organizations through legal action. She says they met again years later, when she had moved to Israel, and ended up getting married.
Eshet-Kohen believes in “postcolonial feminism” and, more specifically, “Hebrew feminism,” both of which, she says, stem “from the values and ideologies held within any given culture — both in terms of the issues it addresses, as well as the solutions it fights for.”
That means defending lifestyles that place certain roles and actions outside the realm of possibility for women, but Eshet-Kohen dismisses criticisms of that idea. “I would probably agree with the statement that my lifestyle does not adhere to the white-girl feminist ideal,” she says, “but that’s not the feminist ideal I’m striving to attain.” I ask what that means for queer people, and her answer is brief: “I know that some of our traditional sources create space for these identities, though not in the same form that space takes in the West. I can't say Hebrew feminism has developed enough yet to contribute a unique position.” Vagaries abound.
On the one hand, very few American leftists would find any of that palatable, and for good reason. But, it must be said, Eshet-Kohen’s work with her husband has changed her in ways that a leftist might appreciate, at least a little bit. “Like most Jewish nationalists, especially in the Diaspora, I wasn't very sympathetic to Palestinians. I saw their narrative as a propaganda weapon employed to obstruct Jewish liberation,” she tells me. “Credit is totally due to my husband with regards to that aspect of my development, but it should also be noted that it occurred through deepening my own national consciousness.”
She now sees Palestinians in a more humane light. “I think the more connected Jews are to their own people's story,” she says, “the more it's based on the actual identity and worldview of our ancestors, the less threatening Palestinians and their narrative become and the more space we can make for them to become co-protagonists in our story.” She’s come a long way, as have so many others HaKohen has interacted with. Whether it’s far enough is a different matter.
Israel has handled the crises of the past few months slightly better than the United States, although that is, of course, a terribly low bar. As the year progressed, I reached out to HaKohen to ask what he made of the disease and unrest that has wracked the country of his birth. “From here, the U.S. just looks like an empire crashing,” was his response. I asked how COVID-19 has changed his outlook for the Holy Land and the Jewish people. He replied with two words: “It hasn't.”
Even as Israel has plunged into a disastrous second wave of infections in more recent months and faces a fourth round of elections in a two-year span, HaKohen has not wavered in his confidence about his mission. He’s not traveling to the US for recruitment and speaking gigs these days, but his multifarious other roles still occupy his time.
Which brings us to a question that HaKohen’s critics repeatedly raised for me: is any of this for real? They often posited that he doesn’t actually mean what he says and that he’s just spouting woke-sounding hasbara for Zoomers who crave identitarian politics and want to get along with their non-Zionist friends. But I don’t see it that way.
His ideas could well be unsound or dangerous, but after spending countless hours with him, I can pretty firmly say that they’re real convictions for him. Whether he’s making up parts of his life story is difficult to determine, but he seems to believe in the larger point of that story, which is that he once was blind, but now he sees. The tonic he’s selling might kill you, but he doesn’t think it’s snake oil.
I didn’t end up joining HaKohen’s movement, for various reasons. Obviously, there’s the whole journalistic distance thing. Then there’s the fact that I’m a bisexual man with a genderqueer spouse who believes in full gender and sexual equality, something that appears to not be on the menu for the rabbi’s ideal Jewish life. But, most importantly, I’m not prepared to say what he’s proposing isn’t ultimately just another form of Jewish supremacy. My spouse can rest easy; I’m not joining any radical religious movements anytime soon.
As the world’s optimism dims and the Jewish future becomes ever more uncertain, I think of something that happened at the conclusion of a lunch HaKohen and I had. After meals, ritually observant Jews utter a long passage of Hebrew text known as the Birkat HaMazon, roughly translated as “Blessing of the Food.”
Typically, the blessing is recited at a rapid pace, so as to follow the letter of the law without delaying one’s post-dining plans. HaKohen is a Jew, and one who is nothing if not observant—in all senses of the word—but, unlike his coreligionists, when he recites the august text, he does it with an uncommon slowness.
While we waited for our server to bring us the check, the militant clergyman closed his eyes and lowered his head, conjuring the Hebrew words from memory and rolling them around in his mouth like the sweetest fig he’d ever tasted. Baruch, he said—“blessed.” Eine kurze Pause. Atah—“are you.” A glottal stop, then: Adonai—“Lord.”
It went on like that for long minutes, his voice humming with intensity until the last Amen. Afterward, I asked HaKohen why he does the blessing at such a deliberate pace. A little smile creeped into his dimples, raising his ebony whiskers ever so slightly. “Well,” he said, “it’s because I mean it.”
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