The Bizarre Rise of the Manhattan Prep School Gangster Turned Enigmatic West Bank Rabbi
Rabbi Yehuda HaKohen is someone who brings hope to refugees from the liberal consensus, whether they’ve run to the right or to the left. He’s what appears when the center crumbles.
While reporting this story, my partner repeatedly noted her worry that I was on the verge of joining a cult.
In her defense, the ingredients were there. First, there’s me: a neurotic and impulsive, bisexual, 35-year-old Jew who feels lost in a world that no longer makes any sense and is searching for something eternal and powerful that can provide support and direction.
Then there’s the person I’m writing about: an erudite, intelligent, and charismatic mystic who croons a compelling tune about the interweavings of the soul and the body politic and, in doing so, has built up a loosely organized “movement” of followers—most of them even younger than me—who praise his idiosyncratic ideas to high heaven. And there were days when it really did feel like I might give it all up and join my subject in embracing all that is numinous and revolutionary in the human experience.
Should I get a gun? I’d think when the world seemed to be 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 Manhattanite rich kid with an entirely different name, but we’ll get to that later), a resident of Pisgat Ya’akov, an illegal Jewish settlement in the internationally contested Middle Eastern region known as the West Bank.
A handsome, slightly cross-eyed 41-year-old, he’s fond of wearing sweaters and khakis, with a newsie cap over his yarmulke, and is as conversant in Star Wars as he is in the Talmud. I came to know him both as a journalist and as someone who was yearning to be one of his followers in a way I couldn't entirely control.
I've spent the better part of the last five years struggling to understand what it means for me to be a Jew and to be someone who wants to see a just and (relatively) bloodless resolution of the seemingly eternal carnage between the Jews and the Palestinians in and around Israel. A few years ago, a friend of mine from a Jewish group I'd been attending told me he'd heard about a "leftist settler," Yehuda HaKohen, with whom his friend was studying and whose ideas might speak to me.
The paradox intrigued me. “Settler,” in this context, refers to a Jew who moves to Jewish-only communities in territory that’s militarily controlled by Israel, all in defiance of international law. Typically, a settler would lean hawkish and chauvinist, especially when it comes to the question of equal rights and opportunities for Palestinians, and would bristle at being called a leftist, a smolani.
But there didn’t seem to be much written about this contradictory person of which my friend spoke in any reliable outlets, so I didn't follow up for a while. However, when I was doing foreign correspondence for a story about the Israeli left in Israel and the West Bank last year, I asked my friend if he could connect me with HaKohen to discuss his thoughts as a leftist there.
The rabbi and I met up in March of last year for a BLT (lamb bacon, natch) near Jerusalem's bustling Mahane Yehuda market. He fascinated me for the exact reason I didn't end up putting him in the finished piece, which is that he's not 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 degree of affection about Otzma Yehudit, a hardcore-racist Israeli political party; told me the pre-state Jewish terrorist group Lehi were akin to egalitarian Maoists; and said that Israel would only fulfill its purpose if it stopped selling arms to dictators but also established a quasi-theocracy at home.
He told of a future where Jews and Palestinians could find a kind of Semitic unity and overlap with one another in a single state that was somehow both fundamentally Jewish and fundamentally fair to all its inhabitants. On one hand, there was a lot that sounded absurd, oxymoronic, or offensive; on the other, he presented his vision in a way that was bizarrely compelling.
When the piece came out, HaKohen messaged me on Facebook. The feature had been about the contradictions of so-called Liberal Zionism, the centrist ideology that tries to compromise between Jewish and Palestinian self-determination. I had concluded with a quasi-Hegelian prayer that Liberal Zionism might someday overcome its contradictions and achieve synthesis. HaKohen thought the conclusion was noble, but ill-founded: "I don't think Liberal Zionism is that synthesis," he wrote.
As the months went on, he would occasionally message me to talk about Jewish issues that I mentioned on social media, and, as the situation between the Jews and the Palestinians grew more dire and depressing, I kept coming back to HaKohen in my mind. His ideas didn’t sound like those of any other Jewish leaders or thinkers, leading me to wonder whether he might be onto something, or at least whether a wider discussion of his life and movement might provoke new approaches to the conflict. I decided I wanted to profile him.
We ended up meeting a number of times in New York City while he was visiting to promote his message, and he always gripped me with his ideas, his confidence, his charm, and what feels like a genuine lack of cynicism about the prospect for a better tomorrow. (By now, I hope you get why my spouse thought I was joining a cult.) I went to Israel this January to report on him and was half afraid I'd end up not being able to be objective because I'd want to become one of his disciples.
What I found was a story about a type of person who has recently become and will continue to be a prominent force in society and politics everywhere: magnetic, identitarian, proud, espousing traditional values and a return to an imagined past, hitting his listeners where they are, being vague enough for people to map their goals and ideals on him, giving his audience red meat with rhetoric that defies the traditional bifurcation of left and right—and, unfortunately, often being an asset for the hard right. Donald Trump, Jair Bolsonaro, Tucker Carlson, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, Bernie Sanders—all of them bear some or all of those traits.
Yet HaKohen may be more enigmatic than any of them. He is someone who brings hope to the refugees from the liberal consensus, whether they've run to the right or to the left, by marrying contradictory ideologies in a new way. He is what appears when the center crumbles.
It’s a breezy, sun-dappled, almost ecstatically gorgeous Saturday afternoon in the West Bank, and the zealot is about to explain the rules of the game.
HaKohen and I are seated at an inexpensive-looking dining table in his home, which is a decade-old, one-story dwelling—more of a graduated shack, really — on a mountaintop outside the Jewish city of Beit El. We’re just a short walk from the spot where the biblical Jacob is said to have rested his head and dreamed.
Surrounding us are HaKohen’s second wife and their two children: a 3-year-old girl and a 1-year-old baby, as well as an adolescent boy from his previous marriage. An enormous painting of ancient Jerusalem’s Second Temple hangs on one wall; on others, there are bookcases in which Fidel Castro’s memoir and Noam Chomsky’s Hegemony or Survival dwell near ultranationalist tomes by obscure Zionist rabbis. The home isn’t much to look at, but the view of the Jewish heartland through the windows is exquisite.
Given that it’s the Sabbath, when observant Jews don’t use electricity, the options for child-diverting entertainment are limited, but a shelf of well-worn board games provides succor, and the one everyone votes to play is the strategy game Catan. Once known as The Settlers of Catan, the game’s name was shortened a few years back—a happy change for anyone trying to market it in Israel, where the word “settler” (mitnakhel in Hebrew) carries a heavy connotation.
Settlers are seen by liberals as a reactionary bloc that stands in the way of setting up the so-called two-state solution (a Palestinian state alongside the Israeli one), which HaKohen loathes, as do virtually all settlers (though he doesn’t like to use that label, preferring to just refer to them as residents of the Land of Israel). “So, the goal of the game is to set up settlements on this island,” he says, pointing at the board, then pauses. He chuckles, a smile raising up his black thicket of a beard. “But don’t worry,” he adds, “there aren’t any indigenous people living there.”
The setting of Catan is, in many ways, what Jewish emigrants to the Holy Land have long wished was the reality of that disputed region: a land without people for a people without land. Ever since a new wave of Jews (there had been a Jewish minority in the region for uninterrupted centuries) first arrived in what was then Palestine in the late 1800s, espousing the hard-to-define Jewish self-determination ethos known as Zionism, they have had to contend with the existence of the Palestinian Arabs, whose communal presence predates that of the Zionists by more than a thousand years.
Thus the blood-soaked conflict between the two groups over control of the area between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, spoken of variously as Israel, Palestine, or—as is trendy among those wishing to hedge—Israel/Palestine. HaKohen doesn’t care what you call it, so long as he’s allowed to live and worship in its entirety. And yet, unlike other settlers, he’s vehement in his belief that all Palestinians deserve equal rights there, too.
HaKohen is full of head-spinning contradictions. In one moment, he’s speaking passionately about the need to return to traditional Jewish values and practices; the next, he’s praising Karl Marx and Frantz Fanon while talking about how Jews should be at the forefront of resisting Western imperialism. When he visits a college campus, his audiences comprise both right-wing reactionaries and left-wing revolutionaries.
The ideological conceit that brings members of those groups together is simple: in HaKohen’s eyes, Zionist Jews are not colonizers, but rather an indigenous people, native to the land in which he dwells, and their struggle to thrive in a world gone wrong is bound up with that of all other native populations—Palestinians very much included.
While HaKohen has yet to become a popular force in Israel, he’s developed a following among American Jewish zoomers and Millennials while presiding over a movement—sometimes called “Alternative Action,” sometimes “Vision”—with tendrils in Israeli and American media, politics, and education. Talk to any of the countless people he’s engaged with as a teacher, speaker, or leader and they’ll likely tell you they won’t soon forget what he has to say about Jewish pride and a just future, whether they agreed with it or not.
His core ideas about indigeneity and one-statism, which were, as recently as five years ago, somewhat marginal in the discourse about Israel, are suddenly popular talking points. What’s more, the liberal Zionist consensus, which sought to marry left and right in a two-state compromise, is near-dead. There is a void waiting to be filled. In other words, HaKohen is a man whose time, it seems, has come—for better or for worse.
“I remember being conscious, growing up, that the way I came to the United States is very similar to my Black friends,” HaKohen tells the crowd of 30-odd rapt Jewish college students. “A bunch of white people came to my country, destroyed my civilization, uprooted me from my soil, exiled me from my land.”
He’s speaking somewhat metaphorically: HaKohen was born in the U.S., so he’s theorizing about how Jews, as a whole, ended up there, and the “white people” he refers to are the Romans, who expelled much of the Jewish population from ancient Palestine in 70 AD. “Even though my journey was different,” he says, “I felt that the experience was very similar.” The students nod.
The January breeze is cool and the assemblage is happening outside, at a nature preserve in the West Bank called Oz v’Gaon, established as a fiercely Zionist memorial to three Jewish teenagers believed to have been murdered by the Palestinian Islamist militant group Hamas in 2014.
The audience is composed of young American Jews who are part of the Hasbara Fellowship, a program that teaches them how to advocate for Israel on their campuses (hasbara is a Hebrew word roughly translating to “explanation,” but colloquially means pro-Israel talking points). Traditionally, such advocacy has very deliberately ignored and marginalized Palestinian voices, for obvious reasons.
So today’s event is something novel to them, given that HaKohen is not speaking alone, but rather as part of a moderated duet alongside someone who is no advocate of Zionism: a longtime Palestinian activist named Antwan Saca. The audience is no doubt familiar with the message of Jewish settlers, but it’s likely that many of these youths are hearing the nuances of the Palestinian cause for the first time. And, shockingly enough, the settler and the Palestinian before them are mostly agreeing on things.
For one, both HaKohen and Saca think the long-stalled mainstream peace process has been cursed by the fact that it’s dominated by foreign powers and moderates from liberal urban centers in Israel/Palestine.
“I don't believe that peace can be achieved by bringing the Westernized diplomats from Tel Aviv and Ramallah together to sign an American piece of paper,” HaKohen says at one point. “Those of us who are actually really living Jewish history, Palestinian identity, we need to be the ones having these conversations. We need to be the ones actually discussing peace.” Saca is asked to respond by the moderator. “Not to respond,” Saca says, “but to catalyze, in a sense, what Yehuda said: similarly, the Palestinian side, there is an experience of being influenced from abroad, agendas being brought down on us.”
It goes on like that. They agree that neither side can move forward unless they acknowledge Palestinian grievances and trauma. They agree that it’s counterproductive to reflexively defend Israeli policy the way so many American campus activists do. They agree that the pro-Israel advocacy of the American Christian right is dangerous. They agree that the massive separation wall Israel started building to separate Jews and Palestinians nearly 20 years ago must come down.
Perhaps the greatest Zionist heresy of the afternoon comes when a student asks about Hamas and, after Saca does some careful verbal tapdancing about its aspects and history, HaKohen chimes in with, “I don't boycott Hamas. People who associate with Hamas are also welcome in the work that we do. I think that their voices are important.” The students are so gripped that I don’t see a single one playing on a phone.
“Yehuda is not a person who is shy to look at many policies and say they're racist policies,” Saca tells me later. “He's not shy to look at history and say there was a mistake. He acknowledges the past and wishes to engage in a dialogue that creates a different future.” It’s shocking how generous Saca is in his estimations of HaKohen: “I haven't seen stubbornness with him,” he says at one point. “I've seen him holding onto 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 similarly warm feelings about HaKohen. Veteran peace advocate and former militant Sulaiman Khatib, who has worked with HaKohen, tells me he admires the settler’s uncommon willingness to acknowledge the reality of Palestinian suffering; as Khatib puts it, “I want to watch Yehuda’s journey and support what he's doing.”
Malkon Marizian, a Palestinian activist and speaker of partial Armenian ancestry who has done events with HaKohen, has many more caveats to his praise for the rabbi: he thinks HaKohen talks too much about Jewish victimhood and not enough about Jewish power and oppression, he thinks HaKohen is a hypocrite for advocating one-state coexistence while living on a Jews-only settlement, and he especially hates that HaKohen draws what Marizian sees as false equivalency between Jewish and Palestinian violence in the Holy Land.
He’s also skeptical as to whether HaKohen’s message will ever reach Palestinians en masse—and, indeed, HaKohen as yet has no mass constituency among the Palestinian public in the Holy Land or elsewhere.
Nevertheless, Marizian sees much to admire in the rabbi’s approach: “He's not like, ‘Hey you have to leave,’” Marizian says. “It’s, ‘We can live together. I want to also have access to my historic homeland, my Jewish homeland, as well as you want to have access to your historic Palestine. Let's all have access together.’ Those things are very unique for a settler. I mean very rare. Very, very rare.”
None of this would have made sense to the Yehuda HaKohen of just one decade ago, let alone two or three. For one thing, up until the turn of the millennium, he wasn’t Yehuda HaKohen.
Though he doesn’t like to talk in any detail about his origins or what he calls his “slave name” (a reference to the fact that surnames were imposed upon the Jews by anti-Semitic authorities just a few centuries ago), a deep dive into publicly available information on the internet reveals that he was born under the entirely mundane American Jewish name Jason Weisbrod in November of 1979. His family ran an art dealership and gallery that eventually fell into deep trouble with the law, leading to accusations of selling fake and altered items, as well as a guilty plea for evading more than $1 million in taxes.
But during young HaKohen’s childhood and adolescence, the family was living in the tony Yorkville neighborhood of Manhattan and riding high. As a teen, HaKohen attended the prestigious Dwight School, just on the other side of Central Park.
There, he overlapped with three of the eventual members of The Strokes: he says he used to copy 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 class in a closed-down subway station the teachers never checked.” (Requests for comment from The Strokes were not returned.) He joined the boxing club, the prom committee, and did some student theater.
His senior quote in the 1998 Dwight yearbook is from Jewish mobster Meyer Lansky: “When you lose your money, you lose nothing; when you lose your character, you lose everything.” It was an appropriate choice, as HaKohen was, it seems, doing everything he could back then 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 about gangs,” HaKohen says now. “It was closer to something like The Outsiders, if you're familiar, but set in NYC in the '90s. So, cliques of teenagers doing bad stuff.”
These roving bands of rich white kids, who would also associate with less privileged street groups, came to be known as the “Prep-School Gangsters.” “I think it'd be a good movie if anybody were to make a movie about my life as a teenager; a lot of people would probably go see it,” HaKohen says. “Sometimes there was money involved and some kind of business hierarchy; sometimes it was just about having a good time and getting fame and getting your name out there and being a wild teenager.”
He was always aware and proud of being Jewish, he says, but emphasizes that, in contrast to many American Jews, he didn’t think of Jewishness as primarily a religious identity. “I was Jewish the way other people were Puerto Rican or Albanian,” as he puts it. “Unlike a lot of the other Jews in the world I grew up in, who were really kind of closeted about their Jewish identity, I was pretty up-front about it.”
That notion, he says, started to evolve as he approached graduation. “As I got older and had more clout in the society I was in, it became less about me having to overcome the negative stigma of being a Jew in that type of environment,” he recalls, “and it became more of me trying to define a little bit or contribute to the definition in people's heads about what it meant to be a Jew.”
If he was attempting to change viewpoints about Jews for the better, he picked an odd way to do it. After matriculating at Syracuse University for college, he says, he joined the infamous national collective of Jewish strongmen known as the Jewish Defense League (JDL). Deemed a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, a terrorist group by the FBI, and described by the Anti-Defamation League as being built by its founder, the belligerently bigoted Meir Kahane, on a foundation of “a radical form of Jewish nationalism which reflected racism, violence and political extremism,” the JDL has been linked to numerous hate crimes and acts of violence.
But, so his story goes, when HaKohen found out about the organization while perusing the internet, he was intrigued.
“I kind of thought of it as a Jewish Panthers,” he recalls. “What I understood about the JDL was that they were protecting Jews in dangerous neighborhoods from dangerous Gentiles. I contacted them, I had a meeting, I had a written interview, and then I had a physical test, which was harder than anything I'd do in the army.”
He declines to get into any detail about his activities in the JDL, only saying that it was around this time that he started wearing a Jewish skullcap and adopted a new public moniker. “Yehuda” (typically Anglicized as “Judah”) was the Hebrew secondary name he was given as a baby and “HaKohen” means “the priest,” referring to a familial claim that his ancestors were priests at ancient Jerusalem’s Holy Temple. “Not everybody knew how to say ‘Yehuda,’” he says, “so there were a lot of guys, especially Puerto Rican friends or Italian friends, who would call me ‘Judah.’”
In 2000, two years into the newly dubbed Yehuda HaKohen’s college career, Israel/Palestine exploded in a quasi-war between Jews and Palestinians known as the Second Intifada (a term that roughly translates from Arabic as “shaking-off”; the first one lasted from 1987 to 1993). “When the [second] Intifada started,” HaKohen says, “I really felt uncomfortable with the idea that, just because I've been born in New York, the expectation of me was to go to college and get a degree, while Jews my age in Israel were expected to go fight in the army. So I just dropped out of school and I moved to Israel, with the purpose of joining the army.”
He says he’d visited before, when he was 15, and hadn’t felt a particular connection, but by the time he emigrated in 2001, thanks to his recent Jewish awakening, he was almost monomaniacal about the Holy Land.
Before enlisting in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), “I wanted to really deepen my understanding, strengthen myself in Torah,” he says, using the latter term to describe the full range of Jewish spiritual, ritual, and ethical learning. So he studied at an all-male and radically pro-settlement Jewish academy in Jerusalem called Machon Meir. “That was probably the first time in my life I really felt like I was doing the exact right thing,” he says.
He eventually earned rabbinic ordination, but was just as affected by his time in the military, where he says he served in a unit designed for Orthodox Jews, one infamous for its hard-right ideology. (The IDF declined to confirm or comment for this article.) “I think there was one kid in the unit who was open to the notion of territorial concessions,” HaKohen says. “And he got bullied for it.”
HaKohen, himself, acted as a kind of bully after his discharge, spending the latter parts of the ’00s and early part of the ’10s living a life of hardcore pro-settlement, pro-Jewish, pro-Israel, anti-Palestinian activism.
That involved becoming a settler in the Palestinian-majority eastern half of Jerusalem, protesting against the destruction of settlements in the Gaza Strip, hunger-striking in support of Jonathan Pollard (then serving a life sentence in an American prison for spying for Israel), hosting a radio show about Israel-related topics, and doing pro-Israel outreach on American college campuses. The campus group he helped lead, the Zionist Freedom Alliance, spouted a lot of the usual right-wing talking points, but was nevertheless idiosyncratic.
To wit: It was around then that he formulated a key component of his ideology, which is the notion that people should focus not on the colonial aspects of Zionist action, but rather on the evils of British imperial rule in what is now Israel/Palestine from 1917 to 1948.
Through that lens, Israel’s creation in 1948 was an example of a successful anti-imperialist action. As HaKohen put it to an interviewer in 2008, when you frame it that way, “suddenly the Jewish people are the natives in the story and international pressure to shrink our borders is an act of Western imperialism against an indigenous population."
However, while living in East Jerusalem, he says he also had his first non-military encounters with a group much more widely recognized as indigenous, which was the Palestinians. In his telling, he had “so many conversations” with Palestinians there and in the West Bank, where he moved around the end of the ’00s. Though he was living in a Jews-only community, he says he had enough contact with Palestinians in the area that “it kind of became obvious, at a certain point, that they have a story, too.”
HaKohen is not the only settler to have this sort of change of heart. A settler rabbi named Menachem Froman, who died in 2013, was well-known for his advocacy of dialogue and coexistence between Jews and Palestinians. So, too, do the members and leaders of a group called Roots, which sets up encounters between the two ethnic groups that populate the West Bank. HaKohen does not cite either as an influence or partner, and that’s not entirely surprising, as what he’s advocating is more radical than what they have called for.
He wants a total reconsideration not just of the Israeli-Palestinian situation, but also of the very nature of Jewishness. He sees it not as a religion or ethnicity so much as an entire “civilization,” one that was placed into “a portable version” during 2,000 years of exile.
When the Jewish people “came back to life” and “went from being a gas to being a solid” through Zionism, as he puts it, it was a divine miracle, but, in some ways, one that has run its course. He sometimes identifies himself as a “post-Zionist,” someone who wants to “clean up Zionism's mess while protecting its positive achievements.”
It’s hard to briefly summarize his entire worldview, but he believes the Jewish people should “decolonize” their identities from Western and Christian ideas, recognize their own indigeneity in the Holy Land, sever ties with the American imperial war machine, establish one-state coexistence with the Palestinians (although, again, he says the state would still be fundamentally Jewish, somehow; he compares it to the way Denmark is Danish), and—perhaps above all—never allow anyone to dismantle the settlements and take Jews out of the West Bank, even if that means violent resistance. In this, he identifies himself as part of the lineage of the Zealots, the Jewish militants who sought to end Roman influence millennia ago.
In order to push that multifaceted message, HaKohen wears many hats. He gives lectures at Machon Meir, the Jewish boys’ school he himself studied at. He teaches classes for Jewish American teens studying in Israel. He runs an online publication called Vision Magazine, where he and others write unconventional takes on Jewish topics. He coordinated a slate of candidates for the recent elections to the international institution known as the World Zionist Congress.
He helps run a group called The Home, which pushes for an egalitarian one-state solution. He has a youth program connected to all these other programs, called Brit Hazon. Before the pandemic, he would regularly fly to the US to spread his ideas. And, this being 2020, he has a podcast. All of these programs have yet to really catch on in Israel. But his presence in Israel is a huge part of what gives him legitimacy to audiences of young Jewish Americans who were once like him.
So, what is HaKohen now? As the dialogue event at Oz v’Gaon with HaKohen and Saca closes, one of the American students from the audience comes up to him. “What would you say your politics are?” she asks. He smiles. “We’re still the Zealots,” he says. “We haven’t changed in two thousand years.”
Like anyone who joins a radical movement, Joe Block was looking for answers in a society that seemingly had none left for him. Raised as a Jew of the so-called Modern Orthodox mold in White Plains, New York, he was caught in the endlessly thorny dilemma of what to think and do about Israel. “Basically, my whole life, Israel's been so valuable to me,” the 20-year-old Block says to me over the phone as he walks through Jerusalem on an unseasonably cool June day. “But I struggled with Israel. Especially as someone who identified as a left-of-center person, I really struggled with the Palestinian problem.”
Block, like so many Jewish Zoomers, was torn between the Zionism he’d been raised with and the leftism that has become normative for his generation. He first heard about HaKohen through a friend who shared his own yearnings and questions.
The friend’s brother was “very leftist, socialist, communist, a lot of things like that,” as Block puts it. “My friend, he told me that when his brother was in Israel, he became close to this Rav”—an honorific for a rabbi—“who was both a settler and had these interesting views about Palestinians,” Block recalls. “It immediately intrigued me.”
By then, Block was already in Israel, having decided to study at a Jewish school in Jerusalem. Block’s friend told him HaKohen was teaching a class in the Old City; maybe he should drop in to see what it’s all about. So he did. “And right away, I was blown away,” Block intones with excitement.
“He brought a Palestinian refugee. Where where I'm from, bringing someone like that in for an open discussion? You would never do something like that.” The refugee spoke at length about the Palestinian quest for self-determination and an end to Israeli human-rights abuses. “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 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.” A brief 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.”