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“I didn't think he was gonna stop”: Cousin of infamous extremist rabbi Meir Kahane attacks student protesters with car

A student eyewitness tells The Handbasket what he saw.

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Reuven Kahane (via Twitter)

At approximately 8:46 Tuesday morning, Reuven Kahane, 57, took a left hand turn onto Park Avenue in Manhattan, stopped short, and then accelerated his Volvo towards a group of Columbia student protesters in the crosswalk. Kahane struck one person, 55-year-old Maryellen Novak, a volunteer who was one of three people there to protect the protesters from harm. As one Columbia student witness told me Wednesday morning, “It was one of the most terrifying things I've witnessed.”

Kahane was quickly arrested by cops who were already on the scene eyeing the peaceful protesters. They arrested another one of the volunteers, John Rozendaal, 63, and Novak, too, was later arrested at the hospital. She was reportedly handcuffed to her bed, according to independent journalist Talia Jane, who was one of the first to report on the incident. An NYPD spokesperson confirmed all the arrests to me Tuesday evening.

The Manhattan District Attorney’s office has confirmed that Kahane was arraigned Wednesday morning for 2nd degree assault “by means of a dangerous instrument.” He pleaded not guilty and was released on his own recognizance. The office also said they declined to prosecute Novak and Rozendaal, and both have been released. According to the DA’s complaint, Kahane’s “conduct caused substantial pain to [Novak’s] back and legs.”

If you recognize the Kahane name, there’s a good reason: Reuven is a cousin of the late Meir Kahane, the American-Israeli political extremist and founder of the infamous Jewish Defense League. Per the Southern Poverty Law Center, “The JDL's position with regard to Israel is denial of any Palestinian claims to land and the calling for the removal of all Arabs from the ‘Jewish-inherited soil.’ The group has orchestrated countless terrorist attacks in the U.S. and abroad, and has engaged in intense harassment of foreign diplomats, Muslims, Jewish scholars and community leaders, and officials.”

Though perfunctory coverage of the story has popped up in dribs and drabs since the attack, for most of the day Tuesday, local media said nothing. And in the wake of nonstop coverage of troubling antisemitic incidents on college campuses, the silence on this attack on pro-Palestinian students was deafening.

I spoke with an undergraduate Columbia student via phone Wednesday morning who was part of the protest—and who was nearly a victim of Kahane’s vehicular assault. I’m withholding his name for safety and privacy, but he offered a detailed account of what he witnessed Tuesday:

According to the student, he and a group of a couple dozen student protesters gathered on the corner of 72nd Street and Park Avenue outside the building of Barnard Board of Trustees Member Francine LeFrak around 8am. They were there as part of three coordinated trustee pickets organized by Columbia University Apartheid Divest, a student group that has been heavily involved in the anti-genocide protests these past few weeks.

The student was handing out flyers with information about the protest as others moved in a circular picket line on the sidewalk. He estimated around 10 unrelated hecklers and agitators stopped by to scream at the group. One of the hecklers was Reuven Kahane, who was on foot at the time.

“They yelled at us, calling us terrorists, asking us why we don't care about the [Israeli] hostages or the victims of October 7th,” the student recalled. “I had a couple times someone walk up like they were gonna grab a flyer from me and then just yell ‘fuck you’ in my face instead.”

That picket wrapped up and the plan was to converge with the two other groups in front of the law office of another trustee. The group crossed half of Park Avenue, a two-way thoroughfare, safely reaching the median and continuing to the second half of the crossing. That’s when the student said Kahane, now at the wheel of his Volvo, made a left hand turn from 72nd street onto Park Avenue and pulled up to the students and volunteers in the midst of crossing, nearly hitting the student who was right in front of Novak. 

“There was a car coming up pretty fast toward us and I didn't register it a ton and I just assumed it was a New York driver being an asshole,” the student recalled. 

At first Kahane stopped short, and Novak put her hands up to signal that he shouldn’t go any further. But then he continued driving.

“He just started accelerating with her in front of him, and she obviously couldn't move to the side because she was pressed up against the car, pushing her back,” the student said. “All she could do was walk backward until she fell, and he kept going long enough that her body was like halfway under the car.”

The cops responded quickly, apprehending and handcuffing Kahane. The student said he could hear Kahane telling the cop handcuffing him, “I got nervous. I'm sorry, but I got nervous,” seemingly as an explanation for his actions. At the same time, Rozendaal got on the ground to check on Novak when cops rushed over, picking him up by his backpack and arresting him, too, before even helping Novak off the ground.

The protesters gathered started shouting “why are you arresting him?” In a video from the scene that I reviewed, a cop can be heard screaming back at them, “Get on the sidewalk or everyone goes!” Goes to jail, seems to be the implication.

After the initial shock of it all, the protesters continued on to meet the other protesters to complete the second part of that morning’s action. 

I think I've just been in shock for like two weeks now, so I'm having trouble even processing anything that happened,” the student told me. “It was one of the most terrifying things I've witnessed. I really didn't think he was gonna stop. I thought he was gonna run [Novak] all the way over.”

Kahane is an Orthodox Jew and rabbi who lives in the neighborhood where he attacked the protesters. He’s a congregant at Park East Synagogue where he has delivered sermons in the past. When I reached out to the synagogue, a person who answered the phone said they had no comment. 

Kahane is a real estate investor who, according to his now mostly scrubbed LinkedIn and Facebook, has spent time in recent weeks at various college campus protests across the city. Photos and video he posted just this past Monday show him in a disguise among Hunter College protesters. 

He also posted this recent comment on LinkedIn, which speaks to his thinking:

Also on Tuesday, President Biden delivered a speech at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum’s Annual Day of Remembrance Ceremony at the capitol. 

“Never again, simply translated for me, means ‘never forget,’” Biden said in his remarks. “Never forgetting means we must keep telling the story. We must keep teaching the truth.  We must keep teaching our children and our grandchildren.”

While Never Again has become a popular rallying cry, few know it was popularized in America by Meir Kahane, Reuven’s cousin, and was the Jewish Defense League’s slogan. It was also the title of his first book that sold 100,000 copies. It’s doubtful that Biden—or even most Jews—is aware of this connection, but it’s worth reflecting on how Kahane’s thinking has seeped into mainstream American Judaism and perhaps influenced the disproportionate amount of grace afforded by mass media and government to pro-Israel vs. pro-Palestinian protesters.

As one of those grandchildren Biden referenced—a granddaughter of a survivor who is still alive today, whose numeric tattoo is still legible—I’m acutely aware of the need to remember our history. But just as crucial, I understand the need to accurately record our present. Antisemitism is surely on the rise, but the full power of the government is being used against protesters of the genocide in Gaza. And I certainly won’t forget it.

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