Opinion

How Netanyahu Revived Jewish Supremacism and Paved Its Way to Power

If Meir Kahane hadn't come to Israel, his toxic Brooklyn-born racism would have withered away. But his ideology found fertile ground, shed its accent and has now been legitimated by Israel's prime minister

A supporter of Israeli soldier Elor Azaria, convicted of manslaughter, wears a shirt depicting Meir Kahane, the founder of the Jewish Defense League and the Kach party.
Oded Balilty/AP

On Saturday, I noted on Twitter that the only political ideology successfully transplanted from the United States to Israel was the racist Jewish supremacism of the Brooklyn-born Rabbi Meir Kahane and that, apart from him, American Jewish immigrants to Israel failed to have much of an impact on contemporary Israeli politics.

I was swiftly told off by proud Americans Israelis – for disregarding the important contributions made by American olim to a wide range of liberal causes, including feminism and human rights. So I’ll use this column, a much more respectable platform than Twitter, to apologize and offer another observation, which I hope will be more complimentary to American Jews.

Had Meir Kahane remained in the United States, and not made aliyah himself in 1971, his toxic ideology – which emerged first in the American Jewish Defense League, and then migrated with him to the Israeli Kach party – would have withered away. Kahane himself would today have been at most an obscure footnote to recent history.

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If Kahane had not become an Israeli citizen, and not been shot dead in 1990 by a jihadist in his native New York, he may have met an early death by other means, perhaps due to some of his dealings with organized crime. Or he’d still be alive, disgruntled and frustrated in his obscurity, writing screeds for far-right websites from his low-grade retirement home.

This isn’t hypothetical. He tried to keep the JDL alive from his new base in Israel, frequently traveling back to the United States to meet with his followers. But it was already a failing organization by the time of his murder and has since disappeared from the scene, with the exception of a few disconsolate thugs in the United States and some pathetic Kahanist wannabes in France and Canada

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Meanwhile, Kahanism – like one of those Hasidic sects that keep worshipping a dead rebbe – has persevered and ultimately flourished in its new homeland.

Its latest reincarnation, Otzma Yehudit, entered an electoral pact last week with Habayit Hayehudi, brokered personally by Benjamin Netanyahu. Now it is not only on its way back to the Knesset, which Kahane was forced to leave in 1988, but is doing so with the prime minister’s seal of legitimacy; as a bona fide part of the – for now – ruling right-wing coalition.

Merchandise glorifying Meir Kahane on sale at a rally in Jerusalem. Israel outlawed the political party founded by the racist American-born rabbi, who was assassinated in 1990
Lior Mizrachi

It wasn’t a foregone conclusion that some 28 years after Kahane’s death, his disciples would make such a resounding comeback.

Kahane was already an outcast for the last two years of his life. Nearly the entire Knesset, including Likud (which former ambassador Netanyahu had just joined), voted to change the electoral laws, barring parties that “incite to racism” from running.

After four years of sitting in the Knesset, Kahane was finding it difficult to reacclimatize, and there were stirrings against him within the party. After he was gone, there was a split between the veteran lieutenants and Kahane’s son, Binyamin, who set up the rival Kahane Chai movement. 

Over the next decade, his organizational legacy continued to absorb blows as the old guard of U.S.-born Kahanists and younger Israeli acolytes fell out with each other.

After Baruch Goldstein, a member of the original U.S. hard core, carried out the mass murder of 29 Palestinians at prayer in Hebron in 1994, both splinter groups, Kach and Kahane Chai, were outlawed as terrorist organizations. Then, on the last day of 2000, Binyamin Kahane was murdered, along with his wife Talia, by a Palestinian in a shooting attack in the West Bank.

But just as it seemed that this particular stream of Israeli racism had petered out, a new, third generation of Kahanists – Israeli-born like the second generation, but better educated and media savvy – breathed life into the putrid carcass.

National Union MK Michael Ben Ari and right-wing Israeli lawyer Itamar Ben-Gvir in a protest in the Arab town of Umm al-Fahm, Israel, August 9, 2018
ערן גילווארג

Michael Ben Ari and Itamar Ben-Gvir did two things that the old-school Kahanists could not, or were simply less inclined to do. They worked through the legal system, finding the loopholes in the laws that had proscribed the old Kach, and formed alliances with other, less overtly racist, but nearly as extreme, right-wing and religious parties.

Just like Hezbollah, the IRA and other terror organizations seeking respectability, Kach had a new “political wing,” ostensibly a separate entity, allowing it to run in elections once again.

In the justified hue and cry over the Habayit Hayehudi-Otzma Yehudit alliance, it was forgotten that this is a second comeback for the Kahanists to the Knesset

They already returned once in 2009, when Ben Ari made it onto the brown seats courtesy of the hard-right National Union. That was already semi-legitimacy. National Union, despite its politics, was regarded as legitimate – it even had the former brigadier general, professor and doctor Arye Eldad, son of revered revisionist ideologue and bible scholar Prof. Israel “Scheib” Eldad, among its MKs.

Habayit Hayehudi members vote to unite with Otzma Yehudit on February 20, 2019
Tomer Appelbaum

Of course, the prime minister’s imprimatur for this Kahanist revival is a much deeper abomination, one that has finally been noticed even by mainstream Jewish-American organizations such as the AJC and AIPAC. But no one need act surprised. This is a rehabilitation that has long been in the making. And it has been taking place from inside the prime minister’s office.

Two and a half weeks ago, in the Likud primary, May Golan was elected to 33rd spot on the Likud slate – the space reserved for a young party member. The articulate Golan has long been a poster child for the race-baiting campaign against African refugees in south Tel Aviv.

In 2013, when Otzma Yehudit ran on its own and failed to cross the electoral threshold, she was 10th on its ticket, lending some variety to the slate of grim religious men. Now she has transitioned seamlessly to Likud. “I didn’t moderate my views to join Likud, they came to my position,” Golan told me on primary day.

Stickers in Jerusalem's Old city bearing the slogan: 'Today, everyone knows: Kahane was right'
Djampa/Wikimedia

A few days after his poisonous “The Arabs are voting in droves” Facebook video on Election Day in 2015, and under pressure from the Obama administration, Netanyahu issued a half-hearted non-apology to Israeli Arabs. But Obama is long gone and there’s no any longer the need to maintain any pretense that this was a one-off.

Dan Meridor, one of the last truly moderate Likudniks, once told me: “Bibi isn’t racist, but he does sometimes use racism.” I think even Meridor would admit now that there’s no real difference between the two. He’s no longer a party member, and other seemingly moderate Likudniks have been dragged into the racist morass by their leader.

Yoav Kish, the fighter pilot and colonel whom the “New Likudniks” have seen as one of their champions (these centrists joined the party in the hope of pulling it back from the far right), tried to explain on television Saturday night why Otzma Yehudit is actually a legitimate Zionist party.

On national radio Sunday, Nir Barkat, another self-professed Likud moderate, declared: “I will fight against [the Kahanists’] beliefs,” but then admitted that “if there’s no choice, they can be part of the next government.” For no choice, read if Netanyahu’s political survival depends on it.

The Jewish Defense League, born in Brooklyn, is finally home and dry in the Jewish state. Just like any child of immigrants, it has shed all traces of its accent and has become a full-fledged native. Kahanism 3.0 is a totally homegrown Israeli strain of an old racist virus.