Explained

Why Racist Rabbi Meir Kahane Is Roiling Israeli Politics 30 Years After His Death

The leader of the Kach party, which advocated for an Israel free of Arabs, was assassinated in 1990, but his extremist beliefs will likely be represented in the next Knesset due to a pact between two far-right parties

A memorial event in Jerusalem marking 20 years since the death of Rabbi Meir Kahane, October 2010. The T-shirt says "Continuing on his path."
Emil Salman

Meir Kahane, the founder and leader of Israel’s openly racist Kach party in the 1970s and ’80s, was assassinated in the United States after delivering a lecture at a Manhattan hotel on November 5, 1990.

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Yet his name is currently dominating Israeli politics after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pushed Otzma Yehudit – an extremist party led by followers of the racist rabbi – to run on a joint ticket with another far-right party, Habayit Hayehudi.

>> Read more: Courting Kahanists, Netanyahu takes politics to the gutter | Analysis ■ Kahane returns to the Knesset | Editorial ■ U.S. Jewish leaders slam Netanyahu for promoting Kahanists

Netanyahu has reportedly offered the extremists several portfolios in the next government if he gets the chance to form a right-wing governing coalition – a possibility strengthened by having the Otzma-Habayit alliance likely to pass the electoral threshold of 3.25 percent and win seats in the April 9 election.

There has been much talk about “Kahanists” returning to the Knesset, but what does this mean? And who exactly is the extremist rabbi who has returned to Israeli politics with a vengeance?

Who was Rabbi Meir Kahane?

Born Martin David Kahane in Brooklyn in 1932, Kahane was raised in an Orthodox, Revisionist Zionist home in Flatbush. He was the son of a European-born rabbi and was active in the right-wing youth movement Betar. He received rabbinical ordination at New York's Mir Yeshiva and later earned a BA and law degrees at several different New York institutions.

In the ’50s, he served briefly as a congregational rabbi and also reportedly worked as a freelance agent for the FBI, being assigned the task of infiltrating the ultra-right-wing John Birch Society, which he considered to be virulently anti-Semitic - a claim the organization strongly denies.

In 1968, he established the Jewish Defense League. Although its initial function was to provide physical protection to Jews in urban neighborhoods via “anti-mugger patrols” (echoing the Holocaust, its slogan was “Never Again”), it quickly became part of a violent U.S. political campaign against what it saw as more high-profile enemies of the Jewish people.

Most significant was the role it played in pressing the Soviet Union to stop persecuting its Jews and allow them freedom of emigration. Whereas other groups in the Free Soviet Jewry campaign during the ’70s and ’80s staged sometimes audacious acts to draw attention to the cause, the JDL attacked Russian targets: an Aeroflot airline office; a Soviet diplomat’s residence; and performances given by visiting Russian cultural ensembles in the United States.

A memorial event in Jerusalem marking 20 years since the death of Rabbi Meir Kahane, October 2010.
Emil Salman

The JDL was also implicated in attacks on Arab diplomatic missions and the killing of Alex Odeh, head of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, in 1985. However, no one was ever convicted for the murder and the crime took place long after Kahane had left the United States.

He had immigrated to Israel in 1971, immediately establishing his ultranationalist, Orthodox Kach political party. In 1973, 1977 and 1981, the party failed to gain enough votes to pass the electoral threshold and enter the Knesset. During those years, Kahane became involved in a campaign to convince the Jewish public of the need to expel its Arab citizens as well as the Palestinians from the occupied territories.

He wrote a book called “They Must Go” and was arrested over 60 times for provocative actions against Arabs. He openly declared that Israel could not be both Jewish and democratic, and that his choice was a state guided by Jewish law: “I want a Jewish state, not a Hebrew-speaking Portugal,” he was once quoted as saying.

Kahane finally entered the Knesset in 1984 when his Kach party won a single seat in that year’s election. He was largely ostracized by fellow MKs, with his Knesset speeches usually being attended only by officials who were required to be there, such as the transcriptionist.

However, his militant anti-Arab positions and strong nationalist-religious message brought him increasing public support. This led to speculation that Kach could receive multiple seats in the next election. In 1985, the Israeli parliament amended its election laws, barring racists and inciters from running. Kahane appealed the decision to the Supreme Court but lost, and was disqualified from standing in the 1988 election.

After their ouster from mainstream politics, a group of Kach activists formed an extremist terror group known as the Sicarii, which conducted a series of terror attacks on Palestinians and left-wing Jewish Israelis. Their activities were only curtailed after Israeli police started investigating their actions in March 1989.

Kahane continued to espouse his racist views about Israel belonging solely to the Jews. For example, he repeatedly called for an “exchange of populations,” suggesting a $40,000 payment to those Arabs voluntarily leaving Israel and forcible expulsion for anyone refusing to leave.

On the evening of November 5, 1990, Kahane was delivering a talk to a Jewish group at the New York Marriott East Side, on Lexington Avenue. Afterward, as he was greeting well-wishers, he was approached by a man dressed as an Orthodox Jew, who shot him at short range with a .357-caliber pistol. Kahane died shortly after. But his story does not end there.

Who are the Kahanists?

After Kahane’s death, Kach split into two factions: Kach and Kahane Chai (“Kahane Lives”), which was led by his son, Benyamin Ze’ev Kahane. (The latter and his wife were both killed, and five of their six children wounded, when their van was fired upon in the West Bank during the second intifada, in December 2000). Both factions were banned from standing in the 1992 Knesset election.

Otzma Yehudit member Baruch Marzel speaking at an event marking 27 years since the death of Rabbi Meir Kahane, November 2017.
Lior Mizrahi

The Israeli government declared both Kach and Kahane Chai illegal terror organizations in 1994, following the February 1994 massacre at the Tomb of the Patriarchs by a Kach supporter, Dr. Baruch Goldstein, which killed 29 Muslim worshippers. That same year, Kach was also placed on the U.S. State Department and European Union lists of outlawed terror groups.

After the groups disbanded, the heads of Kahane Chai formed an advocacy group known as The Kahane Movement, maintaining Kahane's ideology and speeches on the website kahane.org. However, this was also seen as an extension of Kach and was listed as a terror organization by the United States.

Several Kach supporters have remained active in Israeli politics over the subsequent years, including Michael Ben-Ari, who served in the Knesset as a National Union lawmaker between 2009 and 2013. He is one of several Kach followers now standing for Otzma Yehudit, which has just agreed a unity pact with fellow far-right, pro-settler party Habayit Hayehudi. Ben-Ari, Benzi Gopstein, Baruch Marzel and Itamar Ben-Gvir were also involved in the segregationist Lehava movement – the racist group that opposes personal relationships between Jews and non-Jews.

According to the election pact, Otzma Yehudit (which means “Jewish Strength”) will receive the fifth and eighth slots on the party ticket with Habayit Hayehudi. This gives Kahanists a real chance of returning to the Knesset some 31 years after their leader was barred from it.