Who Was Meir Kahane, and Why Is His Racist Legacy Relevant Again

Brooklyn-born Meir Kahane was banned from Israeli politics in 1988, but the spirit of his anti-Arab Kach party lives on in an extremist alliance that just won six Knesset seats ■ Israel election 2021

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Merchandise on sale in 2016 bearing the face of Rabbi Meir Kahane and the words "Kahane was right."
Merchandise on sale in 2016 bearing the face of Rabbi Meir Kahane and the words "Kahane was right."Credit: Lior Mizrahi
David Green
David B. Green
David Green
David B. Green

As the Otzma Yehudit party has drawn increasingly close to entering the Knesset in recent years – a goal it finally attained this week as part of a radical alliance with the innocuous-sounding Religious Zionism – readers may have become accustomed to seeing it described as “Kahanist.”

But those who came of age following the 1990 death of the man who spawned that racist ideology, Rabbi Meir Kahane, may have only a vague sense of what its namesake stood for and why his continuing influence is so widely regarded as dangerous.

The Kahanist vision is one that sees violence and revenge as Jewish religious imperatives, and Israel as not being worthy of existing unless it expunges the non-Jews from its midst and its Jews commit to living Torah-observant lives.

It is an angry, uncompromising ideology that for half a century now has continued to find eager followers, who are attracted by its Manichean vision and its readiness to take action on behalf of Jewish pride.

Rabbi Meir Kahane in 1980, a decade before his assassination in New York.Credit: Nino Herman / GPO

Private lessons in Judaism

Born Martin David Kahane in Brooklyn in 1932, Meir Kahane grew up in a Revisionist home (his father was close to Ze’ev Jabotinsky) and belonged to its militant youth movement, Betar. He was ordained at the Orthodox Mir Yeshiva in New York, and also gained degrees in law and political science. He worked as a congregational rabbi, gave private lessons in Judaism (including to Arlo and Nora Guthrie, the children of folk musician Woody Guthrie and his Jewish wife, Marjorie Mazia), and in the 1950s reportedly worked as an informant for the FBI, which had him infiltrate the far-right John Birch Society.

Kahane first came to the public’s attention in 1968, when he formed the Jewish Defense League, recruiting young Jews in New York to fight street crime and antisemitic harassment.

The JDL, with the slogan of “Never Again,” and a logo that depicted a clenched fist against a Star of David, evolved from a neighborhood watch group taking on “Black Nazis,” as one pamphlet had it, to also becoming a champion of the cause of Soviet Jewry. Unlike more mainstream activist groups that called attention to the Soviet Union’s oppression of its approximately 2 million Jews with public but generally peaceful provocations, the JDL carried out pipe-bomb attacks on Soviet government targets in New York and staged violent demonstrations against visiting Russian arts groups such as the Bolshoi Ballet.

An election slip for Meir Kahame's Kach party in 1981. Credit: ללא קרדיט

It wasn’t long before the JDL found itself on the FBI’s terror-group watch list. But by 1971, its leader – who was by now under FBI surveillance himself – had made aliyah to Israel, which he had come to believe was the only safe place for Jews.

Nonetheless, as his ideology evolved, he saw a dark future for Israel, especially if its people did not adopt an Orthodox-Jewish lifestyle, preaching that if the Jews did not bring about divine redemption by their observance, God would cause redemption to come by way of a violent intercession.

His philosophy found expression in essays, books (he published some 20) and a regular newspaper column in New York’s Jewish Press.

Meir Kahane holding a press conference in Jerusalem in 1984, the year he became an Israeli lawmaker.Credit: Daniel Rosenblum

He was also a favorite subject for journalists, for whom he always ready to supply punchy if shocking quotes, as well as scholars. In “Brother Against Brother,” his 1999 study of political extremism and violence in Israel, the late Prof. Ehud Sprinzak contrasts Kahane’s Zionism to that of Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak Kook, spiritual forebear of the Gush Emunim settler movement.

Whereas Rav Kook saw the very establishment of the Jewish state as a stage in the road to divine redemption, and looked favorably on the role played by secular Zionists in that project, Kahane viewed the creation of Israel as a form of revenge by God against the Gentiles. For him, the humiliation of Jews over two millennia was a form of “hillul Hashem” (desecration of God’s name) and the taking of revenge an expression of “kiddush Hashem,” the sanctification of God’s name.

In his 1975 book “Listen World, Listen Jew,” Kahane wrote: “A Jewish fist in the face of an astonished Gentile world: this is Kiddush Hashem. Jewish dominion over the Christian holy places while the Church that sucked our blood vomits its rage and frustration. This is Kiddush Hashem. … Reading angry editorials about Jewish ‘aggression’ and ‘violations’ rather than flowery eulogies over dead Jewish victims. That is Kiddush Hashem.”

With his zero-sum approach to Israel’s ethnic identity, and open call for the state to expel its Arab citizens as well as the Palestinian residents of the occupied territories, Kahane not only earned a reputation for saying what others only dared think, but also for his willingness to act preemptively against Arabs.

He was arrested and sentenced to administrative detention in 1980 for planning to blow up the Muslim shrines on Jerusalem’s Temple Mount (this was two years before the better-known Jewish Underground plot to destroy the Dome of the Rock was detected and prevented by the Shin Bet security service).

Five years later, when asked by a journalist if he would tell his followers not to hit Arab bystanders who were near the location of a terror incident, he said, “No, I would not. As long as they are here, we are lost.” Concomitantly, he declared that “Jewish violence in defense of Jewish interest is never bad.”

Beitar Jerusalem supporters parading the flag of the late Meir Kahane's Kach party, during a game against Arab rivals Bnei Sakhnin. Credit: Roni Shizar/Gini

‘Hebrew-speaking Portugal’

While Israelis of all political and religious stripes continue to this day trying to reconcile the concepts of having both a Jewish and democratic state, Kahane declared that the circle could not be squared: He wanted a state that would be guided by Jewish law or, as he put it, “a Jewish state, not a Hebrew-speaking Portugal.” That included a call to outlaw both marriage and sexual relations between Jews and non-Jews.

Kahane was serious about realizing his ideology, which is why, though he had vowed to focus on educational projects after arriving in Israel, he quickly moved into politics. That same year, 1971, he formed the Kach party. He ran unsuccessfully for Knesset in 1973, 1977 and 1981, but developed a large following by leading frequent demonstrations in which he called for the expulsion of Arabs. He gave his followers paramilitary training, and was investigated for planning armed attacks against the enemy. By 1980, he had been arrested more than 60 times. Polite society may have despised him, but everyone knew who Kahane was.

By 1984, however, Sprinzak suggests, a more divided Israel offered fertile ground for him to take his message into the parliament. The first Lebanon war, which began in 1982, had taken tensions between left and right to a new level, and racially tinged ethnic conflict between Ashkenazim and Mizrahim became more manifest, thanks in part to Likud head Menachem Begin, who had become Israel’s first right-wing prime minister in 1977.

Writes Sprinzak: “In 1984, frustrated settlers, angry residents of [development] towns, young soldiers, and insecure people all over the country – 25,906 of them in all – joined forces to … install Meir Kahane in the Knesset.”

Kahane’s tenure in parliament was short-lived, however. A year after his election, the Knesset – whose members largely shunned him – passed an amendment to the Basic Law on the Knesset, banning political parties that practice racist incitement or advocated antidemocratic policies from running in future elections. Hence, Kahane was barred from running in the 1988 election. Nonetheless, he vowed to return: Following the Supreme Court’s denial of his appeal in 1988, he told supporters that “We’ll be in the government yet!”

Rabbi Cahana Street in the small Israeli city of Or Akiva.Credit: Hagai Frid

Spirit lives on

To detail all of the political incarnations that the movement spawned by Kahane went through would make for a book-length article. What is especially noteworthy, however, is that the spirit of the man survived his assassination, at the hands of an Egyptian-Islamic terrorist in New York in 1990 – so much so that a party inspired by Kahane just won six seats in the Knesset.

One of the Kahane’s four children, Binyamin Ze’ev Kahane, split off from Kach in 1991 to set up a parallel group called Kahane Chai (“Kahane Lives”), based on the Tapuah settlement in the West Bank. He and his wife were killed in a terror attack on their car near the Ofra settlement, several months into the second intifada in December 2000.

Political and security unrest, both among Jews and vis-à-vis Palestinian militants, have always been a constant source of fuel for the ongoing life of the Kahanist movement, although it has taken a variety of organizational forms. During the first intifada, followers of Kahane – including Baruch Marzel, later a founder of Otzma Yehudit – organized a vigilante group in the West Bank that they called the Committee for Road Safety.

A personal disciple of Meir Kahane’s, for example, Baruch Goldstein – a doctor and resident of the radical settlement of Kiryat Arba (and number three on the Kach electoral slate in 1984) – carried out a mass murder in the mosque in Hebron’s Tomb of the Patriarchs during Purim in February 1994, killing 29 Palestinians and wounding more than 125 before he himself was beaten to death.

Religious Zionism's Itamar Ben-Gvir with young supporters in Jerusalem on Election Day.Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz

Goldstein’s action should be seen, at least in part, as a response to the Oslo Accords signed by Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1993, and an upsurge in Palestinian terror that followed it. Just weeks before Rabin’s assassination in November 1995, Itamar Ben-Gvir, then a member of Kach, brazenly stole the metal emblem off the front of the premier’s armored Cadillac, declaring at the time: ““We got to his car, and we’ll get to him too.” (Ben-Gvir was not implicated in Rabin’s murder.)

In the decades since then, Ben-Gvir has become a criminal-defense attorney well-known for representation of numerous Jews accused of attacks on Arabs, and similar offenses. While other members of his Otzma Yehudit (which means “Jewish Power”) party have found themselves disqualified from running for the Israeli parliament, and he himself has been arrested dozens of times, he has avoided conviction in most cases. One time he didn’t was in 1998, when Ben-Gvir was convicted of possession of supporting Jewish terror groups, after police found stickers saying “Kahane was Right” in his home.

Ben-Gvir calls Kahane a mentor and model, but denies that he wants to exile all of Israel’s Palestinian citizens – only those who are “unloyal” to the state. “Those who are loyal to the state, ahlan wa sahlan,” he said, using an Arabic phrase meaning “welcome.” “But those who are not must be expelled,” he told the Times of Israel in 2019.

Today, Ben-Gvir is a newly elected lawmaker in Religious Zionism, the extremist alliance that includes his party, the anti-LGBT Noam party and Bezalel Smotrich’s National Union. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was behind a move to get the extremist factions to run as one party in March 2019, and struck a “spare votes” deal with them in this election. And the ties likely won’t end there. If the prime minister gets the opportunity to form a government. Ben-Gvir is a likely member of any Netanyahu cabinet.

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