Meir Kahane, the founding leader of the racist Kach party, immigrated to Israel in 1971 and immediately sought election to the Knesset. He failed to pass the electoral threshold – which at the time was 1 percent – several times, but in the balloting for the 11th Knesset in 1984, he succeeded, when 25,907 voters, 1.2 percent of the vote, paved Kahane’s way into the legislature.
His election caused a general sense of shock, and much talk about an idol in the Jewish state’s hall of parliament. All Israeli society, not just the left, came to the conclusion that everything must be done to remove him from the public arena.
Centrifuges and Delta Blues: LISTEN to Zvi Bar'el and Amos Harel
Maariv's editorial from July 26, 1984, stated that “Rabbi Meir Kahane, who managed to get 20,000 Jews to vote him into Knesset, will find two million Jews standing in his way if he tries to realize his bullying policies. He will have to adapt to the norms of Israeli society.”
Several key public figures launched a determined struggle against him. One of them was Zevulun Hammer, who served as education and culture minister for many years and was a dominant leader of the National Religious Party. Throughout that Knesset term he promoted an amendment to the Racism Law to deal with Kahane and his ideological path. During a Knesset debate in April 1986, Hammer said the struggle against Kahanism is a vital one for “our very moral existence, ... for the spiritual and Jewish image of the State of Israel and Israeli society.”
Chaim Herzog, Israel’s sixth president, took a singular step that he never repeated: When he consulted with party leaders after the election in the run-up to forming a new government, he refused to invite Kahane for a consultation. His argument was that the law did not require him to consult with representatives of all the parties. Kahane reacted violently: He tried to break into the President’s Residence to force Herzog to meet him, and even threatened him.
In response, the presidential bureau issued a statement that explained Herzog’s decision: “A program that champions racism, discrimination and the denial of rights runs contrary to the principles of the Torah of Israel and has no place in the Jewish state,” it said. The statement emphasized that Kahanism was “a phenomenon foreign to the spirit of Israel and completely contrary to all humane values of Judaism and Zionism.” Herzog’s forceful stance was a decisive point in the process of delegitimizing the Kach movement that eventually led to a change in the law that prevented him from running for Knesset again.
The feeling at the time was that this was a transient phenomenon that would disappear from our public and political world. But that turned out to be an illusion. Kahane was murdered in New York in 1990, but his students and successors did not disappear. Michael Ben-Ari, a devoted student of Kahane’s, served as an MK for the 18th Knesset’s full term, from 2009 to 2013, on behalf of the National Union Party. Before the election for the 21st Knesset (April 2019), the Supreme Court disqualified his candidacy on grounds that his actions and statements were incitement to racism.
- Far-right party leader Smotrich: 'Arabs are citizens of Israel, for now at least'
- A stain on the Knesset
- Kahane's Knesset legacy: If there's no Torah, the pigs will take over the country
Now there is another prominent representative of Kahanism in the Knesset – MK Itamar Ben-Gvir. He is a member of the Religious Zionism party, a name that insults the glorious tradition of religious Zionism. Unlike Kahane, Ben-Gvir is not being boycotted or considered a leper. On the contrary, he’s a kind of celebrity who runs from studio to studio.
Former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who was willing to do anything, including the abominable and the immoral, to retain his position and in particular his residence, was the one who turned Ben-Gvir into an acceptable, respectable figure. In practice, his support for Ben-Gvir boomeranged on him and prevented him from forming a new government — a kind of poetic justice.
Next month, Isaac Herzog will be sworn in as Israel’s 11th president. It would behoove him to study how his father, Chaim Herzog, battled Kahane and Kahanism, which at the time was a marginal phenomenon. Now it is far more central and dominant, and it’s important to know how to fight it.