Understanding Kahane

A new biography of Meir Kahane shows how integral he was to the American-Jewish story. Do recent events now show how integral he is becoming to the Israeli story?

With the ascent of Otzma Yehudit into Israel’s governing coalition, now may be the perfect time for Israelis to learn more about Meir Kahane. However, although Itamar Ben-Gvir was naturally on my mind as I read Shaul Magid’s impressively detailed and rigorous study of Kahane, the first thing that hit me was just how American Kahane was. At a time when his impact on Israeli politics seems greater than it ever was when he was alive, Magid reminds us that he was, first and foremost, an American Jew – with both his Jewishness and his understanding of politics shaped by the country of his birth.

Magid puts Kahane’s American experience at the center of the book. Kahane was still not 40 when he emigrated to Israel, yet four of the book’s six chapters focus on his relationship with American Jewry, American society, and with various radical political groups in that influenced his thinking – most notably (and intriguingly) the Black Power movement, which he also regarded as an antisemitic threat. And despite his aliyah in 1971, and his consistent claiming of fidelity to Israel, in Magid’s words, he was “a quintessential American.”

In Magid’s telling, Kahane deserves a place in any list of the most influential Jews in American history. He was ahead of his time, writing about the problems of intermarriage before it became one of the main existential issues of the mainstream Jewish establishment. He was an “’Israel right or wrong’ advocate before AIPAC,” and was warning about antisemitism from the ‘anti-racist’ and ‘anti-imperialist’ left while everyone else was focused on the far-right, many years before the threat from that side of the political map was widespread. Magid also claims that Kahane “argued for a Jewish turn toward conservatism a full decade before the rise of neo-conservatism,” but here (as later when discussing Kahane in Israel), the author betrays his own biases by being a little too eager to associate Kahane with more mainstream right-wing voices.

Magid begins the book with an anecdote about his encounter with a modern Orthodox man in his fifties, at a bat mitzvah in a large suburban synagogue. This gentleman, casually and with no hint that he was saying anything controversial, said: “everything Kahane said… He just should have said it in a nicer way.” For the author, this backs up his central claim: that not only should Kahane be understood, first and foremost, as an American Jew, but that he had a far greater impact on American Jewry than he is usually given credit for. For example, surprisingly, there is no mention of him at all in Jonathan Sarna’s ostensibly definitive, 600-page tome American Judaism.

Magid  thinks it does a disservice to American Jewish history to ignore Kahane; indeed, he forcefully argues that Kahane is integral to the American Jewish story. My question, as an Israeli reader with no personal connection to American Jewry is: is he now similarly integral to the Israeli story?

I met with former Likud MK and Justice Minister, Dan Meridor a couple of days after the election. Although we met to discuss other matters, the conversation was dominated by our mutual distress at the result. A long-time critic of Benjamin Netanyahu, Meridor’s expressed concern had always been the move away from the ‘liberal-nationalism’ of the Likud led by his former mentor Menachem Begin towards illiberalism, with the Supreme Court’s authority as a check on the majority under threat. So I was surprised to hear him focus not on that, but on Ben Gvir. What I had not realized was that Meridor, then a junior Likud MK, had been given the responsibility of collecting material on Kahane with a view to introducing a new law banning overtly racist political parties from running for election. As a result, he was one of the principal authorities on Kahane’s racist speeches and ideas – from referring to Arabs as ‘dogs’ in a speech in the mixed city of Acre, to demanding prison sentences for the ‘crime’ of sexual relations between Jews and Arabs.

This is why he views Ben Gvir’s entry into the government, and – at the time of writing – his likely appointment as a cabinet minister, as a 180-degree turn for Israel, and indeed for his old party the Likud. He referred to Netanyahu’s calculated efforts to prevent Ben Gvir’s Otzma Yehudit party from falling below the electoral threshold as “one of Bibi’s greatest crimes” (which, given that he is currently being prosecuted for three actual crimes, is quite a claim).

Magid’s book covers Kahane’s spell as an MK, mentioning a law he tried to pass in 1985, which aimed to strip Israeli Arabs of their citizenship, and the amendment to the Basic Law: Knesset which prevented his KACH party from running in the 1988 election (the fruit of Dan Meridor’s efforts among others). Magid states that the law “was clearly legislated for Kahane and KACH alone; it was never successfully invoked again.” He’s partly right. As Meridor attests, Kahane was indeed the impetus for the law, and no other entire party has ever been banned; however the Otzma Yehudit candidate Michael Ben Ari was prevented from running in 2019 because of his overt racism.

Unsurprisingly, Magid seems to suffer from the usual misunderstandings and misconceptions about the mainstream Israeli right that one encounters from left-leaning Diaspora Jews. For example: “Even then-prime minister Yitzhak Shamir… announced he would not allow KACH into a Likud-led coalition.” The “Even” is unjustified. Shamir was not the committed liberal that his predecessor Begin had been, nevertheless he was the Likud leader who authorized Meridor to compile evidence of Kahane’s racism, and it was Shamir who would lead his party out of the Knesset chamber whenever Kahane made a speech.

The book is most relevant to contemporary Israeli politics in its observations of Kahane’s relationship with the more mainstream Israeli religious right. Magid makes a compelling case that, despite our contemporary association of Kahanism with the most extreme activists in the settler movement, Kahane himself was actually fairly distinct from the territory-focused religious Zionism of Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook that became dominant after the Six-Day War. Unlike Kook, Kahane “did not view Judaism in cosmic terms but in material ones… This enabled him to lay claim to the land to the exclusion of all its other inhabitants, not as some kind of unfolding mystical drama but, more in line with a biblical world view, as a mandate for conquest.” Like his father, Rabbi Avraham Kook, the younger Kook looked forward to a messianic time of peace, where the Jews’ return to their land would lead to harmony for all its inhabitants. Kahane was certain this was illusory, and that non-Jewish inhabitants were better off leaving the land entirely. And while both Kooks viewed secular Zionism as their partner and the secular state as inherently holy, Kahane saw both as anti-Jewish disasters.

Magid: “Zionism, for the early Kahane, was not much more than an act of Jewish self-assertion… a path out of the exilic mentality of weakness and passivity.” After living in Israel for ten years or so, “Kahane becomes a prophet of doom who foresees the destruction of the Zionist project.” Kahane saw, in the secular Zionist state, the transplantation of the hated liberal Jewish establishment from the US into Israel. Notwithstanding the ostentatious flag-waving of today’s neo-Kahanists like Ben-Gvir, Kahane was essentially a post-Zionist in his later years.

The more one delves into Kahane’s thinking, the more it seems that the usual analogy with the European far-right or American white supremacists is the wrong one. A more accurate comparison might be revolutionary Islamism. Kahane is less the Jewish David Duke than the Jewish Sayyid Qutb – the Muslim Brotherhood leader who pushed that movement in a more violent and radical direction, ultimately spawning the myriad jihadist groups from Hamas to Al-Qaeda.

The way Kahane dismisses and derides secular Zionists is reminiscent of Qutb’s railings against secular Arab nationalists. Kahane, like Qutb, takes a particular interpretation of his religious teachings (authentic, but particular) and combines them with some secular ideas. So, just as Qutb’s intense antisemitism was not merely Islamic but borrowed from European antisemitism, so Kahane’s own racist views were informed by “the identity politics of postwar America, specifically black nationalism, that all congealed into a political theology of power and purity.”

Magid devotes the entirety of his final chapter to a study of Kahane’s last book, The Jewish Idea. It is here that Kahane clearly outlines the impossibility of a Jewish state being democratic, with the West’s liberal values posited as the antithesis of Judaism.

This brings us back to today’s Israel. The recent election, and perhaps the last few elections, have been contests not between left and right, but between competing notions of just what Israel should be: a Jewish nation-state, run according to liberal democratic principles; or a Jewish state where democracy is applicable only so far as it does not clash with the Jewish element – and certainly some on this side of the argument agree with Kahane that “Jewish” and “democratic” are basically irreconcilable. (There are of course also Arab parties and left-wing anti-Zionists who would agree with this claim.)

That a disciple of Kahane is about to be appointed an Israeli cabinet minister is less the triumph of Kahane’s peculiar theocratic thinking than the result of a perfect storm: the rise of secular illiberal nationalism on the Israeli right (as in parts of Europe and the United States), making the Likud far less allergic to Kahanism; the disappearance of the old mainstream National Religious Party, giving Bezalel Smotrich and Ben Gvir the opportunity to present themselves as the political home for religious Zionists; and – above all – the central figure of Netanyahu, and his personal interests. The Netanyahu of even five years ago (that is, before being charged with corruption) was too cautious, and sensitive to international opinion, to have been personally, openly involved in bringing Kahane’s political heirs out from the cold and into the Knesset. Today’s Bibi is a sworn enemy of the judiciary (which he once defended as a “pillar of our democracy”) and ‘liberal elites,’ and he desperately needs allies who will relish laying waste to these institutions and subverting democratic norms.

As part of his extensive coverage of Kahane’s period as an activist in the United States, Magid tells us that “the true enemy of the Jews for him was not the black militants or white supremacists. Those enemies could be dealt with rather easily; the real enemy for Kahane was Jewish liberalism.”  Those of us who define ourselves as Israeli liberals should be in no doubt that Ben Gvir and his followers see us as the enemy too. A sobering but clarifying thought as we consider how to relate to this incoming government.

*Shaul Magid, The Public Life and Private Thought of an American Jewish Radical, Princeton University Press,  2021, pp. 296.

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