Meir Kahane: The Public Life and Political Thought of an American Jewish Radical
By Shaul Magid
Princeton; 296 pp.; $35.00
For liberal supporters of Israel, the unresolved status of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza presents a dilemma: a choice between a single state with so many Arab citizens as to inevitably dilute the Jewish character of the country, or the insistence of control over but denial of equal rights to millions of Palestinians, diluting if not destroying Israel’s democratic character. Jewishness or democracy?
For Meir Kahane, the subject of Shaul Magid’s new book, the choice was simple—and central to his vision for Israel and the Jews. Kahane was the Orthodox rabbi from Brooklyn who founded the Jewish Defense League (JDL), agitated in support of Soviet Jewry, then emigrated to Israel, where he won a seat in the Knesset only to be ousted under an antiracism law clearly aimed at him. He was prosecuted for domestic terrorism in both the U.S. and Israel and returned to New York, where he was assassinated in 1990 while giving a speech. Both alive and dead, he inspired some Jews—terrorists among them—with his extreme version of Jewish exceptionalism.
Kahane’s take on democracy versus Jewishness is evident in this passage, cited by Magid, from one of Kahane’s many books, Our Challenge The Chosen Land:
“If we are chosen, then we are a certain kind of people with a certain role, and a certain kind of state. There is a Chosen People, a chosen land, a chosen state, and a chosen destiny. . . The normal rules of nationhood and statehood do not apply.” As Kahane understood it, Jewishness is essential. Democracy is an alien, Hellenic idea and an obstacle to the reestablishment of biblical governance. As Magid writes, that would include such biblical ideas as “conquest, revenge and purification—ideas that the rabbis of exilic times denuded, softened, and contextualized.”
The publication of Magid’s study of Kahane’s politics is one of several reasons for having Kahane on the mind these days, three decades after his death. Although Kahane was banned by the Israeli establishment for racism and imprisoned for plotting to blow up the Dome of the Rock, the Muslim holy site on the Temple Mount, former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu flirted with a small party of Kahane’s admirers this past spring in his failed effort to remain in office. More broadly, the pugnacious nationalism that made Kahane seem an outlier in his day is now in vogue in world capitals from Moscow and Manila to Budapest and Brasilia.
Kahane was a pariah to both the American Jewish establishment (which he loathed) and the Israeli Zionist establishment (which he came to loathe equally) and yet, as Magid notes, his 1990 funeral in Israel was attended by 150,000 people. In trying to assess Kahane’s political significance, Magid stresses the rabbi’s Brooklyn days. As Yossi Klein Halevi described in his 1995 Memoirs of a Jewish Extremist, Kahane’s militancy, the JDL’s street-fighting approach to neighborhood antisemitism, its harassment of Soviet diplomats and touring artists on behalf of Soviet Jewry and its sit-in protests, which led to arrests, imbued Kahane’s young followers with pride in their Jewishness and the excitement of being in on conspiratorial plots.
Kahane’s allure to young men like Klein Halevi (who later broke with Kahane and his politics in Israel) leads Magid to place Kahane among strange bedfellows.
“Kahane’s Jewish radicalism,” he writes, “is an untold chapter in the radicalism of race, ethnicity and identity politics in the 1960s and 1970s. Kahane should be placed alongside Malcolm X and Stokely Carmichael.” Throughout Meir Kahane: The Public Life and Political Thought of an American Jewish Radical, Magid finds parallels between the JDL and such radical groups as the Black Panthers and the Weather Underground.
In some ways, Magid’s taxonomy works. Like other radical groups, the JDL disdained liberalism: Its aim was not to fight injustice by supporting universal principles of justice, but to advance the cause of its own group, the fate of others be damned. From its origins as a neighborhood-crime- fighting vigilante group to its mission disrupting Soviet cultural activities in the name of liberating Soviet Jews (which included bombing the Soviet Mission to the UN), the JDL used violence and the threat of violence in the hopes of both awakening public opinion and building up Jewish pride. Like the Black Panthers, Kahane had given up on the ideal of an American melting pot of nationalities. He welcomed comparisons of his group to the Panthers (the JDL logo, a clenched fist, was an imitation of the Panthers’ logo) despite what Magid documents as Kahane’s undeniable racism.
JDL used violence in the hopes of both awakening public opinion and building up Jewish pride.
Kahane’s aggrieved followers in the U.S. were inner-city Jews, left behind by their more successful neighbors who had fled to the security of prosperous suburbs. Those followers often came from Orthodox families of Holocaust survivors. They were terrified of violent crime in Brooklyn of the 1960s and 1970s, which was in fact frightening, and contemptuous of an assimilated Jewish establishment they felt had failed to act on behalf of European Jews and was failing them as well. In the years after the Six Day War of 1967, the international Left had largely taken the side of the Palestinians, confirming Kahane’s conviction that all gentiles were either blatantly or secretly antisemitic. In articles he wrote for the local Jewish paper, and in speeches, Kahane wove violent crime, Black nationalism and an indifferent Jewish establishment into omens of a Holocaust-to-come. A New York Times account of a 1970 Kahane speech describes him starting
“…in a quiet voice, explaining his view of the position of American Jews. Anti-Semitism, he says, is ‘exploding’ and the traditional Jewish organizations, he maintains, have failed to protect American Jews, particularly those middle class and lower class Jews who, he believes, are vulnerable to attack from black militants and radicals of the left…By the time he ends his address his voice is booming, ‘Never again.’”
In this dark world of “exploding” antisemitism, the teenage black mugger in Brooklyn’s Borough Park was a mounted Cossack, or an Auschwitz guard in the making, and the threat he posed was ignored by an Anti-Defamation League or an American Jewish Congress more concerned with the status of safe, prosperous Jews than the plight of less fortunate ones. One can hear echoes of these grievances in contemporary complaints that Hasidim in urban communities are targets of antisemitism and ignored by diversity-minded Democrats.
There are obvious problems, however, in lumping Kahane and the JDL together with the Panthers and the Weathermen. As Magid writes, Kahane’s movement was powered by his sense that Jews were “threatened by the radicalism of Black Nationalism and the lure of American assimilation.” The latter concern meant that Jewish material, cultural and professional success in America was seen as threatening to Jewish survival. By way of contrast, the Black Panthers may have been impatient with traditional civil rights groups, but they were not overly concerned with life getting too good for Black Americans living it up in Great Neck and Scarsdale. Kahane took a common Jewish concern—the fear of Jewish children “marrying out”—to extremes that did not find echoes on the radical left (he would later propose legislation in Israel to outlaw not just intermarriage but Jewish-Arab dating). The Weather Underground preferred sexual anarchy. Kahane was a public supporter of the Vietnam War, placing him in a relationship supportive of the political establishment that finds no parallel in contemporary far-left extremist groups.
Magid is guilty of tunnel vision when he writes that from 1965 to 1974, the period with which he is concerned, “almost all radical anti-liberalism was coming from the far left.” This ignores George Wallace’s presidential run in 1968, in which he carried five Southern states and won 13 percent of the national popular vote running as a symbol of racial segregation, an anti-liberal cause if ever there was one. Many of Wallace’s supporters shared Kahane’s obsession with “miscegenation,” his contempt for both Blacks and the political establishment, his promise of “law and order,” his militant anti-Communism and his support for the war in Indochina. Why not continue to classify Kahane in the same reactionary political phylum as Wallace and militant resisters to desegregation?
In Kahane’s later writings, after his failed career in Israeli politics, Magid charts the evolution of his view of violence. No longer just a warning to street-corner antisemitic bullies that young Jews would fight back, it became cloaked in a theology of sanctification that attracted a militant Israeli minority, people like Baruch Goldstein, who murdered 29 Muslim men and boys at prayer on the West Bank in 1994. Violence as sanctification, Magid writes, “is part of the modern eschatology of the later work of Goldstein’s mentor Kahane.”
The author concludes that Kahane was “a quintessential American Jew,” presumably affirming his place among the other American activists who founded extremist groups in the 1960s. But he seems a far more parochial figure than other American Jews of his time, even in Brooklyn. The “quintessential American Jews” of 1960s Brooklyn whom I knew felt less abandoned by the Anti-Defamation League than by Walter O’Malley, who moved the Dodgers to Los Angeles and ripped the heart out of the place. Kahane’s take on his own Jewishness was mired in the Holocaust and, although he was born in 1932 and grew up during World War II, he was seemingly unimpressed by the American war effort in which many Brooklyn Jews (like my father) served in the cause to defeat Hitler.
It is in Israel, not the U.S., where a political party honors his ideas and, to general alarm on the Left, emerged from purdah this year to be considered fit for coalition. It is in Kiryat Arba on the West Bank, not in Brooklyn, where there is a Kahane Park, adjacent to the tombstone of Baruch Goldstein, which a small Israeli minority honors as a holy site.
While Kahane was born and died in New York City, a diverse and cosmopolitan place, his life’s work never seemed to break out of a narrow religious orthodoxy and an angry grief over the Holocaust that left him obsessed with antisemitism. Kahane was the quintessential Kahane, I would say. Thankfully, we have seen very few others like him.
Robert Siegel is Moment’s special literary contributor.
Moment Magazine participates in the Amazon Associates program and earns money from qualifying purchases.