Itamar Ben-Gvir heads an Israeli political party called Jewish Power. Ben-Gvir is the best-known face, the most strident voice, in the far-right alliance that scored a stunning success in Israel’s latest election and is set to fill an outsized role in Benjamin Netanyahu’s new government. The party’s name tells a great deal about its personality and history. It points to Jewish Power’s roots in the diaspora insecurities and fantasies of the late, unlamentable Meir Kahane. Paradoxically, the demand for power shows the inability to see that Jews already have power, that Zionism succeeded. It demonstrates that the old Israeli lament—you can take the Jew out of exile, but it’s hard to get exile out of the Jew—best fits the mindset of the Jewish radical right.
Go back to March 31, 1971, when Kahane, the founder and leader of the Jewish Defense League (JDL), spoke to an audience of 700 at a major Reform temple in Los Angeles. He was a glib speaker, with the charisma of rage. “If your Bible says, ‘Turn the other cheek,’ you’re reading the wrong Bible,” he proclaimed, promoting what could best be called shtarker Judaism. The prominent venue showed how he fascinated at least part of comfortable American Jewry. Outside, a small group of Jewish student leftists protested his presence.
The date comes from Kahane’s FBI file. The quote comes from my memory. I was there, as a teen satisfying omnivorous curiosity. It was there that I first saw pins with the JDL logo: an upraised fist against the background of a blue Star of David.
Before starting the JDL, Kahane had been a pro-Vietnam War and anti-communist propagandist. He was clearly on the U.S. political right. Yet the fist symbol was copied from the Black Power salute, just as JDL’s name was cribbed from the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense. He mimicked the Panthers’ vigilante imagery as well. Kahane thereby offered his followers entree to radical chic, not as liberal hangers-on of Black radicals, but as Jewish Panthers. To heighten the appeal, he emphasized diaspora powerlessness—exploiting the memory of the Holocaust and of U.S. Jewry’s inability to prevent it. Then he offered his answer: an ideology that made violence a value, a sanctification of God’s name.
A JDL-linked terror attack in Manhattan in 1972 left a woman dead and led to the JDL’s decline. By then, though, Kahane had moved to Israel. There he founded the Kach party, whose symbol was also an upraised fist. Kahane called for destroying the mosques on the Temple Mount, for annexing the occupied territories and for expelling all Arabs from the enlarged state.
Besides racism, the root of his ravings was the deep sense of powerlessness he’d carried with him from New York and the resultant fantasy of what he would do, what Jews could do, if only they had power. Which brings us to the irony: Kahane brought his neurosis about power to Israel—where Jews have had sovereign power since 1948, not as a fantasy but as a practical reality. There were Zionist thinkers who dreamed of unbridled power—especially on the right, and especially before Israel existed. They expressed it most of all in territorial fantasies about a Jewish state, or kingdom, that would stretch to the Euphrates or beyond. For instance, the Etzel underground, ideological forebear of today’s Likud, demanded to settle for nothing less than a state including all of present-day Jordan.
Israel’s founders, on the other hand, were pragmatists. They accepted the UN partition plan and later the 1949 armistice lines. They understood that a real state must live within practical and moral limitations. They realized that a small country would always need great-power allies and that alliances restricted its freedom of action. They saw the need for a strong military—and insisted it observe ethical constraints.
Israeli governments have sometimes forgotten those limits. The acute case was the attempt to remake Lebanon in 1982. The chronic case has been believing it possible to rule indefinitely over the Palestinians. Nonetheless, the experience of actual, realized Zionism is that power comes with compromise and restraint.
Kahane served one term in the Knesset, was banned from running again because of his racism and was murdered in 1990. His followers, now led by Ben-Gvir, created the Jewish Power party, with a program cosmetically cleaned up just enough to avoid being banned. Instead of urging expulsion of Arabs, Ben-Gvir speaks of encouraging emigration of “enemies.” He has consistently objected to disciplining soldiers for violence against civilians.
Underlying the ideas is the old Kahanist neurosis: the refusal to see that Jews already have power, the delusion that compromise and constraint are wimpishness, the fantasy of ending restraint. How Ben-Gvir and his associates will behave in positions of actual power remains to be seen. But the prospects are terrifying.
Gershom Gorenberg’s latest book is War of Shadows: Codebreakers, Spies and the Secret Struggle to Drive the Nazis from the Middle East.
Opening picture: Minister of National Security Itamar Ben-Gvir. Photo credit: David Denberg via Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 3.0)
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