The long shadow of Meir Kahane

Meir Kahane, founder of the Jewish Defense League (JDL), an American far-right militant group that once had 15,000 members, is now best known as a marginal and unsavory provocateur. After years of promoting Jewish assertiveness, attacking liberal city mayors and black radicals for suspected anti-Semitism, and defending the interests of Soviet Jews, Kahane was convicted of manufacturing explosives in 1971, and he immigrated to Israel in disgrace. There he fought to build a new political movement; although he was elected to the Knesset in 1984, he was banned from standing for re-election to have racist views. When he was murdered in a Manhattan hotel in 1990, he was at the lowest point of his career. Today, the right-wing activist and politician receives not even a single mention in prominent American Jewish historian Jonathan Sarna canonical history American Jews.

Yet recently the Jewish right has strengthened in Israel and the United States, returning Kahane’s name to the securities. Israeli politician Itamar Ben-Gvir, who was educated at the Kahanist youth movement and calls Kahane “a holy man” was elected to the Knesset in March. In the United States, the vulgarity and street violence of Jewish Trumpist Law recalls Kahane’s own tactics. Young Orthodox men spurred on by right-wing radio host Heshy Tischler last year assaulted an Orthodox Jewish journalist for covering their resistance to coronavirus restrictions.

But in his new book, Meir Kahane: The Public Life and Political Thought of an American Jewish Radical, Jewish studies scholar Shaul Magid argues that Kahane’s philosophy is not resurgent, but rather present from the start, and not just on the far right. Magid argues that even when Kahane was shunned and the JDL’s violent and gaudy tactics fell out of favor, his ideas remained hugely influential. Kahane helped reshape the hold of the postwar liberal consensus on American Jewry by emphasizing Jewish difference and highlighting conflicts between liberal values ​​and specifically Jewish interests. While Jewish liberalism tends to tell its own story as progress within a stable and contained system, Kahane’s legacy in Magid’s narrative demonstrates how the current dominant consensus is in fact the product of enormous unrest and radicalism on both sides. Placing Kahane’s life and voluminous writings in the context of the cultural and political radicalism of the 1960s and 1970s, Magid argues that Kahane was a systematic and interesting thinker, whose critique of postwar American liberalism is more convincing than no one recognized him.

I spoke with Magid about Kahane’s critique of liberalism, why his ideas appeal to the far right in Israel today, and how he helped change the way mainstream Jewish institutions view issues like the anti-Semitism, mixed marriages and “Jewish continuity”. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Raphaël Magarik:
Why did you decide to write a book about Meir Kahane?

Shaul Magid: One of my Masters students decided he wanted to do his thesis on Kahane, so we met and went through his entire body of work. I hadn’t realized how huge it was, there is so much going on here! Kahane’s detractors generally see him as a thug who has no serious thoughts. And it doesn’t seem like his followers read it so carefully, either; there is a cult of personality. But as I read it, I decided there was a cohesive worldview. He even provided an interesting critique of right-wing liberalism which in many ways overlaps with a critique of left-wing liberalism.

RM: What was Kahane’s critique of American liberalism?

SM: Kahane embraced the idea that liberalism was the death knell for American Judaism because it provided no safeguards to prevent assimilation. [which would also eliminate Jewish difference]. It’s an anti-assimilationist argument, but in the same way the Black Panthers were anti-integrationists. In 1963, Malcolm X gave this famous “coffee and cream” speech, in which he argued that for blacks, integration into white America is truly the erasure of darkness. And Kahane felt the same about Jewishness. So, in a certain sense, he was one of the early advocates of what he called “Jewish survivalism“, which we now call “Jewish continuity” – and which in fact became part of it. liberal Jewish agenda.

RM: What other elements of Kahanism have been “integrated”?

SM: All the anxiety about mixed marriages. Worrying about mixed marriages has become the main project of the American Jewish community! Kahane wrote a book on the subject in 1974 when very few American Jewish leaders wrote about it – he knew the crisis was coming. Also, the reluctance to distinguish between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism, which is a huge problem now. Kahane felt [the two were the same] after 1967, even when most American Jews still felt there was a distinction. And then also the growing anxiety about eternal anti-Semitism in America: American Jewry is less convinced than it was 50 years ago that it does have a solid future in America. Kahane was instinctively able to isolate the challenges of American liberal life.

Kahane is for me almost what [17th-century rabbi and self-proclaimed messiah] Shabtai Tzvi was for [scholar of Jewish mysticism] Gershom Scholem. Here is a heretical type who was not particularly educated, who has an incredible impact on everything that comes after him, even for people who don’t know who he is. Scholem said that Shabbat [the movement that emerged around Tzvi] filters through all of modern Judaism in all kinds of ways. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that about Kahane. But while there is an attempt to erase Kahane from American Jewish history – he’s persona non grata, and he’s a crazy guy – I can hear Abraham Foxman, when he was still in Anti-Defamation. League, say the exact same things Kahane said.

RM: The book argues that Kahane is very American. There is a telling line in the JDL Manifesto, where it says, “The Jewish Defense League was created, because we believe the American Dream is worth saving, and can be saved. What does he mean by that?

SM: Surprisingly, given his subsequent move to Israel, he firmly believed in America as a project for the Jews. He considered America the best country for Jews in the history of Jewish civilization. And this democracy in America was the largest democracy in the world. In his book on the Vietnam War, he says that if America lost this war, there would be a spike in anti-Semitism: it absorbs the anti-communism of the 1950s.

Many other American Jews, many of whom were immigrants or survivors, said, “Don’t worry, things here are no different from what they were in Poland. But Kahane said, “No, America is a different place for Jews, and we have a different kind of role to play. This is also true of the New Left and a whole generation of Jews who felt American enough to stand up as Jews and protest America. There is a certain similarity between Kahane and someone like [Chicago Seven activist] Abbie Hoffmann. When Abbie Hoffman was asked what he thought of Kahane, her response was, “I agree with his tactics, but I disagree with his goals.”

That’s why I think Kahane fails in Israel. He thinks in very American categories. He comes to Israel, and all of a sudden he wants to legislate a ban on Arab-Jewish dating, and everyone says, “Whatever, we’re the majority; we are not worried about mixed marriages. He could not go from being a minority to being a majority. In addition, he had a very American vision of democracy. For him, there is only one type of democracy: liberal democracy. Everyone should have the same rights. This is why, for Kahane, Israel cannot be a democracy. He cannot understand the idea of ​​an “ethnic democracy”. In one of his books, he says that for Israel to be a Jewish state, it cannot be a democratic state.

RM: You describe Kahane as a post-Zionist thinker later in life. Why do you see it that way?

SM: He feels that Israel has fallen victim to liberalism, in the same way that the American Jewish community has fallen into liberalism, and the Ashkenazi liberal elite is in power and defining the project. For him, Zionism is Kahanism; there is no other legitimate type of Zionism. But of course his Zionism is rejected, because of the Racism Law. So he comes back and says, “Oh, you call me a racist, but secular Zionists are the real racists. Because I believe that God gave the Torah to the Jews and said, “This is your land”, but if you don’t believe that then you are just a racist, are you?

RM: When it comes to Kahane’s legacy on the Israeli right, you write about this marriage in religious Zionist thought today between a messianic, utopian, mystical view and stubborn, rationalist, and non-utopian neo-Kahanism. . Why has Kahane’s worldview become an integral aspect of the movement in recent years?

SM: It’s easy for a romantic movement to be nonviolent when the story is running its course. After 1967 [Israel’s military conquest of the West Bank and Gaza] and [right-wing Israeli Prime Minister Menachem] Begin’s victory in 1977, the colonization project becomes part of the national interest. The settler movement does not need to be violent; the state does the work for them. After Oslo and the peace process, the [evacuation of the settlement of] Yamit in 1979, then the withdrawal from Gaza, once things start to go in the opposite direction, that’s where militarism is just waiting for it. Religious Zionism will always have a militant component that activates when the state begins to work against its goal. The more peace process you have, the more Kahanism will be activated within the religious Zionist movement. If you start to have a real withdrawal of thousands of settlers, then that will take center stage.

RM: It’s strange. Precisely as Kahane’s thought seeps into the mainstream, he declines as a charismatic individual leader, becoming a marginal figure.

SM: After 1987 Israel rejected him, and no one in America will let him speak. In his correspondence with Rabbi Avi Weiss, his very pathetic letters are like: “Find me a place to give a lecture, no one will invite me.” The irony is that as it descends into darkness, ideas start to take hold, both in America and in Israel. And, 30 years later, there are Kahanists in the Israeli Knesset.

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