Mondoweiss / July 17, 2022
Shaul Magid’s timely biography of Meir Kahane unpacks the radical leader who serves as an icon to the messianic religious Zionists now setting the agenda in Israel.
Meir Kahane – The Public Life and Political Thought of an American Jewish Radical
By Shaul Magid
296 pp. Princeton University Press, $35
Shaul Magid’s study of the life and ideology of Rabbi Meir Kahane is timely, coming at a moment when Israel is accelerating its subjugation of the Occupied Palestinian Territories and reinforcing the apartheid system within its UN-recognized borders. For the religious Israeli settlers who lead the charge, Kahane is a powerful icon of their apocalyptic brand of Zionism, even decades after his 1990 assassination. The graffito, “Kahane tzadak” – Kahane was right – “dots the Israeli landscape,” Magid writes.
A Dartmouth College professor of Jewish thought, Magid says he spent six years working on the book. During that time, people would ask why he was wasting his time on “such a despicable person, a thug, someone who is an embarrassment to the Jewish people.” Others told him they saw much merit in writing a “serious study,” or “agreed with everything Kahane said” but just wished he’d said it “in a nicer way.”
Neither an “apologia of Kahane,” nor a “diatribe” against him, the book is Magid’s “attempt to understand his worldview.” The irony is that Kahane’s worldview is exceedingly easy to understand: Jews must forever rule the Promised Land. Kahane’s “vision of Jewishness, and later Judaism,” which Magid meticulously presents, was really a gross caricature of both. But then the same might be said of Zionism, from its inception in Theodor Herzl’s glorified pamphlet, “Der Judenstaat” — albeit a Jewish nationalism articulated “in a nicer way.”
Kahane’s life verged on caricature. His whole performative, speechifying existence was an embodiment of the “New Jew,” who needed to replace both the stereotypical, beaten-down, religious “Old Jew” of the Diaspora and the Holocaust, and the “normalized,” secular, generally atheist, New Jew of Herzlian Zionism. Kahane melded secular Zionists’ exclusive focus on gaining political dominance in Palestine-Israel, with Orthodox Judaism’s belief that God loves the Jews more than all other peoples and gave the Land of Israel to zealous Jews in perpetuity. Kahane condemned secular Zionists for abandoning the Jewish God for humanism and science. He condemned most religious Jews for — in his view — being influenced by the power of gentiles and the allure of their cultures and thus shirking their duty to ruthlessly redeem the Promised Land by ridding it of Arabs.
Because Kahane’s thinking was so black-and-white, with a stunning ability to reduce everyone else to caricatures, Magid’s full-dress, scholarly presentation of his underlying thoughts does a great service. His learned, lively, and frank presentation of Kahane’s ideas and attitudes spares readers the need to wade through the man’s many writings. Even better, it offers critics a cache of Kahane’s devastating quotes, with which they can expose the inhumanity of Israel’s ideology as expressed by a true believer.
Anti-Zionists can find in the book many choice expressions of Zionism in its most virulent form, as Kahane explains how any attempts by Israel to be a normal nation, “like all the other nations,” offend against Zionism’s requirements of “Jewish exclusivity, dominance and power.” Over time, Magid says, Kahane rejected “every existing political expression of Zionism” in favor of his own cruder formulations. Anti-Zionists can appropriate the zingers Kahane launched against more circumspect Zionists: for example, his withering exposure of the “clear intellectual, ideological, and philosophical contradiction between Zionism and western democracy.” He mocks the “mindboggling schizophrenia” of Israel’s Declaration of Independence when it “pledges, promises and guarantees ‘equal political and social rights to all its citizens regardless of nationality,’” while codifying the supremacy of Israel’s Jews over all other inhabitants.
In a truly delightful footnote, Magid recounts a 1985 debate where Kahane neatly skewered Alan Dershowitz, asking him:
“Do you want your daughter to marry a Jew?”
Dershowitz — “Yes.”
Kahane — “Is it because of halakah [a religious duty]?”
Dershowitz — “No.”
Kahane — “Then, Professor Dershowitz, you are a racist.”
The kicker in this exchange is that criminalizing Jewish-Arab dating was one of Kahane’s top legislative priorities. The key to his positions was the claim that they came not from any human mind but direct from God-given, millennial, Jewish religion (which he carefully curated to feature only the most intolerant and violent ravings, and mighty deeds of the prophets). Speaking “prophetically” gave him license to take the most outrageous stands. Indeed, the more outrageous a stance was from a conventional, rational standpoint, the more authentic and glorious it seemed.
To Kahane, Israel was and should be “abnormal” (and getting less normal all the time, critics might add). Israel shouldn’t worry about being isolated on the international scene because, “The greater the isolation of the Jew, the greater the awe of G_d’s ultimate victory.” How isolated should Israel be? Magid tells us Kahane treated democracy in Israel as a “foreign implant, likened to … idolatry,” and “advocated uprooting Christian churches in Jerusalem.” So far, no Israeli leader has had the nerve to undertake such moves. As Magid relates, even Kahane’s disciples, in the decades since his death, have soft-pedaled the riskier provocations of their prophet. In their view, no doubt, it’s not yet time to really take on the secular Jews of Israel, but Kahane, at least in his preachments, gave them no quarter.
Born in 1932, Kahane first broke onto the political scene in his native New York, where he founded the Jewish Defense League in the late 1960s. JDL members physically attacked Blacks and others for allegedly intimidating and assaulting defenseless Jews, and later bombed Soviet offices in the U.S. as their way of supporting Soviet Jewry. Only after he moved to Israel in 1971 did Kahane’s 13 years of religious studies burst into bloom, Magid says.
To grasp the brutality of Kahane’s vision, one should remember that his most famous disciple – American Israeli physician Baruch Goldstein – followed Kahane’s teaching in 1994, when he slaughtered 29 men and boys at prayer in the Ibrahimi Mosque in Hebron and wounded over 100 more. The depth and breadth of support for Kahane’s vision has been evident in the honor Goldstein’s action won in Israel and Goldstein’s status, to this day, as a deeply venerated martyr of the Jews’ struggle to fulfill their supposedly God-given, Zionist destiny in the Promised Land.
While Kahane’s thoughts are easy to understand, Magid’s are not. Rather, he exercises the scholar’s privilege of keeping his own views off the page. He never discloses his position on Zionism. And yet, his introduction is full of intriguing hints at the impact he hopes the book can have on the thinking of fellow Jews (the book is directed at a Jewish audience): “Kahane makes most Jews uncomfortable, and rightfully so,” Magid writes, “and yet … he remains very much inside the Jewish psyche.” He is “the Jew whom Jews would like to forget, and yet he keeps coming back to haunt us.” Moreover, Kahane’s “ideas, even as they were presented in provocative and often ugly ways, do in fact cohere with a perspective of Jewish history, religion, and political life.” Magid admits that “the seeds of Kahane’s chauvinist vision … constitute a dark side of Judaism,” but “wagers” that “there is no getting beyond Kahane except through him” – and promises to expose the “weaknesses” of Kahane’s worldview. This exercise, he suggests, may show that “one of the most shunned and maligned [figures] in recent Jewish history may unwittingly stand at the very center of Jews’ continuing struggle to understand their place in history.”
Yet Magid’s portrait doesn’t really disturb the conventional image of Kahane as an unhinged outsider, who horrified and outraged most Jewish Israelis and died a violent death – but whose ideas, sadly, live on in the minds of fringe elements of Israeli society. That image allows people to cling to the unsound notion that settler cruelties toward Palestinians are the aberrations of extremists of whom the state disapproves and whom it will eventually restrain.
Magid chooses not to point out the gross, fundamentalist distortions of Kahane’s view of Jewish history, religion, and politics. Rabbi Kahane constantly cited Jewish scripture that celebrates the legend of an ancient, God-driven Hebrew invasion and lethal purification of the Promised Land to illustrate his view of Jews’ sacred, never-changing Zionist destiny. But the invasion recounted in the Bible never happened. The xenophobic conquest texts, when they originated, had spiritual functions that didn’t center on their historical veracity or their political significance. In the vast span of their history, Jews have almost always lived peacefully among non-Jews and surrounded by stronger non-Jewish powers — and yet they elaborated a great and fertile religion and a rich variety of Jewish cultures. The closest Jews ever came to following Kahanist precepts was during the four catastrophic years in C.E. 66-70 (with a coda in 132-35) when Jewish “Zealots” waged a revolution against the Jewish establishment, and the Roman Empire, which proceeded to obliterate Judea and the Judeans’ Temple-based religious practices.
Magid does point out that Kahane used religion not in a spiritual way but “as a means toward identarian ends” and selected only texts he could interpret to support war on the Arabs and on any Jews who didn’t enlist. Despite being a rabbi himself, however, Magid does little to point out the greater — and far richer — mass of Jewish scripture and theology that points away from xenophobia and conflict. This omission can make Judaism seem like a tenable basis for Kahane’s ideology and might lead some readers to conclude that the religion is as hateful as the distorted version that he preached to promote his political agenda for Israel.
More striking is Magid’s suggestion that Israel’s leaders rejected Kahane’s prescriptions. Their Zionism, he writes, instead, “has chosen the path of conciliatory modernity that included liberalism, democracy, and equality for the Arab.” This lets run-of-the-mill Zionists off the hook for the illiberal, undemocratic, and unequal reality that Israel has always imposed on the Palestinians and that has intensified in recent years. Other Zionists may steer clear of Kahane’s rhetoric and act more cautiously for tactical reasons, but in the end, they are content to enjoy the results of Kahanism. To describe Kahane at length without a more explicit critical commentary of his influence undermines Magid’s promise to guide readers “through” Kahane, so as to “get beyond” him.
In the book’s concluding chapter, Magid further sets Kahane apart from Israel’s establishment by arguing that, in his last years, he moved “out of Zionism to something darker and more pernicious,” which Magid labels “militant post-Zionist apocalypticism.” This puts Kahane in a sui generis category, which contradicts Magid’s assertions that Kahane’s ideas lurk deep in the “Jewish psyche,” and at the “very center” of the Jewish self-understanding. If Kahane was not a Zionist, then what was he, and what is his relevance to Zionism and the struggles against it? The term “post-Zionist” isn’t helpful as it is devoid of content. Moreover, there’s no indication that Kahane abandoned the core Zionist purpose of gaining Jewish control of as much of Palestine as possible with as few Palestinians as possible remaining in the country.
Most important, Israeli Zionists have never considered him as anything other than a Zionist, no matter how much he offended them. As reckless, fanatical, and obnoxious as Kahane was — Magid says he was a virtual pariah after his expulsion from the Knesset in the late ’80s, under a law barring parties that incite racism — Kahane was never disowned. His funeral was one of the largest in Israel’s history and featured eulogies by “many respected figures.” The funeral of his disciple, the mass murderer Baruch Goldstein, was also huge, with the government blocking some of Jerusalem’s busiest streets in Goldstein’s honor, as well as providing a military guard of honor at his elaborate gravesite — facts Magid does not mention, although he does note that Goldstein’s genocidal act carried out Kahane’s “idea of violence as sanctification.” (The Goldstein funeral is covered by Israel Shahak and Norton Mezvinsky in their book “Jewish Fundamentalism in Israel.”)
Considering the 30 years of Israel’s history since Kahane died, his “militant apocalypticism” seems to have anticipated the dramatic rise of extremist religious Zionism, which now sets the agenda for the country. Magid has sensed that Kahane is more relevant than ever. It’s a pity that he did not warn readers that Kahanism, while not the sacred destiny of the Jewish people, is fast becoming the dark destiny of Israel.
Steve France is a retired journalist and lawyer in the DC area