Meir Kahane

Kahane, Meir 1932-1990

American-born Israeli vigilante and political activist


Cohen-Almagor, Raphael, The Boundaries of Liberty and Tolerance: The Struggle against Kahanism in Israel, Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1994

Dolgin, Janet L., Jewish Identity and the JDL, Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1977

Friedman, Robert I., The False Prophet: Rabbi .Meir Kahane, from FBI Informant to Knesset Member, Brooklyn, New York: Lawrence Hill, and London: Faber and Faber, 1990

Mergui, Raphael, Meir Kahane: Le rabbin qui fait peur aux juifs, 1985; translated by Philippe Simonnot as Israel’s Ayatollahs: Meir Kahane and the Far Right in Israel, London and Atlantic Highlands, New Jersey: Saqi, 1987

Shamir, Michal, “Kach and the Limits to Political Tolerance in Israel” in Israel’s Odd Couple: The 1984 Knesset Elections and the National Unity Government, edited by Daniel Judah Elazar and Shmuel Sandler, Detroit, Michigan: Wayne State University Press, 1990

Sprinzak, Ehud, The Ascendance of Israel’s Radical Right, New York: Oxford University Press, 1991


Meir Kahane was born Martin David Kahane into a rabbinical yet highly nationalist family. His father adhered to Revisionist Zionism rather than the more moderate Religious Zionism of the Mizrachi movement. Kahane grew up in the subculture of Betar, the Revisionist Zionist youth group, and idolized its founder, Vladimir Ze’ev Jabotinsky, the archetypal fin de siècle Jewish intellectual. Jabotinsky had been a role model for a generation of youth including Menahem Begin and Avraham Stern. His advocacy of a proud nationalism, his celebration of military prowess, his promotion of hadar (“dignity”) and ritual, and his elevation of individualism attracted them. Betar, however, had become far more radical than its mentor and was heavily influenced by a Zionist far right as well as the authoritarianism of statist European regimes of the 1930s. Kahane’s coming of age coincided with the revelations of the Holocaust and the struggle for an independent Jewish state. All of this helped to forge a social container for his insecurities and aimlessness, endowing him with a sense of purpose as well as delusions of political grandeur.

FRIEDMAN documents these early years in a revealing account in the tradition of investigative journalism. Friedman is particularly illuminating in detailing Kahane’s alternate life as the bareheaded, secular Michael King, provider of information for the Federal Bureau of Investigation and intrepid sexual explorer. Friedman also documents the sources of financial support for Kahane’s activities and projects, including the comedian Jackie Mason and New York’s Syrian Jewish community.

It was perhaps his admiration for Jabotinsky that drew Kahane toward the world of journalism and polemicism. In the 1960s he began a long association with the ultraorthodox, far-right Brooklyn-based Jewish Press. His regular broadsides against liberals, leftists, assimilationists, secularists, opponents of orthodoxy, and perceived enemies of the Jewish people made a significant contribution in developing the paper’s popular appeal.

Half of MERGUIrs journalistic account is devoted to a long interview with Kahane, concentrating in particular on Kahane’s views on Israel as a Torah state and his assertion that Judaism and democratic values are in opposition. In the 1980s Kahane wrote several tracts on relations between Jews and non-Jews, but long before, in 1968, he had founded the Jewish Defence League (JDL) in response to an explosion of black militancy with its demand for affirmative action and community control.

Kahane’s talent for public relations and the marketing of images and slogans as well as the vigilante character of the JDL attracted large numbers of youth. It propelled Kahane and his approach into the national arena and offered a magnetic alternative to the pedestrianism of the Jewish establishment. DOLGIN argues cogently that this approach provided a way of life, a mindset, and an identity for many disaffected young Jews from a variety of backgrounds. By 1970 the JDL had embarked on a campaign of hit-and-run violence, which included plans to bomb Soviet institutions and black community centers, assassinations of PLO officials, and the hijacking of an Egyptian airliner. The retaliation by the authorities to these events led many members of the JDL, including Kahane, to depart for Israel.

SPRINZAK’s book on the Israeli far right contains the best analysis in English of Kahane’s sojourn in Israel and his Kach party. Sprinzak writes that Kahane was able to “attract bitter and insecure people who project a sense of failure: failure in the Israeli economy, failure to identify with the nation’s symbols of legitimacy.” Sprinzak examines Kahane’s theory of revenge and the call for Jewish isolationism, catastrophic mes-sianism., xenophobia, social Darwinism, and racist symbolism. Kahane’s election to the Knesset in 1984 came at a time when the idea of “transferring” the Palestinians out of Israel and the West Bank was beginning to gain political credence. SHAMIR details the political constellation of social forces in the 1984 election, which permitted Kach—a quasi-fascist movement, according to Sprinzak—to gain national legitimacy with a seat in the Knesset. Although opinion polls indicated growing support for Kahane, the Central Elections Committee disqualified Kach two weeks before the 1988 election. This move relegated Kach once more to a vociferous extra-parliamentary group. Even so, its activities in the 1980s aroused the increasing concern of intellectuals and educators who viewed Kahanism as a racist pollutant in Israeli life. These activities also provoked profound discussions in legal circles on the status of such a movement in the Jewish state, an issue that COHEN-ALMAGOR expounds at length. As all non-hagiographic studies indicate, Kahane was an unstable figure who did not possess the intelligence of Jabotinsky or the political ability of Begin. Despite his undeniable charm, Kahane exuded a propensity to fantasize and possessed an inability to work as a team player. Inevitably, he disagreed and argued with those who could have assisted him and his movement to gain legitimacy and power.


Reader’s Guide to Judaism (Chicago 2000)


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