Though born and raised in the United States, Meir Kahane became one of the most controversial figures in Israeli politics in the 1980s. As the head of the Kach Party, he ran for and won a seat in the Israeli Knesset (legislature), by claiming to give voice to opinions no one else dared state aloud: that Jews should evict all Arabs from Israel and that a Jewish state need not be democratic. He was later banned from public office for promoting racism and opposing democracy. People from across the political spectrum denounced his views as dangerous, yet a substantial minority of Israeli voters expressed support for his views. When Kahane was assassinated in 1990, response to his death was as divided as it had been about his life.
"For Arabs and Jews of Eretz Yisrael there is only one answer: separation, Jews in their land, Arabs in theirs. Separation. Only separation."
Raised a radical
If ever there was a man born to be a political radical, it was Meir Kahane, whose family knew firsthand the difficulties of creating a nation for Jews. His grandfather had settled in Palestine in 1873, and his father, Charles, was born in the village of Safed in 1905. There, Charles developed a fervent belief in Zionism (the idea that Jews should form an independent Jewish state in Palestine). But the Kahanes were driven from Palestine during World War I (1914–18; a war in which Great Britain, France, the United States, and their allies defeated Germany, Austria-Hungary, and their allies), settling first in Eastern Europe, where Charles attended two prestigious yeshivas (schools for the study of the Torah, or Jewish holy scriptures) and was ordained a rabbi (the spiritual leader of a Jewish synagogue). In 1922, at the age of seventeen, Charles journeyed alone to the United States, where he settled in New York. Meir's mother, born Sonia Trainin, also took an indirect path to the United States. Born in Russia in 1909, she was the daughter of political radicals caught up in the Russian Revolution between 1917 and 1918. War drove them first to Latvia and then, in 1928, to New Jersey. Her father was intensely involved in local Jewish politics, and Sonia grew up as opinionated and energetic as she was intelligent. Charles and Sonia married around 1930 and settled down in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn to raise a family.
Martin David Kahane (he later adopted his Hebrew name, Meir) was born on August 1, 1932. On one hand, Kahane experienced a very normal suburban childhood, playing ping-pong and basketball with neighborhood boys and attending synagogue on Sundays. Yet the pressures in his family were often intense and conflicting. Kahane's parents were both hot-tempered and fought constantly. According to Kahane's biographer, Robert I. Friedman, author of The False Prophet: Rabbi Meir Kahane, from FBI Informant to Knesset Member, these pressures caused Kahane to develop a severe stuttering problem throughout grade school.
From nearly the moment he was born, Kahane was lavished with special attention, and his family had high expectations for him. According to an uncle, quoted by Friedman, Kahane's parents believed their son was "put on earth by God to save the Jewish people." Perhaps as a result of these expectations, Kahane developed an intense interest in religion. He was educated in Orthodox Jewish traditions in grade school and high school, and he soon developed strict ideas about interpreting religious standards. He wanted strict separation of men and women in the synagogue and once tried to ban dancing at a Jewish youth group. By the time he was a teenager Kahane was on his way to becoming a religious extremist.
Kahane developed into an opinionated, intense, and driven young man in his early teen years. He criticized the lack of rigor in the teachings at the Brooklyn Talmudical Academy, where he attended high school, and fired up his fellow students with his dramatic statements about his new favorite subject: the creation of a Jewish homeland in Palestine, the goal of the worldwide Zionist movement. By his senior year, Kahane had quit his Jewish high school to attend a local public school, a sign that he had diverted from the expectations of his parents.
A fiery mix of politics and religion
In 1946, the year he turned fourteen, Kahane joined a Zionist youth group called Betar. In Betar Kahane was trained in self-defense and prepared for the day when Jewish youths would become soldiers in the fight to create a Jewish nation in Palestine. Kahane, his brother, and his cousins threw themselves into Betar activities, packing guns to be shipped to Jews fighting in Palestine and joining in marches and protests in support of Zionism. Kahane's most notorious act as a member of Betar occurred in 1947. Kahane and several Betar members pelted the car of British foreign minister Ernest Bevin with eggs and tomatoes, in protest against a British policy of refusing to allow Jewish refugees from Europe to immigrate to Palestine. Police chased the boys and arrested Kahane, whose photo appeared in the newspaper. By the time he was seventeen, Kahane hoped to command his own wing of Betar. When his attempt to do so failed, Kahane quit, vowing to create his own Zionist group to promote a religiously "pure" Jewish state, meaning a state only for Orthodox Jews. It was to be a prophetic claim.
Kahane's dreams of political and religious activism fueled his higher education, which consumed much of his life from the late 1940s through most of the 1950s. He pursued studies to become a rabbi at Yeshiva Mirrer, an ultra-Orthodox Jewish seminary that had recently opened. Kahane was not a distinguished student; his interests were too diverse, his focus too scattered. But he was devout and hardworking, spending long hours at the school, and he eventually finished his studies. During the evenings he attended Brooklyn College, where he received a bachelor's degree in political science in 1954, and then New York Law School, where he earned a law degree in 1957. He failed in his one attempt to pass the New York State bar (a qualifying exam to become a lawyer), but later disclaimed any intentions of becoming a lawyer. In order to support his wife, Libby, whom he had married in 1956, Kahane took a job in 1958 as a rabbi at the Howard Beach Jewish Center in Queens, New York.
Kahane's time at Howard Beach was brief and stormy. The Howard Beach congregation was part of the Conservative Jewish movement, which followed a less strict interpretation of the Torah than did Orthodox Judaism. Kahane toned down his ultra-Orthodox religious views for the adults in his congregation, and he helped increase membership with his energetic leadership. At the same time, he fired up the youthful members at Howard Beach with dramatic stories of Jewish power and faith. Soon parents charged that he was brainwashing their children, turning them against their parents. Kahane was fired, but when he published an article in a local Jewish newspaper bragging about how he brought true religion to an ignorant congregation, Kahane became something of a hero in the local Orthodox community.
Betar was a militant youth group founded by one of the champions of Zionism, Vladimir Ze'v Jabotinsky (1880–1940). Banned from Palestine by British authorities in 1920 for leading uprisings against Arabs, Jabotinsky devoted himself to building support for Zionism in Jewish communities throughout the world. He was convinced that the only way to create a Jewish state was to claim it by force. Thus in 1923, in Riga, Latvia, he founded Betar to train young Jews in the skills they would need to claim and defend a Jewish state, but also to defend themselves against the anti-Semitism (hostility toward Jews) that they experienced in their own country.
In the years that followed, Betar groups formed in nations throughout Europe and, in 1940, in the United States. The U.S. branch of Betar was based in New York City, and it had a training camp in the nearby Catskill Mountains. Its members, numbering in the hundreds, learned self-defense and military tactics at the camp, and were schooled in Zionist claims about the need to fight for a Jewish state. During World War II (1939–45; war in which Great Britain, France, the Soviet Union, the United States, and their allies defeated Germany, Italy, and Japan), as news reached the United States about the massacre of Jews in German concentration camps, the need to take up arms became even more evident to Betar members. During the mid- and late 1940s, Betar members devoted themselves to smuggling weapons to Jewish groups fighting in Palestine. After the creation of Israel in 1948, Betar became even more vocal in its support of armed resistance against Israel's enemies. The organization still exists to this day.
Troubled relationship with Israel
In the years following his dismissal from Howard Beach, Kahane embarked on the odyssey that would eventually make him one of the most hated men in Israel. In 1962 Kahane abruptly left his family, which now included four children, and moved to Israel, where he lived first in the village of Hadera and then in a religious kibbutz in Sa'ad, near the Egyptian border. A kibbutz is a rural community where there is no private property, and members work together and share in the fruits of their labor. Kahane's experience in Israel was devastating: he struggled with Hebrew, his childhood stutter returning and drawing scorn; he offended Israelis with his arrogance and rough manners; and he failed to impress anyone with his understanding of religion. Though he bragged to his family that he had been accepted into the highest levels of the faith, in fact he returned home a few months later, deeply embarrassed but determined to return to Israel again as a success.
Kahane's activities over the next years can only be described as strange. He wrote articles for the magazine The Jewish Press, sold newspapers in the street, and then, in 1963, took the alias (false identity) of Michael King and began a second, secret life. Contrary to his professed beliefs, he discarded his yarmulke (a skullcap worn by Orthodox Jews) and engaged in a brief love affair with a Christian model named Gloria Jean D'Argenio. When he ended the affair, she committed suicide in a jump from the Queensboro Bridge that drew newspaper headlines. Also under the name of King, Kahane opened a consulting agency with a friend, Joseph Churba, offering to spy and gather intelligence for federal agencies. The two engaged in a range of deceptive plots to earn money. Kahane posed as an influential political player, and his company won job contracts with the U.S. government. Under this agency, Kahane and his partner wrote papers, encouraged actions supportive of U.S. efforts in the Vietnam War (1954–75; a war in which the United States fought communists in the north of Vietnam to keep them from taking over the south) and, not surprisingly, endorsed U.S. support for Israel. Kahane later claimed that he was employed by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), though FBI officials insisted to Friedman that Kahane was merely an informant. One of Kahane's last actions as Michael King was to author, along with Churba, a book titled The Jewish Stake in Vietnam, published in 1967. The book listed Meir Kahane as one of the authors, signaling a return for Kahane to his Jewish roots.
Kahane went on to write a number of books, all of them promoting his radical views about the need for Jews to defend themselves and to fight for a "pure" Jewish state in Israel. The best known of his books are Never Again! A Program for Survival (1972), They Must Go (1981), and Uncomfortable Questions for Comfortable Jews (1987).
Founds Jewish Defense League
Strange as his interlude as Michael King may appear, it seemed to recharge Kahane. In 1967 he reclaimed his real identity and became the rabbi at the Rochdale Village Traditional Synagogue in Queens, New York. Here Kahane's orthodox interpretations of Judaism were in tune with those of his congregation. But the Jewish community in Queens was aging, and the neighborhood was slowly becoming home to large numbers of poor Hispanics and African Americans who were, in Kahane's view, hostile to Jews. Determined to repel what he saw as attacks on the Jewish community, he founded the Jewish Defense League (JDL).
The JDL was modeled on the Betar of Kahane's youth: it was structured like a military organization, complete with a weapons training camp in the Catskill Mountains, and it operated under the slogans "Every Jew a .22" (referring to the small-caliber rifle) and "Never Again!" (appealing to the Jewish desire never again to succumb to attempted genocide, as in the Naziled Holocaust during World War II). The JDL appealed to young Jews who felt threatened by the changing ethnic makeup of their neighborhoods, but it also appealed to Jewish Zionism, expressed now as support for Israel in its conflict with the Arab nations surrounding it and with the Palestinians fighting for recognition within and outside Israel's borders.
To a very large extent, the JDL was a racist organization. Many of its members resented the African Americans who were "invading" their neighborhoods. Their resentment was not unlike that of many other white Americans who feared integration (the merging of the races in housing, schools, and other public institutions) with blacks in the 1960s. The JDL's racism was also colored by Zionism. Numerous black leaders identified with Palestinian Arabs, with whom they shared a feeling of being oppressed by powerful whites, and they resented the fact that Jews owned many of the businesses in ghetto neighborhoods in American cities. In turn, members of the JDL charged that African Americans were lawless and anti-Semitic. The stage was set for confrontation.
The JDL grew rapidly, so rapidly in fact that Kahane soon left his congregation to run it full time. The JDL soon began "safety patrols" in Jewish neighborhoods, supposedly to protect Jewish people from anti-Semitic violence. Kahane led demonstrations against the integration of public schools and against any American cooperation with the Soviet Union, which Kahane charged was out to destroy the state of Israel. JDL "soldiers" also clashed with groups such as the Black Panthers, a militant African American group.
Creating ties to Israel
By the early 1970s the JDL had grown dramatically in both size and strength, receiving large donations from those who supported the group's aims. Kahane used the money to increase membership, which grew into the thousands. His followers all accepted Kahane's central idea: that Jews should rally together to violently combat any challenge to their rights, whether it be in Israel or abroad. With this in mind, the JDL firebombed and attacked Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO; an organization advocating Palestinian return to land occupied by Israel) offices in New York, sent armed assassins to target PLO targets abroad, and mounted a campaign of violence against Soviet targets in the United States, in protest against Soviet persecution of Jews. By 1971 Kahane and a number of other JDL members faced a string of criminal charges, ranging from conspiracy to manufacture explosives to illegal possession of weapons. Rather than face charges, Kahane and his top lieutenants all fled to Israel (though Kahane would return frequently over the years).
Kahane received a mixed welcome upon his arrival in Israel. Those on the right in Israel welcomed him, many feeling that Kahane's outlook was what was needed to maintain a secure Jewish state. Kahane was courted by politicians from a variety of right-wing parties, including Menachem Begin (1913–1992; see entry), who hoped that Kahane could help bolster support for their vision of a strong Israel that would deny any Arab claims to territory. However, those who hoped for a peaceful solution to Israel's tense relations with its Arab neighbors found the arrival of Kahane and the JDL troubling. Kahane was known to use violence to stoke the flames of resentment that existed between Jews and Arabs, especially Palestinians. Kahane was also willing to promote ideas about ridding Israel of Arabs, something that more moderate politicians shied away from. Thus Kahane turned the discussion of how to deal with Palestinians in a dangerously racist direction. Rather than allying himself with any political group, Kahane decided to remain independent, and he re-formed the Jewish Defense League with a base in Jerusalem.
Kahane spent his first several years in Israel building support and encouraging violence against Arabs. Backed by money from American and Israeli supporters, Kahane sponsored the training of militant youths in military tactics and bomb making. When Palestinian terrorists killed Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich, Germany, Kahane planned revenge. These plans were foiled, and Kahane stood trial for attempted weapons smuggling, but a sympathetic judge let him off. Kahane's plans to assassinate a Soviet ambassador and blow up the Iraqi Embassy in Washington, D.C., were discovered by Israeli secret police, but Kahane again was released without spending any time in jail. At the same time, Kahane promoted his political career. His frequent trials and the publicity made him a hero to extremists within Israel. Kahane took advantage of his high public profile to promote the idea of "transfer," one of the most controversial ideas in Israeli politics. Supporters of "transfer" believed that the only way to bring peace was to remove—forcibly, if necessary—all Arabs from within the borders of Israel.
Kahane in Israeli politics
All of Kahane's work was aimed at one goal: gaining influence in Israeli politics. Some day, he told his closest friends, he would become prime minister of Israel, and he would lead a nation unafraid to defend itself against constant attacks from the Arab world. His first attempt at gaining public office, however, was not encouraging. In the Knesset elections of 1973, Kahane gained just 12,811 votes, or .81 percent of the electorate—less than the 1 percent needed to gain a seat in the legislative body. Kahane was devastated by his loss and briefly withdrew from public life, but he soon returned with a renewed fervor.
Kahane's vision of himself as a savior for Israel grew especially intense in the 1980s. He spoke to his followers of a coming apocalypse (a catastrophic event that ends the rule of evil on earth) that would begin when Arabs were removed from Israel. He formed a new political party, called Kach (Hebrew for "Thus"), that promised a strong Israel based on a strict interpretation of the Torah. Kahane was constantly in and out of trouble, spending time in an American jail and drawing criticism for his adulterous affairs and for his misuse of funds he raised in the United States and Israel. He managed to increase his following, especially among young Jews angry at the lack of opportunity in Israel and among working-class Sephardic Jews (Jews of African, Asian, Spanish, or Middle Eastern descent) who had fled Arab regimes to settle in Israel, many of whom had a deep hatred for Arabs. By 1984 Kahane had attracted enough support to gain 25,907 votes in elections: enough to win him a seat in the Knesset.
Kahane's victory was greeted with disgust by most politicians within Israel. Jerusalem's mayor, Teddy Kollek, called Kahane a "stain on Israeli democracy"; former prime minister Menachem Begin declared, "I totally reject everything [Kahane] says," according to the New Republic; and Leon Weseltier wrote in the New Republic that "Meir Kahane deserves to be denounced as the national disgrace of the Jewish people." Though Kahane's support came mostly from the racist fringe in Israel, some feared that his ideas appealed to many within Israel who believed that their country could never prosper while it maintained a large Arab population. In one of his most dramatic speeches, quoted by Friedman, Kahane told an audience: "No one can understand the soul of those [Arab] beasts, those roaches. We shall either cut their throats or throw them out." But Kahane denied that his views were extreme. Speaking to the Israeli right, he proclaimed: "I only say what you think." That he might be correct was many Israelis' biggest fear.
Kahane's election caused a great crisis of conscience for the nation of Israel. Were they, as Kahane's victory would indicate, truly a racist nation, incapable of incorporating Arabs into their democracy? Or were they willing to live peacefully alongside their Arab neighbors, sharing the country both claimed as their homeland? It was and remains one of the crucial questions in the Middle East conflict.
As a member of the Knesset, Kahane was a constant thorn in the side of more moderate policy makers. He introduced laws calling for the expulsion of Arabs from Israel, to make it illegal for a Jewish woman to have sexual relations with an Arab, and for anyone to insult the Jewish religion. His critics claimed that his laws were no better than the laws that German Nazis made before and during World War II to discriminate against Jews. Nevertheless, Kahane led marches and protests in the streets of Israeli cities and his support grew. One poll showed that by 1987 Kahane had the support of 3.8 percent of the electorate; on the dawn of elections in 1988 his support had grown to nearly 6 percent, enough to win his Kach Party a large share of power in the Knesset.
On the dawn of seizing his greatest power yet, however, Kahane's Kach Party was banned from participating in elections on the grounds that it was racist and antidemocratic. Israel's Supreme Court backed the ban, and Kahane was effectively removed from office—but not from Israeli public life. Through the late 1980s he continued to promote his ideas among Israel's lower classes, and he continued to lead demonstrations and attacks on Palestinians living within Israel. Most dangerously, he began to entertain the idea of a Palestinian genocide: the extermination of all Arabs living within Israel, not dissimilar to Nazi Germany's goal to eradicate the Jews.
Meir Kahane's violent and racist legacy lives on. Even after Kahane's death the Kach Party that he founded continued to sponsor terrorism against Arabs living within Israel, and it is suspected of supporting a 1994 attack by party member Baruch Goldstein that killed twenty-nine Palestinians in the city of Hebron. A splinter group, called Kahane Chai (meaning "Kahane Lives"), was founded in 1990 by Kahane's son, Binyamin, and pursued policies similar to those of Kach. Binyamin Kahane and his wife were assassinated by Palestinians in 2000, but their deaths only fueled followers of the groups to further hatred. In 2004 both Kach and Kahane Chai were considered terrorist groups by the United States Department of State.
On a more subtle level, Kahane's ideas continue to impede efforts to achieve peace in the Middle East. His contention that Israel could only be safe and secure if it was purged of Arabs continues to appeal to those who cannot imagine Israelis and Palestinians living together in peace. This kind of Jewish hatred of Arabs, like the hatred of extremist Arabs for Jews that is its mirror image, remains as a roadblock to any peaceful settlement.
In November 1990 Kahane returned to the United States on another of his frequent fundraising missions, spreading his message that the way to bring security and peace to Jews living in Israel was to remove all Arabs from the nation. Leaving a speech at a New York hotel, Kahane was gunned down by Egyptian-born Arab El Sayyid A. Nosair. In death as well as in life, Kahane promoted violence and anger. The day after he was slain, a supporter in Israel opened fire and killed two elderly Palestinians in the West Bank (an area occupied by Israel since 1973, populated mostly by Palestinians). And at his funeral supporters chanted "Mavet La'aravim, Mavet La'aravim," which is Hebrew for "Death to the Arabs! Death to the Arabs!" In such angry denunciations, Kahane's legacy lived on.
For More Information
Friedman, Robert I. The False Prophet: Rabbi Meir Kahane, from FBI Informant to Knesset Member. New York: Lawrence Hill Books, 1990.
Kahane, Meir. Never Again! A Program for Survival. New York: Pyramid Books, 1972.
——. They Must Go. New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1981.
Mergui, Raphael, and Philippe Simonnot. Israel's Ayatollahs: Meir Kahane and the Far Right in Israel. London and Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Saqi Books, 1987.
Hewitt, Bill. "After a Career of Preaching Hatred for Arabs, Rabbi Meir Kahane Is Cut Down by an Assassin's Bullet." People Weekly (November 19, 1990): pp. 65-66.
Kahane.org: The Official Kahane Website. http://www.kahane.org/home.html (accessed on July 7, 2005).
Shyovitz, David. "Rabbi Meir Kahane." Jewish Virtual Library.http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/biography/kahane.html (accessed on July 7, 2005).