views updated



LEADER: Meir Kahane


Kach is an extreme-right Zionist extremist organization that uses terrorism to pursue its goals of expanding Jewish rule across the biblical lands of Israel. It resolutely opposes any concessions that may give up part of Israel's territory. Its most deadly attack came in February 1994, shortly after the signing of the Oslo Peace Accords between Israel and the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), when Baruch Goldstein, a Brooklyn-born doctor and Kach supporter, slaughtered 29 Palestinian worshipers at the Ibrahimi Mosque in Hebron.


The origins and—arguably—inspiration for Kach date back to the days when Israel was part of Mandate Palestine. During the mid 1940s, Zionist extremist groups such as Irgun and the Stern Gang waged a vicious war against British forces in control of the Mandate—even while the British were simultaneously at war with Nazi Germany. The rationale was twofold: that the Land of Israel is sacred and it was unacceptable that anyone else govern it; and that the Jewish people use an armed struggle to realize these beliefs.

When the state of Israel was born in 1948, these views became part of the Israeli mainstream. Irgun gave up their armed struggle and became part of the Likud political movement and, through war and territorial expansion, the state of Israel grew considerably in size. The view of an armed struggle evolved: from using such methods to create a political state of Israel, the imperative switched to protecting Zionism's gains and also the Jewish people. Of course, there were radically different views about how Israel defend itself: some merely advocated the defense of Israel's borders; others the forcible removal of all Gentiles (non-Jews) from the state—by violence if necessary.

One of the first manifestations of the latter view came via the extreme-right Jewish underground terror group, Machteret, in the early 1980s. This terror group carried out a number of attacks on Palestinian targets before being broken up by the Israeli authorities. Its actions included a failed plot to assassinate several Palestinian mayors and a plan to blow up the Al-Aqsa Mosque, an occurrence with the potential to thrust the region into war.

Machteret were merely inheritors of Zionist direct action, however. In 1971, Rabbi Meir Kahane, a 41-year-old lawyer from Brooklyn, emigrated to Israel. As a teenager, he had been a member of Betar, a quasi-military youth group modeled on the likes of Irgun. He had despised the image of Jews as weak or vulnerable and sought to transform them into "mighty fighters who strike back fiercely against tyrants." He had founded the Jewish Defense League (JDL) in 1968, the declared goal of which was to protect against black anti-Semitism.

In reality, the vigilantism of the JDL did much to exacerbate existing racial tensions, particularly in New York. Kahane's outpourings often hinted at or advocated the use of violence: one of his favorite mottos was "every Jew a .22"—indicating that Jews would no longer passively suffer abuse. He also highlighted the plight of Jews within the USSR, organizing demonstrations at Russian agencies in the U.S. Soviet diplomats were also attacked—a particularly incendiary tactic at the height of the cold war.

Kahane brought the JDL's militancy with him to Israel, founding its Israeli successor, Kach, within months of his arrival. Focusing the ire once reserved for Soviet dignitaries on Arabs, Kach made no secret of its desire to remove the Arab population from Israel nor did it make any distinction between Israeli Arabs or those living in the occupied territories. Among Kahane's stunts was the attempted show trial of the mayor of Hebron for the massacre of the town's Jewish population more than 50 years earlier. More violent was an aborted—and slightly farcical—plot to blow up the Libyan Embassy in Rome following the terrorist attack on Israeli Athletes at the 1972 Olympics.

Kach ran candidates in the 1973 Knesset elections, and again in 1977 and 1981, but each time failed to make any sort of impact. Many Israelis regarded Kahane as a publicity-hungry megalomaniac with views that bordered on extreme, while Kach's activities—both legal and illegal—had been low key and often poorly carried out.

However, following the Camp David Accords of 1979, which afforded a peace deal between Israel and Egypt, including the handover of some Israeli territory gained after the 1967 war, Kach intensified its activities. The Israeli Prime Minister and Camp David signatory, Menachem Begin, once an Irgun leader and hero of the Jewish resistance movement in Mandate Palestine, was depicted by Kach as a "traitor," sentiments which were shared by sections of the Israeli population. Kach intensified its efforts with a series of illicit acts in Judea, Jerusalem, and Samaria. These attacks were largely aimed at the Arab population in an effort to provoke the collapse of the peace deal, either through an Arab uprising or the protests of the Egyptian government. They included attacks on an Arab bus, pipe bombings, and shootings.

The most infamous of Kahane's stunts, however, came in April 1982 in the Yamit settlement, which was about to be handed back to the Egyptians. Kahane's followers described themselves as the "Movement Against the Retreat from Sinai" and fortified themselves in an underground bunker, declaring to the world's media that they intended to commit mass suicide. The Israeli government then rushed Kahane back from New York, where he was visiting, in order to convince his followers not to kill themselves. In fully televised negotiations, Kahane convinced them to end the drama peacefully.

The fame and infamy provided by these incidents saw Kach make an electoral breakthrough in 1984 when Meir Kahane was elected to the Knesset. Many Israelis, particularly those on the left, regarded this prospect with barely concealed horror. Kach was not yet regarded as a terrorist organization per se, but most Israelis were dismayed by the street violence and racially motivated attacks against Arabs that accompanied Kach's posturing as a legitimate political organization.

In view of this, one of the "Basic Laws" of Israel was amended a year later, prohibiting electoral candidates charged with "incitement to racism." Before the 1988 General Election, Israel's Central Elections Committee disqualified Kach, which unsuccessfully appealed against the ruling in the Israeli Supreme Court. This effectively ended Kach's existence as a political party.

Kahane had used his Knesset seat as a platform with which to spread his worldview. He had made several visits to Arab towns, baiting the local populations by publicly "inviting" them to leave Israel. On one occasion, 30,000 Arabs turned up to protest and only the presence of more than 1,000 police officers prevented a full-scale riot. His legislative proposals had focused on revoking Israeli citizenship from non-Jews and banning Jewish-Gentile marriages and sexual relationships. These were dubbed by the Israeli left as the "Nuremburg laws," and struck revulsion in a country where many had suffered horribly under similar legislation in Nazi Germany. Eventually, the rest of the Knesset boycotted the Parliament whenever Kahane spoke, leaving him to make his speeches to an empty chamber.

Banned from Israeli political life, but still with a wide following in Europe and North America as well as Israel, Kahane continued to travel widely. While speaking in Manhattan in November 1990, he was killed by an Arab terrorist, El Sayyid Nosair, who had links to the cell that blew up the World Trade Center.

Kach, following Kahane's death, then split into two groups with somewhat overlapping ideologies: Kach and Kahane Chai ("Kahane Lives"). The latter was led by Meir Kahane's son Binyamin; the former, based in the ethnic melting pot of Hebron, by Baruch Marzel. The two groups publicly continued Kahane's tradition of longstanding racial agitation, while at the same illegally carrying out attacks on Arabs.

This was at a time of heightened tension. Moves towards an Arab-Israeli political solution had been initiated at U.S./Russian-sponsored talks held in Madrid in October 1991, and heightened after talks in Oslo throughout 1993, where a Declaration of Principles (DOP) was agreed between the Israeli and Palestinian parties. The DOP—also known as the Oslo Accords—outlined arrangements for interim government, elections of a Palestinian Council, and concessions in the West Bank, and was signed by Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, and the Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat, at the White House on September 13, 1993.

The majority of Israelis was willing to give Rabin's vision for peace a chance. But to the religious right the plan was unacceptable. This was especially true for Kach, Kahane Chai, and other extremist organizations that believed in the restoration of the biblical state of Israel.

Part of the Israeli right's strategy to fight the Palestinian-Israeli peace process was to increase the number of Jewish settlements on occupied territory. The goals were twofold: in the short term, it would bring biblical lands into Jewish hands; in the long term, it threatened to complicate the handover of territories to the Palestinians.

Living in settlements, however, was fraught with danger and the regular attacks from Palestinians and physical isolation from the rest of Israel hardened the resolve and politics of many settlers. One man who apparently suffered at the hands of such attacks was Dr. Baruch Kappel Goldstein, a West Bank settler. Like Kahane, he was born in Brooklyn, and had emigrated to Israel and served as a physician in the Israeli Defense Force. He had formerly been a member of the JDL, and later became a member of Kach. A friend of Goldstein's and his son was murdered by Palestinians in December 1993, which apparently served as a prompt for Goldstein to bring his beliefs into action.



Meir Kahane was the founder and leader of Kach for most of its existence, and was also the abiding influence behind many of its offshoots. Born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1932, he was a member of various Jewish youth groups and profoundly influenced by Ze'ev Jabotinsky and his ideas of militant Zionism. He trained as a lawyer and was ordained a rabbi, and also worked as an editor on the influential Jewish Press.

In 1968, he formed the Jewish Defense League to combat the rising anti-Semitism in American cities, particularly that instigated by blacks. The JDL's vigilantism brought its founder fame and notoriety. Kahane emigrated to Israel in 1971, and Kach—essentially the JDL's Israeli cousin—emerged during the 1970s under his direction.

When Kahane made an electoral breakthrough in 1984, he used his Knesset seat as a platform to spread his views. He was adored by his followers, but despised by most Israelis. Nevertheless, although he had a reputation as an agitator and rabble rouser, it was Kahane, above most others, who brought attention to the plight of Soviet Jewry and to that of Jewish minorities in Ethiopia. Although his views were regarded as offensive in the 1970s and 1980s, they are reflected in mainstream Israeli politics by a variety of right-wing parties today.

Kahane was assassinated on November 5, 1990, while speaking in New York. His son, Binyamin, took up the mantle as leader of Kach's successor Kahane Chai until he too was murdered a decade later.

On Friday February 25, 1994, Goldstein entered the Cave of Patriarchs, a site in the city of Hebron holy to both Muslims and Jews. Friday marked the Muslim day of prayer, and around 500 men were praying. Armed with a submachine gun, Goldstein opened fire, killing 29 worshippers and injuring another hundred. He was eventually overcome by survivors and beaten to death.

Following the attack, Kach and Kahane Chai were both banned by the Israeli government and added to the U.S. Department of State's list of banned terrorist organizations. The majority of Kach's followers switched allegiance to other right-wing Israeli political parties, which had seen an explosion in popularity during the 1990s.

Meir's son, Binyamin Ze'ev Kahane, was murdered with his wife in an apparently random attack by Palestinians in December 2000. Kach supporters have pledged to avenge his death.

A number of Kahanist organizations have cropped up since 2000. These include the Kahane Movement, the New Kach Movement, and Noar Meir. Although they have usually been added to the U.S. State Department's list of terrorist organizations as—effectively—acting as Kach by proxy, none has been linked to significant extremist action.


Kach's fundamental belief centers on the notion that the state of Israel is entitled to sovereignty over the biblical land of Israel. This is a core belief of most Orthodox Jews, but what sets Kach apart is the inadmissibility of withdrawing from any territories or compromising in any way the territorial integrity of these lands. Jews, according to Kach's founder Meir Kahane, should be ready to face death rather than surrender their land.

Tied to that belief is the notion that the world is inherently hostile to Jewry and it is therefore the duty of Jews to defend themselves, and even strike pre-emotively. This was the founding basis of the Jewish Defense League, and it articulated itself in similar ways with Kach and its splinter groups, particularly on the streets of towns like Hebron where "street fighting" between its members and Arab youths are not uncommon.

These beliefs make Kach an inherently racist organization and are behind the group's idea that Arabs must be expelled from Israel. Meir Kahane's teachings on eugenics and his proscription of Jewish-Gentile marriages have led to accusations of Facism.


Jewish Defense League founder Meir Kahane emigrates from the United States to Israel; Kach emerges over the subsequent 18 months.
Escalation in Kach activity during the Camp David peace process with Israel.
Kahane talks Israeli settlers out of suicide pact.
Kahane elected to the Knesset.
Kach's political activity effectively ends following revisions to Israel's "Basic Laws" about racial incitement.
Kahane murdered in New York; Kach splits into Kach and Kahane Chai.
Hebron massacre.
Kach/Kahane Chai outlawed by the Israeli government.
Binyamin Kahane murdered.

Kach and its splinter organizations typically use violence to intimidate and provoke in order to disrupt the Palestinian-Israli peace process. While Kach is most commonly associated with the Hebron massacre of 1994, its violence is usually on a smaller scale. One of its followers described a typical operation to the author of Patterns of Prejudice, in 1985: "One day towards the end of July 1984, I agreed … to operate against the Arabs. We left Kiryat Arba in a hired car, headed towards Jerusalem … Around midnight, we saw an Arab in his twenties walking along the road. I said 'let's stop the car.' I went out and hit the Arab with my fist on the shoulder. I also kicked him. He escaped into the night. We continued to Hebron and it was decided—I don't remember by whom—to burn Arab cars. We had in our car two plastic bottles containing four and a half litres of gasoline. In Hebron Yehuda stopped the car. Mike took the gasoline and poured it under several cars, maybe three. Following the burning of the cars by Yehuda, we moved, not waiting to see what would happen."

In its early days, Kach's political activities were primarily aimed at attention seeking, to bringing the ideas of Meir Kahane into the political mainstream. Since his death, the huge influx of largely right-wing Russian Jews and the appalling effects of suicide bombings and the Al-Aqsa intifada (uprising) have helped achieve just that. Rather than engaging in terror, his supporters now seem focused on ensuring his memory remains.


Writing in 1985, when Meir Kahane was at the height of his notoriety, Ehud Sprinzak stated in an American Jewish Committee publication about Kach: "While a formal presentation of the background and ideology of Kach and its leader is helpful in identifying its place on the ideological map of Israel, only a closer examination of Kach's actual modus operandi, its imagery and symbolism, as well as some hidden undercurrents in its history, may locate it accurately on a general comparative political map. Having examined these facets of the Kach phenomenon, it would appear that, from a radical movement of minority self-defence with no comprehensive political ideology, it has gradually evolved into a radical right entity, with many similarities to historical fascist movements. Kach today is a quasi-fascist movement."

Gary Cooperberg was a friend of Kahane's and took over his long-running newspaper column in the Jewish Press after his assassination. He believed that Kahane and, in turn, Kach's, main problem was that they expressed commonly held beliefs that no one else dared articulate. "There are those who labeled him a racist, simply because he spoke the Jewish truth," Cooperberg wrote. "Every Jewish leader in Israel secretly agreed with all that he said, but none had the courage to speak what they believed. Rabbi Kahane faced the problems head on and came up with many brilliant ideas to solve them. The powers that be chose, and still choose not to recognize the war against the Jewish State and the Jewish people by 'our' Arabs, and today we are reaping the reward of that cowardice as we learn to live with Arab terror. And still they condemn the man, the only man, whose ideas would have ended the 'intifada' long before it began."


Kach was instrumental in radicalizing the Israeli right in the 1970s and 1980s. Not all favored its hallmark racism or violence, especially not after the Hebron massacre of 1994, nor necessarily the aggressive way it articulated its views. Yet, Rabbi Kahane articulated the concerns of those on the Israeli right, particularly those living in Israel's settlements, at a time when it was considered politically incorrect to do so. Since his death in 1990, many of the views, ideas, and beliefs he expressed have become part of mainstream political debate in Israel. Moreover, while the organized violence of Kach itself may have diminished, in and around Israel's settlements in the occupied territories this violence has been taken up by others to the extent that attacks on Arab-Palestinians are now a daily occurrence.



Kahane, Meir. The Story of the Jewish Defense League. Radnor, PA: Chilton Books, 1975.

Sprizak, Ehud. Kach and Meir Kahane: The Emergence of Jewish Quasi-Fascism. New York: The American-Jewish Committee, 1985.


Shragai, Nadav. "Yoztim lepeula (Going for the Action)." Haaretz. November 27, 1984.

Cooperberg, Gary. "In the Traditions of Rabbi Meir Kahane." Jewish Press. November 7, 1985.

Web sites

Kahane.org. "Shavuot and the Cultural War." 〈http://www.kahane.org/〉 (accessed October 22, 2005).

Jewish Virtual Library. "Rabbi Meir Kahane (1932–1990)." 〈http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/biography/kahane.html〉 (accessed October 22, 2005).


Jewish Defense League (JDL)