Kahane, Meir (1932-1990), Rabbi, Activist

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Kahane, Meir
(1932-1990), rabbi, activist.

Meir David Kahane was born in Brooklyn on August 1, 1932, to a family of rabbis. He was killed by an assassin on November 5, 1990, in New York City. For some, Rabbi Kahane was a leader, philosopher, activist, and teacher. For others, he was a racist and a nuisance. Undoubtedly he was a very influential Jew, and he helped change the Jewish conscience in both America and Israel.

He graduated from Brooklyn College in 1954, and studied at Brooklyn's Mirer Yeshiva, from which he received his rabbinic ordination in 1956. He graduated from New York Law School and thereafter obtained a master's degree in international relations from New York University. He served as a rabbi in New York in the 1960s and wrote for the Jewish Press.

Rabbi Kahane founded the Jewish Defense League ( JDL) in 1968, to combat the growth of anti-Semitism. At that time, Jews of such communities as Crown Heights and Williamsburg (in Brooklyn) were easy targets of hoodlums. He believed that it was the duty of Jews to protect one another. "Never again," said Kahane, would hoodlums kill Jews without getting killed. But the JDL also fought for Soviet Jews by engaging in demonstrative tactics that succeeded in highlighting the plight of millions of oppressed Jews behind the Iron Curtain. At times Kahane's tactics resulted in his arrest.

The JDL moved the issue of Soviet Jewry to the front pages. Thanks to Kahane's efforts, Russian Jews started to flow out by the hundreds and then the thousands. But as Rabbi Kahane said, "More than what we did for Russian Jewry was what they did for the young and lost American Jewish youth who finally had a Jewish cause to fight for . . . and they did that which their parents never did for their Jewish brothers and sisters who perished during the Holocaust."

Rabbi Kahane demanded that Jewish funds go for Jewish causes, primarily for Jewish education, and he fought against assimilation among Jewish youth. Established American Jewish organizations opposed him. They preferred quiet diplomacy as a means to help Soviet Jews. Kahane was sure that such tactics would not save the Jews of Russia.

American officials of the Nixon administration, such as U.N. ambassador Charles Yost, met with Kahane to dissuade him from disrupting Soviet artistic performances in America because they were afraid that Soviet-American reconciliation efforts would be damaged. "Three million Jews in Soviet Russia are being ripped from us now," said Kahane, "and it is our obligation to break any and every law to save them! We Jews have a hang-up. It's known as respectability. When President Roosevelt told us that he could not bomb the railroads leading to Auschwitz, we were respectable. And six million Jews died. It's time to bury respectability, before it buries us."

In 1971 Kahane immigrated to Jerusalem, Israel. Menachem Begin, leader of the Herut Party, offered Kahane a seat in Parliament, but he refused, since Herut was not a religious party. In 1984 Kahane formed an independent party, Kach, and proposed that Israel annex the territories taken in 1967 and establish Jewish settlements there. Some called him a racist. He made no apologies for his views. "Judaism is not Thomas Jefferson, and the Middle East is not the Midwest." He said on May 11, 1980, "There will never be peace between Jews and Arabs."

In 1984 he was elected to the Knesset (the Israeli Parliament). Just before the 1988 elections, polls predicted that Kach would receive as many as 14 of the 120 Knesset seats in Parliament. Parliament banned Kach from running for office, and the Israeli Supreme Court upheld this move. Both major Israeli parties (Likud and Labor) condemned Kahane. He was the first Jew in Israel to be held under administrative detention without charges or due process, something that until then was reserved for terrorists.

In 1987 he founded the Yeshiva of the Jewish Idea to train Jewish leaders capable of responding to the challenges facing Israel and the Jewish people. The yeshiva aimed to educate rabbis and scholars to spread the teaching of the Torah. On November 5, 1990, Kahane was assassinated by an Egyptian American. Some still believe that Kahane contributed to the survival of Jewish identity in both the United States and Israel.

See alsoAnti-Semitism; Belonging, Religious; Human Rights; Jewish Identity; Jewish Renewal; Judaism; Religious Communities; Religious Persecution; Zionism.


Friedman, Robert I. The False Prophet. 1992.

Kahane, Meir. Never Again: A Program for Survival. 1972.

Kahane, Meir. Uncomfortable Questions for Comfortable Jews. 1987.

Herbert Druks