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How some of extremist rabbi, onetime MK Kahane’s ideas entered Jewish mainstream

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16.10.2021

Editor’s note: Before working for the Jewish Telegraphic Agency’s sister site Alma, Emily Burack worked for a year on “Meir Kahane: The Public Life and Political Thought of an American Jewish Radical” as author Shaul Magid’s research assistant. She wrote her undergraduate thesis, cited in Magid’s book, on the emergence of the Jewish Defense League.

JTA — Meir Kahane is the “Jew whom Jews would like to forget.”

Yet, as Shaul Magid writes in “Meir Kahane: The Public Life and Political Thought of an American Jewish Radical” (Princeton University Press), his new cultural biography of the controversial Jewish figure, Kahane keeps coming back to haunt us.

Born in Brooklyn in 1932, Kahane was elected to the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, in 1984 on an extremist platform calling for Arabs to be expelled from Israel, among other ideas. In 1986, under a new “anti-racism law,” he was barred from running for re-election. In 1990, he would be assassinated by an Egyptian American in New York City. In today’s Knesset, the Kahanist party Otzma Yehudit (literally, Jewish Power) has one seat.

But in 1968, before his time in Israel, he founded the militant Jewish Defense League. Focused on Jewish pride, Kahane called for “every Jew a .22” and popularized the slogan “Never Again.” He spoke out against intermarriage, believed a second Holocaust was inevitable and that antisemitism was a pervasive threat on the left and right, accusing less confrontational Jews of lacking Jewish pride.

Although his militant and violent tactics alienated the Jewish mainstream, he was a key figure in publicizing the fight to free Soviet Jewry. Ultimately he pivoted to what Magid describes as “militant post-Zionist apocalyptism.”

Magid’s book tells the story of Kahane’s radicalism — from his critique of liberalism through his ever-changing Zionism.

“He became demonized because of his tactics, and because of his violence and his racism. But the worldview has really dug some pretty deep roots,” Magid said. In “Meir Kahane,” he sets out to unpack how that worldview lingers today, and he spoke with JTA about the project.

This conversation has been lightly condensed and edited for clarity.

JTA: To begin, you write about how Meir Kahane’s ideas, and much of what he promoted in America, have entered our mainstream discourse, like that antisemitism is pervasive everywhere, or his, as you write, “assertive expression” of Jewish identity. As someone who studies Kahane, what is it like to see his ideas enter the mainstream?

Shaul Magid: You have to make a sharp distinction between his worldview and his tactics. His militancy was very much a product of his time. He was living at a time of the Black Panthers, the Young Lords, the SDS [Students for a Democratic Society], the Weather Underground; the idea of radical militancy and violence was very much a part of what was happening in America at the time. That, of course, has fallen away, in most cases.

If you take that [militancy] away, it’s not that Kahane disappears, but what you actually have is a much more well-defined worldview that has really made its way into the subconscious of American Jewry: perennial antisemitism, antisemitism on the left is worse than antisemitism on the right, anti-Zionism is antisemitism. What we call now “Jewish continuity,” Kahane just called “Jewish survival.” The idea of Jewish pride: How do you actually create an environment where Jews can be proud to be Jews in an unashamed way? Questions of intermarriage — Kahane wrote a book about intermarriage in 1974 when nobody was talking about intermarriage. He saw into the future a bit on some of these questions.

In your book, you emphasize that Kahane was a quintessentially American figure. Much of previous scholarship on him focused on his time in Israel, and looked back on his time in America through that lens, but you argue we need to reverse that — understanding him in America is key to understanding him in Israel.

He fails in Israel because he’s bringing American categories and an American way of seeing society to an Israeli society which is very different. It’s more complex in all kinds of ways. First of all, in Israel, the Jews are the majority, not the minority, and that itself changes things. [Second,] he couldn’t re-conceptualize the complexity of race in Israel from the much more straightforward understanding of Black and white in America. As a result of that, he succeeds initially — he is elected to the Knesset — but ultimately the country rejects him.

Yet in both places, Kahane used racist language to further his base and make a name for himself.

Kahane uses race in very interesting ways. I don’t necessarily think that they were all worked out in his head. He saw race as a pivotal issue in America in the........

© The Times of Israel


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