Meir Kahane

The founder of the Jewish Defense League pushed the boundaries between spiritual leader, politician, and terrorist.

Print this page Print this page

Born to Be Wild

There is little doubt that Kahane was drawn to the infamy of heading a terrorist organization. In The False Prophet, a 1990 biography of Kahane, journalist Robert Freedman writes that the rabbi founded the JDL in an effort to create"…a movement important enough to satisfy his rampant ego."

This work also allowed Kahane to indulge his vices. From his prominent position Kahane enjoyed extramarital affairs, and--Freedman has convincingly argued--embezzled fundraised dollars. Though he styled himself as a modest devotee to Jewish causes, it is difficult to ignore the immense personal benefit Kahane enjoyed by cultivating himself as a divisive and controversial public figure.

Kahane managed to dodge legal sanction for years, but by 1971 he faced a de facto ultimatum: leave the United States or face the possibility of criminal prosecution. So Kahane and his family moved to Israel.

From Outlaw to Lawmaker

Kach Flag

Once in Israel, Kahane formed the Kach political party in 1971, and channeled his efforts into the parliamentary system. He preached that the state could only find security by aligning its political and social spheres with Jewish law. Guided by an apocalyptic outlook, he openly spoke of the imminent arrival of the Messiah.

Kahane decried the secular Zionism that he found prevalent in Israel, once stating: "I live in this country because it is an obligation ordered by God. Otherwise, why would I want to live in a country which, from my point of view, is miserable and uninteresting?"

His rhetoric focused most of all on evicting the Arab population of Israel, and he spoke freely of the impossibility of maintaining a Jewish democratic state in the face of a growing Arab minority.

The End to a Legacy

In 1984, Kahane was elected to a term in Knesset, polling just more than 25,000 votes (1.2% of those cast). His tenure was short-lived, and Kach never held more than one seat, or made any substantive legislative impact. Before the 1988 election, an amendment to Israel's Basic Laws was passed, barring any candidate whose platform "incited racism," a more-or-less direct reference to Kahane's platform. Ever a marginal character, Kahane once again found himself with relatively few followers, but with much media attention.

Blacklisted from Israel's political establishment, Kahane continued to make public appearances around the world until he was assassinated at a Manhattan speaking engagement in 1990. The prime suspect, El Sayyid Nosair, an Egyptian with connections to Al-Qaeda, was ultimately convicted. After Kahane's assassination, his son Binyamin formed a splinter party, Kahane Chai ("Kahane Lives"), which was likewise barred from participating in the 1992 Israeli election. Binyamin was killed in a terrorist ambush in 2000 near the West Bank settlement of Ofra.

In his later interviews, Meir Kahane strove to paint himself as a martyr. But for the most part, the mainstream has not dealt kindly with him. In the 1980s, the American Jewish Committee published a pamphlet calling him a "quasi-fascist," the ADL decried his activities in print, and the FBI, which had once employed him as an agent, monitored him.

Perhaps Kahane's most enduring legacy is his writing; he authored several books including the bestseller They Must Go, about what he considered the "problem" of the growing Arab minority in Israel. He continued to publish in the Jewish Press until his death.

Though the JDL and Kach never collected as many supporters as other right-wing Jewish organizations of the 20th century, such as the settler group Gush Emunim, Kahane made sure he was on the collective Jewish mind for two decades. And radical as he was, Kahane blend of dogmatism and violence provided an identity for thousands of dissatisfied Jews around the world.

Did you like this article?  MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization.

Please consider making a donation today.

Ben Havumaki

Ben Havumaki works as an investigator in New York City.