I first talked with Rabbi Meir Kahane in December 1979, at his Jerusalem headquarters, which he calls the Museum of the Potential Holocaust. The “museum” was filled with anti-Semitic literature which he had clipped from American hate-group publications and pasted on display boards. At the time, Kahane was a political pariah. His followers in Israel consisted of no more than a few dozen American teen-agers who had belonged to the Jewish Defense League in the United States. “Numbers aren’t important,” Kahane told me. “How many Maccabees fought the Greeks?”
Today Kahane’s followers are far more numerous. In August 1984, he won a Knesset seat with 25,907 votes, 1.2 percent of the electorate. A poll conducted last summer by the prestigious Van Leer Institute in Jerusalem found that 40 percent of Israelis between the ages of fifteen and eighteen (excluding kibbutz youth) agreed with Kahane’s fiercely anti-Arab views, and that 11 percent of the young Israelis surveyed would vote for him. The results so shocked the institute that it did not release them; but Ha’aretz uncovered the findings and published them in a front-page story (June 6, 1985). On August 27, Ma’ariv published the results of another poll that predicted Kahane’s Kach (“Thus”) party would, with about 9 percent of the electorate, win eleven seats (out of 120) in the Knesset if early elections were held, making it the third largest party in Israel.
More recently, on December 6, 1985, Ma’ariv published a poll indicating that Kahane’s support had dropped to about 4 percent of the electorate—still enough for five seats. According to Hanoch Smith, a public opinion expert whose polls are published in Davar and the Jerusalem Post, Kahane’s support fluctuates in relation to the level of Arab terrorism directed against Jews in Israel. Smith believes Kahane has a steady “band of support” of around 4 to 5 percent of the electorate, making him a “weighty political force” in future elections.
Though much has been written about Kahane, the man and his views have been obscured by the controversy surrounding his remarkable political success. What follows is a selection of Meir Kahane’s own statements—remarks that he has made to me and to others, about people, events and the ideas that have influenced him.1
The Rabbi from Brooklyn
Kahane was born in Brooklyn in 1932. He has one brother, Nachman, a rabbi who now heads a yeshiva in the Muslim quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City. Kahane’s father was a highly respected rabbi, a fervent Zionist, and a member of the rightwing Revisionist movement headed by Ze’ev Jabotinsky, who Meir remembers once came to dinner with the Kahanes in Brooklyn.
Kahane, who was trained at the Orthodox Yeshiva Mirrer in Brooklyn, became an ordained rabbi in the late 1950s. At about that time he graduated with a law degree from New York University, from which he later received a master of arts degree in international law. In 1958 he married a young woman from New York, Libby Blum, and soon after began serving as the rabbi of the Howard Beach Synagogue in a middle-class section of Queens. He was fired, he told me, when he “turned the synagogue president’s son into an observant Jew.” He really didn’t mind being fired, he said, because he didn’t like being a traditional rabbi, and he hated the nouveaux riches Jews in his congregation “who lived in $100,000 homes without furniture.”
In 1962 Kahane moved to Israel, leaving his wife and four children in Queens. He told relatives that he would soon become a member of the Israeli cabinet. “He thought Ben-Gurion was going to meet him at the docks,” his uncle, Rabbi Isaac Trainin, who is the director of religious affairs for New York’s Federation of Jewish Philanthropies, said. Kahane returned to the United States four months later, broke and unemployed.
The Underground Years
In 1963, Kahane and a childhood friend, Joseph Churba, formed a think tank called Consultant Research Association, which collected information for US intelligence agencies and other organizations. (Churba, an ordained rabbi, later became a Middle East specialist for Air Force intelligence and a foreign affairs adviser to Ronald Reagan during the 1980 campaign.) Churba and Kahane rented an apartment on New York’s upper East Side under the name of Michael King, a byline Kahane sometimes used when he wrote occasional sports stories for the Brooklyn Daily.
By his own account, Kahane spent much of the next two years leading a double life. He would leave his house in Laurelton, Queens, on Monday for Washington or Manhattan, and return for the Sabbath on Friday. He posed variously as a foreign correspondent, a college professor, or a well-to-do bachelor. He spent one summer in the Hamptons at Churba’s house. A New York public relations woman told The New York Times in 1971 that she remembered running into Kahane at a party on Long Island. “I knew him only as Michael King,” she told the Times. “He told me he had been a correspondent for a wire service in Africa and I recall at one point he volunteered that he was a Presbyterian.” On July 31, 1966, a Gentile woman with whom Kahane was reportedly having an affair, jumped to her death from the Queensboro Bridge. According to the Times story, Kahane, deeply depressed, attended her funeral in Connecticut and, in the years after her death, would sometimes place roses on her grave. In 1984 Kahane told the Jewish World that “there is no truth to the allegations” that he and the woman were lovers. “I make it a rule never to debase myself by responding to these kind of charges.”
Sometime in 1963, Kahane told me, the FBI asked if the Consultant Research Association would infiltrate the then little-known John Birch Society to find out the source of its funds. (An FBI spokesman in New York says Kahane never worked for the FBI. Kahane says, “If the FBI says it isn’t so, then they have their reasons.”)
Kahane claims he went underground using the name Michael King because, he told me, “naturally, Meir Kahane with a yarmulke wouldn’t have gotten very far.” For many months he traveled through Southern California and the Southwest. It was in this bastion of right-wing conservatism, he says, that he was first exposed to virulent anti-Semitism. “It was a very dangerous job,” Kahane recalled. “I rooted out the moneyed Birchers, then the FBI went in and leaned on them.”
Kahane says he stopped these activities for the FBI in 1965, when he and Churba set up the Fourth of July Movement. This organization tried to create cells on American college campuses to support the Vietnam War. According to Kahane, the movement received “seed money” from the government “and certain groups within the labor movement,” including George Meany. But it failed after less than a month because “we never got the amount of money we needed. My concern with the Birchers and with the leftwing student movement was always a Jewish one. I saw a growing sense of isolation on the part of Americans from world affairs. To keep our noses out of world affairs is not good for Jews.”
In 1968, he and Churba wrote a book, The Jewish Stake in Vietnam, which argued that if the US reneged on its commitment to South Vietnam it would do the same to Israel. It was therefore vital for American Jews to support the war. The Jewish Stake was published by Crossroads Publishing at 2 West Twenty-third Street in New York. Kahane told me Crossroads Publishing had been set up by “the government” solely to distribute its pro-Vietnam polemic.
“After Vietnam, I knew the days of American Jewry were numbered,” Kahane said. “America was a paper tiger. It would never fight for Israel.”
The Jewish Defense League
“People often ask me why I started the JDL—was it a personal trauma? No, I had an extremely pleasant life. I loved my neighborhood, and my Jewish and Italian friends. I spent hours roaming the streets, hanging out on the corner and playing games. I was a great baseball player.”
By the late 1960s, however, Kahane became obsessed with the likelihood of an impending Holocaust. He told me that the newsroom of the Jewish Press in Brooklyn, where he worked as an associate editor in 1967 and 1968, was flooded with disturbing items about anti-Semitic acts all over the country—including, Kahane said, acts of violence by blacks and Puerto Ricans against Jews too old or too poor to leave the decaying inner cities.
When he expressed his concern about growing black anti-Semitism to leaders of major Jewish organizations, Kahane claims they told him to suppress the news to avoid aggravating the situation. In 1968 Jewish Press publisher Sholom Klass fired Kahane for using the paper to attack John Lindsay, then running for reelection as mayor of New York, as an anti-Semite. “Nineteen sixty-eight was a bad year,” Kahane remembered. “I lost my job. I was also very upset that young Jews didn’t give a damn about being Jewish anymore. They were fighting for blacks, for the Vietcong, for Cubans, for lettuce, but not for themselves.” That year he took a small advertisement in the Jewish Press, seeking youths interested in “Jewish pride”—the first step in organizing the JDL. “Thirty-five people showed up and it took off.”
Preaching Jewish pride and Jewish power, Kahane captured the imagination of thousands of young Jews. His slogans were “Never Again” and “Every Jew a .22.” In 1969, he set up a weapons and martial arts training camp in the Catskill Mountains. By 1970 the JDL reportedly had some ten thousand members. Soon JDL members were arrested for bombing Russian and Arab property in the US and beating and harassing Russian and Arab diplomats. In July 1971, Kahane himself was convicted in a New York federal court for taking part in a conspiracy to manufacture firebombs. He was given a five-year suspended sentence and placed on probation for five years.
By the fall of 1971, JDL attacks against Soviet targets in the US had become so numerous that President Nixon became concerned Kahane would wreck the Strategic Arms Limitations Talks. The Soviet press had been filled with lurid accounts of Kahane’s anti-Soviet actions and held Nixon personally responsible for the “Zionist hooligan.” A confidential State Department memo at the time urged the Justice Department to secure indictments against JDL troublemakers, arguing it would “measurably improve the ability of the United States to deal with the Soviet Union on substantive foreign policy issues.”
In 1972 the JDL claimed its first victim—a Jew. That year the offices of the Jewish impresario Sol Hurok, who was bringing Soviet talent to the US, were bombed by the JDL, killing a twenty-seven-year-old secretary. Kahane, then in Israel, deplored the act. “I once asked Begin how he felt when he learned that thirty or forty Jews were killed in the [Irgun] bombing of the King David Hotel,” Kahane said during an interview in Jerusalem in 1979. “Begin told me he felt horrible. That’s exactly how I felt after the Hurok bombing.”
I include some of his statements quoted in my article on him in Present Tense (August, 1980).↩
I include some of his statements quoted in my article on him in Present Tense (August, 1980).↩