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.”
But Kahane was soon urging his associates to assassinate some of the people he opposed.
Kahane and the Mob
The JDL worked with other right-wing groups such as the American-Italian Civil Rights League, founded by the New York City mob boss Joseph Colombo, Sr., to instill pride in Italian-Americans and to counteract the notion that Italians in America were gangsters. Colombo’s lawyer Barry Ivan Slotnick, who was recently hired as the lawyer for Bernhard Goetz, told Colombo about Kahane. At a dinner in 1971, Slotnick mentioned to Colombo that he was representing Kahane at his arraignment on bomb-making charges. Slotnick said Kahane didn’t have much money and would probably have to fight his case from jail.
Colombo, who according to Slotnick was attracted to Kahane’s tough Jewish image, showed up in court the next morning with a bondsman to pay the rabbi’s $25,000 bail. Later, during an impromptu press conference with Colombo, Kahane told reporters that he welcomed the mob boss’s support, and promised to “picket the offices of the FBI if Mr. Colombo asks our [JDL] help.”
Asked by a New York Times reporter to discuss the implications of an alliance between the JDL and the Italian-American Civil Rights League, Kahane replied: “It’s human brotherhood. People of other faiths and backgrounds have come to help. It’s the kind of thing which, had it been blacks helping Jews, it would have drawn raves. The Italians are no worse than the blacks.”
In the months that followed Kahane and Colombo became, Slotnick says, “close and good friends.” In 1971, for example, Colombo helped Kahane organize a demonstration in Washington to protest the persecution of Soviet Jews. The demonstration, which Colombo and sixty of his followers attended, resulted in more than thirteen hundred arrests. Kahane told me Colombo paid bail and provided lawyers for some of those arrested. After the rally, Colombo “went on ABC/TV and said ‘We Italian-Americans demand that the American government cut relations with the Russians unless they let the Jews go,’ ” Kahane told me. “I wanted to kiss him.”
Kahane and Colombo were often seen together. Kahane took the mobster to his favorite kosher deli on the lower East Side and Colombo took the rabbi to his country club on Long Island to play golf. Kahane told critics. “I’ll march with anyone if I think I can help a Jew.” When Colombo was shot in the head by assassins while he was leading an Italian-American Unity Day rally in Columbus Circle, Kahane, who was to be a featured speaker, rushed to the hospital to visit his dying friend. “Colombo was a beautiful man and a friend of the Jewish people,” Kahane later told me.
Kahane in Israel
In September 1971, Kahane moved to Israel. “It was impossible for me to tell Jews to go to Israel without going myself,” he told me. At the time, Kahane told the Israeli press that he had no intention of entering local politics. He said he wanted to start his own kirya (or Jewish educational center). American Jewish graduates of the center, he told me, were to return to US college campuses and form student groups that would counteract Jewish left-wing activism in academia. Kahane had been given $100,000 by well-to-do New Yorkers to set up the center.
Later, Murray Wilson, a wealthy New York businessman who had given Kahane fifty thousand dollars, accused him of taking the money meant for the school and using it to finance a campaign for the Knesset. “We worked like dogs this spring and summer—with a minimum of help—to put out the best summer program Israel has ever had,” Kahane wrote Wilson. “If…you are disillusioned, tell me now, so I will know how to function. This school is going to put out Jewish leaders the way we want them.” Kahane sent Wilson a canceled check for three thousand dollars drawn on his personal bank account and made out to the school—a sum Kahane wrote represented his “total personal savings.”
The school soon collapsed and in 1973 Kahane ran for the Knesset as the head of the Kach party. At that time Kahane was getting much favorable attention in the Israeli press for his work on behalf of Soviet Jews. He polled 12,811 votes, just a few hundred short of the number required to obtain a Knesset seat. Kahane’s activities became more extreme, in part, he says, to gain publicity and win new followers. But his strategy backfired. When he ran again in 1977 and 1981, he lost by wide margins.
Meanwhile, Kahane was directing JDL activities in America. Following the murder of eleven Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics, Kahane ordered his followers to step up their violent activities in America. On May 17, 1973, Kahane, from his Jerusalem office, wrote the following letter to an associate in New York:
Dear Josh: If we can’t find some Jew(s) willing to blow up the Iraqui Embassy in Washington…and if we can’t get someone to shoot a Russian diplomat (anyone) we are Jewish pigs and deserve what we get.
P.S. for this you can try to get money from Joe Alster, Stern etc. You don’t go but send someone trustworthy with this letter—then burn it!
In another letter, Kahane outlined his plan to sabotage détente between the US and the Soviet Union.
All possible efforts have to be made to stop Brezhnev’s trip to America or, failing that, to ruin it. A successful visit will make detente an unstoppable thing and the Russians will then turn on their Jews…I suggest an immediate kidnapping or shooting of a diplomat.
Kahane named the Soviet diplomat, his Virginia address, and the model, make, year, and license-plate number of his car.
Kahane ordered a JDL member to place “a bomb at the offices of Occidental Petroleum to warn Armand Hammer and any other people against deals with the Russians. Similarly, at a Chase Manhattan Bank since David Rockefeller opened a bank in Moscow.”
Kahane also ordered a shooting attack on the Soviet embassy in Washington. He instructed an American Jewish high-school student who belonged to the JDL to have her teacher invite a Soviet diplomat to speak to her class so the JDL could assassinate him. “This is urgent for the survival of…Jews or else I would never ask you to risk things. After anything is done,” Kahane cautioned, “wait to hear the news broadcast and if no innocent person is killed, phone the press.”
The letters never reached their destination. They were intercepted by Shin Bet (Israel’s internal security sevice) and forwarded to the FBI. Although Kahane’s lawyers urged him to remain in Israel, in 1974 he returned to New York and was arrested on charges of violating the probation that had been granted after his 1971 conviction for conspiring to manufacture explosives. On February 21, 1975, the US government used the letters to revoke his probation.
“The letters—all the violence that the JDL…has used…was not a mindless violence or a heedless violence,” Kahane said to the Court before sentencing. “It was a lesson in political logic.” The letters had been written in response to Munich, which “struck at the very spirit of what people like to call The New Jew,” and against détente, which, he said, “doomed” Soviet Jews.
What I did I did, but I certainly never did it with a contempt for law, never. I did what I did. I will do what I may do again, because I love the law and there must be law with justice and there must be law with freedom and there must be law for all the people. If I ever stopped doing what I have to do, my wife would break up the family. I have the most wonderful wife and I spoke to her last Friday by telephone. She said, “Whatever happens, you just do what you have to do.”
So I can only end by saying that I don’t envy you, Your Honor. I did what the Government says I did and I violated probation and you will have to do what you have to do and do it with a good conscience and know that that which I did I did with a good conscience.
Kahane was sentenced to one year in prison. He served four months in jail in New York City and eight months in a minimum security federal penitentiary in Allenwood, Pennsylvania.
“Prison was a real joy,” he told me. “I read the Torah all day.”
According to one of the founders of the JDL and others who have worked with Kahane, the rabbi has set up numerous front groups that were to serve primarily as a means for both Kahane and the JDL to collect funds. In 1981, the Anti-Defamation League identified fifteen fictitious businesses soliciting funds for Jewish “causes” that were associated with the JDL in California. The ADL found that the businesses were no more than a name and a postbox.
Other fronts included SOIL (Save Our Israeli Land), which was set up by Kahane in 1974, and placed under the control of Dov Hikind, currently the New York assemblyman from the Forty-eighth District, which includes Boro Park in Brooklyn. SOIL, a group that demonstrated against returning Arab land captured by the Israeli Army in the 1967 Six Day War, was intended to attract people who wouldn’t want to be associated with the JDL. “The use of front groups should be encouraged within limitations,” Kahane wrote a JDL board member in 1974.
SOIL, under Dov H. is a good example of what can be done. I think Dov should be invited to the next Board meeting to explain what has been done and what is being done. All SOIL names should be discreetly funneled to JDL which in turn should be careful to contact these people only many weeks later and without saying that they were gotten from SOIL. Work closely with Dov; I told him that he is to listen.
Assemblyman Hikind denies that Kahane controlled SOIL.
In the same letter, Kahane recommended the formation of a JDL front group to be named Yiud (destiny) as a way of attracting young people between the ages of ten and seventeen who would be more stable emotionally than many of the members of the JDL. Kahane also suggested that the JDL organize a shul (temple). He explained: “A shul is never bothered by the IRS and it can be held in a store front in Brooklyn…. It is a great investment because then tax deductible contributions can be made with no trouble and the store can be used for meetings.”
Kahane travels to the US four or five times a year to raise money. He has collected millions of dollars from American Jewish businessmen since founding the JDL in 1968. Among the well-to-do Jews who have supported the JDL are Reuben Mattus, the founder and president of Haagen-Dazs ice cream, and Bob Jacobs, an accountant from Staten Island, who has also raised money on behalf of convicted Jewish terrorists in Israel. (Mattus told me he has ceased to contribute.) Kahane told me that donations to him have increased, “especially from Jewish millionaries,” since his election to the Knesset. “Everybody loves a winner,” he said.
Shortly after he arrived in Israel, Kahane turned his attention to Palestinian Arabs. In 1974 he first proposed the idea of setting up a Jewish anti-Arab terrorist underground. In his book The Jewish Idea, published in 1974, he wrote that
a world-wide Jewish anti-terror group be established and that this group must be organized and aided in exactly the same way as the terrorists are aided by Arab governments. With a serious face, the government of Israel must deny any connection with the group, even while allowing the same training bases on its soil as the Arab states allow the terrorists.
On June 13, 1980, he wrote in his weekly column in the Jewish Press, “Hundred(s) of Jewish lives will be lost, G-d forbid, unless the government immediately moves to…create a terror-against-terror group that will spread fear and shatter the souls of the Arabs in Eretz Yisrael.”
The Rabin government was not receptive to Kahane’s views on terrorism. Many of his young followers were. Sometime in 1975, according to Israeli police officials, Kahane began to build an anti-Arab terrorist underground calling itself TNT (Terror Against Terror) in Jerusalem and the occupied West Bank. Police sources in Israel I talked to say Kahane was usually very careful not to become directly involved in planning or carrying out terrorist acts. “He created the climate for his supporters to act in,” an Israeli police official told me. In May 1975, TNT struck for the first time, firebombing an empty Arab bus in an Arab suburb of East Jerusalem. A month later, four members of Kach were arrested for firebombing an East Jerusalem mosque. TNT struck sporadically during the next few years. After Begin was elected prime minister in 1977, the attacks grew more frequent and deadly.
In March 1984, five young JDL members from America who had trained with automatic weapons in a JDL training camp in the Catskills machine-gunned a bus filled with Arab workers near Jerusalem, wounding eight of them. Yehuda Richter, who came from Los Angeles and was Kahane’s deputy in Kach, was sentenced to eight years in prison for the attack. In October 1984, a young Sephardic Jew from a Jerusalem slum fired a US-made anti-tank rocket at an Arab bus, killing one and wounding many more. Kahane made the man an honorary member of Kach, paid for his lawyer, and said his act was “sanctified by God.”
Kahane himself has been arrested in Israel more than twenty times on charges ranging from sedition to inciting riots, which often occur when he and his followers visit an Arab village. On May 12, 1980, in an unprecedented action, former defense minister Ezer Weizman ordered Kahane to be detained for six months under the Emergency Powers Law of 1945 for purportedly plotting to blow up the Dome of the Rock Mosque in East Jerusalem—the third holiest shrine in Islam. Kahane was the first Jew to be arrested in the Jewish state under the law which was promulgated during the British Mandate in Palestine and which Israel has since used extensively against Arab terrorists.
Kahane was last arrested in Israel two years ago, on January 5, 1984, when he held a demonstration with about fifteen followers in support of arrested members of TNT. Kahane and two of his supporters were being charged with incitement to riot when they walked out of the West Jerusalem police station while the police were busy filling out forms. Kahane hid in Jerusalem for two days before he gave himself up “but of course, not before I gave a press conference.”
Kahane has called Jews who have been arrested for terrorist acts against Arabs “nice Jewish boys” and says they “have fulfilled a holy task.” Those in Kach who have been arrested for terrorist violence have been defended by lawyers hired by Kach and supported by Kahane at rallies and fund-raisers in both Israel and America.
In November 1984, when I interviewed Kahane at the Tudor Hotel on East Forty-second Street in New York, I asked him: “You were quoted as having applauded recent Jewish terrorist attacks against Arabs in Israel.”
“Yes,” he said. “What am I supposed to do? What are we supposed to do when Arabs at their own initiative…kill Jews? What are we supposed to do about that?”
“Did you know in advance of the TNT terrorist attacks or help plan them?” I asked.
“Next question,” he replied.
Kahane has often explained his hatred of Arabs. “There are hundreds of unreported incidents of Arabs attacking and sexually molesting Jews [in Israel],” he told me during an interview in Jerusalem in 1979. “And who do you think plants bombs here—the American Boy Scouts? I don’t want to live in a state where I have to worry about being blown up in the back of a bus.
“I don’t blame the Arabs for hating us,” the rabbi said. “This was their land—once. And no matter what the Israeli left says, you can’t buy Arab love with indoor toilets and good health care. Israeli Arabs and West Bank Arabs identify with the PLO. They also multiply like rabbits. At their rate of growth they will take over the Knesset in twenty-five years. I am not prepared to sacrifice Zionism to democracy. There is only one solution: the Arabs must leave Israel!
“Of course it’s not nice. Did I say it’s nice? Is it nice when Israel bombs the PLO in Lebanon and kills women and children? We have smart bombs, not nice bombs.”
“How would you implement these ideas if you were the prime minister of Israel?” I asked.
“I’d go to the Arabs and tell them to leave,” he replied. “I’d promise generous compensation. If they refused, I’d force them out.”
“How could you do that?” I asked. “Midnight deportations in cattle cars?”
“Yes! I’m not a racist. A racist is a Jew who says Arabs can be equal citizens in a Jewish state.”
Kahane’s anti-Arab message has found considerable support among Israel’s Sephardim. As early as 1979, in an attempt to broaden Kach’s political base, he set up religious and ideological study groups in the slums of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. He tried to attract young people by offering them karate training if they attended his classes in “Jewish values.”
“Once we hook them” he told me, “we emphasize two things. First, Arabs. They don’t like Arabs. They come from Arab countries.
“Second, poverty. When we speak of poverty, we speak of spiritual poverty. The reaction to being poor and how one copes with it is different when one has values. The Jews in Mea Sharem [the ultra-Orthodox quarter in Jerusalem] have twelve kids and live in two rooms and they don’t go out and commit crimes.”
He tries to teach young people from the poor neighborhoods to find their spiritual and emotional center in Judaism. They should, he tells them, move out to the fresh Judean air and build new settlements. He envisions the West Bank filled, one day, with proud Oriental Jews.
Kahane believes any act is acceptable if it is dictated by halakah (Jewish religious law), which in his view overrides the democratically enacted laws of the state. According to his interpretation of religious law, every Jew must return to Eretz Yisrael and build up the land in preparation for the End of Days and the redemption of mankind. Any act not specifically forbidden by religious law is, for Kahane, permissible to achieve those goals.
“My purpose in life, therefore, is to say the things that no other Jewish leader is saying—that the fate of the Jewish people in the Galut (exile) and in Israel rests on their being Jewish again. This can only be done in Israel. Only then will God shine his light on Zion.”
Kahane has argued that Messianic redemption would have taken place if the Israeli government had expelled the Arabs, destroyed the Dome of the Rock Mosque, which was built on top of the ruins of the Second Temple, and annexed Judea and Samaria. “Had we acted without considering the Gentile reaction,” Kahane has written, “without fear of what he may say or do, the Messiah would have come right through the open door and brought us redemption.”
The main question that concerns him about the future, he claims, is how much suffering Jews have to endure before redemption. “A horrible world war is coming,” Kahane told me in January 1980. “Tens of millions will die. It will be the Apocalypse. God will punish us for forsaking him. But we must have faith. The Messiah will come. There will be a resurrection of the dead—all the things that Jews believed in before they got so damn sophisticated. The amount of suffering we endure will depend upon what we do between now and the end.
“That’s up to us—it’s not up to God.”
In the Knesset
Kahane has prepared several bills for the Knesset. One calls for the expulsion of Israel’s Arabs. Another would make it a crime punishable by two years in jail for a Jewish woman to have sex with an Arab. A third would make it illegal to insult Judaism and the Jewish people. “We state that anyone who declares that any verse or saying in the Bible, the Talmud, or the Commentary isn’t true is racist and should be subject to three years in prison,” Kahane told me. (See box on opposite page.)
“After your election, you promised to drive Israel crazy. Are you doing so?” I asked Kahane during our interview at the Tudor Hotel.
“I am. I get up in the Knesset and say: ‘When I’m prime minister no Arab will be hurt by Jewish terrorists because there won’t be an Arab left in Israel! Then everyone rages in the Knesset, and then it’s shown on TV, and the attorney general makes his statement condemning racism, then there are demands made all over the place to strip me of my parliamentary immunity. And just when Israeli news editors decide not to give Kahane any more coverage—to keep him off the front pages—I do something outrageous and it’s a media event. I’m playing games…. Every time I walk into the Knesset, the other 119 members die a thousand deaths!”
Kahane claims that his prospects improved when Prime Minister Menachem Begin left the political scene. When Begin resigned from politics, more of the Sephardim, especially young people, supported Kahane. “Begin could have done anything and the streets would have gone with him. I used to hear from people, ‘If I had a second vote, you would have it.’ I knew I couldn’t beat Begin. So I patiently waited. I wouldn’t attack Begin because it was foolish to attack Begin. But his leaving was good for me and it was certainly good for the Jewish people.
“I am an Ashkenazi Orthodox Jewish rabbi leading a mass movement which is predominately Sephardim,” Kahane boasted to me. “I have the streets! That’s what frightens the left.”
Kill the Jew
Kahane and his followers have also turned their wrath on Jews. Kach squads have attacked Israeli antiwar demonstrations, assaulted homosexuals and Jewish women who have had relations with Arabs, and threatened liberal politicians, artists, and journalists. Even Israeli government officials are not immune. In September 1984, after Morton Dolinsky, then head of the Israeli Government Press Office, told United Press International that he opposed Kahane’s methods, he received a threatening telegram from Boston saying, “You have striven by every means in your power to defame and destroy our movement. Now that we have gained some element of power we intend to deal with you as you have dealt with us.” I was signed, “Friends of Rabbi Meir Kahane.”
“The Jewish establishment is not relevant to the Jewish people,” Kahane told me in November 1984. “I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again, they are pygmies, they are dwarfs, they are imbeciles…. They are ignorant of what Jewish destiny is…and they are in the way, they are in the way.”
In his August 31, 1984, column in the Jewish Press, Kahane came close to saying that he favored the liquidation of Jews whose views he finds pernicious. “In order to save Israel,” he writes, “the Torah says to burn out the evil from our midst. Indeed, the rabbis of the Talmud bring down the verse, ‘and thou shalt love thy fellow Jew as thyself’ in order to explain why we must kill the Jew who is deserving of death in a humane way.
“Love of Jews? Of course. And sacrifice for them; by all means. But when a Jew rises to challenge fundamentals of God, Jewry and Israel, that Jew must be stopped. And indeed, the punishment that we bring on the wicked Jew goes a long and necessary way to atonement for him in the world to come.”
Kahane named some of the Jews he thinks must be stopped: “If Yosi Sarid and Shulamit Aloni2 and Mapam3 and Meir Vilner4 and the whole host of Hellenists, spiritually sick, move to threaten the very existence of Judaism, Jewry, and Israel—there is nothing moral about tolerating it. To the contrary, it is the most immoral and evil of things. Their evil threatens every Jew, their sins will sink the Jewish ship which carries every Jew. If Schindler5 and Reform Judaism split Jews into two separate camps and threaten the very definition of a Jew with their ignorant arrogance, are we to be ‘tolerant’ and ‘moderate’?
“It takes great strength to love Jews so much that one fights for them. It takes, perhaps, even more strength to love Jews so much that one fights Jews who would destroy them. The pity is that most Jews are so weak and apathetic that they neither love nor hate enough. They remain indifferent and ‘pareve’, seeking to hide from responsibility. But the truth remains that we are in need of the strong Jews. Those strong enough to love and hate and wise enough to know when to do what. ‘Any scholar who is not as strong as iron is not a scholar.’ Where are the scholars? Where is the strength?”
Minister of Defense
At a speech in Haifa on June 28, 1985, Kahane attacked Jews and Arabs equally. “No one can understand the soul of those (Arab) beasts, those roaches. We shall either cut their throats or throw them out. I only say what you think.” According to a report by No’omi Cohen in Kolbo Haifa, a local Haifa newspaper, Kahane then directed a stream of obscenities against the mayor of Haifa, Arieh Goral, and Shulamit Aloni and Yosi Sarid, whom he called “scoundrel,” “dog,” “disgusting,” and “Jewish prostitutes who employ Arab pimps.”
Cohen concluded her account of the speech by quoting a promise Kahane made to the audience: “In two years time, they (the Arabs) will turn on the radio and hear that Kahane has been named Minister of Defense. Then they will come to me, bow to me, lick my feet, and I will be merciful and will allow them to leave. Whoever does not leave will be slaughtered.”
Persona Non Grata
The Israeli government and some private organizations have introduced a number of measures designed to curtail Kahane’s growing influence in Israel. On December 25, 1984, in an attempt to limit Kahane’s parliamentary immunity, the Knesset voted to allow the police to bar Kahane from entering Arab villages, where he had frequently gone to exhort the Arabs to leave Israel. However, Kahane’s other rights of parliamentary immunity, including freedom from prosecution, remain intact. The government also has banned Kahane from entering Israeli high schools, and from speaking on radio and television. Furthermore, the Knesset is considering an amendment to the Basic Law that would forbid a party that advocates racist views from participating in Knesset elections. Kahane would undoubtedly appeal such an amendment to the High Court, which previously overturned the Knesset Rules Committee’s attempt to prevent him from running in the 1984 parliamentary elections.
This fall the Knesset stopped Kahane from introducing two bills it considered antidemocratic—one limiting the rights of non-Jews in Israel, and the other prohibiting sex between Jews and Arabs. Kahane appealed to the High Court. On November 2, 1985, the High Court ordered the Knesset presidium to permit Kahane to table his bills. While acknowledging that the bills were reminiscent of Nazi regulations against the Jews in Germany, the court ruled that Kahane, as a Knesset member, had the democratic right to introduce legislation. The speaker of the Knesset, however, has ignored the ruling, and Kahane has again appealed to the High Court. (Kahane is also appealing the State Department’s decision of last October to strip him of American citizenship.)
More recently, on December 1, 1985, the Anti-Defamation League of the B’nai Brith organization, which has been active in opposing Kahane in the US, began to sponsor a weekly public service announcement on Israeli television warning against the danger of Kahane and his ideology. Meanwhile, anti-Kahane groups have formed a center–left ad hoc coalition capable of mobilizing thousands of demonstrators to disrupt Kahane’s public speaking engagements. Several such demonstrations took place in 1985.
Kahane’s most serious challenge, however, is from the right. “Until 1984, the religious-nationalist camp did not consider Kahane a challenge,” says Dr. Ehud Sprinzak of Hebrew University, an expert on Israeli extremist groups. “No effort was made to curtail his influence in Yeshivot and West Bank settlements. This is no longer the case. Electoral strength in Israel translates into power and money, and there is little readiness to share them with Kahane.” Ariel Sharon, who his supporters claim is the strongman Israel needs to stop Kahane and solve the country’s social and political difficulties, told his followers at a rally last July that “our danger is not Yosi Sarid, but rather Kahane, who takes all our votes.”
Yet despite Kahane’s legal vulnerability and the challenges from the right and the left, it is unlikely that he will disappear soon from the Israeli parliamentary scene. According to Israeli pollster Hanoch Smith, Kahane has made impressive gains among his core constituency—the young, poorly educated Sephardim from Israel’s slums and development towns who compete with Israeli Arabs for low-paying jobs in a weak economy. “Kahane expressed the Sephardim’s hatred of the Arabs and their frustration with the economy,” Smith told me. The amount of support he receives from the Sephardic community “is directly related to the level of Arab terrorism directed against Jews in Israel.” When terrorism was high, as it was last summer, Kahane polled 9 percent of the electorate. But when economic and political tensions decline, so does his support—“not because Kahane has been discredited, but because they (the Sephardim) feel less threatened,” Smith says. It is possible, on this view, that Kahane’s popularity will subside.
Some Israeli observers believe that the broad opposition to him, combined with his own extremism, will force him to the margins of politics. “No doubt, if Kahane poses a threat in the next election, the Knesset and the High Court will find a way to keep him from running,” I was told by Nachum Barnea, the editor of Koterit Rashit, a weekly magazine published in Jerusalem. Kahane’s behavior, he said, has been more circumspect in recent months because he fears that the High Court will outlaw his party. “But when he’s less provocative he gets less coverage,” and with less publicity his popularity diminishes.
Nevertheless, Smith says, if Kahane runs “it’s probable” that he will “at least hold his seat and gain a few more” in the next election. “He’s a threat with even a few seats.” If elections are held and there is a stalemate between Labor and Likud, and Kahane has four or five seats, he will be in a position of considerable power. If Likud wanted to form a government, they might have to come to terms with him. Unfortunately, Smith says, “He’s not persona non grata enough” to be excluded from a political deal.
Dr. Sprinzak, who believes kahane is a “significant political force,” points out that if he got the votes of 5 to 6 percent of the electorate (or about six seats) Kahane would be the head of the third largest bloc of votes in Israel. “That would almost certainly mean kahane would get a cabinet post if there were a Likud government,” he says. “Kahane wants the Ministry of Defense. He would never get that. They would give him the Ministry of Interior. He would be in charge of civil rights and minority affairs. Can you imagine what that would mean?”
Kahane would probably agree with much of what Smith and Sprinzak say about him. He sees his power and strength growing as Israeli society itself becomes more deeply polarized along ethnic, social, and political lines. “I always knew I’d get a [Knesset] seat,” Kahane told me in November 1984.
And if they hold elections in a year, we will get many, many more seats. If unemployment in a year is as high as we think it will be, and if inflation in a year is as high as we think it will be, and if Ronald Reagan—who of course is a disaster for the Jewish people—pressures the Israeli government to trade land for peace, and there are more Arab terrorist attacks on Jews, it’s completely conceivable that we will have eight to ten seats…. The worse it gets for Israel, the better it is for me!
Political and economic conditions in Israel are not as bad as Kahane hoped, but throughout the country one finds wall slogans calling for the expulsion of Arabs or the death of various liberal politicians and signed with a Kach logo—a clenched fist exploding through a black Star of David. It seems much too soon to dismiss the threat of Rabbi Meir Kahane.
This document, drawn up by Michael Eytan, a Likud-Herut member of the Knesset, compared the following anti-Arab laws proposed by Rabbi Meir Kahane with the Nazi Nuremberg laws enacted against the Jews.
Segregation at bathing beaches
Separate beaches to be set out for Jews and non-Jews, [the beaches to be] of equal standard. Any member of one people found at a beach set aside for the other shall be liable to six months’ imprisonment.
Status of non-Jews
- They shall have no national rights, nor any share in the political process within the state of Israel. A non-Jew may not be appointed to any position of authority, nor allowed to vote in elections to the Knesset or any other state or public body.
- They will undertake duties, taxes and servitude. Whosoever fails to consent to servitude and taxes will be forcibly deported.
Ban on mixed marriages
Jews or Jewesses, citizens or residents of Israel, are prohibited from marrying non-Jews, whether in the country or abroad. Such marriages will not be recognized.
Restriction of residence
A non-Jew shall not reside within the boundaries of jurisdiction of the city of Jerusalem.
Extramarital relations between Jews and non-Jews
- Jews or Jewesses, citizens of Israel, are forbidden to hold intimate relations, full or partial, in any form, with non-Jews, even within a marital framework. Offenders against this article are liable to two years’ imprisonment.
A non-Jew pursuing intimate relations with a Jewish whore or Jewish male is liable to fifty years’ imprisonment. A Jewish prostitute or Jewish male who has intimate relations with a non-Jewish male, is liable to five years’ imprisonment.
Segregation of pupils
All education institutions in the Land of Israel shall be separate for Jews and non-Jews.
Preventing meetings between youth
Mixed summer camps, community youth and social centers, and all other mixed institutions, shall be abolished.
February 13, 1986
I include some of his statements quoted in my article on him in Present Tense (August, 1980). ↩
Sarid and Aloni are members of the Citizens Rights Movement party in the Knesset. ↩
Mapam is a left-wing labor party. ↩
Vilner is the Secretary General of the New Communist Party and a member of the Knesset. ↩
Alexander Schindler is head of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations. ↩