Is Meir Kahane Winning?: Reflections on Benjamin Netanyahu, the Hilltop Youth, and AIPAC
There are few Jewish figures in the contemporary Jewish imaginary as seemingly irredeemable as Meir Kahane. In 1986 the Israeli Parliament passed “The Racism Law” specifically targeting Kahane and his KACH party that eventually removed him from the Knesset. Even though the law could arguably have been applied to others in subsequent Israeli Parliaments (even some who openly espouse allegiance to Kahane) it never has been and likely never will. It was a law legislated to invalidate one individual.
In America, The Jewish Defense League he founded in 1968 has long been discredited, even as it still exists, and his vision of the diaspora, Jews, race, and ethno-absolutism is an embarrassment to much of the American Jewish public. His militaristic tactics are often viewed as obsolete and a product of an angry time in American political history (1960s). While he was a driving force in the Movement for Soviet Jewry he has in large part been marginalized in the telling of its history (an exception would be Gal Becker’s excellent When they come for us we will be gone which treats Kahane appropriately). His books in English are only available because they are re-printed by an institute devoted to the publications of his writings. He has received some scholarly attention, although no scholarly biography has yet been written, but in most cases he has been largely written out of postwar American Jewish history even though he was arguably one of the most influential Jewish voices in America and Israel from the late 1960s through the 1980s. For example, how many prominent Jews speaking for the Jewish people were featured in an interview in Playboy Magazine (1972) or regularly appeared in major newspapers such as The New York Times? For over a decade he edited the weekly The Jewish Press and often wrote most of the articles under pseudonyms. During the late 1960s there were high level meetings between White House officials and the Russian ambassador to the United Nations about Meir Kahane in regards to the Movement for Soviet Jewry. He worked for a time as a covert agent for the CIA infiltrating into The John Birch Society. He wrote a book in 1967 in favor of the Vietnam War called The Jewish Stake in Vietnam. Yet in Jonathan Sarna’s definitive and comprehensive American Judaism: A History, he is not mentioned even once.
In Israel, of course, the situation is very different. In the aftermath of the second Intifada “Kahane was right” graffiti was ubiquitous. Baruch Goldstein, the settler who murdered more than 30 Muslim worshippers in 1994, was close to Kahane. There is Kahane Park in the city of Kiryat Arba. Yet while Kahanist groups still exist, they have largely merged with radical messianists of the Kookean school (Kahane had little interest in Kook or messianism) and become a more home-grown Israeli phenomenon couching militant politics with highly-charged romanticism about the state and the land of Israel. Kahane’s world-view, on the other hand, was actually quite diasporist, albeit staunchly Zionist, meaning that Kahane’s politics were largely transplanted from the Identity Politics of 1960s America, particularly urban New York. And yet even given Kahane’s continued presence in Israel, his name is not often invoked in Israel’s parliamentary politics. If anything, he is conspicuous in his absence. As much as we think Kahane is a ghost of the past I submit that he is, in fact, more influential now than he was during his lifetime, both in Israel and in America. The problem is that we barely recognize him.
I want to illustrate this by two recent occurrences; first, a brief interview given by Kahane’s widow Libby Kahane regarding her grandson Meir Ettinger published by The Jewish Telegraph Agency on February 10, 2016. And second, the 2016 AIPAC convention and the response of many of its participants to Donald Trump’s speech. An analysis of both instances will illustrate what I think is often overlooked in regards to Meir Kahane. He is with us now, hidden in plain sight.
To properly understand Kahane one must divide his work into two overlapping but distinct areas. First, his tactics, and second, his worldview. While for him the former served the latter, the more contemporary articulation of his influence essentially separates tactics from worldview. The former is adopted by his grandson Meir Ettinger and his compatriots and the latter is adopted by a much broader swath of the Jewish public, both in Israel and many ways unwittingly, in the United States.
In her interview, Libby Kahane claimed that her grandson Meir Ettinger was not following in her husband’s footsteps. She said, “The ideas I hear he has are not Meir [Kahane’s] ideas.” I think she is only half right. Ettinger has called for the use of violence not only against the Arabs but against the state. He has openly called for overthrowing the state and for establishing a Torah monarchy in its place. This deviates from Kahane in two ways. First, Kahane never called for violence against the state of Israel. Second, while he worked for what he hoped would become a Torah state and, in addition, called for his followers to secede from the Israeli state and establish an adjacent state of Judea (those who know Jewish history know that this would not be a new idea) violence was only a legitimate tool against the Arabs. Kahane did not believe Israel should, or could be, a democracy, calling Israel’s Declaration of Independence, which declares it a “Jewish and democratic state,” a “schizophrenic” document. He called secular Israelis “Jewish Hellenists” and “Hebrew speaking goyim.” I even think by the late 1980s he lost all hope in Zionism. But he never called for violently overthrowing the state. Ettinger on the other hand openly calls for overthrowing the state. This is an interesting case of a Kahanist who, by adopting only one half of his grandfather’s program – his tactics of violence – essentially becomes an anti-Zionist and shares more with the ultra-Orthodox anti-Zionist Neturei Karta than the followers of Rav Kook (even as Neturei Karta remain largely pacifist in their protest the state). So Libby Kahane is half right, adopting her husband’s tactics without his worldview leads to anti-Zionism. That was not her husband’s will. While Meir Kahane may have given up on Zionism by the late 1980s he never became an anti-Zionist.
But there is another side to this story. In terms of Kahane’s world-view I think his influence is so ubiquitous that we don’t even notice it. In fact, I think it arguably represents the views of many in the present Israeli government. Take for example Benjamin Netanyahu’s 2013 UN speech about the Iran nuclear program. Netanyahu bases Israel’s right to its “ancestral land” on the Hebrew Bible, claiming “[biblical] prophecies are being realized.” He bases the entire justification, and necessity, of Israel on anti-Semitism, comparing the Iranian regime to the Nazis. He often claims that we are living once again in “1938,” perpetuating a perennial existential crisis. He tells the Jews of France that they have no future in France and should all immigrate to Israel. One could say that Netanyahu speaks the truth here and that, in any case, these ideas were not Kahane’s innovations. But Kahane articulated them in a particular way that leaves little room for normalization, little hope for reconciliation because, for him, anti-Semitism is in the very DNA of the gentile. These were not the views of much of Zionism for most of its history but today it has arguably become almost normative among members of the coalition.
One could respond that this is the result of Arab aggression, Iranian rhetoric, the second Intifada, or of U.N. bias against Israel. And maybe that is also true to some extent. But the way we respond to anything is never totally reactive, only partially so. Otherwise we sacrifice all agency. Kahane did not view his position as reactive, he viewed it as prescriptive. In that way, at least, he was honest. The path chosen among many of Israel’s ruling class, Netanyahu among them, is in my view Kahanist in world-view but not in tactics. It is not only reactive, it is also prescriptive. Israel is still a democracy, although its democracy is eroded with every new Knesset legislation that limits individual rights, minority rights, and freedom of expression. The ruling party in Israel today sees the world largely the way Kahane did, even if presently it chooses another way of responding.
In some way this should not be surprising. Since 1977 with the election of Menachem Begin, Israel has mostly been ruled by those influenced by the Revisionist Zev Jabotinsky (Netanyahu’s father Ben Zion was Jabotisnsky’s secretary and was, for a time, the head of the Revisionist Movement in America). Kahane was a member of Jabotisnky’s Betar youth movement as an adolescent and Jabotinsky was arguably Kahane’s greatest influence. He even considered naming his “Jewish Defense League” “The Jewish Legion” after Jabotinsky’s organization. But of course, as Hillel Halkin so eloquently described in his recent biography of Jabotinsky, Jabostinsky had another side. He was deeply affected by having witnessed the rise of fascism in Italy. He had a strong humanistic side, held himself to be a European cosmopolitan, a man of letters, and he was a strong advocate of minority rights.
Growing up in the streets of postwar Brooklyn after the Holocaust, Kahane adopted only one side of Jabotinsky. Fighting the rise of black anti-Semitism, protesting Jewish white flight to the suburbs, and polemicizing against Jewish liberalism, he had no time or inclination for humanism. He brought to Israel the racism he learned on those mean streets of New York. And it is this that has sadly become the Kahanist world-view of too many in contemporary Israel. Mixed with the home-grown messianism of the Kookists couched in a still functioning democracy, Kahane’s world-view without his tactics is far more influential today than anytime during his life. Israel rightfully worries about the tactical Kahanists like Ettinger. But as to the world-view Kahanists, Kahane’s influence is hardly noticeable.
As I watched the cheering crowds at the AIPAC conference when Trump delivered his pro-Israel platitudes, I realized how much Kahane’s world-view is alive and well in the U.S. as well. I am quite certain that very few, if any, attending the AIPAC conference were Kahanists. But they behaved that way. One of Kahane’s main points was that Jews should only care about Jews, compassion for the gentile is a form of liberal weakness. Compassion for the gentile is “goyish.” The Jew is responsible for one thing only; the welfare and self-interest of the Jews. So when the participants in the arena stood up and cheered when Trump offered his rehearsed pro-Israel lines, a man who has openly espoused racist and Islamophobia rhetoric, disparages women in public, mimics disabled journalists, and arguably incites violence, I hear Kahane’s voice in my head, “Jews only have a responsibility for other Jews.” As long as Trump says he loves Israel he is our welcome guest. In many ways Trump sounds very much like an American Kahane. And the crowd at AIPAC gave him a standing ovation!
It is true that AIPAC is a one-issue lobby with no moral mandate. So when they said they invited Trump because they invite all presidential candidates I cringed but also understood. AIPAC only cares about one thing; access to power. But the room was filled with rabbis, cantors, Jewish educators and lay leaders, professional Jews. Is Israel so important that everything else evaporates as long as one says “I love Israel?” Does Judaism teach nothing about one’s responsibility to the world, to justice, to basic decency? For Kahane it does not. And for Trump it does not. For Kahane, Judaism teaches that the Jew is only responsible for the Jew. If someone supports us, we should not care who they are or what they do. That is Kahanism. And this is what I witnessed at AIPAC.
The militant (half) Kahanism of Meir Ettinger is transparent and thus easier to recognize. Ettinger’s tactical Kahanism is problematic but manageable. World-view Kahanism, on the other hand, is far more dangerous because it easily becomes normative, justifiable, and thus unrecognizable. As I watched Jews of all stripes, lay Jews, professional Jews, proud Jews cheer Trump simply because he said nice things about Israel I thought to myself that we don’t realize how much Kahane has indeed won. And for someone who cares deeply about the Jews, that is the most dangerous development of all.