Meir Kahane

TJH December 1985, vol. XXIII, no. 5

Meir Kahane.  

Some Jews adore him and revere him as a modern day prophet. Many Jews fear him and hate him. Most Jews regard him as a continuing embarrassment.  

Whatever the response to his programs and policies, all Jews are agreed that his publicity skills are extraordinary. Hardly a day passes without some reference to his activities in the media. He obviously has the power to keep himself in the limelight for a long period of time and to force the Jewish establishment to deal with him publicly.  

Although today Kahane is the only representative of his right-wing party in the Knesset, polls indicate that should an early election be held he would capture 10  percent of the vote. His bite may almost be as bad as his bark. 

How do we explain the emergence in Israel of a successful political figure who advocates the expulsion of all Arabs and who pleads that democracy is an inappropriate political structure for the Jewish state?  

There is no single cause. The continuous 40-year battle with the Arab world has created a war mentality that views all Arabs as the hated enemy. The frustration over persistent Palestinian terrorism feeds the hostility. The disillusionment that followed the inconclusive struggle in Lebanon searches for some Arab victim to receive the energy of its despair. The nearly impossible task of absorbing the occupied territories of the West Bank and Gaza feeds the creation of dramatic action and fantasy solutions. The decay of the Likud, Begin’s conservative coalition, which has now consented to share the government with its more liberal opponents, encourages opportunities on the right to recruit the devotees who represent the compromise. The long-standing Sephardic anger against the old Ashkenazic establishment expresses itself in a direct attack on the patriotism of the ruling class. Above all, the new immigration of ultra-Orthodox Jews from North America provides troops and fanatic fury for the street thugs of the Kahane movement.  

Whatever the causes, the Kahane phenomenon is real and dangerous.  

What is its significance? What does it say to us about the present and the future of the Jewish state?  

The Kahane phenomenon is a vivid proof that racism and fascism are just as Jewish as universalism and socialism. The call for the expulsion of Arabs from the Jewish state is no different from the demand of German Nazis for the eviction of the Jews from German soil. There are many elements in traditional rabbinic Judaism that encourage chauvinism and a violent hatred of outsiders. Given the privilege of majority status, the victim becomes the victimizer.  

Kahane, as a traditional rabbi turned politician, is an example of the danger in marrying nationalism with religion. The original pioneers of a militaristic nationalism, like Vladimir Jabotinsky, regarded the superstition and fanaticism of the traditional religious sector with as much disdain as their socialist opponents. Although it encouraged violence, it was free of the Messianic foolishness which now characterizes the new conservatives. Begin, with politicial astuteness, encourafged the merger of two previousy incompatible Zionist trends. The result is the Jewish version of the army of Ayatolla Khomeini. A militant chauvinism receives religious sanction.  

Kahane, like Hitler, derives much of his success from saying out loud what many people are thinking, but which most of them are too embarrassed to proclaim publicly. By speaking racism without inhibition, he makes it respectable. If politicians dar utter the forbidden words of racism, ordinary citizens certainly have the right to do the same. What was formerly clandestine, associated with shame, now becomes an accepted part of the political dialogue. Like the proclamations of the ancient Persian king, the sentiment, once uttered, cannot be recalled.  

The Kahane phenomenon is a testimony to the emergence in Israeli politics of violent confrontation. Although Begin’s rhetoric often encouraged spontaneous physical attacks on opponents in the streets, the recruitment of thugs to engineer personal assaults and public disturbances is something new and frightening. Especially the use of provacative insults like “traitor” and “blasphemer” gives ordinary criminals the right to pose as the self-righteous defenders of the faith.  

Kahane demonstrates the irony of Arab-Jewish relations. Its propoganda encourages the very Arab alienation which the racists claim justifies the expulsion of the Arabs. The more Kahane speaks and is publicized, the more do Israeli Arabs and their West Bank Palestinian brothers feel that they can find no comfortable place within the Jewish state. The more Arab alienation, the more Arab violence. The more Arab violence, the more the Kahane demand for Jewish counter-violence.  

The Kahane upsurge certainly reflects the weakening of the Likud coalition. Originally a small right-wing party controlled by Menachem Begin, the Likud emerged as a marriage between militaristic nationalists and the capitalist opponents of Zionest socialism. With the socialist decline in the mid-’70’s. Likud assumed political power in 1977 and expanded its security base by forging an alliance with the religous right. However, the retirement of Begin  and the revival of the Labor opposition, has left the coalition in disarray. No longer finding resolute leadership within the major conservative party, many right wingers are turning to the new fringe groups on the right for political expression. The more Likud decays, the stronger will Kahane grow.  

Kahane has been a catalyst for the Israeli left. There is nothing like a terrifying enemy to mobilize the indifferent. The one positive consequence of Kahane’s emergence to prominence is that he, like Jerry Falwell, forces lazy liberals to take political action and to patch up old quarrels for the sake of effective confrontation. By simply being the monster that he is, he fuels the energies of reluctant secular Zionists and their liberal religious friends.  

What should be done about Kahane? 

The answer is not one that orthodox civil libertarians like. But freedom of speech and political organization can never be absolutes. They are functions of the preservation of social order and a democratic political system.  

Kahane’s political party, like all political parties that preach racism, needs to be banned. Israel is not America. Israel is a vulnerable bi-national state at war with its neighbors. It cannot afford the luxury of racist incitement to violence. Just as West Germany appropriately forbids the establishment of openly Nazi political organizations, so must Israel forbid the right of Kahane to sit and preach in the Israeli parliament.  

Political bans cannot ban the convictions that give rise to the crisis. But they do remove the political respectability that enhances the prestige of organized racism and makes it more difficult to operate.  

A democracy that believes in survival does not masochistically allow itself to be used for its own destruction. At this time when Arab-Jewish reconciliation is so essential to Israel’s survival, absolute political freedom is less important than peace.