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  • Ben Metzner

Kahane in the Light of History

Meir Kahane has reemerged in the public consciousness in the wake of this year’s Israeli elections, which saw Kahanist Itamar Ben-Gvir emerge as a powerful member of Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition in the Knesset. Owing to Kahane’s sudden relevance in the discourse, historical focus on Kahane is likely to follow.

Shaul Magid, with his Meir Kahane: The Public Life and Political Thought of an American Jewish Radical, has gotten out in front of any Kahane Studies explosion. He does not claim to be a canary in a Kahanist Studies coal mine, nor to forecast a Kahanist insurgency in Israel before Jewish Power’s victory. Instead, his thesis deals with the unacknowledged influence of Kahane in the Jewish imagination: that “we have absorbed more of his worldview than we think.” The impetus for his intellectual biography of Kahane is not the jackbooted Kahanist marching in East Jerusalem, but the mild-mannered American Modern Orthodox Jew waiting in the bar mitzvah buffet line with Magid, unapologetically announcing that he “[agrees] with everything Kahane said, [that] everything he predicted came true.”

Magid claims that the book is “an intervention into contemporary Judaism and Jewishness as much as it is a book about Meir Kahane.” He argues that Kahane’s ideas have been internalized in the Jewish imagination even as American Jews have expunged him from their history. Kahane’s grip on American Judaism endures, even if, as Magid observes, his name never appears in Jonathan Sarna’s seminal American Judaism. As such, Meir Kahane, a biography that takes as each of its chapters a different component of Kahane’s ideology, is not a biography of Kahane the rabbi, Kahane the Brooklynite, or even Kahane the politician, but of Kahane’s body of doctrine.

Magid loosely traces the chronology of Kahane’s political development: his founding of the Jewish Defense League, his anti-communism and agitation for Soviet Jewry, his emigration to Israel. But the focus, from Kahane’s activism during the Ocean Hill-Brownsville teachers’ strike to his extremism in Israel, remains on his ideas. This might lead a less capable historian to an undeserved assumption of intellectual seriousness common in intellectual histories of the far right. For his part, Magid dutifully guards against this impulse. He takes Kahane seriously, but resists lending him his scholarly imprimatur. The result is a well-considered intellectual history, harshly critical but never unfair, thought-provoking but never needlessly controversial.

Kahane’s project, in Brownsville as in Gush Emunim, was thoroughly American, Magid contends. In Israel, Kahane Americanized the previously nationalist conflict between Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs by introducing a racial dimension. And in America, having imbibed the militancy of the social movements of the late 1960s, Kahane appropriated the imagery of the American left. Magid puts Kahane in conversation with his ideological predecessor, the Revisionist Zionist Ze’ev Jabotinsky, but also with Stokely Carmichael, with the Zionist paramilitary group Irgun, but also with the Weather Underground and, particularly fruitfully, the Black Panthers (Kahane often called the JDL the “Jewish Panthers”). The interplay between tactics and ideology on the radical left and right is central to Magid’s narrative. Highlighting Kahane’s begrudging respect for the New Left and Abbie Hoffman’s comment that he agreed with Kahane’s “methods but not his cause,” Magid argues that Kahane drew more from the American radical left than the Jewish right. Magid’s comparison of the “heroic revolutionaries” of Kahanist Jewish history to “Jewish Eldridge Cleavers and Che Guevaras” is, then, not provocative, but trenchant.

Magid’s effort to plumb the intellectual climate of Kahane’s time is par for the course for intellectual history. Unique is Magid’s use of contemporary theory and interdisciplinary frameworks with which to understand Kahane. Magid makes sense of Kahane’s belief that antisemitism is an endemic and eternal feature of society with a comparison to Frank Wilderson’s Afropessimism. Kahane’s belief in Jew hatred as sui generis to diasporic life is refracted through the lens of “Judeopessimism.” He borrows from critical race theorists the concept of "grammars of racism” to understand how Kahane, with his track record of anti-Blackness and Arabophobia, strategically deployed racist rhetoric with the JDL and the Kach party. Moonlighting as literary critic, he reads Kahane’s magnum opus The Jewish Idea as a reinterpretation of musar, the Jewish practice of personal self-improvement, for the Jewish nation. Magid’s comfort here is apparent, and makes for the rare intellectual history that is as daring as it is comprehensive.

Liberalism is the subject of Meir Kahane’s best chapter, but it is really the current that runs through the entire work. According to Magid, it was the liberalism of American Jews that was “the real enemy.” Kahane’s critique of liberalism’s language of democracy and equal rights, forged in Brooklyn and formalized in Jerusalem, is the clearest evidence for Kahane’s continued importance. Kahane frequently and acerbically criticized secular Zionists for their belief in “Jewish democracy”: in his view, a contradiction in terms. Israel’s existence, if Jews were the elect, depended on the absence of democracy. Arab participation and Jewish rule were irreconcilable if Israel was to fulfill its biblical destiny as “a nation alone.” The forced removal of Arabs was, in Kahane’s eyes, the only solution, and his opponents were deluded for thinking otherwise.

In his lifetime, however, Kahane’s illiberalism failed. His racism got him expelled from the Knesset and his ideas were never popular while he was alive. But Kahanism’s resurgence, invigorated by what Magid understands as its reinvention by homegrown Israeli sympathizers, suggests its staying power. Ben-Gvir re-enters as the apotheosis of Magid’s analysis. His brand of smash-and-grab ethnonationalism, shorn of any democratic illusions, continues Kahane’s legacy. The liberal Zionist cannot reconcile their belief in a democratic Jewish state with the Kahanists who will soon dictate state policy, and yet American Jews, reliably filling the ranks of a pro-Israel Democratic party seemingly waging assymetrical warfare against its tiny, but vocal pro-Palestinian faction, have not as of yet had much to say or do about the matter beyond vague expressions of concern, usually situating the rise of Kahanism within the rise of the far right in the United States and across the world. This connection is not incorrect, but it belies the particular conditions in and history of Israel that have made for such hospitable ground for Kahanism’s return. The street Kahanist has gotten his way, and so has the buffet Kahanist, while the liberal American Jew, long the target of Kahanists, uneasily watches.

That Kahanism has returned to Israel does not in itself validate Magid’s work; plenty of historians have been right for the wrong reasons. What does is the dynamism with which Magid combines disciplines to draw out Kahane’s ideology. Meir Kahane’s argues that Kahane’s ideas are alive. Magid has breathed historical life into them.

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