Confronting Kahane – then and now

The recent intervention of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the affairs of Israel’s far Right means it is now likely that followers of the late Rabbi Meir Kahane will be elected to the 21st Knesset. Many Israelis will remember Kahane from his brief experience as a Knesset member in the 1980s, when his behavior and beliefs led to his party being banned. Now, Kahanism is apparently back.

I have personal memories of Kahane going back much further, and one in particular came to mind this week. Back in March 1975, when I was a student at Cornell University, Kahane was invited to speak to students at a public meeting on the campus. At the time, I was an activist in a pro-Israel, moderate social democratic group, and we discussed how we should treat the visit of the controversial Jewish leader to our campus. We had long known about how our friends a decade earlier had coped with a visit by Republican conservative Senator Barry Goldwater to their campus in Colorado: they had occupied the balcony of the auditorium, and used it to turn the hall into anti-Goldwater event. We thought we’d do the same to Kahane.

We prepared an enormous banner with the slogan “End JDL Violence” on it — JDL being the Jewish Defense League which Kahane had founded. We arrived very early and a group of us took control of the balcony in the huge hall where Kahane was to speak. Others were given the job of handing out flyers we had prepared to the students entering the hall. Under the same slogan, those flyers expressed our concerns about Kahane.

We wrote: “We find ourselves in political opposition to the Jewish Defense League and its leader, Meir Kahane. We reject its strategy of assassination, bombing and terror — not merely because these are immoral but because they will not further the cause for which we are fighting. Not a single Soviet Jew has escaped because of JDL; Israel’s life has not been extended by a single day as a result of their terrorism.”

When Kahane entered the room, which was filled with over 500 students, he announced that he would not be giving the speech he had prepared but instead would respond to the leaflet we had handed out. Waving a copy of it, he said that we were “misguided but well-meaning fools” and looking directly at those of sitting in the balcony behind the “End JDL Violence” banner, he denounced us for assimilation and for the “plague” of intermarriage.

Looking back at that time, I guess we did not even consider trying to deny Kahane a platform, something which we would probably do today. Nor did we focus on his anti-Arab racism, though that probably became much more prominent later on, especially after he moved to Israel.

Once Kahane left the United States for good, his Jewish Defense League withered away, and once the Israeli government banned his Kach faction, he seemed to have lost all influence. After his assassination in 1990, and despite the very large funeral that took place in his honor, it seemed as if the world would forget Meir Kahane and his vile opinions. The political party in Israel closest to a Kahanist world-view, Otzma Yehudit, seemed destined to remain in the political wilderness, with no chance of entering the mainstream of Israeli political life.

But nearly three decades later, thanks to Prime Minister Netanyahu, this is no longer the case.

The Union of Right-Wing Parties (URWP), to which the Kahanist group is now affiliated, is expected to win seven or eight Knesset seats, according to some recent polls. Otzma Yehudit’s leader, Michael Ben-Ari, is fifth on the URWP list, so it is likely the he will be elected and that he will serve in the Knesset. There he is free to advocate for all the racist policies of his mentor Kahane, including the expulsion of Arabs from the land of Israel, the banning of marriage and sexual relations between Jews and non-Jews, and more.

And all this is due to Netanyahu’s fear of maybe losing the election on 9 April.

Maybe it’s time for someone to prepare another banner, this time to be hung from the balcony not of an American university auditorium, but inside Israel’s parliament, and this time the message cannot be clearer. It must include the slogan of the Spanish Republicans who, when faced with the Fascist onslaught against Madrid, declared: “No pasarán“.

About the Author
Eric Lee is the founding editor of LabourStart, the news and campaigning website of the international trade union movement. His most recent book is The Experiment: Georgia's Forgotten Revolution 1918-1921 (Zed Books, 2017). He was a member of Kibbutz Ein Dor from 1981-1998.