Jewish Racism Returns: The Dangers of “Kahanism” in Israel

The return of the movement of “Kahanism” to the political mainstream is without doubt the most disturbing moral and political development in the election season that has overtaken Israeli society in recent weeks.  It is so deeply troubling on many levels –religious, political, ethical and strategic–that it is sounding alarm bells in Israel and throughout the world, thus severely damaging Israel’s credibility as an ethical democratic state.

For those who may not know, “Kahanism “refers to the movement establish Meir Kahane (I do not refer to him as a rabbi since I do not view his views as “religious” in any sense), who immigrated to Israel from Brooklyn, after establishing the “Jewish Defense League” there as a young man. After making aliyah (“going up”) to Israel in 1971, he established an Israeli political party called “Kach”, served ignominiously in the Knesset for one term, and then he was banned from running again for the Knesset –and his movement was outlawed too–due to his outrageous racist views against Arabs and others in Israeli society.

Followers of Kahane have been around for decades but they mostly operated beyond the pale. His grandson, and other hilltop youth in the West Bank, has been causing havoc for many years by their extremist attacks on Palestinians, Christians and Christian Institutions, Muslims and Muslim institutions, gay people, and women, not only in the West Bank but in many places within Israel. Their verbal and physical violence are inspired by the slogan “Kahane Lives!” and there are extremist “rabbis” (I hesitate to call them by this title since they preach and teach blasphemy) who are following in his footsteps and somehow remain within the law, although it is often hard to comprehend how and why.

The  latest incarnation of “Kahanism” is the political party known as Otzma Yehudit (“Jewish Power”), which last week entered an electoral agreement with another right-wing political party–which itself is very extreme, known as Habayit Hayehudi (“The Jewish Home”)– an accord that was brokered by none other than Prime Minister Netanyahu, who is sinking to new moral and political lows every day, in an effort to get re-elected again, Heaven Forbid, and to save his skin, in the light of some indictments against him for major corruption cases which are expected to be announced soon by Israel’s Attorney General.

When I was a young rabbinical student in 1969, I served as an intern for the Commission on Social Action of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (now the Union for Reform Judaism) in New York City. One of my first assignments was to write an investigative paper on a young trouble-maker from Brooklyn named Meir Kahane. It was clear back then that he was a dangerous and demented individual.

But his racism, extremism and moral repulsion became much worse when he got to Israel. His ideas of Judaism were pre-modern, medieval, shocking, disturbing, and even blasphemous, to most Jews. I remember taking groups to Meah Shearim in Jerusalem in those years–in the early 1980’s– where there was a Kahanist slogan painted on a wall of Jerusalem stone that said clearly: “Judaism and Democracy are Diametrically Opposed. Kahane Lives.”

The good thing that happened back then in the 1970’s was that many institutes and organizations arose at that time to promote democracy in Israel. Some of  them are still around in civil society, but those that were part of the government have disappeared or have been decimated by successive right-wing governments in Israel over many years which have been willfully destroying democratic institutions to promote their own ultra-nationalist positions and agendas.

And now Kahane’s followers–who are rejected as beyond the pale by the overwhelming majority of Israeli Jews (and of course by Israeli Arabs who constitute 20 % of our citizenry)– are being allowed back into the Knesset (Israel’s Parliament). And I –and so many people in Israel and the Diaspora –are in a state of shock!

How is this happening? Why is Netanyahu attempting to destroy Israeli democracy? Why is this allowed to happen? Will there be court cases to prevent this most extreme political party in Israel–which is clearly inciting to racism and hatred– from running in this election? It certainly seems to be that this should happen, and I hope that it will. Otherwise, this will remain a huge stain on the Jewish moral character of the state of Israel.

It is important that this extremist ideology is being repudiated, not only by many people and political parties in the center and the left in Israel but also in the mainstream of American Jewry, who are getting increasingly fed up with Netanyahu’s outrageous survival tactics. There don’t seem to be any “sane” Likudniks left , even though they ought to be shocked and embarrassed by this development as well.

It is reported that Netanyahu will speak at AIPAC in a few weeks, and if this indeed happens, he may find that even in AIPAC, he won’t get the warm reception that he used to when he operated with a measure of sanity. Perhaps AIPAC will decide not to invite him–or the other politicians from Israel–so as to keep out of our election process. This would be the prudent thing for them to do, but will they do it?

As a Zionist Jew who has lived in Israel for almost 40 years now, I–and so many other people I know in Israel and the Diaspora–feel nauseated by this new development. It is the last straw for this government, which is the most right-wing ultra-nationalist and ultra-“religious”  government that Israel has ever had, and which wishes to move Israel further to the radical right if, God forbid, they win this election.

Everything legally and practically possible by the serious, sane and sensitive majority of Israel citizens must be done to prevent this from happening. Otherwise, we are looking at the lowest moral abyss that Israel has ever sunk to, and we simply cannot allow this to happen!  This is why I will be attending an anti-Kahanism rally in the center of Jerusalem this Saturday night, hopefully with thousands of other concerned citizens.

As we prepare to root out this ugly phenomenon of Kahanism from our midst in Israel, let us be mindful of these verses from our Torah:

When a stranger resides with you in your land, you shall not wrong him. The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens: you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. I am the Lord your God.

Leviticus 19:33-34






About the Author
Rabbi Dr Ron Kronish is the Founding Director the Interreligious Coordinating Council in Israel (ICCI), which he directed for 25 years. Now retired, he is an independent educator, author, lecturer, writer, speaker, blogger and consultant. He is the editor of 5 books, including Coexistence and Reconciliation in Israel--Voices for Interreligious Dialogue (Paulist Press, 2015). His new book, The Other Peace Process: Interreligious Dialogue, a View from Jerusalem, was published by Hamilton Books, an imprint of Rowman and LIttlefield, in September 2017. He is currently working on a new book about peacebuilders in Israel and Palestine.
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