A Radical Reconsidered
Meir Kahane: The Public Life and Political Thought of an American Jewish Radical, by Shaul Magid, (Princeton University Press, 2021), 296 pages.
Meir Kahane died as he had lived: violently. On November 5, 1990, El Sayyid Nosair, a Muslim radical, gunned down the rabbi as he spoke at a Manhattan hotel. In Israel, 150,000 people attended Kahane’s funeral while thousands lined Brooklyn’s streets. One New York rabbi remarked, “This shot was fired at all Jews.” In death, Kahane attained the respect that eluded him in life.
Kahane launched the Jewish Defense League in the spring of 1968 as a response to spiraling crime and heightened racial tensions. Jewish pride and “Never Again” were the JDL’s dominant messages. In the Big Apple, identitarian militancy was standard fare. The Black Power movement, Puerto Rican nationalism, the Irish Republican Army, all had a toehold. Now it was the Jews’ turn. Tribalism begot more tribalism.
By the mid-1970s, Kahane had chalked up a criminal rap sheet and convictions on weapons and explosives charges. He moved to Israel, where he became a one-man faction in the Knesset. Against the backdrop of the first Intifada, Kahane was barred from seeking reelection on the grounds that he had run afoul of Israel’s Basic Law, which had been amended to prohibit the registration of parties that incite racism. (As fate would have it, the prime minister at the time, Yitzhak Shamir, had a hand in plotting the assassinations of Britain’s Lord Moyne and Sweden’s Count Folk Bernadotte in the 1940s.)
With Meir Kahane, Shaul Magid, a professor of Jewish studies at Dartmouth and an ordained rabbi, attempts to bring context to his subject. The book is smoothly written, and Magid possesses a command of his remit. The author has digested Kahane’s extensive writings and benefited from input from Kahane’s wife.
Magid is also a seeker, and his curiosity shines on the page. A younger Magid undertook a religious quest of his own, one that led him to Crown Heights and Borough Park, Brooklyn’s Orthodox Jewish enclaves. There, admiration for Kahane was a coin of the realm. Repeatedly, Magid expresses his discomfort with Kahane’s mien and much of his message, but he acknowledges that Kahane left an indelible mark on American Jewry even as his memory is dulled with the passing of time.
Kahane was tough. “Every Jew with a .22” was more than a menacing slogan. Kahane made weapons training a tenet of Jewish manhood, which Magid suggests was a Jewish analog of “the Protestant masculinity of American religion.” The biography captures the rabbi’s resentments and synthesizes what emerges as Kahane’s near-apocalyptic theology. The laws of nations were not meant for Israel. Sanctification lay in separation, and a clenched fist.
To him, God’s glory in the here and now was made manifest by Israel’s defiance. The Messiah would undoubtedly come, Kahane preached, but whether the Jews would be kicking and screaming at the End of Days was in their hands. Kahane equated passivity and quietism with the desecration of God’s Name. They were the sad patrimony of galus, the Exile, a deep wound to the Deity and His People.
Kahane placed renewed emphasis on the Tanakh at the expense of rabbinic writings. Over the course of two millennia, the Bible came to be muted through the lenses of community, tradition, and custom, the mesorah. But it was the Torah that first enshrined the Promise of the Land to Abraham, made the conquest of Canaan imperative, and valorized the Israelites’ triumphs.
Kahane’s recasting of texts was knowing and intentional. Magid stresses that Kahane was the product of years of rigorous religious education. For grade school, he attended the Yeshivah of Flatbush, then Yeshivah University for Boys High School. He then studied Talmud at the Mirrer Yeshivah, a storied Eastern European institution transplanted to the New World via Shanghai. He also held a law degree, though he never passed the bar exam.
On paper, Kahane’s credentials marked him as Modern Orthodox, but his message was hardly bourgeois. He was a font of resentment and hostility. Kahane could never be confused with Jared Kushner (Harvard) or Joe Lieberman (Yale). He loathed the “establishment.” He concluded that liberalism’s emphasis on individualism endangered Jewish communal cohesion and doubled as a springboard to assimilation. Kahane heaped scorn on the Jews of Scarsdale and Great Neck, finding them woefully out of touch with their roots. His take on suburban bar mitzvahs was merciless, heavy on “bar,” less on “mitzvah.”
Kahane’s fears were premised upon his understanding of social structures. He viewed Jews as situated midway between WASPdom and the inner city, vulnerable to blowback or worse from both sides of the divide. The taxonomy of Albion’s Seed was irrelevant to Kahane’s calculus. It was always them v. us, “Esau hates Jacob.” Millennia made no difference.
Magid writes that Kahane “often viewed social conflict in ‘class’ terms that pitted many of his child-of-immigrant underclass followers—his lumpenproletariat—against the American establishment.” On that score, Kahane was a hero to the many working- and middle-class Jews of the city’s outer boroughs. For them, the scars of the Holocaust were particularly fresh, intermarriage was treason, and upward mobility appeared remote. The idyllic existence described by David Brooks’ Bobos in Paradise, where educational attainment trumped ethnicity and religion, was Kahane’s nightmare.
Early on, Magid describes Kahane as a “quintessential American, even decades after emigrating to Israel.” Later, he labels Kahane “a quintessential American Jew.” The adjective “quintessential” and the noun “American” appear misplaced. Kahane does not appear to have been a U.S. citizen at the time of his murder. Just a few years earlier, he had renounced his U.S. citizenship in a failed effort to retain his seat in the Knesset. Magid acknowledges that Kahane had “largely rejected America, his country of birth,” but omits this extra step.
The legal tussle that surrounded Kahane’s citizenship actually became a flashpoint, first with the Reagan administration and then within Israel. When he joined the Knesset, the U.S. State Department regarded Kahane as having forfeited his status as an American, despite Kahane’s protestations to the contrary. A federal court sustained Kahane’s legal position but not before it scolded him as “a hypocrite, for telling people that they should do as he says and not as he does.” In the court’s view, the government had failed to meet its legal burden under the 14th Amendment, which requires overt expression in order for citizenship conferred by birth to be surrendered.
For its part, Israel enacted legislation requiring Knesset members to be citizens of a single country. To stay politically viable, Kahane executed the necessary paperwork, to Foggy Bottom’s glee. Then, when Israel barred “racists” from Knesset membership, Kahane attempted to retrieve his patrimony. The U.S. government wasn’t buying, and a federal court upheld its decision. “Kahane voluntarily and deliberately selected one course of action over another,” Judge Barrington Parker wrote. “Under the circumstances, he cannot have it both ways.”
Kahane was a man for his times. He gave voice to American Jewry’s insecurities and fears but did not see its arc. Orthodoxy continued to grow, along with the number of Jews of no denominational affiliation. Israel is at peace with two of its immediate neighbors, Egypt and Jordan, as well as the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco, and Sudan. Start-up Nation is a reality. For the moment, anyway, Kahane’s apocalypse is at bay.