Meir Kahane and us: what is Kahanism and what shall we do?

Meir Kahane photo Ilan Ossendryver/Israel Sun Ltd., Judaica Collection, Harvard Library. Itamar Ben Gvir, All Israel News

Israel’s election will bring Itamar Ben Gvir’s Kahanist Religious Zionism into coalition. What does that mean?

Shaul Magid’s excellent book,  Meir Kahane: The Public Life and Political Thought of an American Jewish Radical reminds us that while Kahane’s legacy is most evident in Israel, key elements of Kahanism have also entered the Zionist-Jewish mainstream right here at home.

As a New York rabbi, Meir Kahane (born 1932, assassinated 1990) dug the rabbit hole for a Jewish militia identity. He established the Jewish Defense League (JDL): an armed, rightwing Jewish vigilante force. On May 9, 1969 its members massed at a Reform synagogue, bringing pipes and chains to prevent an invited Black speaker from discussing reparations for slavery. Kahane had no interest in Jewish accountability or the oppression of others.

We Jews in our 60s and 70s recall the early JDL—muscular fellows with fists on their black T-shirts, soliciting Jewish university students. They called themselves the New Jews, and they hawked an in-yer-face identification that broke away from our parents’ post-Holocaust timidity. The JDL pride in Jewish fighting power prefigured today’s militia culture. JDL leaders would be indicted for arms smuggling and possession of explosives.

Beyond the black Tshirts, Kahanism rejected the liberal democracy that permitted our Diaspora Jewish lives. He loved the Jewish collective in theory but disparaged most of us as weak, our Jewish power unactualised. Magid’s book is rich with Kahane’s insults for religious or secular Jews who did not locate our pride or our identities in ethnic violence.

Meir Kahane moved to Israel, adapting his American-style racism to Israel’s demographics. He was withering of anyone who called Israel a Jewish democracy: he called them apologists for Jews’ absolute, Gd-given entitlement to the land. Kahane’s thought travelled from Judaism as a religion through Zionism and into a messianic religio-nationalism. He did not want a Jewish state like other states. He advocated the blunt-force grabbing of a divinely-granted state, unlike any other state and immune to the laws of states.

For him, Jewish violence was an act of redemption, not defense—rather like the roving bands of settlers in the West Bank. Or Baruch Goldstein, the Israeli mass murderer of Muslims in a sacred place (Itamar Ben Gvir displayed Goldstein poster until it became politically expedient to take it down). Kahane’s party was so extreme that Israel’s parliament drafted a law to ban him and them from politics. He is the only person to have been convicted for ‘inciting racism and endangering security.’

Forty years later, Meir Kahane’s ideological successor, Itamar Ben Gvir, has been elected. The platform of his Jewish Strength party  (within the Religious Zionism grouping) includes illegal acts like annexing the occupied territories and expelling Palestinian ‘infiltrators and land thieves.’ He will shift Israel’s security stance ‘from the defensive to the offensive position, from the policy of “containment of the enemy” to their eradication and destruction.’

Present-day Religious Zionism threatens both Palestinians and the Jewish community. On the first Shabbat after the election, Israel’s Chief Rabbi joined prospective ultra-Orthodox and far-Right coalition members demanding the power to change the legal definition of a Jew. He used his sermon to say,‘“This is an Orthodox state, not a Reform one,” accusing Reform Judaism of “causing assimilation abroad.”’

On purely self-interested grounds, the silence of Aotearoa’s Progressive Jewish community is astonishing.

We need to face the implications of Kahanism here as well as there. Kahanist Religious Zionism has given up on any prospect of shared work for social improvement. It offers a bleak, isolating response to our uncertain time. But uncertainty has always been key to the appeal of the far Right. We will defend our own, they promise—and we will define our own with increasing ideological purity.

We already see Zionism’s assault on Jewish pluralism in Aotearoa. Their only criterion for Jewish identity is Zionism. Half of the members of AJV are religiously observant (regularly attending or leading services, study groups, community organisations) and half identify through Jewish culture or history. Yet NZ Zionist Federation President Rob Berg claims that our ‘sole identity as Jews seems to be the hate for Israel and Zionism.’ Stuff senior business writer Miriam Bell prints and reprints this useful lie unchallenged in NZ and Australia.

Meir Kahane would revel in the closing of the Jewish communal mind right here, and in the radicalising rejection of human rights in favour of Jewish tribal license. The IHRA definition of antisemitism has become an identity weapon; used in practice both to protect Israel, and to narrow Jewishness into good Zionist Jews and invalid others.

So, Kahanism has entered Israel’s government, and it is accelerating the New Zealand Jewish community’s slide from religion into identity politics. What to do?

Itamar Ben Gvir wants Israel’s police portfolio. Imagine putting our White supremacist fringe in charge of the police, handing them the intelligence and setting them free to hunt down tangata whenua, Muslims and Jews, LGBTQ+. A government that includes Itamar Ben Gvir is not politics as usual, and we ask our government to take Itamar Ben Gvir at his word, judge him on his actions, and respond accordingly.

  • Ben Gvir intends to expel and dispossess more Palestinians.  If we are not to aid and abet his lawless vision, Aotearoa must cease any dialogue or sharing of information with Israeli military and security services.
  • Israel’s IT industry is inextricable from the military with which it designs and tests products on an occupied people. If we are not to be accomplices, Aotearoa must cease all commerce and investment with the Israeli IT industry.
  • We already implement our Israeli visa policy racially, giving Israeli Jews visa-free status which we deny to Palestinians. This has got to end, no matter who governs.
  • We ask our government to make a clear, public commitment that Aotearoa will never adopt the IHRA working definition of antisemitism. The IHRA  would protect Itamar Ben Gvir and silence his victims’ advocates. When we cite his actual record or challenge his stated illegal intentions, the IHRA would cry ‘antisemite’! It would also allow Aotearoa’s Jewish Right to assert a monopoly over our religious identity, at the expense of Jewish pluralism. Don’t let that happen. Take the IHRA off the table.

We restate our disgust that any New Zealand Jewish institution would acquiesce, would passively permit the advance of Kahanism.  Our parents’ generation rejected Kahane’s unbridled identity-licensed violence. Shame on anyone who does not reject it today.

Shame on anyone who looks down at the ground and mumbles yeah, well, whatever—our Israel, Jewish and Kahanist.

Alternative Jewish Voices of Aotearoa

2 thoughts on “Meir Kahane and us: what is Kahanism and what shall we do?”

  1. Thanks for the interesting article by Marilyn Garson. I just describe fascists like Ben Gvir as being beyond the Pale and indicative of what is wrong with the Israeli or Jewish State. It is clear that Kahanism and US Christian Zionists / Evangelism are a terrible, racist mix. The more fanatical members of the latter just want the Palestinian occupiers of Zion out of the country and recolonisation by Jews to fulfill a condition for the Second Coming of Jesus Christ and the Kahanists are as described in the article. I think it would be useful to describe the collective influence of the two forces. To divide the two is to invite the rule of the Zionist lobby – at least among the uninformed.

    Please don’t underestimate the influence of Christian Zionism / Evangelism in keeping the Israeli-Palestinian “conflict” going, or as it would be more appropriately called, the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians from (so far only) swathes of Palestine.

    Best wishes, John Hall (UK. JVP member and of UK Chapter, Jewish Network for Palestine)

    On Sun, Nov 20, 2022 at 1:02 AM Sh’ma Koleinu – Alternative Jewish Voices


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