The Public Life and Political Thought of an American Jewish Radical
by shaul magid
princeton, 296 pages, $35
Meir Kahane: No other name elicits such visceral and varied reactions among Jews today. Born and raised in Brooklyn, Rabbi Meir Kahane rose to national prominence in the late 1960s with the founding of the Jewish Defense League (JDL), a movement that used radical and often violent means to combat anti-Semitism, whether in the form of local hoodlums, pro-Arab officials, or Soviet diplomats. After several arrests and convictions related to domestic terrorism, Kahane moved to Israel in 1971 to continue his political agitation. He founded the Kach party, whose platform included revoking the citizenship of non-Jewish Israelis, banning marriages between Jews and non-Jews, imposing Jewish religious law, and expelling from Israel its Arab population. His party won one seat in the Israeli Knesset in 1984, which he used as a platform for spreading his nationalistic extremism to broader audiences. Alarmed at Kahane’s growing popularity among some sectors of the electorate, the Knesset outlawed the Kach party in 1985, a decision that was upheld by the supreme court. Finally, in 1990, while giving a speech in a hotel in Midtown Manhattan, Kahane was murdered by an Egyptian-born terrorist, thus putting an end to the career of a figure whose ideas had left an indelible mark on Jewish politics across the globe.
Kahanism—a combination of a fervently isolationist form of Orthodox Judaism, a highly exclusivist form of Israeli nationalism, and the glorification of violent resistance against all opponents—has become the most divisive and incendiary political ideology within the world of Jewish politics. For many Jews, Kahane’s name is a curse, as he personifies a demonic Jewish fascism under whose aegis extremist Jews inflict violence upon the innocent. For a small minority, he is revered as quasi-prophetic, an almost messianic individual who illuminated a path toward authentic Judaism and a strong Jewish state. For those in the middle, Kahane’s story is a cautionary tale of how rage and apocalypticism drove a promising Jewish leader into a downward spiral of hatred and (self-)destruction. Kahane represents all that is both compelling and dangerous in the confluence of fervent Judaism and nationalist ardor.
Considering the intensity and hyperactivity of his political career, Kahane’s intellectual output was impressive. His many books, essays, and speeches reveal a sharp, uncompromising mind and thorough knowledge of canonical Jewish texts, all amplified by natural charisma and rhetorical agility. This mix can, under the right circumstances, prove infectious. Like many of my contemporaries, I underwent a brief, intense obsession with Kahane during my late teens, during which I devoured every available book, essay, speech, and interview. Partly enticed and partly repulsed, my adolescent mind was enthralled by the breadth, depth, and force of Kahane’s work. Few Jewish writers in the English language have since matched Kahane’s passionate elegance when writing about the uniqueness of the Jewish religion, the right of the Jews to the land of Israel, or the moral necessity of Jewish self-defense—even if much of his political outworking was abhorrent.
It was the intellectual heft underwriting his political radicalism that drew many Jews into Kahane’s orbit both during his lifetime and beyond. Yet, in the decades since Kahane’s emergence, biographers have generally ignored his intellectual side and focused largely on his political and personal activity. It was thus with great anticipation that I began reading this new intellectual biography of Kahane by Shaul Magid, a reputable scholar in the field of Jewish studies. At last, I thought, we would be treated to the serious, balanced, and rigorous consideration that Kahane’s work demands. Unfortunately, this book was nothing of the sort.
Magid does engage with a significant core of Kahane’s ideas and charts the complexities and developmental tensions of Kahanism as it evolved from its American origins to its Israeli manifestation. To Magid’s credit, his book is not the anti-Kahane screed that one might have expected, and his latter chapters on Kahane’s scholarship contain several useful insights. Magid gamely attempts some kind of academic equilibrium, although his animosity toward his subject percolates through at times. Despite these strengths, this book’s flaws—methodological, structural, and factual—undermine its usefulness.
First, despite its title and self-description, surprisingly little of this work is about Meir Kahane. The first hundred pages (of a two-hundred-page book) focus largely on political and socio-cultural stirrings within the United States during the 1960s, especially within the radical elements of the black and Jewish communities. Though Magid draws interesting parallels between the rhetoric and actions of Kahane and those of the Black Panthers and Jewish socialists, the reader is left wondering why such marginalia occupy fully half of this biography.
Magid also draws parallels between Kahane and the New Jews, a coterie of radical socialist Jews who were coming of age during that fertile period. Interesting as the comparison is, Magid’s claim that “what [these two groups] shared was arguably greater than their differences” strains credulity. The fundamentals of Kahane’s ideology included worshiping the Jewish God, practicing a trenchant form of Orthodox Judaism, and believing in the divine right of a distinct Jewish nation to a discrete piece of territory. Not one of these principles was shared by the New Jews.
The merits of the book are eclipsed by Magid’s obsession with race. Magid accepts contemporary racial theories as gospel truth and employs them to analyze Kahane, Zionism, and American Jewish history. In perhaps the most revealing line of the book, he states that “we live in a white-supremacist (or, I would add, in Israel, a Judeo-supremacist) society.” Statements of this kind exemplify Magid’s methodological axiology: America is fundamentally racist, Israel is fundamentally racist, Kahane is obviously a racist, and American-centric racial theories are the most useful paradigms for analyzing both Kahane’s ideas and the conflict in the Middle East. It is a pity that Magid never pauses to interrogate these questionable assumptions.
Such axioms are especially surprising, considering how little of Kahane’s writing revolves around race. Kahane’s rhetoric exuded all kinds of bigotry, and it would be highly implausible to claim that he was free of racial prejudice. Contrary to Magid’s reflexive accusations, however, Kahane’s attitudes had very little to do with race. Throughout his writings, Kahane is consistent in basing his antagonism along religious, national, and political lines. The categories of his thought are simple and uniform: Jew and Gentile (or, better yet, Semite and anti-Semite), religious and irreligious, ally and enemy. These dichotomies span his writings from first to last. Magid accuses Kahane of focusing on “whiteness,” but such terminology exists only in Magid’s analysis, not in Kahane’s writings. Magid harps on the one division that is generally absent from Kahane’s writings and ignores various facts that are inconvenient to his theories.
At the end of his chapter on Kahane and race, Magid attempts to convince the reader that Kahane was some sort of racial contortionist who managed to “reset the dichotomy between black and white in two ways: the Jews (white) against the Arabs (nonwhite), and the Ashkenazim (white) against the Mizrachim (nonwhite).” Such contrivances may be dismissed in favor of a simpler and more compelling explanation: Kahane’s tribalistic and antagonistic worldview had nothing to do with race, and all attempts to categorize him through current racial theories simply reveal the writer’s myopia. Put otherwise, when Shaul Magid applies the lens of race to Meir Kahane, we learn far more about Shaul Magid than we do about Meir Kahane.
Even on his academic home turf, when engaging in a close study of Kahane’s Jewish scholarship and writings, Magid sometimes falls short of the mark. One of Magid’s central claims in this section is that Kahane’s magnum opus is a “neo-biblical” and “anti-rabbinic” work. What he means by this is that Kahane envisions a Zionism modeled on the imperial, warlike, and overtly political contours of the Bible, and implicitly rejects the diasporic, quietistic, and devotional ethos that characterizes rabbinic literature. Thus, Magid claims, Kahane “errs” in invoking scores of rabbinic quotations to formulate his neo-biblical ideology.
Such a reading, although not indefensible, is an example of Magid’s tendency to elevate presumption over reality. In making this claim, Magid ignores the unruly and multi-vocal corpus of the Talmudic rabbis, presenting them in his own image as a group of diasporic-minded scholars battling against the encroachment of Jewish militarism and irredentism. Of course, a more objective reader might point out that Kahane’s ability to marshal sections of rabbinic literature in favor of his own ideology demonstrates that the canon of rabbinic texts may be read in many ways and in support of different ends. In a certain light, the Talmudic corpus supports Kahane no less than it supports Magid, and yet the latter domesticates it to depict the former as an anti-rabbinic thinker.
A final, most important problem with this work ought to be noted: When contemplating Kahane’s legacy, Magid suffers from what may be termed reductio ad Kahanum, or the tendency to attribute almost everything in contemporary Jewish life to Kahane’s influence. In his eyes, any number of common opinions or attitudes held by Jews all over the world may be traced in part to Kahane: ideas such as the ineradicability of anti-Semitism; the use of religion as a tool of pride; the “Zionizing” of American Jewry (interpreted here as a way of “keeping anti-Semitism in play”); skepticism toward dovish solutions to the Arab-Israeli conflict; the claim that anti-Zionism is akin to anti-Semitism; even the assertive activities of Jewish organizations such as the ADL and AIPAC. Since Kahane’s influence may be felt at almost every turn, Magid is comfortable calling his book “an intervention into contemporary Judaism and Jewishness,” an unabashed attempt to wrest Jews away from the influence of the most pernicious interpreter of their religion.
In truth, however, Magid has it backward. It is not that global Jewry has imbibed Kahane’s ideas (in the way Magid has imbibed current racial dogmas), but rather that Kahane pointed out several sad yet inescapable truths whose relevance and urgency have not dimmed over the past half-century. Central elements of Kahane’s diagnoses, although catastrophized and oversimplified, have been borne out by unfortunate events. It remains a sad, yet inescapable truth that current and previous Palestinian leadership have encouraged, financed, organized, and delighted in the murder of thousands of Jewish civilians in Israel, and that this is a principal obstacle to peace in the region. It remains a sad, yet inescapable truth that handing over military control of the hills overlooking Jerusalem and Tel Aviv to an assemblage of the world’s most murderous anti-Semites would be disastrous for residents of the Jewish state. It remains a sad, yet inescapable truth that assimilation and intermarriage are a threat to the demographic future of American Jewry. It remains a sad, yet inescapable truth that anti-Semitism has escalated and metastasized throughout the West, and now frequently masquerades as rabid hatred of Israel. It remains a sad, yet inescapable truth that Jewish intellectuals such as Shaul Magid, whose hostility toward Israel is as ubiquitous as it is pernicious, provide political cover for this ill-disguised form of anti-Semitism. All these points have been made before, during, and after Kahane, and they have attained broad consensus in many Jewish circles. Describing the recognition of such truths as a kind of subterranean mass-Kahanism is preposterous.
The truth, of course, is that Kahanism—which is correctly defined by the endorsement of Kahane’s solutions, as opposed to a recognition of the problems that he and others identified—enjoys very little support from Jews around the world. Very few Jews believe that the mass expulsion of millions of Palestinians is a feasible, reasonable, or humane idea. Very few Jews endorse the establishment of bat-wielding, hoodlum gangs to patrol Jewish neighborhoods against anti-Semites. Very few Jews wish to see the introduction of Nuremberg-style laws in Israel that would outlaw intermarriage, dismantle churches and mosques, and deprive many citizens of their human rights. Viewed in this light, Kahanism has been an abject failure in its quest to capture the hearts and minds of the Jewish people. Someone ought to inform Shaul Magid of this.
J. J. Kimche is a PhD candidate specializing in Jewish intellectual history at Harvard University. This essay was generously supported by Tikvah’s Krauthammer Fellowship.
Image by Moshezalman via Creative Commons. Image cropped.