That the same man can be referred to as both a “visionary hero of the Jewish people” and as a “criminal racist,” or “Kahanazi” testifies to the controversial nature of Rabbi Meir Kahane, his followers, and the various organizations that he founded. Although Kahane died in 1990, his legacy has been carried on by his family members, and disciples in pro-Kahane organizations such as Kach, Kahane Chai, and the Jewish Defense League.
Meir David Kahane was born in Brooklyn, NY, on August 1, 1932. His father, Rabbi Charles Kahane, was involved in the Revisionist Zionist movement, and was a close friend of Zev (Vladimir) Jabotinsky. Meir was active in Betar, the militant revisionist youth movement.
Kahane received a degree in International Law from New York University, and ordination from the Mir Yeshiva in Brooklyn. He edited the Jewish Press, and served as a pulpit rabbi and teacher in New York until the mid-1960s. He also partnered with the government in rallying Jewish support for the Vietnam War.
His life’s work, however, started in 1968, when he founded the Jewish Defense League (JDL). Kahane saw many of the poor and elderly Jews living in the inner-city being targeted by criminals; as a result, he set out to change the image of the Jew from “weak and vulnerable” to one of a “mighty fighter, who strikes back fiercely against tyrants.” The JDL’s controversial methods, which frequently included the threat of, or actual violence, greatly exacerbated the Black-Jewish tension already present in New York City. The JDL also focused on the plight of Soviet Jewry, and coined the phrases “Never again,” and “every Jew a .22” to emphasize that Jews would no longer passively ignore the plight of their foreign brethren.
While some saw Kahane’s goals as laudable, his actions were often criminal. He spent time in jail after being convicted of conspiring to make bombs.
Kahane and his family moved to Israel in 1971, where he founded the militantly anti-Arab Kach party. The party’s platform called for the anexation of all conquered territories and the forcible removal of all Palestinians. Under the auspices of Kach, Kahane continued to lobby for his beliefs in violent ways, and was jailed on several occasions. He was the first Jew in Israel to ever be accused of sedition.
Kahane ran for Knesset and lost in 1976 and 1980, and was finally elected in 1984. His movement continued to grow until, prior to the 1988 Knesset elections, the Kach party was banned from running by a Labor-Likud coalition. The ban was based on an amendment added to Israel’s Basic Law that disqualified any candidate whose platform included “incitment to racism.” Two years later, Kahane was assassinated in New York City by an Egyptian militant, who was acquitted of the crime on a technicality, but later convicted in relation to the World Trade Center bombing.
During his life, Kahane attempted to spread his message through a variety of forums. He wrote numerous books espousing his opinions; his most famous work, They Must Go, is alternately called a “magnum opus” by Kahane’s followers, and compared to Mein Kampf by his detractors. He also founded a seminary in Jerusalem, called the “Yeshiva of the Jewish Idea.” The school, which still exists today, attempts to combine a traditional Jewish education with right-wing political activism.
Even after his death, Kahane has had a tremendous influence on the Israeli political scene. In March 1994, the Kach party and its offshoot, Kahane Chai (“Kahane Lives”), founded by Kahane’s son Binyamin Zev, were officially designated as terrorist organizations by both the Israeli government and the U.S. State Department. The immediate cause of this designation was the February 1994 attack on the al-Ibrahimi Mosque in Hebron, in which Kach member Baruch Goldstein shot 34 Muslims. Kach supported Goldstein’s actions, and referred to him as a “hero.” More recently, Binyamin Zev Kahane made waves by condoning Yigal Amir’s 1995 assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.
Binyamin Zev Kahane was murdered by Arab extremists in 2001, as he traveled with his family in the West Bank. Several attacks on Palestinians in the West Bank during the “al-Aksa intifada” have been attributed to settlers affiliated with Kach or Kahane Chai.