Meir Kahane: The Public Life and Political Thought of an American Jewish Radicalthrough Shaul Magid, (Princeton University Press, 2021), 296 pages.
Meir Kahane died as he had lived: violently. On November 5, 1990, El Sayyid Nosair, a radical Muslim, shot and killed the rabbi as he spoke in a Manhattan hotel. In Israel, 150,000 people attended Kahane’s funeral while thousands lined the streets of Brooklyn. A New York rabbi remarked, “That shot was fired at all the Jews. In death, Kahane achieved the respect that eluded him in life.
Kahane launched the Jewish Defense League in the spring of 1968 in response to spiraling crime and heightened racial tensions. Jewish pride and “never again” were the JDL’s dominant messages. In the Big Apple, identity activism was commonplace. The Black Power movement, Puerto Rican nationalism, the Irish Republican Army, they all had a foothold. Now it was the turn of the Jews. Tribalism spawned more tribalism.
By the mid-1970s, Kahane had a criminal record and convictions for weapons and explosives. He moved to Israel, where he became a one-man faction in the Knesset. In the context of the first Intifada, Kahane was barred from seeking re-election on the grounds that he violated Israel’s Basic Law, which was amended to prohibit the registration of parties that incite racism. (As fate would have it, then Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir participated in the plot to assassinate Britain’s Lord Moyne and Sweden’s Count Folk Bernadotte in the 1940s.)
With Meir Kahane, Shaul Magid, professor of Jewish studies at Dartmouth and ordained rabbi, tries to put his subject into context. The book is written smoothly and Magid is in control of his attributions. The author digested Kahane’s many writings and benefited from the input of Kahane’s wife.
Magid is also a researcher, and her curiosity shines on the page. A younger Magid undertook a his own religious quest, the one that took him to Crown Heights and Borough Park, the Orthodox Jewish enclaves of Brooklyn. There, admiration for Kahane was a currency of the kingdom. On several occasions, Magid expresses his unease with Kahane’s attitude and much of his message, but he acknowledges that Kahane left an indelible mark on American Jewry even as his memory faded with the 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 said 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 the nations were not meant for Israel. Sanctification lies in separation and a clenched fist.
For him, the glory of God here and now was made manifest by the challenge of Israel. The Messiah would undoubtedly come, Kahane preached, but whether the Jews would kick and scream at the End Times was in their hands. Kahane equated passivity and quietism with desecration of the Name of God. They were the sad heritage of gallusexile, deep wound of the divinity and its people.
Kahane put the emphasis back on the Tanakh to the detriment of rabbinical writings. Over two millennia the Bible has been 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 valued the triumphs of the Israelites.
Kahane’s reworking of the texts was conscious and intentional. Magid points out that Kahane is the product of years of rigorous religious upbringing. For elementary school, he attended Yeshiva in Flatbush and then Yeshiva University for Boys High School. He then studied the Talmud at the Mirrer Yeshiva, a historical institution in Eastern Europe. transplanted to the New World via Shanghai. He also held a law degree, although 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 source of resentment and hostility. Kahane could never be confused with Jared Kushner (Harvard) or Joe Lieberman (Yale). He hated the “establishment”. He concluded that liberalism’s emphasis on individualism endangered Jewish communal cohesion and also served as a springboard for assimilation. Kahane looked down on the Jews of Scarsdale and Great Neck, finding them terribly disconnected from their roots. His take on suburban bar mitzvahs was ruthless, bar-heavy, less mitzvah-heavy.
Kahane’s fears were based on his understanding of social structures. He saw Jews as located halfway between WASPdom and Downtown, vulnerable to backfire or worse on both sides of the divide. The taxonomy of Albion Seed was unrelated to Kahane’s calculation. It was always them against us, “Esau hates Jacob.” Millennials made no difference.
Magid writes that Kahane “often viewed social conflict in terms of the ‘class’ that pitted many of his underclass supporters of immigrant children – his lumpenproletariat— against the American establishment. In this regard, Kahane was a hero to the many working-class and middle-class Jews in the city’s outlying neighborhoods. For them, the scars of the Holocaust were particularly fresh, intermarriage was a betrayal, and upward mobility seemed distant. The idyllic existence described by David Brooks bobo in paradisewhere education trumped ethnicity and religion, was Kahane’s nightmare.
From the start, Magid describes Kahane as a “quintessential American, even decades after immigrating to Israel.” Later, he calls Kahane “the quintessential American Jew”. The adjective “quintessential” and the noun “American” seem out of place. Kahane does not appear to have been a US citizen at the time of his murder. A few years earlier, he had renounced his US citizenship in a futile 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 surrounding Kahane’s citizenship actually became a flashpoint, first with the Reagan administration and then in Israel. When he joined the Knesset, the US State Department considered Kahane to have lost his status as an American, despite Kahane’s protests to the contrary. A federal court upheld Kahane’s legal position, but not before reprimanding him as “a hypocrite, for telling people they should do what he says and not what he does.” In the court’s view, the government had failed to fulfill its legal obligation under the 14th Amendment, which requires overt expression for citizenship conferred by birth to be relinquished.
For its part, Israel has enacted legislation requiring members of the Knesset to be citizens of only one country. To remain politically viable, Kahane executed the necessary paperwork, much to Foggy Bottom’s delight. Then, when Israel banned “racists” from becoming members of the Knesset, Kahane tried to reclaim his heritage. The US government was not buying, and a federal court upheld its decision. “Kahane willfully and deliberately chose one course of action over another,” Judge Barrington Parker wrote. “In the circumstances, he can’t have it both ways.”
Kahane was a man of his time. He expressed the insecurities and fears of American Jewry but failed to see his arc. Orthodoxy continued to grow, as did the number of Jews with no denominational affiliation. Israel is at peace with two of its immediate neighbors, Egypt and Jordan, as well as with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan. Start-up Nation is a reality. For now, anyway, Kahane’s apocalypse is at bay.