Years after his death, the militant anti-Palestinian ideology of the Jewish Defence League leader lives on.
In late April, a video of an Israeli girl, a Jewish resident of Jerusalem’s Old City, went viral on social media. She was demonstrating with a band of young Jewish people who had been roaming the streets for days shouting “Death to Arabs.”
Around that time, Israeli forces had barricaded the Al-Aqsa mosque compound, stopping Muslim worshippers from praying at one of Islam’s holiest sites in the month of Ramadan when Muslims fast from daybreak till sunset.
Tensions rose as Israeli police used brute force to stop the Palestinians from reaching the mosque, firing rubber bullets and shooting stun grenades at them. All this happened amid international condemnation of an Israeli move to evict Palestinian families from their homes in the volatile Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood.
That girl in the video was, in many ways, emblematic of the crisis unfolding in the occupied territory that Palestinians call their home. She was being interviewed by a Palestinian reporter who also happened to be the girl’s neighbour.
“I’m not saying we’ll burn your village. I say leave the village and then we will come and live in it. That’s what we do in the Old City by the way,” she told the reporter who works for Kan, the public broadcaster.
But more disturbing than the racist views she calmly articulated was a sticker she had on her shirt, which said “Rabbi Kahane is right”.
It’s a slogan that is popular among a more extreme Jewish fringe of Israel that glorifies Rabbi Meir Kahane, a Jewish extremist who was among the first to popularise the idea of kicking all Arabs out of Israel; that there can not be any coexistence.
“Not a single Israeli I know has made a greater contribution to the brutalization of the nation and its public spirit than did Kahane,” wrote Ehud Sprinzak in a LA Times article. The late Professor Sprinzak of the Hebrew University was a leading authority on right-wing Jewish groups.
Kahane, an Israeli-American citizen, is long dead — he was assassinated in 1990. His political career ended even before his death when the Israeli Supreme Court banned him from participating in Israeli politics in 1988.
Yet, his followers, Kahanists, continue to push forward his ideology.
“Kahane is relevant in the sense that his distorted ideology is alive and kicking in Israel. And only recently a clear disciple of his was elected into the Knesset,” Yossi Mekelberg, a senior fellow at the Chatham House, tells TRT World.
Itamar Ben Gvir, the leader of the far-right Otzma Yehudit (Jewish Power) party, entered the Israeli parliament last March after years of electoral defeats. It was none other than Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu who engineered Ben Gvir’s rise as he secured his own political survival.
The Israeli police chief, Kobi Shabtai, minced no words in blaming Ben Gvir, a known Kahanist, for escalating recent tensions in Jerusalem.
"The person who is responsible for this Intifada is Itamar Ben Gvir,” Shabtai told a recent press conference.
Taking tactics from the Kahane playbook, Ben Gvir recently opened up an office in Sheikh Jarrah, the Palestinian neighbhood in occupied East Jeursalem at the centre of the recent agitation.
“Kahane might have long gone. But the fact is that there are people that adhere to his ideology, that they have a say in the Israeli politics and they are very determined to push their agenda to make him seem relevant,” says Mekelberg.
Kahane’s xenophobia and his logic of Jewish supremacy have manifested itself in incredibly bloody ways over the years.
Yigal Amir, a diehard Kahanist, who was against any reconciliation with the Palestinians, shot dead Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, two years after he signed the Oslo Accords with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.
In 1994, Baruch Goldstein, an Israeli military officer, gunned down 29 Muslim worshippers in what’s known as the Hebron Massacre. Goldstein, a religious extremist, was also a Kahane disciple.
The 2015 Duma arson attack in which a Palestinian home was firebombed resulting in the death of a couple and their baby was carried out by Jewish extremists who were aligned with Kahana’s grandson, Meir Ettinger.
Ettinger has remained on Israeli police’s list of right-wing extremists as he openly calls for expelling Arabs and advocates violence.
The Duma incident brought extremist elements among the so-called hilltop youth — the Israeli kids from illegal settlements — under international spotlight.
For a man who has left behind such a violent legacy in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories, his story starts thousands of miles up in an ethnically mixed working class neighbourhood of New York.
‘What a schmuck’
Martin (he changed his name to Meir later) David Kahane was born in 1932 to parents who were Jewish migrants to the US. His father, Charles, was an Orthodox Rabbi who for years led religious congregations at a local synagogue.
As a child Kahane had a serious stuttering problem, which stayed with him for the rest of his life — becoming more pronounced whenever he was forced into a tight corner, wrote Robert Friedman in the Kahane biography The False Prophet.
From the very beginning Kahane was exposed to Jewish militancy with his father telling Meir and his brother, Nachman, stories of Jewish heroism over Sabbath meals.
The 1930s and 40s was a time when Zionist militant groups such as the Irgun and the Stern Gang carried out bombings and assisnations against Palestinians and British officals.
Militant leaders including Irgun’s Menachem Begin, who would later become Israel’s Prime Minister, visited the Kahane home in Flatbush, Brooklyn.
Kahane’s father, Charles, a fervent Zionist, remained active in raising funds and organising logistics for smuggling weapons to Irgun in the British-controlled Palestinian areas, which are now part of Israel.
Charles was also an active member of the Revisionist Movement, founded by Ze’ev Vladimir Jabotinsky, who believed that Zionist state was to be created by means of force. The Revisionists bombed Palestinian markets and put bombs in their buses.
When Jabotinsky came to stay at Charles’s home, a young Meir Kahane was transfixed.
“He followed him from room to room. One day Meir was literally sitting at his feet and Jabotinsky said, ‘Meir, follow my footsteps.’ I’m telling you, he hypnotized that child!” Friedman quoted Sonia, Kahane's mother, in his book.
As a young man, Meir Kahane joined Betar, the paramilitary youth wing of the Revisionist Movement. But unlike his vitriolic outbursts later in life, he never went to Palestine to actually participate in any of the fighting.
His most notable act of heroism was when in 1947, along with a few Betar comrades, he threw vegetables at the visiting anti-Zionist British Foreign Minister Ernest Bevin.
Kahane was arrested and charged but a sympathetic Jewish judge let him off with a suspended sentence, marking the start of a long brush with the law where Jewish judges in the US and Israel would let him go with a slap on the hand, despite his criminal record.
Never a good student, Kahane was known in high school for mischief and sarcasm, which often ended with, “What a schmuck”.
He would even make fun of ordinary middle class Jews who would come to his father’s congregations, saying that they were ignorant of Judaism. “What schmucks,” he would say.
But Kahane was no scholar himself. As a ninth grader at the Brooklyn Talmudical Academy, he fell behind other students and had difficulty keeping up with the rigorous Talmud courses.
Nevertheless, he continued to harbour notions about his own greatness, often writing essays and plays in which he somehow led the Jews of Israel.
The girl on the bridge
Meir Kahane graduated with a law degree in 1957 but he failed the bar exam. That same year he received his rabbinical ordination from the Orthodox Yeshiva Mirrer in Brooklyn.
By the time he joined the Howard Beach synagogue in a working-class neighbourhood of Queens, Kahane was married and had a one-year old child.
As a Rabbi, Kahane gained popularity as he took on his job with a zeal not seen before by the local Jews. He attacked American Jews for stepping away from orthodoxy. While adults might have cringed at some of his views, younger audiences were enthralled.
Kahane had a knack for connecting with kids, something which helped him find young recruits for his militant Jewish Defence League (JDL) later.
But as Kahane’s young congregants started to wear yarmulkes and went around switching off lights and electrical appliances on Shabbos, parents started to worry.
The final straw came in 1960 when Kahane erected a floor-to-ceiling screen in his synagogue seperating male congregants from women. A majority of the congregants decided it was time for the radical Rabbi to go.
After being sidelined, a dejected Meir travelled to Israel, telling his family that he was going there to be part of the government cabinet. Instead he ended up in a Jewish school where teachers scolded him for his stuttering Hebrew and poor Talmudic skills.
“He thought Ben-Gurion was going to meet him at the docks,” his uncle, Rabbi Isaac Trainin, told Friedman.
Upon his return to the US after a few months, Kahane was desperate for a job to support his growing family, which now grew to four kids. He began delivering newspapers and wrote a weekly column for The Jewish Press, something that would become a springboard for his activism.
It was around this time in 1963 that Kahane removed his yarmulke and tallis and began working with a childhood friend, Joseph Churba, who worked with the Central Intelligence Agency and Israeli intelligence.
Kahane took up the pseudonym of Michael King and with Churba set up a think-tank that apparently did political research on government contracts.
“He was a very complicated man. His relations in the US and his identities weren’t clear. For years it was rumored that he worked for the CIA, or the FBI,” Shlomo Fischer, a senior fellow at the Jewish People Policy Institute, tells TRT World.
As Michael King, Kahane penetrated into various universities in a bid to influence Jewish students who were joining the anti-Vietnam war protests in large numbers.
He kept a separate apartment on East 85th Street in Manhattan while his wife and kids lived in Queens. In those years, Meir Kahane took up various identities but always introduced himself as King.
“I knew him only as Michael King. He told me he had been a correspondent for a wire service in Africa and I recall at one point he volunteered that he was a Presbyterian,” a New York public relations professional, who met Kahane at a party, told Michael T Kaufman, a New York Times reporter. Kaufman was probably the first to write a detailed article on Kahane in 1971.
For a man who often spoke about women contemptuously and promoted segregation, Kahane enjoyed extramarital affairs, which did not end as may have hoped.
In 1966, he started an affair with a 22-year-old aspiring model Gloria Jean D’Argenio, bringing her to his apartment where they spent most of their time.
D’Argenio, who also used the name Estelle Donna Evans, was madly in love with Kahane and was looking for an eventual marriage. But after a few months, Kahane broke off all contact with D’Argenio, telling her via a letter that his real name was not Michael King and that he was married and had kids.
With the letter in her hand, D’Argenio jumped off the Queensboro Bridge, plunging 135 feet below into the East River. Pictures of her agonised face while being rescued made it to the front page of New York Daily News. She died a day later.
Kaufman, the Times reporter, who also mentioned the D'Argenio incident in his detailed story, years later wrote a follow-up and regretted for not highlighting the affair prominently as it would have helped expose Kahane.
That episode shook Meir Kahane as he desperately tried to keep it away from the public limelight. But it did not stop him from putting his militant plans into action.
‘Every Jew .22’
By 1968, Kahane had discarded his second identity of Michael King and founded the Jewish Defence League (JDL), a radical group that on paper wanted to protect the interests of Jews living in the US but in reality was a vehicle for pushing his career forward and to raise money.
His first targets were not Palestinians or Arabs. Using his columns in the Jewish Press in the lead up to JDL’s formation, Kahane wrote venomously against the Black and Puerto Rican community, stoking fear about how they threatened Jewish neighbourhoods.
He quickly found a cause. In the late 1960s, New York City was updating its school system by trying to give more control of the schools to local communities including Black people.
But the teachers union was 90 percent white and almost two thirds of them were Jewish. When authorities tried to reassign a few white teachers to other places, Kahane and JDL activists began a series of protests and demonstrations - they started disrupting school board meetings and threatened Black leaders.
JDL soon attained a reputation similar to that of the Black Panthers. As relations with the Black community worsened, Kahane took out a full page ad in The New York Times with a picture of young JDL activists brandishing lead pipes and baseball bats under a headline “Is this any way for a nice Jewish boy to behave?”
With slogans such as “Never Again” and “Every Jew a .22”, Kahane soon drew young Jewish men into JDL’s fold from poor neighbourhoods in New York and elsewhere.
After his confrontations with the Black community, Kahane became the strongest advocate of more than 2 million Jews living in the Soviet Union where they were facing increasing persecution by the communist regime.
JDL activists began a series a terrorist attacks against Soviet officials and institutions including multiple bombings such as the one at the Soviet cultural building on January 8, 1971. Even though no Soviet officials were killed, it raised alarm bells in Washington.
Kahane's activities became so violent that President Richard Nixon feared they would wreck the Strategic Arms Limitation Act, which was designed to avoid a nuclear war with the Soviet Union.
All this added to Kahane's popularity, and the JDL ranks continued to swell. By the early 1970s, the group claimed to have more than 10,000 activists across the US and Europe.
Then in late 1971, JDL militants fired a high-powered rifle into the Soviet Mission office in New York that almost killed a diplomat’s child. That prompted US law enforcement to launch a crackdown against JDL activists. Kahane was briefly arrested but did not face prison despite overwhelming evidence against him.
In late 1971, Kahene moved to Israel.
The goy must go
Over the next two decades — until his assasination — Kahane continued to organise terrorist attacks against Russians, Arabs and even Americans.
In Israel, he opened up an office, which he called Museum of the Potential Holocaust, which reflected his belief that diaspora Jews should move back to Israel if they wanted to avoid another Nazi tragedy.
He also ran a centre in the conservative settlement of Kirayat Araba that he used to indoctrinate young American Jews. One of them was Chicago-born Matt Liebowitz who attacked a bus and injured nine Palestinians. While he was being sentenced for 26-months, he told judges he regretted what he had done.
Liebowitz, who spent time with street gangs in the US after his parents divorced, was the kind of young man Kahane targeted - a disturbed, disillusioned individual who could absorb his fanatical militant ideas.
Kahane was not the first in Israel who promoted the idea of building illegal Jewish settlements on the occupied Palestinian lands. The right-wing Gush Emunim was already doing that. But even Gush Emunim would hesitate when it came to attacking individual Palestinians, and it was open to the idea of co-existence.
But Kahane would have none of it. He wanted to kick out all the Palestinian citizens of Israel - and even those who lived in the occupied territories.
“You can’t buy an Arab’s national aspiration,” he would say in response to liberal Israelis who advocated peace.
“The Arab is a cancer in our midst. And you don’t coexist with cancer,” he told an audience a few years before his death. “A cancer you either cut out and throw out or you die. Is better to have Jewish state that is hated by the whole world than an Auschwitz loved by it.”
Kahane became the first politician in Israel to run on a platform that openly called for the expulsion of Palestinians. His militant followers were often involved in attacking Palestinians.
He established a political party Kach (Thus!) and made multiple attempts to enter the Knesset, the Israeli parliament. He failed miserably. It was not until 1984 that his party won a seat. His followers celebrated by going through the Arab markets, overturning food stalls and shouting “Death to Arabs”.
When Kahane stood to speak at the parliament after his election, most of the MPs walked out.
That’s not to say Israel didn’t protect him. Kahane continued to run underground terrorist operations, which included attempted hijack of a passenger plane, a plan to blow up the Dome of the Rock mosque, and multiple bombings. Even though the FBI made requests, Israeli authorities never cooperated in investigating the various charges against Kahane.
Even with the FBI on his trail, Kahane did not abandon his terrorist activities against those who defended the rights of the Palestinians. In October, 1985, a pipe-bomb rigged to a door killed Alex Odeh, a regional director at the Arab-American Anti Discrimination Committee (ADC).
Odeh was a Palestinian Christian who vigorously defended the image of Arabs in the Middle East. FBI identified two JDL activists in his murder. Both of them still live as free citizens in Israel.
But JDL and Kach were eventually listed as terrorist organisations in the US. Within Israel, Kahane was banned from politics and his support dwindled.
“I remember when he came to my hometown of Givataim, which is adjacent to Tel Aviv, in 1985 to demonstrate, thousands and thousands of us came out in a rally to oppose him,” says Yossi Mekelberg of the Chatham House.
Kahane was assassinated on November 5, 1990 in a New York hotel during a Zionist conference by El Sayyid A Nosair.
While he left behind a violent and divisive legacy and many people refer to him as the father of Jewish militancy, he was never able to achieve the popular support to accomplish his dream of creating a true theological Jewish state. But what is unmistakable is that recent chants of “death to Arabs” in Sheikh Jarrah will surely resonate with those who remember the JDL’s violence.
“Nobody mentions Meir Kahane as a person now. I personally do remember him as a person,” says Fischer of the Jewish People Policy Institute.