Meir Kahane: The Pub­lic Life and Polit­i­cal Thought of an Amer­i­can Jew­ish Radical

  • Review
By – December 13, 2021

It takes chutz­pah to write a schol­ar­ly trea­tise on Meir Kahane in the twen­ty-first cen­tu­ry, when so many peo­ple who lived through his active years have dis­missed him as a dis­grace to the Jews” or dis­avowed their youth­ful pas­sion for his cause. While Kahane has present-day admir­ers, notably in Israeli set­tler move­ments or var­i­ous ultra-Ortho­dox sects, they’re not usu­al­ly big con­sumers of sec­u­lar mate­r­i­al from Amer­i­can aca­d­e­mics. So why this book, now?

Shaul Magid’s intro­duc­tion offers a clue. He recounts vis­it­ing a Mod­ern Ortho­dox bat mitz­vah recep­tion, and men­tion­ing to a guest that he was work­ing on Meir Kahane. The gen­tle­man said he agreed with Kahane’s ideas, and his pre­dic­tions had actu­al­ly come true, but he should have said things in a nicer way.” In this brief encounter are the many threads that Magid sets out to untan­gle: that many con­tem­po­rary Jews feel a deep ambiva­lence towards Kahane’s lega­cy, that his lan­guage and style, in par­tic­u­lar, were detri­men­tal to his cause, and that Kahane might still be more pop­u­lar than most Jews like to admit. This sto­ry also opens the door to Magid’s larg­er pur­pose, which is to explore the evo­lu­tion of Kahane’s ideas from the late 1960s to his death in 1990 by con­nect­ing his think­ing to his social context.

Kahane was not some anom­alous thug’ who led the JDL on var­i­ous vio­lent mis­sions. A work­ing-class, yeshi­va and uni­ver­si­ty-trained schol­ar who came of age in the racial­ly-torn Amer­i­ca of the six­ties, he actu­al­ly admired the iden­ti­ty pol­i­tics of the Black Pan­thers and oth­er mil­i­tant pride groups. Reject­ing the qui­etist men­tal­i­ty of the post-Holo­caust Jews of Brook­lyn, he insist­ed that Jews need­ed that kind of pride, need­ed hadar. Between assim­i­la­tion, killing us from the inside, and anti­semitism, attack­ing us from the out­side, Kahane argued that the very sur­vival of Judaism in Amer­i­ca was at stake. While his focus on the assim­i­la­tion prob­lem, on the need for Jews to remain sep­a­rate, stayed with him and, per­verse­ly, even expand­ed when he emi­grat­ed to Israel, his focus on anti­semitism in lib­er­al” Amer­i­ca might seem some­what unex­pect­ed. Here Magid’s abil­i­ty to tie his­toric debates to mod­ern ones comes to the fore. Per­haps Kahane’s insis­tence that anti­semitism was fun­da­men­tal to Amer­i­can soci­ety antic­i­pat­ed the con­tem­po­rary argu­ments of crit­i­cal race the­o­ry, that black oppres­sion is the basis of Amer­i­can soci­ety. When Kahane crit­i­cized the inter­na­tion­al­ism” of the New Left of the six­ties when it labeled Israel a colo­nial­ist pow­er, this might fore­shad­ow con­tem­po­rary BDS bat­tles. When Kahane moved to Israel and cam­paigned for the removal of non-Jews, for the estab­lish­ment of a theoc­ra­cy based on Torah, this reminds us of the argu­ments of the reli­gious far right in Israel today.

Magid is care­ful to sug­gest rather than to insist on the par­al­lels between Kahane’s analy­ses and cur­rent events, but by mak­ing these con­nec­tions, he makes his strongest argu­ment for study­ing Kahane. The man may have been a minor his­tor­i­cal fig­ure, but his atten­tion to some uncom­fort­able truths, and his unfil­tered voice, leave us with some his­to­ry we might need to rethink. Pro­fes­sor Magid writes as an Amer­i­can aca­d­e­m­ic and as a Torah schol­ar, com­fort­able with the ter­mi­nol­o­gy of both. By strad­dling these two worlds, he does jus­tice to Kahane’s work, and opens some new worlds for the ded­i­cat­ed read­er. No, it’s not easy, but it is worthwhile.

Bet­ti­na Berch, author of the recent biog­ra­phy, From Hes­ter Street to Hol­ly­wood: The Life and Work of Anzia Yezier­s­ka, teach­es part-time at the Bor­ough of Man­hat­tan Com­mu­ni­ty College.

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