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Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Kahane Movement: Origins and Influence on Israeli Politics

Kahane Movement
Israeli deputy Itamar Ben-Gvir alongside fanatic Jews raid Masjid Al-Aqsa Compound with the accompaniment of Israeli forces in Jerusalem on May 29, 2022. Mostafa Alkharouf / Anadolu Agency via AFP

Introduction

The shift toward the right, which has dominated the Israeli political landscape in recent years,  coincides with the rise of an exclusionary right-wing political rhetoric and hostile acts committed by Israeli-Jewish parties, such as the ‘Price Tag’ Movement. Furthermore, the May 2021 incidents (also known as the ‘Strike for Dignity’) involved attacks by extremist Jews against Palestinians inside Israel and the rise of settlement movements such as the ‘Biblical Nuclei’ in several towns. This is in addition to systematic attacks by settlers against Palestinians in occupied Palestinian territories. The growth of the right-wing movement in Israeli society is coupled with the use of force and an escalation in right-wing violence to fulfil certain demands and impose agendas based on exclusionary views that reject Arabs and Palestinians.

This reality leads us to discuss the Kach Party and Meir Kahane, who is deemed to be the godfather of racist, exclusionary right-wing and Jewish national terrorism that advocates the deportation of Palestinians. Even after his death more than 30 years ago, Kahane’s political legacy and rhetoric remain present in the Israeli political reality.

This article discusses Meir Kahane’s history, ideas and political rhetoric, as well as the impact of such rhetoric on Israeli political life.

Foundation and Kahane’s Upbringing 

In 1968, Rabbi Meir Kahane and his comrades founded the Jewish Defense League, marking the launch of Kahane’s political movement in the United States, specifically in New York. According to its agenda, the league’s main objectives were to protect the Jews in New York and fight anti-Semitism. The league’s work was characterised by its adherence to a right-wing ideology and an emphasis on the return of Jews to their roots, according to the movement’s vision, to spearhead efforts to prevent any further genocides against the Jews. The organisation’s scope of work was not limited to media but went beyond that to train its members in New York suburbs in fighting and the use of weapons. Consequently, the FBI designated it as a terrorist movement after several of its members had been convicted of targeting and bombing entities affiliated with the Palestine Liberation Organization and the Soviet Union. Recently, however, it was removed from the US list of foreign terrorist organisations due to inactivity, not because it was no longer a terrorist organisation.

The Kahane-led Jewish Defense League held five basic principles, which Kahane continued to embrace even after he left the United States.

The first principle is love for Israel and the people of Israel; the second, dignity and pride, emphasises the Jews’ pride regarding their heritage and history; the third is the principle of “iron” (symbolising the use of force and firmness), through which the league asserts that the Jews’ ‘pacifist’ approach has inflicted violence upon them; the fourth principle relates to the Jews’ need for unity and discipline; and the fifth views the Jewish faith as a guarantee for the survival and persistence of the Jews.

Literature classifies Rabbi Meir Kahane as a person capable of inciting audiences with his rhetoric and his ability to touch listeners’ emotions with populist and inflammatory words while steering clear of humanitarian and liberal rhetoric accepting of others. In this context, one cannot overlook Kahane’s upbringing, which was fuelled by radical rhetoric and that of the Beitar Movement and its main theorist, Vladimir Jabotinsky, who sought directly to place the Jews and the Hebrew language at the centre of the historic land of Palestine. While being religious, Kahane, too, was a nationalist Zionist.

Kahane Movement
This 12 December 2001 file photo shows the King Fahd Mosque in Culver City, CA, the target of a terrorist plot by members of the Jewish Defense League, including Earl Krugel, who was jailed for 20 years in 22 September 2005 for his role in the 2001 plot to bomb the mosque and the office of a Lebanese-American congressman. Krugel was sentenced to the maximum prison term allowed after he pleaded guilty in 2003 under a deal with prosecutors. He admitted planning the bombing campaign to send a “wake-up call” to Arabs and to show that the JDL was “alive in a militant way.” AFP PHOTO/FILES/Mike NELSON

After moving to Israel in 1971, Kahane founded the ‘Kach’ political movement, focussing more on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and Palestinians within Israel and those in the occupied territories. This became evident in the anti-Palestinian ideology that called for their expulsion. On top of the movement’s agenda was the annexation of all Arab territories occupied in the 1967 war, an approach that manifested in the use of violence by Kahane and his group, for which he was arrested on multiple occasions.

Kahane and his group also applied a systematic approach aimed at expelling the Palestinians. In Israeli courts, Kahane was accused of inciting rebellion by sending messages to Palestinians in several cities and villages demanding that they emigrate in exchange for money. Kahane’s vision emanated from his ideological view that saw Palestinians, especially those in Israel, as a source of danger and assumed that Jews had exclusive rights to Palestinian lands. Kahane systematically worked on an agenda that excluded Arabs and placed them inferior to Jews, considering Arabs as a problem and describing them, on more than one occasion, as a cancer. Moreover, Kahane sought to displace the Palestinians, and his organisation attempted to import weapons from outside Israel to this end.

Reports indicate that Kahane sought to bomb foreign embassies to draw attention to Jews in the Soviet Union and to help them immigrate to Israel. The overall rhetoric largely culminated in racially motivated violent gatherings incited by Kahane and his supporters in Palestinian territories. The latter was linked to Kahane and his group’s perception of Jewish supremacy, denial of Palestinians’ right to their land, and the pursuit of their expulsion. This perception had characterised Kahane’s role and work for years and would later characterise his successors.

Racist Proposals

After failed attempts in three preceding elections, Kahane became a member of the Israeli Parliament (Knesset) in 1984. At the time, his candidacy and the Kach electoral list were rejected by the Israeli Electoral Commission. The Israeli High Court of Justice, however, overturned the Commission’s decision, and the Kach Movement won one of the 120 seats, a seat filled by Meir Kahane himself.

Kahane’s victory and racist rhetoric affected the entire political landscape, prompting various parties in the Knesset to pass a law banning parties with racist electoral platforms from running. This followed the Kach Movement’s candidacy for the 1988 elections, which was accompanied by an undemocratic, ideological and racist trend calling for the restriction of intermarriage between Jews and Arabs, which led the High Court of Justice to reject the party’s candidacy. 

During his tenure at the Knesset, Kahane did not refrain from using racist and discriminatory rhetoric. Rather, he proposed bills such as the restriction of the right to obtain Israeli citizenship to Jews only and the imprisonment of any male or female Jew who engages in a sexual relationship with a person of a different religion. He publicly called for the bombing of the al-Aqsa Mosque and rebuilding the so-called ‘Third Temple’ in its place, and expressed that he was fully ready to do so.

The Kach Movement’s rhetoric and role are translated into relationships with pro-settlement movements in the West Bank, such as the Gush Emunim and Ateret Cohanim groups. Some of these movements were labelled as advocating violent agendas seeking to carry out underground action. If the Kach Movement and its legacy represent fascism and racism,  this fascist legacy has been transmitted and continues to be passed on to certain Israeli people, parties and movements, as is the case with Otzma Yehudit and other more radical movements, including the Hilltop Youth Group, Lahava, and La Familia. These organisations are deemed to be the bearers of Kahane’s legacy and play a tangible role in Israeli political reality and in terms of the tightening grip on Palestinians. 

Kahane was assassinated in a hotel in New York in 1990. This, however, did not mean the end of Kahane’s thoughts and legacy. Following his assassination, the Kach Movement‘s successors disputed with members who disagreed with the organisation. Consequently, the group was divided into two: one continuing under the same name and another named Kahane Chai (‘Kahane Lives’) Movement. However, the two movements were eventually outlawed in 1994 after the massacre at the Ibrahimi Mosque in Hebron, committed by a member named Baruch Goldstein, that left dozens of Palestinian worshippers dead.

Kahane’s political and religious beliefs

Kahane Movement
Palestinian farmers look at their destroyed olive trees in the northern West Bank village of Qarut on October 19, 2013. Around 80 olive trees were cut down overnight in Qarut in an act of vandalism blamed on Jewish settlers, Palestinian officials said. AFP PHOTO/JAAFAR ASHTIYEH

From a religious standpoint, Kahane believed that Jews should not mix with non-Jews, especially in relationships and marriage, and that Israel’s people are God’s chosen people. He also believed that Jews must revive their faith and adhere to it and that the state must exist in accordance with Jewish religious law. Kahane’s religious thinking was organically linked to theological theories such as revenge, which were formed and accompanied by a radical ideological thought. His ideology included a special puritan interpretation that integrated nationalist and religious dimensions, along with a deterministic ideological commitment to Jewish law, which he advocated and taught to Jews as the ‘true religion’; based on the ‘correct’ reading of the Torah, the Tanakh and the Talmud. Kahane taught and explicitly communicated Jewish religious law to his followers.

Politically speaking, and based on his aforementioned religious vision, faith and ideology, Kahane excluded others, especially the Palestinians, and considered that they must be deported since, in his view, two peoples with divergent ambitions cannot exist in one country. Yet, he agreed to the stay of some Arab minorities in Israel, though without political rights. He expressed his fear of the natural proliferation of Arabs and their potential control of the country, and worked on, encouraged and called for the displacement of Palestinians from Israel.

In line with his vision of the integrity of the “Complete Land of Israel” and the exclusive right of the Jews to all of historic Palestine, Kahane also rejected any real peace or the return of any occupied Arab land. With regard to Jerusalem and the al-Aqsa Mosque, he called for the imposition of Israeli sovereignty over the mosque and expressed his goal to expel Muslims from the mosque and demolish it. In 1986, he proposed a draft law to implement such ideas.

While systematically encouraging Jewish immigration, especially from the Soviet Union, to Israel, Kahane emphasised the need for Israel to apply Jewish religious law as a state. He was rigid on the topic of democracy and pluralism, embracing exclusionary political discourse and sometimes violent practices, especially at times when he believed that power and not showing vulnerability were important to the Jews.  He developed an approach that addressed violence from colonial and racist perspectives, which was a reason for barring the Kach Movement from running in the 1988 Knesset elections.

These religious and political trends that were racist and hostile towards others – in this case, the Palestinians – contributed to a situation of violence, resulting in attacks against Palestinians and their property in Jerusalem, the West Bank and elsewhere by figures affiliated with the Kahane and Kach Movements and subsequent formations embracing the same ideologies. These crimes culminated in the aforementioned massacre committed by Baruch Goldstein, who adopted Kahane’s ideology.

Kahanism and Israeli political reality

Kahane Movement
An Israeli man walks past an electoral billboard bearing portraits of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu flanked by extreme right politicians Itamar Ben-Gvir, Bezalel Smotrich and Michael Ben Ari, with a caption in Hebrew reading “Kahane Lives” in a reference to Kahane’s ultranationalist party banned in 1994, in Jerusalem, on March 29, 2019. THOMAS COEX / AFP

The issue with Kahanism lies in its impact on the Israeli political arena, especially since the political trend in Israel is moving toward the right. This impact has four main aspects.

Firstly, it legitimised racist political rhetoric, as, in recent years, it became part of the normal or permitted political rhetoric. Baruch Marzel and Itamar Ben-Gvir – former affiliates and supporters of Kahane and his party and current leaders in national religious right-wing parties, can openly present their political discourse in Israeli media and to the public. However, some oppose this type of rhetoric and fight it through various platforms.

This political discourse became part of certain Israeli rhetoric, particularly rhetoric related to the exclusion of Arabs and emphasising the superiority of the Jews, among other convictions held by Kahane. Ben-Gvir, leader of the ‘Jewish Power’ party,  considers that the introduction of laws such as the draft loyalty law proposed by Avigdor Lieberman, head of the far-right Yisrael Beiteinu Party, in 2009, and the negative rhetoric of Benjamin Netanyahu, former prime minister and leader of the Likud Party, regarding the political role of the Palestinians inside the Green Line, are trends in line with Kahane’s ideology. This rhetoric was accompanied by the actions of movements such as La Familia and Lahava, whose acts of violence against Palestinians in Israel were noticeable in the events of May 2021.

The second aspect of Kahanism’s impact lies in that Kahane’s model has lent inspiration to the rising rhetoric of the ‘Kahane Was Right’ Movement and other movements. Moreover, Kahane’s rhetoric and an increasing number of supporters remain present in Israel’s public political space. This is noticeable in the actions of his successors, who were prosecuted on suspicion of being behind terrorist acts, as in the 2015 burning of the Dawabsheh family’s house.

The revival of Kahane’s legacy is noticeable in the annual commemoration of the anniversary of his death and through the observation of moments of silence in his memory. Likewise, those who support Kahane’s ideology have walked the same violent path through the use and exploitation of violence, as did Baruch Marzel, who, according to an Israeli judge, expressed political views with extremism, violence and contempt for the rule of law. 

To date, terrorist attacks, crimes and acts of violence have been carried out against Palestinians and have been blamed on a number of settlement organisations in the West Bank, including the ‘Hilltop Youth’ Movement. The use of violence on an ideological basis by settlers in the occupied West Bank continues to be legitimised, especially where it favours control over Palestinian lands. Such violence has been used repeatedly in recent years, disregarding the law and imposing ideological visions by force. This trend extended to movements such as ‘Price Tag’, which attacks Palestinians and their property, thereby contributing to a significant rise in the number of incidents over the past years. According to the Israeli organisation Peace Now, in 2019, 363 violent incidents were recorded. This number increased to 507 incidents in 2020, while the number of incidents totalled 416 in the first half of 2021.

Kahane Movement
Hebrew graffiti reading “Price tag is the revenge of the Jews” was daubed on a wall, allegedly by Jewish settlers, in the Palestinian village of Aqraba, in the Israeli occupied West Bank on July 2, 2014, in what has come to be known as ‘price tag’ attacks. The term ‘price tag’ is a euphemism for nationalist-motivated hate crimes by Jewish extremists aimed at Palestinian properties, but also against other non-Jews and occasionally left wing Israelis and the security forces. AFP PHOTO/JAAFAR ASHTIYEH

The third aspect of Kahanism’s impact comes to show in the rise of political movements, activists, leaders and opinion holders inspired by Kahane’s rhetoric and the implementation of his agenda, though their rise is accompanied by political precautions for fear of legal accountability. At the same time, these parties managed to participate in the government and decision-making instruments to the extent that, according to some, they contributed to the right wing’s rise to power, headed by Netanyahu. Indeed, some of these parties became part of the accepted currents in Israel.

The Religious Zionism List, for example, is a radical right-wing list headed by rightist Bezalel Smotrich that won seven seats in the March 2021 Knesset elections. It believes that Israel needs to use force to annex the occupied Palestinian territories and give Palestinians a residency status rather than citizenship — a lower classification than that of Israeli citizens. The Smotrich plan is viewed as calling for the deportation and exclusion of Palestinians. Smotrich also used what was described as racist language when he addressed Arab members at a Knesset session in 2021, stating, “You are here because Ben-Gurion did not complete the mission,” referring to the deportation of Palestinians during the Nakba. Smotrich served as a minister in Netanyahu’s government, giving him legitimacy in Israeli political decision-making circles despite his extremist, right-wing and exclusionary positions.

For its part, the Otzma Yehudit or Jewish Power Party is considered the bearer of Kahane’s legacy. Its leader, Itamar Ben-Gvir, was convicted of inciting racism and supporting a terrorist organisation. The party is now part of the Israeli political structure and was allowed to participate in the Knesset elections despite bearing Kahane’s legacy. Ben-Gvir and his party believe that Israel should not cede any land, suggesting disapproval of withdrawal from the occupied Palestinian territories. Moreover, they do not see any rights for non-Jews in the country. The party also believes that sovereignty over the al-Aqsa Mosque belongs to the Jews and encourages Israeli settlement. They maintain that the war with the enemies of Israel – a reference to the Palestinians – is all-encompassing and demands their displacement and the use of force in confrontations.

A broad audience and many scholars consider Ben-Gvir to be Kahane’s successor as he propagates Kahanist ideas that exclude Arabs, discriminate against them, and are supportive of a terrorist approach. He  was responsible for provocative actions reminiscent of Kahane’s methods in Jerusalem and elsewhere. Ben-Gvir’s political rhetoric, advocating deportation and racism, continues to characterise his political career until this day. Moreover, Ben-Gvir is considered one of Netanyahu’s supporters in the context of the political divide that Israel experienced over the past year (2021-2022). Prior to the March 2021 elections, Netanyahu included Ben-Gvir in the joint Religious Zionism list (joining Likud as part of a right-wing bloc) to avoid losing right-wing votes and bolster his chances of forming a new government.

The fourth and last aspect of Kahanism’s impact lies in the fact that this discourse can create populism and incitement within society. This, in turn, causes a shift toward the right that will impact all political parties, result in exclusionary policies and render slogans of democracy and liberalism void of meaning. It will also lead to the exploitation of certain democratic tools and the imposition of right-wing elements on Israeli society. Although Kahane himself resented liberal democracy, he, at the same time, used it when it served his agenda, as did his successors. The general Israeli political reality has moved far away from liberal democracy, and the space for democracy and citizenship has shrunk and is no longer guaranteed.

Hence, the impact of the Kahane movement manifests in Israel’s Jewish Nation-State Law, enacted in 2018, in conjunction with the nature of Israel’s occupation and colonial reality and policies implemented within Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories. Kahane himself had pointed out that democracy differed from Judaism and that he adhered to Jewish religious law, envisioning that non-Jews could not have the same standing as Jews. This theological vision, associated with an understanding and interpretation of Jewish religion from an exclusionary perspective, dates back to the Middle Ages – a concept advocated by Kahane himself, according to several researchers.@m Still, a number of Jewish religious leaders, engaged in Israeli general politics, continue to embrace this discourse to this day.

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موشيه هيلينجبر ويتسحاق هيرشكوفيتس. (2015). الطاعة وعدم الطاعة في الصهيونية الدينية من غوش إيمونيم إلى تدفيع الثمن.  القدس: المركز الإسرائيلي للديموقراطية (من العبرية)