Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Paul Mendes-Flohr reviews Meir Kahane

Shaul Magid. Meir Kahane: The Public Life and Political Thought of an American Jewish Radical. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2022. 296 pp.

Review by Paul Mendes-Flohr

18 May 2022

Thomas Mann observes in The Magic Mountain that “a human being lives out not only his personal life as an individual, but also, consciously or subconsciously, the lives of his epoch and contemporaries.”[1] And so Shaul Magid submits in this bold and challenging intellectual biography of an enfant terrible of Jewish political life who is now widely held to have represented an aberrant, embarrassing moment in America and later in the State of Israel, a moment best forgotten. With the scholarly virtues of a hedgehog and a fox, Magid draws on a trove of documents—correspondence, ephemera, and manuscripts that he analyzes with a relentlessly probing intellect—to argue that Meir Kahane (1932–1990), who espoused a combative Jewish political ideology, exposed fault lines in contemporary Jewry: political and cultural contradictions that remain unresolved, long after he was slain by an assassin’s bullet.  

Emerging to prominence in an Orthodox Jewish enclave in Brooklyn during a period of conflict with its Black neighbors, many of whom voiced anti-Semitic views, Kahane launched the Jewish Defense League (JDL).  Under the banner of a clenched fist, the JDL proclaimed “Never Again.” The cry relayed the pain of the survivors of the Holocaust. It was directed both to the Black opponents of the Brooklyn enclave and to the established American Jewish community, faulting its leadership for its tepid response to their plight. In focusing wrath on the uptown Jews, Kahane adopted the radical critique of the American liberal ethos of his Black adversaries, as Magid deftly demonstrates. Advocates of Black power and pride held that the struggle for racial integration was gravely misconstrued, for attendant to acceptance of Blacks in the ranks of liberal America was the expectation that they would become white, surrendering not only their distinctive culture but, in effect, yielding to what Louis Althusser would call an interpellated identity, flush with negative images of their former selves. Kahane also held that liberal Jewry had forfeited its dignity for acceptance by liberal “gentiles.” Indeed, even the likes of Immanuel  Kant exacted such a price in exchange for the Jews’ admission to enlightened society. The ticket of admission would be what he called the “euthanasia of Judaism”: If the Jews would purge Judaism of its “ancient statutory teachings”  and reconstitute it as “a pure moral religion,” they would “call attention” to themselves “as an educated and civilized people who are ready for all the rights of citizenship.”[2]

For Kahane, acceptance of these terms was tantamount to cultural and religious suicide. In the Yiddish lexicon of his youth, assimilation is called shmad, a term derived from the Hebrew for “destruction.” Liberalism thus willy-nilly collaborates in the demise of Judaism. In consonance with his radical political disposition, Kahane did not shy away from hyperbolic rhetoric to promote his radical critique. At the least, liberal assimilation would render antisemitism more subtle and, in the extreme, engender Jüdischer Selbtshaß. To stem the tide of shmad, Kahane reasoned, it was necessary to restore ethnic pride or rather what he called hadar  (Hebrew for “glory”), a concept that one of his ideological mentors Vladimir Ze’ev Jabotinsky, founder of a right-wing  Zionist movement, had expressly drawn from Mussolini’s fascist vision of rekindling the “glory” of the Roman Empire. 

After emigrating to Israel in the wake of a suspended five-year sentence for manufacturing explosives, Kahane rooted hadar and ethnic pride in the Torah and traditional Jewish religious practice. From this perspective he took up cudgels against Israel’s regnant secular Zionist ethos, which he averred was riddled with contradictions that could not but lead to the death of Judaism. Most pressing was his critique of the pretense of establishing a “Jewish democratic state.” The state, he contended, was either Jewish or democratic. It could not be both: “The Arab,” Kahane contended, “‛knows that a Jewish State cannot be a democratic one, in the western sense of the word, a concept that gives all people, regardless of nationality, equal rights. Democracies are not modified by adjectives. There is no Jewish or Arab democracy. There is democracy. Or a Jewish State. Or an Arab one’” (p.145).

If Zionism came to secure the future of the Jewish people, Kahane concluded, it had no choice but to facilitate the emigration of the Arabs from the state either by material inducements or by expulsion. Given his penchant for incendiary rhetoric, he therefore called for the removal of “‘the Ishmaelite cancer and the desecration of the land of Israel’” (p. 154). When he brought such statements to the rostrum of the Israeli parliament, to which he was elected in 1984, a law was enacted against racism and his banishment from the legislative chambers.

Although Kahane’s views were repudiated by the leadership of both Israel and of American Jewry, his indictment of liberal pluralism is, Magid says, “sobering.” For “it suggests that a true democracy is impossible in a Jewish state, which must, to ensure its own survival, assign non-Jewish individuals and communities, that is, Arabs, a second-class status. Kahane suggests that even if Arabs are treated fairly in Israel they can never be treated equally, a view that echoes the arguments of Black Power theorists.” Namely that the acquisition of civil rights “do[es] not erase structural, underlying racism of a society based on white supremacy” (p.101), and analogously, Jewish national hegemony. 

Through the lens of the eccentric, outrageous radical Kahane, Magid quickens attention to exigent issues that should exercise Jewry.



[1] Thomas Mann, The Magic Mountain, trans. John E. Woods (New York, 1995), pp. 36–37.

[2] Immanuel Kant, “The Conflict of the Faculties,” trans. Mary. J. Gregor and Robert Anchor, in Religion and Rational Theology, trans. and ed. Allen W. Wood and George Di Giovanni (New York, 2001), pp. 276, 275.