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Netanyahu’s Far-Right Partners Were Birthed by U.S. Terrorists
Brooklyn-born militant Meir Kahane's ideas are becoming dangerously acceptable in Israel.
Israeli politics has often included strange bedfellows. But perhaps no coalition has been odder—or more unpleasant—than that lined up by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ahead of the April 9 elections. In a deal orchestrated by Netanyahu in February, Otzma Yehudit, a racist political party with links to terrorism, merged with the more conventionally conservative and religious Jewish Home party to join a united list supporting Netanyahu.
Netanyahu’s gambit obliterates a moral boundary that for decades mainstream Israeli politicians, including Netanyahu’s own conservative Likud party, have dared not cross. Otzma Yehudit, or “Jewish Power,” is, in fact, just the newest face of the old Kach party, the radical movement founded decades ago by the late Rabbi Meir Kahane, the most infamous Jewish extremist of the latter 20th century. By offering them a shot at government, Netanyahu is giving the stamp of approval to a party as rooted in terrorism as Hamas. That’s only been reinforced by his declaration on April 7 that he would annex the West Bank settlements — seen by Otzma Yehudit as part of Israel’s divine mandate.
But lost amid the well-deserved scorn over Netanyahu’s move, which has precipitated widespread condemnation from Jewish groups from the left and right in both Israel and the United States, has been Kahane’s larger legacy—which is as much a North American story as it is a Middle Eastern one.
Kahane was an American, born in Brooklyn. In fact, before he left for Israel in 1971, Kahane founded the Jewish Defense League (JDL), one of the most prolific U.S.-based terrorist groups of the 1970s and 1980s. The JDL may be the only indigenous U.S. terrorist group that successfully migrated abroad, fomenting instability, radicalization, and violence in its new host state—in this case, Israel. The group offers an unsettling reminder that terrorism can metastasize and spread in all types of societies, including democratic ones.
Founded in 1968, and with supporters in large cities across the United States, the JDL first directed its ire against the Soviet Union—then repressing its large Jewish population—and Arab states and other groups opposed to Israel. (In fact, in the early 1970s, JDL attacks on Soviet facilities in the United States were so disruptive that then-National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger expressed relief upon hearing of Kahane’s indictment.) The JDL also espoused an illiberal and fascistic form of Zionism, calling for the mass ethnic cleansing of Palestinians.
For roughly three decades, the JDL waged a violent terrorist campaign on U.S. soil, committing dozens of bombings, acts of sabotage, and attempted airplane hijackings and kidnappings on both coasts. Soviet and Middle Eastern diplomatic facilities and state-linked enterprises were frequent targets. In 1981 alone, for instance, the JDL bombed an Iranian bank in San Francisco, affixed a pipe bomb to a car belonging to the Soviet U.N. Mission in New York, and threw Molotov cocktails at the Egyptian government’s tourist office in Manhattan, among other violent acts.
In its first known bombing, in 1972, the JDL blew up the offices of a New York City-based talent agency engaged in a cultural exchange program with the Soviet Union, killing an office worker and injuring 13 others. In 1982, JDL members set fire to an Arab restaurant on Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn, killing one person and injuring eight. New York City Mayor Ed Koch—who was himself Jewish—called it a “barbaric act,” savaging the JDL as “no different from the Palestine Liberation Organization, the Black Liberation Army, the provisional wing of the IRA, and the FALN [Fuerzas Armadas de Liberación Nacional, a Puerto Rican separatist organization].”
But Kahane’s followers didn’t stop. In 1985, the JDL assassinated an accused Nazi collaborator at the doorstep to his home in New Jersey and bombed the Southern California office of an Arab-American civil rights group, killing the organization’s director, Alex Odeh, and injuring seven others. Indeed, as recently as December 2001, JDL members conspired to bomb a Saudi-financed mosque and the offices of Rep. Darrell Issa, a Republican of Lebanese descent, in Southern California. The FBI arrested the suspects before they could carry out their plot.
In 1971, Kahane pleaded guilty to a federal weapons conspiracy charge and was released on bail. He decamped soon after for Israel, where his movement—seen, at first, as a foreign (that is: American) ideology with no real domestic Israeli constituency—was concentrated among a small number of ultrareligious settlers based in the occupied West Bank. Almost immediately after emigrating, Kahane decided to enter electoral politics, finally winning a seat to the Israeli parliament in 1984 under the banner of his own Kach party. Israeli lawmakers treated him like a pariah.
In 1988, citing Kach’s racism and violent incitement against Palestinians, the Israeli electoral authority banned the party from Israeli politics. Over time, Kahane’s followers regrouped under different party banners but were always kept out of electoral coalitions. (This March, Israel’s Central Elections Committee voted narrowly against banning Otzma Yehudit from contesting the election.)
Kahane was assassinated in New York City in 1990 by an Arab extremist, but Kahanism lived on. In 1994, Baruch Goldstein, a Brooklyn-born Kahanist living in an extremist settlement in the West Bank, walked into the Muslim side of the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron and opened fire, killing 29 worshipers. Infuriated and sickened, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin called Goldstein a “degenerate murderer,” and the Kahanists a “foreign implant” and “errant weed.”
The following year, Rabin—then intensely focused on the Oslo peace process —was assassinated by Yigal Amir, a right-wing extremist whose views matched Kahanists. In the last decade, radical Kahanist settlers, including Meir Kahane’s grandson himself, have spearheaded so-called price tag attacks against Palestinians in the West Bank, which have included deadly acts of arson.
Over time, Israeli politics has increasingly conformed to parts of Kahane’s vision, paving the way for a perpetual occupation of the Palestinian territories and fomenting a belligerent ethnonationalism that would have appalled Israel’s early socialist Zionist leaders. “[Kahane] forced the more respectable parties to change,” said the late Ehud Sprinzak, who was an expert on the Israeli far-right and a professor at Hebrew University, to the New York Times after Kahane’s assassination in 1990. “Many Israelis who would never vote for Kahane now speak the Kahane language.” After the start of the Palestinian Second Intifada in 2000, Israel’s politics have lurched even further rightward, and Netanyahu’s relatively consequence-free embrace of the Otzma Yehudit party shows how Kahane’s poisonous vision has, slowly but steadily, seeped into the mainstream.
For Rabin, the Kahanists were “Jewish Hamas,” as he called them after the 1994 Hebron massacre. He wasn’t exaggerating, and he wasn’t wrong. The Kahanists represent an enduring reminder that terrorism and extremism can take root anywhere, even in the yeshivas of Brooklyn or in the austere hilltop settlements of the West Bank. “Sensible Judaism spits you out,” said Rabin of the Kahanists, in what seemed simultaneously a prayer and a curse. With his electoral maneuver, Netanyahu reversed this expectoration, sullying himself immensely—and sickening an already weakened Israeli body politic—in the process.