Introduction: Why Kahane?
In the early spring of 2018 I was attending a bat mitzvah in a Jewish suburb of a major American city. The bat mitzvah was at a large Modern Orthodox synagogue. During the Shabbat-day festive meal I was waiting on line at the buffet when I struck up a conversation with a professional-looking man, probably in his mid-fifties. He seemed educated, friendly, and not particularly ideological. He asked me what I did, and I told him that I was at the Center for Jewish History in New York on a research grant. He asked me what I was working on. When I told him I was writing a cultural biography of Meir Kahane, his eyes opened wide and he responded, “If you want my opinion, I agree with everything Kahane said. Everything he predicted came true. He just should have said it in a nicer way.” What was so striking to me about his response was its matter-of-factness—his willingness to make that statement to someone he barely knew as if it was uncontroversial. I was wearing a kippah, and as far as he knew, I was a member of the Modern Orthodox “club” that gave him license to voice his positive assessment of Kahane. As we moved on to the buffet I was struck by how Kahane seems on the one hand to be persona non grata in American Jewry, and yet on the other hand a figure whose presence remains ubiquitous, almost like part of the subconscious of a certain slice of American Judaism, especially Modern Orthodoxy.
More than half a century has passed since Meir Kahane founded the controversial Jewish Defense League (JDL) in New York in May 1968. The JDL was established as a response to the 1968 Ocean Hill-Brownsville school strike that crippled the New York City school system. The history is complicated, but suffice it to say that anti-Semitic pamphlets were distributed by some African American PTA members of the school district in part because the president of the United Federation of Teachers, Albert Shanker, was a Jew, and the district had a high percentage of white Jewish teachers among a student population that was over 90 percent black and Hispanic. In addition, liberal mayor John Lindsay, who sided with the teachers’ union and Shanker against the parents, was a longtime target for Kahane. Kahane disagreed with Lindsay’s liberalism and felt he was not acting in the interest of the Jews of the city.
Through the early 1970s, the JDL flourished, and chapters arose in many urban centers in America. The notion of Jewish pride and protecting vulnerable Jews against criminality struck a chord with a new generation of Jews and with older Jews who felt vulnerable in their neighborhoods. JDL activities also included arms smuggling across state lines and illegal transportation of materials to make explosives. They were followed closely by J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI, and by law enforcement. By 1975 the JDL had largely collapsed under local and federal indictments for arms smuggling and possession of explosives. Kahane, for his part, moved to Israel in September 1971 and founded a political party, KACH. After two failed attempts to be elected to the Knesset, he succeeded in 1984. In 1986 KACH was labeled a racist party by the Knesset and Kahane was removed from his parliamentary post. The JDL in America continued without him but never really overcame its legal troubles. And without Kahane as the charismatic leader, it ultimately descended into little more than a street gang.
In Israel, Kahane continued his clandestine activities; by 1972 he had already spent time in Israeli jails. He was arrested over sixty times and found guilty of numerous offenses, including incitement to violence. His organization was labeled a terrorist group in Israel, and many of its members spent considerable time in American and Israeli prisons. Nevertheless, even in 2018, a middle-aged Modern Orthodox man at a buffet table might state matter-of-factly, to an almost total stranger, “I agree with everything Kahane said. Everything he predicted came true.” Many of the ideas Kahane professed continue to resonate today, even in more conventional or mainstream parts of American and Israeli Jewry.
Kahane seems on the one hand to be persona non grata in American Jewry, and yet on the other hand a figure whose presence remains ubiquitous.
Over the past six or seven years, whenever I have mentioned to friends or colleagues that I have been working on Kahane, I have gotten one of two reactions. Some scratch their heads and ask, “Why would you want to spend so much time working on such a despicable person, a thug, someone who was an embarrassment to the Jewish people?” But others say, “Oh, that’s a great project; I always thought someone should write a serious study of him.”
I never met Meir Kahane, although for some years I inhabited a world where he was ubiquitous. In the early 1980s, I shared a rental in Boro Park, Brooklyn, with a JDL member. He was a young, idealistic type. He was very proud to be a Jew and wore a kippah, but he was not very religious; I am not even sure he kept Shabbat. On his bookshelf, next to a Pentateuch and a book of Psalms, was a four-volume softcover set of books entitled How to Kill. This series offered details of different ways of murdering someone, including some very graphic photos, instructive diagrams, and lists of weapons. Leaning against the wall were a few baseball bats, brass knuckles, and nunchucks (which were by then illegal in New York State). We remained casual acquaintances. I was a haredi yeshiva student at the time, and he was a street Jew, one of Kahane’s “chayas” (animals), although he was tall and skinny and not a threatening figure at all. Thinking about him after all these years and after close to a decade of seriously reading Kahane’s work, I doubt he had read much of what Kahane wrote. But he was a proud Jew because of what Kahane represented. Kahane represented Jewish pride.
By 1980 the JDL was a skeleton of what it once was in the early 1970s, decimated by arrests, indictments, and emigration to Israel. By that time Kahane occasionally visited or wrote to the organization he founded, but he had moved past it, his eyes now set on a political career in Israel. But the JDL nevertheless lived on, and Kahane’s image continued to inspire young adherents—as it does to this day.
Who was Meir Kahane? Meir Kahane was an American Jew. He was born in New York City on August 1, 1932, and raised in a middle-class neighborhood in Brooklyn. He spent his adolescence among Jews, many of whom had survived the Holocaust, in a community reeling from the devastating effects of the Nazi genocide. The Holocaust was ever present and at the same time, absent. It surrounded everything but was often hushed up publicly. Kahane’s immediate family was not directly affected by the Holocaust; they had emigrated to America or Mandatory Palestine before the Nazi onslaught. After high school, Kahane spent thirteen years attending the Mir Yeshiva in Brooklyn. “The Mir,” as it was called, was transplanted from Russia via Kobe, Japan, where many of its students fled after the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union. Its New York branch opened in 1946 with support from American Jews, one of whom was Kahane’s father, Charles.
During his years at the Mir, Kahane became well versed in classical Jewish texts as well as the method known as musar, which uses Jewish texts to facilitate self-perfection and behavior modification. Interestingly, while he served as rabbi of a few congregations in Queens and Brooklyn, New York, in the 1950s, his early career and writings do not exhibit his yeshiva training. Among his young JDL constituents he was called “the Reb” (a hip euphemism for “rabbi”), but it isn’t until he settles in Israel in the early 1970s that one sees his religious character come to the fore. In general, as will be discussed in chapters 5 and 6, Kahane became a religious figure in Israel in ways he was not in America.
Trained as a rabbi and studying in yeshivot, Kahane also graduated from the NYU School of Law with a specialty in international studies but repeatedly failed to pass the bar. An avid baseball fan, he worked as a sports writer for a local newspaper in Brooklyn, as a congregational rabbi, and then as a journalist for the Jewish Press, a Brooklyn weekly. Until the mid-1960s it seems Kahane was heading for a middling career as another Modern Orthodox rabbi in New York City. But he clearly had aspirations of grandeur. In 1967 he published a book, The Jewish Stake in Vietnam, coauthored with a childhood friend, political operative Joseph Churba, and the same year testified to Congress about Soviet Jewry. But it was really the founding of the JDL in May 1968 that made Kahane a public figure, largely due to the organization’s militant activities in New York, Philadelphia, and Boston and its ability to get into the regional and national press.
He rose to national fame through his involvement with Soviet Jewry. While he published a short article called “To Save Soviet Jewry” in 1964, he did not involve himself with them until late 1969; the movement on their behalf was officially established by Yaakov Birnbaum in 1964. By 1970 Kahane became a central figure in the Soviet Jewry movement. He also founded a summer camp, Camp Jedel, where campers learned martial arts, self-defense, and how to shoot guns.
Kahane emigrated to Israel in September 1971 after he was given a suspended sentence for illegal activities tied to the JDL. In 1975 he returned to America to serve out a sentence for parole violations, spending a year in a federal penitentiary in Allenwood, Pennsylvania, where, among other things, he successfully campaigned for kosher food in the prison. When he returned to Israel, he began a political career, eventually (as noted) founding his own party, and in 1984 he was elected to the Knesset. The controversies surrounding his ideas culminated in 1986 in the “Racism Law” passed to oust him from the Knesset and ban his political party. On November 5, 1990, after a speech at the Marriott Hotel in Manhattan, Kahane was shot in the neck at close range by El Sayyid Nosair, an Egyptian-born Muslim who lived in New Jersey. Nosair was acquitted of the murder. Yet years later, when convicted of charges relating to the first World Trade Center bombing, he admitted to murdering Kahane. Kahane’s funeral in Israel was one of the largest in the history of the country.
Kahane’s life was colorful and controversial. During his heyday in America (1968-1974) his name was widely known among American Jews, and the JDL received donations from various sectors of the Jewish community, religious and secular. But despite his ubiquity during an important era for American Jewry, his life and thought have not been fully integrated into the history of American Jews and Judaism. For example, while researching this book, I was looking up a source in a widely consulted history, Jonathan Sarna’s American Judaism—first published in 2004 with a new edition in 2019—and I was struck by the fact that this six-hundred-page study does not contain a single reference to Meir Kahane or the JDL. How could this be, given how influential Kahane was in the United States from the late 1960s through the 1980s? My point here is not to criticize Sarna’s work, nor to suggest that a scholar of his stature might have simply forgotten about Kahane or the JDL. My sense is that this omission was intentional and reflects a broader impulse to expunge him—and the radical militancy he represents—from our narratives about American Jewish culture and history. This book makes the case that this history cannot be told without him.
Kahane’s funeral in Israel was one of the largest in the history of the country.
Most studies on the iconoclastic rabbi Meir Kahane view his life and work in reverse. That is, even when they examine his life in America, they often regard it from the lens of his later career in Israel. For example, Daniel Breslauer’s book Meir Kahane: Ideologue, Hero, Thinker focuses a good deal on his life in America and yet consistently refers to him as a “fanatic.” While I do think “fanatic” captures Kahane’s later life and while his program in Israel could easily be deemed “fanatical,” I don’t think the term quite describes his American career, certainly not in the 1960s and early 1970s. Radicalism, yes; fanaticism, no. Viewing Kahane from back to front may be the reason why Sarna’s otherwise comprehensive American Judaism completely ignores him. I do not think any history of Israel from 1948 to the present could ever get away with not mentioning Kahane. His rise and fall in Israeli politics and society was a major event in Israel in the 1980s.
I think American Jewry and many of its historians are embarrassed by Kahane and refuse to view him as a noteworthy figure, even though until the mid- to late 1970s he was ubiquitous on the national stage. I would venture to say that from 1968 to 1973 Kahane was mentioned more frequently in the New York Times than any other American rabbi. He gave a feature interview to Playboy in 1972 and was the subject of a major article in Esquire that same year. Even given that national exposure, many viewed his radical reactionary views as an aberration in the otherwise liberal or progressive climate of postwar America. It is true that his career in America was quite short; he emerged on the scene as a public figure in the late 1960s and by 1971 had left for Israel. While he subsequently divided his time between Israel and the US, one could argue that by the mid-1970s Kahane was no longer part of American Jewish history.
I maintain that such assumptions are mistaken.
Rather than viewing America as Kahane’s prehistory and his career in Israel as having significant and lasting impact, I view Kahane and his significance the other way around. America was where his impact was really felt and Israel was a kind of a coda where he ultimately did not succeed, in part because his thinking remained mired in an American discourse. True, there is a significant afterlife of Kahanism in Israel until today, but that afterlife is in large part the product of a homegrown Israeli Kahanism, or neo-Kahanism, that is less about him than we imagine. The Kahanism of Meir Kahane was a dismal failure in Israel. Kahanism was—not in its tactics but in its worldview—far more successful in America than we imagine precisely because he was and remained a product of postwar American Judaism.
His story is not only a Jewish story, nor is it only a Jewish-American story. It is a story of religion and ethnic identity in America in the second half of the twentieth century. Kahane’s Jewish radicalism is an untold chapter in the radicalism of race, ethnicity, and identity politics in the 1960s and 1970s. Kahane should be placed alongside Malcolm X and Stokely Carmichael, and the Jewish Defense League should be viewed alongside the Black Panthers and the Young Lords. Can we even imagine a history of Black America in the twentieth century without one mention of Malcolm X or the Black Panthers?
When scholars of American religion today include chapters on Jews and Judaism in their work, these chapters almost never mention Kahane or the JDL. And yet I will argue throughout this book that the shift away from classical liberalism and assimilationism in American Jewry, while it is certainly caused by many factors, also includes the influence of the fairly brief but intense presence of Kahanism as a contestation of cultural and political liberalism. He played a significant role in the emergence of the Jewish counterculture of the baby boomer generation, and he played a part in radical American politics from about 1965 to 1974.
Kahane is best viewed as a cultural icon who was able to shift the discourse of American Jewry, and later Israeli politics, through sheer will, perseverance, and maniacal certitude. Kahane was a Jewish radical, a militant advocate for Jewish pride, and a destructive force against human decency. But he was also an influential critic of the hypocrisy of 1960s and 1970s American Jewish liberalism and a gadfly with regard to its power. He claimed his fidelity was to Israel and yet he was a quintessential American, even decades after emigrating to Israel. He may have lived in Israel from 1971 until his assassination in 1990 (while spending about half his time in America), but in many ways he remained an American thinker, which is why I argue that his Israeli career was a failure until it struck more indigenous roots among his Israeli followers.
And like any true American, Kahane could not escape the question of anti-black racism. Nor did he try. Like so many white, or white-presenting, Americans in power, he treated African Americans cynically, and instrumentally. He could not escape them, but rather embraced them, as suited his rhetorical needs, in a painful dance.
The issue of race and racism begins Meir Kahane’s career in 1968 with the founding of the JDL (Jewish Defense League) as a response to black anti-Semitism, and ends his career with the “Racism Law” that ousted him from the Knesset in 1986. Accusations that Kahane was a racist flowed through his entire public life, and he addressed those accusations in a variety of ways, both in America in regard to blacks and in Israel in regard to Arabs. Here I will explore in some detail the role of race and racism in Kahane’s thought within the broader context of race politics in postwar America and to a lesser extent, in Israel.
Kahane should be placed alongside Malcolm X and Stokely Carmichael, and the Jewish Defense League should be viewed alongside the Black Panthers and the Young Lords.
Kahane was not distinctive in holding racist views among many who lived in his Orthodox community in those years, and sadly, even today. When he often stated “I say what people think,” meaning on the question of race, he was arguably not far off. My goal is to explore how race is used by Kahane, how he negotiated his own whiteness and Jewishness in response to the racialized world in which he lived, and in what ways we can understand his responses denying his racism. Put otherwise, I am less concerned here that Kahane was a racist than about how he used race to promote his ideas.
One final prefatory note. Elsewhere I write about the ways in which Kahane’s radicalism against the liberalism of his time put him in proximity to Jewish radicals on the left who were waging their own battles against Jewish quiescence, assimilation, incrementalism, and materialism. I note there that radicalism as a stance can often bring together strange bedfellows and that shared tactics can foster alliances. Here I illustrate how such alliances against a common enemy, in this case liberalism, have their limits. Radical Jews on the left saw themselves engaged in fighting injustice in general, fighting as Jews, for Jews, but also for all who suffer from social ills. Here the transition suggested by Arthur Waskow in his book The Bush is Burning from “Jewish radicals to radical Jews” is instructive. When the Jewish radicals became radical Jews, they did not abandon their project but only altered their position is relation to their radicalism and their identity as Jews. They stood now not as New Leftists who happened to be Jewish, but as American Jews whose radicalism came from their Jewishness.
On the race question, Kahane does not share a common cause with these radical Jews but, in fact, opposes them on two grounds: first, their claim that commitment to fighting societal injustice in general is a Jewish value; and second, on what he considered their misguided belief that in the end most gentiles are not anti-Semites or at least hold anti-Semitic views. On these two points Kahane’s Orthodox orientation comes through—not that all Orthodox Jews think this way, but that these perspectives are not uncommon in the Orthodox world where Kahane was raised. Kahane certainly weaponized and politicized these notions in ways that made many Orthodox Jews uncomfortable, but the core values he espoused were not strange to the world of postwar Orthodoxy in America.
Here then we can ask whether the race issue shows that Kahane’s radicalism was faulty, even false, because it denied a universalist component that much of radicalism shared—although Black Nationalism also shared Kahane’s focus on one group, even as it focused on Third Worldism more generally. In Israel it may play out differently in that radicalism there, from the Revisionists to the settler movement, is often expressed by insularity and not expansiveness, by exclusivity and not inclusion. If I am correct, then the “Racism Law” that removed Kahane from the Knesset was not necessarily an indictment of his call for Jewish power and exclusivity but reflected the fact that he had gone too far and framed those attitudes in a way that most Israeli Jews felt was unacceptable. In a sense, Kahane introduced the race issue to Israel/Palestine very forcefully; the conflict had often been framed as purely nationalist, and Kahane’s assertions of racialization made many Israelis uncomfortable. Put otherwise, Kahane overly Americanized the Israel/Palestine conflict.
In 1984, after two failed attempts to win a seat in the Knesset, Meir Kahane was elected to the Israeli parliament as leader of his KACH Party. His election sent shock waves through the Israeli political world. His political platform of expelling the Arabs, and his provocative argument that it was “schizophrenic” to claim that Israel could be “both Jewish and democratic,” rattled a country that had been struggling to come to terms with its almost twenty-year occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip and growing Israeli Arab and Palestinian resistance. Even then–prime minister Yitzhak Shamir, who had been a member of a terrorist organization in his youth, announced he would not allow KACH into a Likud-led coalition, a sign that the Israeli right, as well as the left, were afraid of what Kahane’s political power would generate.
What Kahane and his allies would do with political power had been made clear three years earlier when in May 1981 he took out a full-page ad in the Israeli daily Maariv. Entitled “She Is a Daughter of Israel. Perhaps Your Sister, Your Daughter or Granddaughter,” the ad spelled out some of Kahane’s proposals for the upcoming Knesset election. These included (1) a law forbidding the “abomination of assimilation and communion with goyim” (in this case, Arabs), (2) a mandatory prison sentence for any Arab who had sexual relations with a Jewish girl or woman, and (3) a law restricting United Nations forces from engaging in any type of relations with the Jewish population. In addition, Kahane later declared that if elected he would strip all Israeli Arabs of their citizenship and work toward expelling any who refused to relinquish it. Kahane actually submitted such a bill—called the “three tolls bill”—to the Knesset in late 1985.
Fearing significant repercussions from Kahane’s newfound platform and sensing its popularity among sections of the electorate, Israeli legislators took the drastic action of amending the country’s Basic Laws to bar “racist parties and candidates” from running in Israeli elections. Known as article 7a of the Basic Laws, this amendment rendered KACH illegal, and Kahane and his party were removed from the Knesset.
The reason given by the Knesset was that Kahane and his followers were “inciting racism and endangering security.” This law was clearly legislated for Kahane and KACH alone; it was never successfully invoked again. In many ways it was a final blow to Kahane’s political career in Israel. He appealed the ruling to Israel’s Supreme Court, and the court upheld the Central Elections Committee’s decision barring him from running in the 1988 and 1992 elections. Although Kahane remained popular, he knew his political career would be a zero-sum game: either he would take over the direction of the country or he would be rejected by it.
Given how central issues of race were throughout Kahane’s public career—including its beginnings two decades earlier in America—it is fitting that his political career ended with this official Israeli designation of him as a racist political actor. Not only did he found the JDL in response to black anti-Semitism connected to the New York City school strike in the spring of 1968, but most of his early programs of civil patrols to protect elderly Jews focused on those living in what the media then called “frontier” neighborhoods, meaning black and Latino neighborhoods in New York, Boston, and Philadelphia. The JDL’s first real action took place on Halloween night in 1968 when a group of young JDLers went armed with bats and man-made weapons to the Montefiore Jewish cemetery in the Bronx where in years past black youths had desecrated tombstones. Black youths indeed showed up that night but were scared off by this ragged bunch of Jewish teenagers ready to physically confront them. Kahane viewed this as a tremendous victory for the fledging and ramshackle organization.
Engagement with what Kahane called “black anti-Semitism” was central to the JDL’s efforts to attract press attention. When accused of racism himself, Kahane often countered that he and the JDL “are not against any race, creed, or color. We are against anyone who is against the Jews.” The disingenuousness of this comment will be explored below. Yet the question of race swirled around Kahane’s entire career. He did not quite identify Jews as white, although Jews certainly benefited from white privilege, and he certainly resisted the idea that “white” Jews were part of the same “club” as John Birch Society members. Yet the whiteness of Jews, and what that meant, stood at the forefront of his concept of race. James Baldwin called this the “American pattern,” aptly described by Keith Feldman as “the spatially stratified structure of whiteness.”
Much of Kahane’s American career focused on what he perceived as black anti-Semitism and the responses of many urban blacks to Jews, famously described at the time in James Baldwin’s 1967 celebrated essay “Negroes Are Anti-Semitic Because They’re Anti-White.” Kahane’s ethos of self-defense and Jewish pride was a response to what he considered the liberal establishment’s weak-kneed approach to these matters. He explicitly contested, for example, the stance of Dore Schary, then president of the ADL, who “cautioned the American Jewish community not to exaggerate fears of Negro anti-Semitism” even in the context of the 1968 Ocean Hill-Brownsville school strike.
Like any true American, Kahane could not escape the question of anti-Black racism. Nor did he try.
Kahane himself, moreover, made statements about race and racism that upended liberal Jewish assumptions, not least in relation to Jewish chauvinism and claims of superiority. In a 1987 essay “I Hate Racism,” he proposed that “racism is the very essence of the secular Jew,” suggesting that if one does not identify as a Jew through accepting the biblical notion of divine election, and instead identifies Jewishness as an ethnos, a secular, purely ethnic identity, that identity is in fact racist. Kahane thereby implicated liberal secular Jews and secular-leaning Reform rabbis in racism, while claiming that accusations of racism launched at him by these parties were forms of hypocrisy and projection. In his 1987 book Uncomfortable Questions for Comfortable Jews, where he writes extensively about the racism charge against him in Israel, he goes even further, arguing that if he is a racist, Zionism is racist because “Zionism is Kahanism.” …
Recent critical race theory that focuses on structural rather than personal or circumstantial dimensions of race in America can help explain what might otherwise seem paradoxical in Kahane’s thought—such as why he had such a vexed relationship with Black Power and Black Nationalism, which he opposed, while simultaneously advocating something quite similar for Jews.
Critical race theory draws from postcolonial thinkers such as Franz Fanon, who contested the liberal integrationist model favored by the mainstream civil rights movement and Martin Luther King. In the 1960s Malcolm X became the standard-bearer, certainly the most well-known, of Fanonian thinking in America. The African American social critic Harold Cruse captured the dilemma of integration when he wrote in 1967 that “one of the great traps of racial integrationism [is that] one must accept all the values (positive and negative) of the dominant society into which one struggles to integrate.” The Afro-pessimist view was founded on the black person’s lack of agency in a society such as America founded on the enslavement of the Negro as part of its white hegemony.
As African American film critic and dramatist Frank Wilderson III explains in his 2010 work Red, White, and Black: Cinema and the Structure of U.S. Antagonisms,“ Afro-pessimists are theorists of Black positionality who share Fanon’s insistence that, though Blacks are indeed sentient beings, the structure of the entire world’s semantic field—regardless of cultural and national discrepancies … is sutured by anti-Black solidarity. … Afro-pessimism explores the meaning of Blackness not—in the first instance—as a variously and unconsciously interpolated identity or as a conscious social actor, but as a structural position of noncommunicability in the face of all other positions; this meaning is noncommunicable because, again, as a position, Blackness is predicated on modalities of accumulation and fungibility, not exploitation and alienation.” Wilderson argues, in other words, that being black is to be constituted by violence, borrowing the term “social death,” the negation of being Human. Black identity is something created by violence inflicted on blacks by a hegemonic white class. Unlike Jews, who, as Fanon put it, “went into Auschwitz [as Jews] and came out as Jews,” Africans “went into the ships and came out as Blacks. The former is a Human holocaust; the latter is a Human and a metaphysical holocaust. This is why it makes little sense to attempt an analogy: the Jews have the Dead (the Muselmann) among them; the Dead have the Blacks among them.”
Wilderson and others distinguish between racism and anti-blackness. The first exists among many groups and it is often situational and can be remedied. Anti-blackness, however, is structural, even ontological (Afropessimists prefer the term “political ontology”), such that it can never be undone. Wilderson writes, “Afropessimism is premised on a comprehensive and iconoclastic claim: that Blackness is coterminous with Slaveness: Blackness is social death: which is to say that there was never a prior metaphysical moment of plenitude, never equilibrium; never a moment of social life.”
Although without any comparison to Jews and without Wilderson’s ontological claim, sociologist E. Franklin Frazier made a similar assessment when he maintained that blacks did not take their culture and religion with them from Africa, or more precisely that it did not survive, and that Christianity became a new bond of cohesion for a slave collective whose culture had been erased by the Middle Passage. The Middle Passage was an act of erasure, not only enslavement. By contrast, some Afro-pessimists argue in Fanon’s vein that although six million Jews were murdered in the Holocaust, Judaism indeed survived (Jacob Neusner makes a similar point). One point of the Middle Passage was to erase the past; new names, new religion, new subservient status.
Afro-pessimists do not deny the existence and depth of anti-Semitism but instead consider that the racism directed at black people in America inflicted a form of violence that is qualitatively different, and more catastrophic, than the violence that has accompanied anti-Semitism. Put otherwise, Auschwitz cannot be likened to the Middle Passage. For Wilderson, anti-Semitism is a form of racism, but anti-blackness is the very structure of white civilization without which it cannot survive.
Afro-pessimists thus do not diminish the Jewish experience of anti-Semitism but rather push back against its claim of uniqueness and perhaps also against the special ontological status it is often given. For those who hold such a view, racism is an endemic and structural part of American society that cannot be resolved through civil rights. Separatism—meaning, in some cases, physical separation from the US, as exemplified by Marcus Garvey and (for a time) Malcolm X—and expressions of Black Power are the only ways to move beyond the racism of white hegemony. Talk of integration only serves to dilute rather than concentrate Black Power. Blacks thus needed a new curriculum to teach their children how to be black outside the orbit of white society (hence the emergence of Pan-African schools in the late 1960s). Even black culture, as the Afro-pessimists argue, is produced primarily for a white audience (think of jazz or Motown or the adage that rock and roll was nothing more than “white folks playing black people’s music”). From this standpoint, reparations are not only legitimate but a right, not to resolve slavery but simply to institute some sort of justice in a continuing unjust system.
Kahane and the Afro-pessimists would certainly have deep disagreements over the nature and status of anti-Semitism. For Kahane, alongside many others, anti-Semitism is a sui generis and ontological hatred of the Jews that outweighs other forms of racism. But he too thought about race structurally and rejected liberal notions of integration and peaceful coexistence in a multicultural society.
When Jews assimilate, what do they assimilate to? For Kahane, they assimilate to whiteness (the ‘Scarsdales’ and ‘Great Necks’ that dot the American landscape, as Kahane liked to say).
What is so suggestive in juxtaposing Afro-pessimism with Kahane’s view of anti-Semitism is that while Kahane did not have the intellectual skills to make a more sophisticated argument, and certainly knew nothing of Afro-pessimism that emerged decades later, for him anti-Semitism is quite similar to how some critical race theorists understand Afro-pessimism. For Kahane, while racism exists, it is categorically different from anti-Semitism, which is a metaphysical maxim captured in the rabbinic adage “Esau hates Jacob.” And for Afro-pessimists like Wilderson, following Fanon, anti-Semitism certainly exists, but it is mostly a “family feud” between white people whereas anti-blackness is categorically different.
By making claims such as that anti-Semitism is in the DNA of the gentile, Kahane openly suggests that there is no solution to anti-Semitism. This is simply the way the world is constructed; all one can do is manage anti-Semitism, never eradicate it. Here Kahane espouses what I am calling a kind of Judeo-pessimism, positing the perennial and unfathomable persistence of what Holocaust historian Robert Wistrich called a “lethal obsession.” What many scholars of anti-Semitism refuse to acknowledge, while it seems to come through in some of their work, is an ontological claim of anti-Semitism that Kahane propounds openly, and that Afro-pessimism theorizes in relation to anti-blackness.
In his 1972 book Time to Go Home, published a year after his emigration to Israel, Kahane declared that America cannot protect its Jews from anti-Semitism. He viewed anti-Semitism as a ubiquitous part of the human condition, sometimes dormant but never absent: “When times are good, people dislike Jews quietly; when things are not so good, they dislike them loudly; and when things are critical they hate them violently—and act on their hate.” It is part of the hardware of human civilization and part of the divine plan not to enable Jews to become too comfortable while living among the gentiles. In this sense Kahane was a Judeo-pessimist.
Kahane’s Judeo-pessimism echoes an Afro-pessimism that only really emerged after him but had its roots in the Black Nationalism of his time. Indeed, in a chapter of Time to Go Home entitled “The Great Racial Crisis,” Kahane acknowledges the plight of the American Negro and even offers a kind of kind of inverted Afro-pessimist response that “the white man has always feared blacks and does so still”; what the black wants stems from a “natural desire,” yet the white man will never give it to him. The reason? “Huge numbers of whites do not want to live with blacks, and they demonstrate their feelings by fleeing both city and neighborhood.” The battle of race is an ongoing one and the black will never get the upper hand.
But Kahane’s apparent Afro-pessimism here is really a veil for Judeo-pessimism. Who will lose in the ongoing battle? The blacks will never get what they rightfully deserve, but their lot will continue to improve over time. The Jew, by contrast, whose passing-as-white status has enabled him or her to greatly benefit from America, will lose in the end. Whereas in medieval and early modern Europe the Jew suffered as the middleman between the rulers and the peasants, in America the Jew will once again be squeezed as a middleman in the coming race wars, viewed by each side as collaborating with the other, being simultaneously not white enough and too white. For conservative white Americans the Jew becomes the liberal champion of civil rights, a collaborator or even instigator of the black cause: “It is the Jew who is held up by the haters as the man behind the successful civil rights movements and black demands. It is the Jew who is portrayed as the evil genius behind the scenes. It is the Jew who uses the Negro to destroy America so he can take it over.” For the American Negro, by contrast, the Jew is now “whitey.” And American Jews are caught in this pincer, in Kahane’s view, because of the liberal Jewish agenda, which Kahane associates with the abandonment of tradition and assimilation.
It seems to me there are two operative issues for Kahane in this matter. The first is the black claim, made decades before by Fanon and reiterated by Afro-pessimists like Wilderson, that the victimization of the Negro—anti-blackness—is categorically different from the victimization of the Jew (“Jews went into Auschwitz and came out as Jews. Africans went into the ships and came out as Blacks”). The ontological distinction between the Jew and the black regarding suffering reinforces Kahane’s belief that, as opposed to racism, anti-Semitism was not circumstantial but itself ontological. Kahane can have sympathy for the plight of blacks in America, but black suffering can never equal the suffering of the Jews. The request for reparations takes Jews out of the status of most-victimized victim and puts them on the side of the oppressor.
Second, both the 1968 school strike and reparations remove the special status of the Jew by making him white enough to be viewed as part of the problem. This draws us back to Baldwin’s argument about anti-Semitism. Kahane might say the Jews had become too white for their own good and this was now turning against them. And it was because of their liberalism, because they had abandoned their traditions, because they had succumbed to the embrace of assimilation.
When Jews assimilate, what do they assimilate to? For Kahane, they assimilate to whiteness (the “Scarsdales” and “Great Necks” that dot the American landscape, as Kahane liked to say). Or, as landlords and shopkeepers, they take advantage of the ghetto dweller because, being white, they can. They become targets of black animus because they are viewed through their whiteness, through their ability to be an ethnic minority that can pass. This, for Kahane, was why black racism against Jews was worse than white anti-Semitism, even if possibly not as threatening. In fact, he comes quite close to agreeing with Baldwin. Blacks were anti-Semitic because Jews became too white.
Kahane saw white anti-Semitism as ontological, exacerbated by the Jews adaptation of whiteness: he imagined the (white) gentile saying, “The Jews are foreign, they are different, they threaten to undermine, or take over, our society. They are not like us, they are not really white.” The gentile, when given the opportunity and the power, will resent and hate Jews.” Black anti-Semitism, by contrast, seems to attribute more blame to the Jews: Even worse than being born white, they became white. This variety of Jew-hatred came from a posture of victimhood, a position historically occupied by the Jews. All this is not to argue that this is an accurate assessment of a very complex set of circumstances between blacks and Jews in postwar America. It is only to argue that it describes Kahane’s obsession with race.
From Meir Kahane: The Public Life and Political Thought of an American Jewish Radical by Shaul Magid. Copyright © 2021 by Princeton University Press. Reprinted by permission.
Shaul Magid, a Tablet contributing editor, is the Distinguished Fellow of Jewish Studies at Dartmouth College and Kogod Senior Research Fellow at The Shalom Hartman Institute of North America. His latest books are Piety and Rebellion: Essays in Hasidism and The Bible, the Talmud, and the New Testament: Elijah Zvi Soloveitchik’s Commentary to the Gospels.