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Kahane Won

How the radical rabbi’s ideas and disciples took over Israeli politics, and why it’s dangerous

Shaul Magid
March 15, 2019
Photo: Denver Post/Getty Images
Meir Kahane in 1991Photo: Denver Post/Getty Images
Photo: Denver Post/Getty Images
Meir Kahane in 1991Photo: Denver Post/Getty Images

In the past month or so, the Jewish world has been stunned by an internal Israeli political decision that arguably has ramifications far beyond the Israeli electorate. On Feb. 20, 2019, the rightist Jewish Home Party (Ha-Bayit ha-Yehudi) announced it was merging forces with the far-right Jewish Power Party (Otzma Yehudit), enabling certain members of Otzma Yedudit to be elected to the Knesset. This is so troubling because some of Otzma Yehudit’s list includes individuals with strong affiliations to the radical militant Meir Kahane (1932-1990). Kahane was elected to the Knesset in 1984 under his Kach Party, then removed from the Knesset in 1987 under a “racism law,” aimed at both his racism and his anti-democratic statements. While his radical and militant followers remain a part of Israeli society, it has long been thought they occupy a small and marginal fringe with no political power. With the prospect of Kahanists once again being part of the Israeli government, this assumption is now being questioned, and the figure of Kahane has once again become a focus of interest and inquiry.

In the wake of this development, there has been much written about the fate of religious Zionism, a loose term for a diverse group of observant Jews who, unlike the more fervently Orthodox haredim, or ultra-Orthodox, recognize the legitimacy of the secular state and immerse themselves fully in its affairs. But while religious Zionism comes in many shades and can be found on all sides of the religious and political spectrum, much of the writing from this camp, following the rise of Otzma Yehudit, reflected a state of shock that such a party should rise into legitimacy and that the heirs of Meir Kahane could now play such a prominent role in a movement long understood by its adherents to reject the extremist rabbi’s ideas.

This state of shock is understood, but not altogether merited. Long dismissed by religious Zionism as having no place in its big tent, Kahanism nonetheless lurked in its shadows, waiting for its moment. And to study the history of religious Zionism is to understand that Kahanism’s ascent is not surprising, and perhaps even entirely predictable.

Below I will address the question of how Meir Kahane, who was murdered in New York City in 1990, and Kahanism, the militant religious Zionist political ideology that was born from his writings, remain relevant in today’s Jewish world, in Israel and in the Diaspora. To understand that we must explore the trajectory of religious Zionism, Kahane’s Zionism, and the state of Zionist ideology more generally in contemporary Israel.


Religious Zionism is a topic far too large to adequately explore here. Suffice it to say that even as there were religious figures such as Rabbi Yehudah Alkalai (1798-1878) and Rabbi Zvi Hirsch Kalischer (1795-1874) who viewed the resettlement of Palestine in their time as a sign of the impending redemption, religious Zionism begins in earnest with figures such as Rabbi Isaac Jacob Reines (1839-1915), one of the founders of the Mizrahi movement, or a generation earlier with Rabbi Samuel Mohilever (1824-1898), who worked with the early Zionist movement to promote immigration in the aftermath of pogroms in Eastern Europe. Early religious Zionists viewed Jewish immigration as positive and tried to insure that Torah law and values would become part of what was otherwise a vehemently secular movement. In one sense, religious Zionism always found itself between two opposing factions; on the one hand the secular Zionist majority who had little need for Judaism and were largely anti-religious. And on the other hand, their Orthodox anti-Zionist compatriots who viewed Zionism as a transgressive act of “forcing the end,” trying to bring about redemption before his apportioned time. Here R. Abraham Isaac Kook (1865-1935) offers a new approach cultivated by his idiosyncratic reading of Jewish mystical sources coupled with a deep romanticism and belief in the approaching end-time. Although he was appointed the first chief Ashkenazi rabbi of Jerusalem in 1919 and the chief rabbi of Mandate Palestine in 1921, Kook’s brand of religious Zionism did not grow roots until decades after his death.

Kookean Zionism today is the product of the works of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook and his son Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook (1891-1982), head of the settlement movement that rose in the wake of the Six-Day War. Kookean Zionism is founded on the principle that Zionism ushered in the final cosmic stages of redemption, but was ironically facilitated by a secular nationalist revival. This peculiar religious Zionism is founded on a romantic vision of the unfolding of redemption through the historical events of the state’s founding and, more prominently, the “liberation” of land after the Six-Day War, creating an ideology of what is called Greater Israel. By viewing secular Zionism and the secular state as part of a religious Zionist redemptive cosmology, Kook was able to overcome the dichotomy that plagued earlier forms of religious Zionism, even as many in the secular camp had little interest in viewing themselves as part of Kook’s cosmic vision.

After 1967, the Kookean vision began to gain wider appeal in large part because its romantic vision seemed to cohere with historical reality. The “liberation” of the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, and the Golan Heights in June 1967 was viewed by Kook and his disciples as the “miracle” that affirmed their master’s predictions. As a result, Kookean Zionism became the dominant form of religious Zionism, its dialectical cosmology pushing aside the more pragmatic, and less openly messianic, forms of religious Zionism that preceded it.

Although this revival was important and influential, it was fairly short-lived. Things began to change in the wake of the first Camp David Accords in 1979 in which Menachem Begin, a Revisionist Zionist who was viewed as friendly to the religious Zionist camp, relinquished Sinai and the Israel town of Yamit in a peace treaty with Egypt. Following this, the Oslo Accords in 1993 opened the door to Palestinian autonomy and the possibility of more land compromises. And 2005 witnessed the withdrawal of Gaza. Suddenly, history was not moving in the Kookean direction. Even as the settler movement was moving apace and becoming stronger in the Israeli Knesset, an underlying crisis was brewing; how can the romantic vision be kept alive when historical reality seems to be moving in the opposite direction.

One can see the diminishing hope of this redemptive vision quite early in Zvi Yehuda Kook’s later writings around the 1979 Camp David accords where Kook viewed returning Sinai to Egypt and dismantling of the Israel border city Yamit as a stake in the heart of religious Zionism. Menachem Begin, once a hero of the right, was viewed as a tragic traitor to the religious Zionist cause. This mirrors something Hannah Arendt said in her essay “To Save the Jewish Homeland” published in Commentary magazine in May 1948 about Zionism more generally. Some of the greatest accomplishments of Zionism happened at the very moment Zionism was in its most precarious place. The settlers were winning politically while they were ideologically growing more desperate.


Meir Kahane was born in Brooklyn in 1932 and grew up in a postwar environment where the Holocaust loomed over every aspect of life. It was an environment where most of his schoolmates had no grandparents and very few had a family medical history that went back more than one generation. Although Kahane’s immediate family were not victims of the Nazi onslaught, his father’s brother was killed in Safed in the 1929 Arab riots in Palestine and that event was formative for Kahane throughout his life. His father, Charles, was a friend of the Revisionist Ze’ev Jabotinsky, and Jabotinsky, who died in the Catskills in 1940, stayed at the Kahane home when visiting New York. Although Kahane was only 8 when Jabotinsky died, he remained a major influence on his life and one of the only Zionist figures who did not fall prey to Kahane’s biting criticism.

Kahane was a typical postwar Brooklyn Jew, he received a standard modern Orthodox education although, as we will see below, he was the product of three disparate groups that would form his later ideology. He was a member of the Revisionist Betar youth movement, the religious Zionist Bnei Akiva youth movement, and spent 13 years studying at the Lithuanian non-Zionist Mir Yeshiva. In addition, he graduated from NYU Law School, although never passed the bar exam.

In Kahane’s youth, the notion of survival—represented by the organization known as Irgun that fought to end the British Mandate, connected with the Revisionist Zionism of Ze’ev Jabotinsky—and religious life in Israel, were separate. The first took priority over the second. Ze’ev Jabotinsky and the Revisionist Zionists were not religious, and they promoted Israel as a secular state. Kahane modeled himself after Jabotinsky, yet was raised Orthodox and was thus also influenced by the somewhat toothless and sober religious Zionism of his day. Even as Kahane was in Bnei Akiva and rose to become a regional leader, his Zionism was not really a Bnei Akiva model of assuring religious practice in the state; his aspirations were much higher and much more revolutionary. For the young Kahane, once survival was assured through the establishment of a state and an army in 1948, the religious nature of the state became a focus.

Kahane enrolled in Brooklyn College in 1949 and, on the advice of his father began attending the Mir Yeshiva, which had just opened a branch near his home in Flatbush, Brooklyn. Although we do not know for sure why Charles Kahane, a Zionist, advised his son to attend the Mir yeshiva, we can surmise that in those days the Lithuanian yeshivot were prestigious places of Jewish learning and Kahane’s father felt this was the best place to train his son in Torah. It wasn’t that the Mir was anti-Zionist per se, especially in America, but rather it took no real political stand on Zionism. It just didn’t take it that seriously. In those days, the religious Zionists schools were simply not as well equipped, or perhaps invested, in training their students in the Jewish canon. The young Kahane could get his Zionism elsewhere, but he couldn’t get that kind of yeshiva training elsewhere.

Kahane noted that he and a few friends were the only members of the Zionist Bnei Akiva who attended Mir, and they were often chided by their Mir Yeshiva classmates for their “Zionism.” By spending over a decade at the Mir, Kahane was sufficiently schooled in classical sources to formulate a Torah-based foundation for his militant ideology, which came to fruition in his two-volume work, The Jewish Idea (Ha-Ra’ayon ha-Yehudi). Bnei Akiva gave Kahane the basic ideology of the importance of religion in the state of Israel but he never really adopted the religious Zionist vision. The Mir enabled him to found his Jabotinskean militancy in traditional Jewish sources. The apparent contradiction between Bnei Akiva and the Mir Yeshiva, one religious Zionist, the other ultra-Orthodox non-Zionist, is less than one might think. Each provided a different educational function. Bnei Akiva was about a religio-political ideology, about a vision of Torah and Erez Israel; the Mir was a place to attain deep and broad Torah knowledge. One was about becoming a Zionist leader, the other was about becoming a talmid hakham. In some contemporary religious Zionist yeshivot in Israel one can achieve both in the same place. But in postwar Brooklyn that was not the case. What I think is overlooked in trying to understand Kahane’s work is that Kahane’s childhood incorporates three very different movements in postwar American Jewry: Betar, Bnei Akiva, and the Mir Yeshiva. All these elements exist in some form in Kahane’s Zionism. What does not exist is any form of Kookean Zionism.

While Kahane’s early concern was survival and thus Betar was his preferred affiliation, over time the lines separating survival and religion in his thinking would begin to disappear. This anecdote, told by Libby Kahane in her biography of her husband, Rabbi Meir Kahane: His Life and Thought, presents a useful window into his early evolution:

Some former Betar members I interviewed said that Meir [Kahane] left Betar after the February 1951 convention because he was not elected naziv [head of American Betar]. It seems more likely however that the influence of his friends Avraham Silbert and Baruch Gefand, with whom he studied at the Mir Yeshiva and Brooklyn College, moved him to Bnei Akiva. Meir told me that with the establishment of the State of Israel, Betar’s main goal—supporting the Irgun—was no longer relevant. Now the challenge was to ensure the state’s religious character …

Libby Kahane, Rabbi Meir Kahane, vol. 1, 25

In fact, even when Kahane launched his political career in Israel in the 1970s, religion and survival were already intertwined. First, religion became inextricably intertwined with Jewish nationalism; and second, religion became the tool of critique against leftist Israeli secularism that Kahane believed was destroying the state and corrupting the Jewish people. Kahane’s identity politics in America and his religious upbringing led him to ignore Jabotinsky’s liberal side while adopting his militarism and territorial maximalism. What was produced was not a religious Zionism but rather a territorial Zionism of conquest with a religious mandate.

Kahane’s Zionism can be described as one of maximal territorial conquest founded on the mandate of revelation. In this sense, he combines Jabotinsky’s Revisionism with a nonromantic and certainly nonmystical notion of Torah as a template for historical rights. The right of the Jews to all of Erez Israel has nothing to do with nationalism per se, Kahane thought secular nationalism was a useless category for Jews. Israel was not about a home for Jewish refugees. And most important, it was not about normalization. Israel, for Kahane must always be an abnormal state because its roots are divinely mandated and its purpose is fidelity to the divine word and not any global political body. As a result, he was vehemently against secular Zionism, going as far as calling it “racist.” There is no justification whatsoever for the Jews to create a polity in the land of Israel apart from God’s command. Anything else is chauvinism at best, racism at worst. What results is that he takes an anti-Kookean approach, for him the secular cannot be swept up in any true Zionist vision, and he is opposed to the anti-secularism of the ultra-Orthodox who view Zionism as transgressing divine will to wait patiently for redemption. For Kahane conquest of the land is a commandment and thus Zionism is Judaism.

As a result, Kahane’s Zionism was not one of working with the secular state but, in fact, working against it. Whereas ultra-Orthodox Jews rejected the state and religious Zionists, in its many forms, accepted it–mostly as a necessary stage that would be overcome–Kahane represented a third alternative: a Zionism that did not believe in the viability of the secular state or in the romantic vision of its immanent messianic transformation. Secular Zionism had to be undermined and dismantled by political means. As a political materialist, Kahane had little patience for Kookean romanticism. Yet he only openly opposed it the extent to which it refrained from political activism to procure its goals.


More specifically, how is this evolution of Kahane’s Zionism different from certain forms of Kookean thinking? I think we have to begin with the Mir Yeshiva. Mir was part of the larger Lithuanian and Musar tradition and, as such, its curriculum did not include the study of the Jewish mystical tradition. Thus Kahane’s Torah education would distinguish him from the Kookean religious Zionists whose work is founded on a mystical, dialectical, messianic rendering of Judaism as applied to the present circumstances. Kahane’s Judaism was forged in the Musar tradition of Lithuanian Jewry. His HaRa’ayon ha-Yehudi reads like a classical Musar text infused with a militant political theology. Chapter headings include “Kindness” “Humility” “Charity” “Purity” “Faith and Trust” and “Fear of Heaven” accompanied by chapters such as “Erez Israel” “Revenge” “Life and Death” “The Non-Jew in Israel” and “Time of Redemption.” Yet there is no chapter in Ha-Ra’ayon ha-Yehudi devoted specifically to Zionism. In fact, in his 1971 breakout book, Never Again!, there is only one short chapter on Zionism, and it’s more about Jewish pride than about any vision of the state. And there’s no talk of messianism.

It is my view that Kahane’s Zionism was largely a nationalization of Musar piety stressing Musar’s notion of self-perfection through activist means, behavioral modification, psychological concentration, and purity that became a recipe for national self-perfection through overt conquest in order to purify the land. Separation and isolation, which served as Musar concepts of self-perfection were now deployed as values for national flourishing and rectification. In addition, he was influenced by the identity politics of postwar America, specifically black nationalism, that all congealed into a political theology of power and purity. I do not think we get at the deeper structures of Kahane’s program if we just view him as a demagogic figure advocating violence and wreaking havoc, we need to understand the components of his thought.

Kahane was thus not advocating a Kookean religious revolution of collective teshuva as part of some cosmic unfolding. The establishment of the state, he argued, owes nothing to the nations, and it never will as the “state of Israel” has always existed conceptually, it was not a creation of the United Nations. He argued that the theo-political justification of the state, based on a biblical promise, should be unabashed and assertive: “This is Zionism and this is the Jewish claim to the Land of Israel. Not a nationalist one, not simply because ‘we once lived there,’ not because of a Balfour, a League of Nations or United ones. Not a request or a plea but a proud claim, based on a Divine grant.” In Listen World/Listen Jew, from 1978, Kahane writes, “That the sovereignty of the Jewish people over the entirety of the Land of Israel must be proclaimed by virtue of the promise of the Almighty and the historical fact of tenure and unbroken hope of return based on that promise.” This is not as provocative a notion as we think. Zionist historian Chaim Ganz calls it “proprietary Zionism,” the belief that the Jews own the entire land in perpetuity, although Ganz suggests this exists even without biblical mandate. Proprietary Zionism is not necessarily founded on divine fiat but just as often on what Ganz calls “historical rights,” leaving open the viability of secular Zionism. For Kahane though, secular Zionism is a destructive force for reasons that will become clear below. It may have been needed temporarily to arouse a people to immigrate, but it is useless now. Worse, it is counterproductive. Unlike the Kookean model, the secular state must be dismantled by human hands, as it will not be transvalued via divine fiat.

Kahane argued that the systemic problem with Israel, and the challenge it faces, is that it has not disabused itself of the exilic mentality that remains wedded to the notion that Israel can coexist with its Arab neighbors:

It is time for the Jew in Israel to throw away those negative attitudes that he retains from the Galut, the Exile. Chief among these is the unwillingness to look at bitter reality … We may not enjoy hearing it, but the truth is that there will not be a sincere de jure peace with the Arabs … It is against this enemy that we must struggle … a struggle for Jewish existence and a Jewish state that will never cease to be a struggle; a realization that between us and the Arabs stands a massive barrier that may never be breached; a determination by two peoples to live in a land that at least one will never compromise on … The Arabs intend to wipe us out; we must be strong enough to stop them.

More than throwing cold water on Israel’s desire to reach détente with the Arabs and create a viable option for its Palestinian Israeli citizens, Kahane countered the Kookean aspiration that the conflict will be resolved metaphysically or that the reunion of Israel with its ancestral land will somehow transcend the animus of perennial hatred. Kahane’s Zionism is a hard-nosed political pragmatism founded on theological premises. Accordingly, the right of Jews to be on the land is divine, but that right will not, cannot, result in any coexistence—or even any utopian redemptive outcome—but rather perennial conflict. He writes, in 1974, that “there will be no peace between Jews and Arabs as long as there remains a Jewish state of any kind, no matter how small.” The Jew must thus act accordingly. The Machiavellian model was the operative notion in Kahane’s Zionism of conquest, drawn from Jabotinsky but devoid of Jabotinsky’s realistic and humanistic side.

Zionism for Kahane was about conquest, power, and the establishment of an abnormal state, one that did not require adherence to geo-political dictates or policies. “The cornerstone of Jewish foreign policy must be the knowledge and faith that the Jewish people have a divine destiny that cannot be denied and that the State of Israel is the culmination of that destiny.” While for Kahane “the state” always existed in theory, its present form served as the instantiation in the here and now. This undermines the normalcy of the state as a part of the family of nations. Just as Jews are chosen, the state is chosen. Chosen and thus exceptionalist, it does not, and should not, follow the dictates of the unchosen. “Israel came into being on behalf of Jews, all the world’s Jews, and not to worry over ‘What will the nations say’?” Its raison d’etre was a literal reading of Tanakh in its most warring suit, divine sanction supporting unapologetic militancy:

The state of Israel is not a western one or an eastern one; it is not a “secular state”; it is not one to be modeled after ‘the nations.” It is a Jewish state with all the uniqueness that this applies. It is state whose personality, character, behavior, and structure must be the reflection of Jewishness and Judaism.

Of course, the very notion of a Jewish state, and its Jewish character and relation to Judaism, has been a hotly debated issue in Israel since its founding, even before. Kahane’s point here, as I read it, is to challenge the very normalcy of the state as an aspiration. For Kahane the secular argument that Israel is necessary as a safe haven for the Jews or the religious idea that it illustrates the “first flowering of redemption” are not operative forces. In addition, the dependence on allies is an error in understanding the very core of Zionism. It is unclear to me whether his isolationist thoughts here are directly drawn from his reading of Musar or whether they exhibit a more common view that the world is anti-Semitic and thus not dependable. In any case, what is being challenged here is the secular notion of normalization, “a nation like all other nations,” that permeated Zionist ideology. “Indeed, there are no allies and the United States itself will cut its bonds to Israel as its interests dictate. In the end Zion and Zionism stand alone with the Almighty G-d who created them.” Part of the Zionist program was the normalization for the Jewish people through membership in the community of nations. For Kahane this was a ruse. Isolation was not, for him, a failure but the sign of success. “To be isolated is not to be alone. The greater the isolation of the Jew, the greater the awe of G-d’s ultimate victory. The more we stand ‘alone’ and the less who stand with us, the more astonishing is G-d’s majesty.”

On one reading, this would be an interesting political rendering of a Musar idea of isolation as the optimal way to experience the fullness of God. As elsewhere, Kahane subverts the Zionist program by viewing it as fulfilling that which the Diaspora could not: the isolation and true abnormality of the Jews. Under the guise of a modern nation, Zionism becomes the true response to emancipation; not power with global responsibility, but power whose responsibility is only to the Jew. To be fully abnormal, one has to have the power to self-isolate. The ghetto had one half (isolation) but not the other half (power). In the ghetto, the Jews were isolated by others, and thus had no power. In Israel, the Jews self-isolate through the use of power.

Regarding the land of Israel, for Kahane it was given to the Jews by God and establishing a state was simply the fulfillment of that covenantal promise. As he argued more deeply in Listen World/Listen Jew in 1978, there is no distinction between religion and state. “Religion and state constitute one entity, and there is no Jew who is not simultaneously part of the same religion and nation.” The state of Israel provides the opportunity of structural isolation that is embedded in the covenant.

[T]he wisdom of the Torah, and … the divine destiny of the Jewish people was to realize its greatness and its exclusiveness, to remain separate from the nations lest it assimilate and lose its divine uniqueness, and to return to the homeland of Erez Yisroel, there to rebuild an independent, truly Jewish state that would be a model society for mankind.

As I argued above, Kahane’s Zionism was imagined purely as an exercise in power; religion served mostly to validate claims of abnormality, which defanged any alternative claims rendered by Arab nationalism even though he fully understood—even if he rejected—how Arab nationalism would not disappear. In a sense Kahane juxtaposed secular Jewish nationalism, religious nationalism that agrees to work with the secular state, and Arab nationalism, criticizing each from his proprietary theological position of Jewish ownership of the land via divine election. Secular nationalism has no place in true Zionism, religious nationalism dilutes its biblical mandate by buying into a secular model, even dialectically, and Arab nationalism is true and legitimate, except not in the land of Israel. On their own terms, Arab nationalism and secular Zionism are equally legitimate which is why secular Zionism is false; it can never win against Arab nationalism because it is identical to it. The only viable nationalism is a nationalism unapologetically born from divine election:

If we are chosen, then we are a certain kind of people with a certain kind of role and a certain kind of state. There is a Chosen People, a chosen land, a chosen state, and a chosen destiny. The normal rules of nationhood and statehood do not apply; the normal logic of foreign policy is not ours. If we obey the call of the Jewish destiny, the command of the Almighty, we shall endure and live, both in this world and the next. If we do not return to the Jewish role, we will pay a terrible price before the ultimate redemption comes, wiping away our sins with the suffering of pain and war.

In fact, one could argue that Kahane’s political platform that appears in Our Challenge (1974) diametrically opposes the established religious Zionist framework that had been developing from the works of Zvi Yehuda Kook and his disciples, who, in the early 1970s, were just beginning to coalesce as a movement (the settler organization Gush Emunim was founded in 1974, the year Our Challenge appears). The Kookeans were using the secular state as their template for messianic politics. Kahane is arguing that “the time has come to isolate the psychopathic leftists and pseudo-intellectuals whose hatred of religion so effectively mirrors their own self-disgust.” Kahane gives no legitimacy to the secular state, and his critique of the secular right-wing Knesset member Geula Cohen is just as harsh as his critique of the secular left-wing Knesset member Yossi Sarid. In fact, Kahane was so disdainful of the secular state that when he was sworn in as a member of the 11th Knesset, he was called up to the podium and asked to recite the standard pledge, committing him to public service. Instead, he took the oath and, defiantly, recited Psalm 119, verse 44: “So shall I keep thy law continually for ever and ever,” making it clear that it was God’s law, not the state, he intended to obey. The Knesset refused to accept this addition and Kahane, in a reply to Israel’s Supreme Court, affirmed that he intended to suggest that the laws of the Torah superseded those of the state. His plea was rejected, and he was made to once again take the oath of office, this time adding nothing.

It’s not surprising, then, that while the Kookeans spent little time criticizing secular nationalism and its architects, Kahane’s Our Challenge speaks about the period of secular nationalism and criticizes its founders at great length. This is because whereas the Kookeans are invested in the state with a deeply held belief in its transvaluation, some viewing it as the penultimate messiah, “Messiah ben Joseph,” Kahane approached Zionism as a revolution of liberation. He often referred to Zionism as a “Jewish Liberation Movement” committed to undermining the secular foundations of the state to save Zionism from the clutches of normalization. The notion of “Messiah ben Joseph” is a rabbinic idea that likely arose after the failed attempts to retake Jerusalem in rebellion in 135-138 CE, suggesting that a warrior-like messianic figure will lead Israel in the final wars against Gog and Magog (as prophesized in the Book of Daniel) before the Messiah of David will emerge and complete the redemption. Kahane rejects such an idea as applied to the secular state. For Kahane, from a religious and theological perspective, there can be little tolerance for secular nationalism if your Zionism is not founded on a belief in immanent divine intervention.

Earlier religious Zionists generally viewed Zionism as a process in the unfolding divine promise, a leap from exile to redemption as part of the covenantal drama: As Shmuel Hayyim Landau put it in 1935, “a Judaism free of exilic influence.” For Kook especially, the Jews are being unconsciously swept up in a cosmic moment, and thus Kook can affirm secularist Zionists (even secular Zionism) as taking part in that tectonic spiritual shift. Unlike Kook, Kahane did not view Judaism in cosmic terms but in material ones. Judaism, that is, God’s promise forged at Sinai and interpreted by the rabbis, gives the Jews the (religious and political) “right” to the land, and the desire of the Jews to return to the land is part—in fact a central tenet—of historic Judaism. This enabled him to lay claim to that land to the exclusion of all others, not as some kind of unfolding mystical drama but, more in line with a biblical worldview, as a mandate for conquest. Kahane was not naive or “spiritual” enough to think that divine intervention would convince anyone of this, at least not in the 1970s (in the 1980s, his views changed somewhat on the role of God in this process). Rather, the implementation of this right must occur through human force.

Divine fiat has no role in this version of Zionism, except perhaps to generate its beginnings. That is, Kahane rejects a position that would simply allow God to act in history. Kahane’s Zionism is about human agency; only the Jews will save the Jews. It is thus a strange mix of the secular and the religious. The right to the land is theologically founded, specifically God’s promise, but the action on the ground is driven by force; a Jewish Machiavellian political worldview. Kahane’s favorite biblical books were the Book of Joshua and the prophet Ezekiel, the former an exemplar of human agency, the latter an illustration of divine wrath. God waits for the Jews to conquer; if they do not, God’s wrath will be upon them. This is spelled out quite graphically in his 1983 book Forty Years, written in Ramle prison.


The reemergence of Kahanist activism is in part a reaction to the demise of Kookean romanticism. With events such as Camp David, which relinquished Sinai, the Oslo Accords, which set conditions for Palestinian autonomy, or the evacuation of Gaza in 2005, some Kookean Zionists became more open to Kahanist ideas. That is, when the trajectory of divine unfolding seemed stymied or even reversed, when history seems to contradict the biblical promise, Kahane’s activist approach became more palatable to some as a way to procure the anticipated end. And it was there for the taking.

What happens is not an outright rejection of Kookeanism, that would be impossible given its centrality in contemporary religious Zionism. What we see, rather, is a slow amalgam, or synthesis, of Zvi Yehuda’s religious Zionist activism, which was largely nonviolent and still leaned heavily of the romanticism of his father, and the validation of more proactive attempts to exercise power through force and different types of violence (e.g., land damage, property damage, and even bodily damage). In addition, after the Gaza evacuation there has been increasing skepticism of the state itself in some radicalized Zionist youth. When I asked some Hilltop Youth in Jerusalem in 2015 what they were learning, they said, “We don’t learn Rav Kook, that is for our parents.” “What’s wrong with Rav Kook?” I asked. They responded, “It’s all too tied to the state. And the state abandoned us. We prefer to learn Nahman of Bratslav.” The preference for Nahman, of course, is that he offers an apolitical romantic vision of Erez Israel that is void of any state apparatus.

This anecdote offers a window into Israeli Kahanism, as opposed to Kahane’s own Zionism. It is an amalgam of Kookean, or maybe Nahmanean, romanticism and Kahanist activism generated in part by the realization that the secular component of the Zionist project was not abiding by the prophetic vision of the elder Kook. Much more work needs to be done, and is being done, to flesh out the intricacies of this shift, from Kookean romanticism to Israeli Kahanist activism. Religious Zionism in Israel today is one of the more vibrant and creative aspects of Israeli society. It is a world of synthesis and hybridity that moves both to the right and left of classic Kookeansim. Spiritually, there is the Habbakuk movement (an acronym of the prophet Habbakuk that refers to the amalgam of Chabad, Breslov, Kook, Carlebach). To the left we have the students of R. Menachem Froman and Rav Shagar offering new insights into what Rav Shagar called a Religious Post-Zionism that is open to sharing the land with “our Arab cousins” as a postmodern religio-mystical value. And to the right we have the Hilltop Youth, Price Tag Movement, “Jewish Leadership Movement” (Manhigut Yehudit) and Otzma Yedudit who remain inside the religious Zionist camp but have adopted the proactive approach of Kahane that is openly opposed to the secular state and in favor of establishing a theocracy in its place.

Perhaps the best way to counter the Kahanist upsurge is not by continuing to claim it is a fringe movement or paint it simply as deviant, but to recognize it is a response to a real crisis in the religious Zionist camp and Zionism more generally. The liberal strategy of ignoring the radical as not deserving of substantive and serious engagement is a mistake. The return of Kahanism is a kind of a Freudean “return of the repressed,” it was always there right beneath the surface and simply needed the right conditions to reemerge. I argued above that its reemergence is in part the result of the failure of Kookeanism which was too dependent on historical verification. Alternatively, Kahanism, like many revolutionary movements, doesn’t need history to conform to its dictates; its makes history with its fist. Kahane’s Zionism is not religious Zionism but its Israeli iteration is because it was taken up by Kookean Zionists who responded to the failure of the movement to adequately respond to the changing historical circumstances.

Thus I think the best way to view Israeli Kahanism today is as a form of religious Zionism whose romantic vision of redemption has been stymied by historical events and the instability many settlers feel about their fate. The humanism of the elder Kook and the optimism of post-1967 Zvi Yehuda Kook has given way to a tribalism that combines a fetishization of the land with a diminished belief in humanity. One can see the former in the Jewish Leadership Movement, a young movement in Israel led by Moshe Feiglin and Motti Karpel that views the secular state as a failure that needs to be dismantled to make room for a theocracy, and the latter by comparing Menachem Begin, whose right-wing politics still contained a humanistic side, to Benjamin Netanyahu’s amoral Machiavellianism. While the Otzma Yehudit party views itself both as part of religious Zionism and also in the image of Kahane, Kahane’s Zionism of conquest is not aligned with any iteration of the Kookean religious Zionist vision of Israel. Kahane’s Zionism is born in the Diaspora: part American identity politics, part Revisionism, and part a rejection of tepid modern Orthodoxy with no messianic vision. Today’s Kahanism in Israel is an amalgam of Kookean messianism with a diminished hope of its realization, combined with Kahane’s militant pragmatism. Unlike Kahane, Kahanism is part of religious Zionism, a homegrown product of the state of Israel.

Otzma Yehudit is thus not an aberration at all but a reasonable response to a growing ideological crisis in Zionism. Its adaptation of Kahanist ideas in a religious Zionist context is troubling for all who want the state to survive. But ignoring its structural rationale only enables its inertia to quicken as such dismissal only confirms the urgency of its ideological program. Countering Otzma Yehudit is not to dismiss it but precisely to take it very seriously, first by understanding the conditions that produced it and then offering (practical and ideological) alternatives to those very conditions.


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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.

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