A toxic legacy that lives from beyond the grave
Few people have contaminated the discourse within Israel with sheer hatred and anti-Arab bigotry as much as Meir Kahane. The Brooklyn-born rabbi turned politician was assassinated in his home town in 1990. He left Israel with a cancerous legacy of racism, violence and hatred toward everyone who opposed his distorted version of Judaism and the notion of the Jewish state, which was based on the supremacy of religious laws, the Halacha. He did not shy away from advocating far-right fascist ideas of expelling Israeli-Palestinians from the country — in other words transferring — under the guise of the exchange of populations for those Jewish-Arab refugees who arrived in Israel after its establishment in 1948. In his own words: “Surely it is time for Jews, worried over the huge growth of Arabs in Israel, to consider finishing the exchange of populations that began 35 years ago.”
Kahane, who was born into a right-wing Zionist family, sided with the hard line of Ze’ev Jabotinsky, and therefore saw violence as a legitimate tool in advancing his abhorrent belief of Jewish supremacy over all other nations, people and religions. Similarly to all xenophobic nationalists, his main tool was one of spreading fear of the extinction of “his” people if they allowed minorities to live among them and grow in numbers. In his typically castigating xenophobic demagogy, he proposed a series of racist laws that would have stripped non-Jews of their Israeli citizenship, such as a law requiring separate beaches for Jews and Arabs, and a law barring personal relationships between Jews and non-Jews. Moreover, he took liberties to physically threaten his political opponents. Not surprisingly, his policies were likened to the Nuremberg Laws passed by the Nazis before the Holocaust.
Tragically, Meir Kahane left a legacy of hatred that prevails and has even grown in support in present-day Israeli society. Disciples of his were recently elected to the Israeli Knesset and may serve in the next government.
When referring to Israel, Kahane evoked the idea of Greater Israel — from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean — which meant his policy to transfer Palestinians would have included all those living inside Israel proper, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. He preached that until this was achieved, as long as they resided in the Jewish state, they should not have the same rights as the Jewish people, including the right to vote. “I know that elections must be limited only to those who understand that the Arabs are the deadly enemy of the Jewish state, who would bring on us a slow Auschwitz — not with gas, but with knives and hatchets.” Evoking the death camp in which the Nazis murdered more than a million Jews, at a time when many survivors of the Holocaust were still alive, was a repugnant exploitation of the open wounds of the Jewish collective trauma to gain support. From his perspective it was not only the Arabs who should not have the right to vote, but also those Jews who did not understand the “danger” they posed. In his attempt to gain some traction with the Israeli electorate, he singled out the liberal-left in Israel as collaborators with the country’s enemies.
Though he won a single seat in the 1984 Israeli elections, Kahane was later barred from running for the Knesset for inciting racial hatred. Back then he was treated as a pariah, even by the right in Israel. Tragically, he left a legacy of hatred that prevails and has even grown in support in present-day Israeli society. Disciples of his were recently elected to the Israeli Knesset and may serve in the next government.
• Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations at Regent’s University London, where he is head of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program. He is also an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. He is a regular contributor to the international written and electronic media.