If his killers had hoped to strike against a symbol of the forces arrayed against Islam and Muslims, they could scarcely have picked a more suitable target than the American-Israeli rabbi. Kahane had spent the previous 22 years calling for Israel’s parliament to be dissolved and replaced with rabbinic rule over a Jewish theocracy, based on the strictest interpretations of the Torah and Talmud. He openly incited the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians—and all other non-Jews who refused to accept unvarnished apartheid—from Israel and the territories it occupied. He outdid all other Israeli eliminationists with his insistence that killing those he identified as Israel’s enemies was not only a strategic necessity, but an act of worship. His ideology continues to resonate: In the September 2019 elections to Israel’s parliament the explicitly Kahanist Jewish Power Party (Otzma Yehudit) got 83,609 votes, putting it in tenth place in a crowded field of over 30 parties.
Months after Israel conquered swaths of land from Egypt, Jordan and Syria in the 1967 Six Day War, more than tripling the territory under its control, Brooklyn-born Kahane founded the Jewish Defense League (JDL) in New York City, hoping to turn Jewish Americans into local versions of the neighborhood bully that Israel had now become. In contrast to the sanitized origin story that Kahanists claim today, the JDL and its front groups not only staged protests and boycotts to pressure the Soviet Union to permit the emigration of Jews (a basic right that was denied to all Soviet citizens), they were also suspected of shooting up homes, torching cars, bombing boats and burning bookstores.
The victims of JDL-linked terrorist attacks in the United States were usually innocent bystanders: the drummer in a rock band who lost a leg when a bomb blew up the Long Island home of an alleged Nazi war criminal; the Boston cop who was seriously injured during his attempt to dispose of another bomb intended for the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee; the elderly lady who died of smoke inhalation in her Brooklyn flat above a Lebanese restaurant torched after its owners were accused of sympathies with the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO); the young Jewish secretary who was asphyxiated when another fire burned through the Manhattan office of a talent agency that promoted performances of Soviet ballet troupes.
Although the worst violence of the Kahane movement took place in Palestine, its members targeted high-profile Palestinians in the United States as well.
When the FBI’s mounting investigations into Kahane threatened to send him to prison, he moved to Israel, formed a political party called Kach and in 1984 won enough votes to enter the Knesset, Israel’s parliament. He submitted bills calling for extra taxes on non-Jews, to strip them of their citizenship and any position of power and to make marriage and even sex between Jews and non-Jews punishable by law. At that time, even many sectors of the Israeli right were embarrassed by Kahane’s shameless racism, and by the end of his first term in 1988 he was banned from running again.
Six years later, in 1994, the Israeli government, then led by the Labor Party, declared his Kach party a terrorist organization. But by that point, the Kahane movement had already been active for over a quarter of a century, leaving a wake of destruction. To date it has produced more than 20 killers and taken the lives of over 60 people, most of them Palestinians. Credible allegations put the death toll at well over double that number, but even the lower confirmed figure yields a higher body count than any other Jewish faction in the modern era.
Kahane’s Political Project
The group’s impact is not only measured by the murders its ideologues have inspired, however. For decades, Kahanists—as followers of Kahane are called in Israel—have repeatedly attempted to leverage their violence to trigger a wider war and bog Israel down in perpetual armed conflict with its neighbors. And once Israel’s military might is truly unassailable, Kahanists say, Jewish armies must march across the Middle East and beyond, destroying churches and mosques and forcing their Christian and Muslim worshippers to abandon their beliefs or die at the sword.
Forty years ago, the JDL and its various spin-off groups attacked Egyptian targets in the United States during peace talks between Jerusalem and Cairo hoping to prevent Israel’s withdrawal from the Sinai Peninsula. Though the Kahanists did not manage to torpedo that first Israeli-Arab peace accord, JDL leader and Kahane confidante Dov Hikind was able to parlay his anti-Arab activism into a political career representing a largely ultra-Orthodox borough of Brooklyn in the New York State Assembly for 36 years.
Hebron, the most populous Palestinian city in the West Bank, provides a test case to chart the influence of the Kahane movement on Israeli politics, which has increased steadily over time. In Hebron in 1983, on the Jewish holiday of Purim, Kahanist Israel Fuchs sprayed a passing Palestinian car with bullets. In response, Israel’s defense minister ordered Fuchs’s Kahanist settlement razed to the ground. A decade later in 1994, when Goldstein carried out his massacre, also on Purim, Israel’s defense minister put Hebron’s Palestinian residents under curfew and ordered the local Palestinian commercial district locked and bolted. The market has been shuttered ever since. Last year, Israel’s defense minister announced that the market would be refurbished and repopulated—by Jewish residents. On the same day, the state renovated nearby Kahane Park, where Goldstein is entombed, and where Kahanists gather every year to celebrate Purim and the carnage Goldstein wrought.
Post-Mortem Rehabilitation of the Kahane Movement
Many of Kahane’s American acolytes followed him to Israel, including top JDL fundraiser and Yeshiva University provost Emanuel Rackman, who took over as rector, and then chancellor, of Israel’s Bar Ilan University. Under Rackman’s tutelage, Bar Ilan’s Law School became an incubator for the Israeli far-right. The most infamous of these students was Yigal Amir. Inspired by the Goldstein massacre, Amir assassinated Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995, dealing a death blow to Israel’s liberal Zionist camp. Amir carried out the murder on the five-year anniversary of Kahane’s killing.
In addition to armed fanatics, Bar Ilan churned out a generation of Kahanist attorneys to defend Israeli terrorists like Yigal Amir, including his Bar Ilan schoolmates Baruch Ben Yosef and Aviel Leitner. After a six-month stint in jail in 1980 for plotting with Kahane to blow up Jerusalem’s Dome of the Rock shrine, Ben Yosef terrorized Palestinians in the Hebron area. Then in 1985, he and Keith Fuchs committed a series of deadly bombings in the United States, according to the FBI, including one that took the life of Alex Odeh.
Ben Yosef’s contemporary Aviel Leitner was a member of the Kahanist terror cell called TNT that beat Palestinians and torched their cars and homes, as well as the offices of the Jerusalem newspaper Al-Fajr. In 1984, TNT ambushed a busload of Palestinian laborers returning to their village north of Ramallah, spraying it with M-16 machine gun fire and wounding six while Leitner waited nearby with the getaway car.
In the 2000s, ACCJ and ILC pioneered a new tactic to extract financial penalties from governments whose citizens are implicated in armed attacks against Israel. The Leitners’ group ILC won hundreds of millions of dollars from the government of North Korea, while Ben Yosef’s and Fuchs’ group ACCJ profited from a $1.8 billion payout by the government of Libya. As ILC and ACCJ squeezed money from anti-Israel terror supporters with one hand, it funneled money to American-Israeli former terrorists with the other.
ACCJ is currently mired in bankruptcy proceedings in the United States, while ILC continues to carry out spurious anti-Palestinian campaigns in the legal arena. In Australia, ILC demanded that the government and a local charity stop funding a Palestinian NGO, baselessly claiming it had ties to terrorism, and it sued the head of a university department for declining to recommend an applicant from an Israeli university. In the United States, the group sued former US President Jimmy Carter for $5 million, claiming that his book Palestine, Peace Not Apartheid is not factual, and therefore violates consumer protection laws.
Although ILC failed to achieve legal victories in any of these court cases, their intimidation campaigns take a secondary toll on their intended targets, smearing them as dangers to the Jewish people. In some cases, their operations achieve their primary objectives despite failure in the court room: ILC’s accusations in 2011 that aid ships setting sail for the blockaded Gaza Strip were not seaworthy kept at least one boat in dry dock, while threats to sue the flotilla’s service providers scared maritime insurance companies into withdrawing their coverage of the ships themselves.
Despite Being Banned, Kahanists Infiltrate Israeli Politics
After Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated in 1995, his Labor-led government was replaced by the secular right-wing Likud party, led by Benjamin Netanyahu, who promptly appointed ex-Kahanists Tzahi HaNegbi and Avigdor Liberman to cabinet positions. But that did not satisfy the appetite of the Kahanists, who resolved to coax the Likud even further to the right. Founded by longtime Kahane supporter Shmuel Sackett, the Likud’s Jewish Leadership faction succeeded in catapulting its candidate Moshe Feiglin into the role of deputy speaker of the Knesset where he called on the government to “concentrate” the civilian population of Gaza into “tent camps” until they could be forcefully relocated.
A quarter century after Jewish Leadership joined the Likud en masse, the latter’s transformation from secular-nationalist to Yahwist-messianic looks frighteningly close to completion. Today, prior membership in the Kahanist camp no longer carries any stigma within the Likud. May Golan, who cut her teeth in Israeli politics as an activist in the Kahanist camp, was added to Netanyahu’s Likud list last year, and she represents the party in the current Knesset.
Meanwhile, the original Kach core group has rebranded itself to sidestep Israeli law, now calling itself Jewish Power, and are consistently courted by the rest of the Israeli right. Netanyahu’s lead negotiator Natan Eshel even offered the faction’s leader $1 million to retire and transfer his faction’s voting power to the Likud—though the pact ultimately fell through. Such a merger would have made good sense, however, in Eshel’s analysis of the Likud’s base of supporters: “They hate everything, and we’ve succeeded in whipping up that hatred. Hatred is what unites our camp.”
The gap between the Kahanist camp and Israel’s avowedly religious far-right parties proved a much shorter distance to bridge. In 2019 and 2020, the flagship party of Israel’s national-religious camp, Jewish Home, agreed to run with Jewish Power on a joint ticket for the Knesset (though the pact would fray before Israelis voted in the latter election).
The Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism (UTJ) party took a little longer to openly embrace Kahanism. Vying for votes from its traditional constituency by appealing to their fondness for the Jewish Power party and its leader Itamar Ben Gvir, UTJ proclaimed in a video advertisement on the eve of the most recent election that “harm to Itamar is harm to you” and that in the struggle for their shared political goals, “Itamar does it best.”
King’s Kahanist running mate for Jerusalem city council, Yonatan Yosef, is not only a man of words, but one of actions as well. Yosef was arrested in 2000 at the Kahane movement’s religious seminary in Jerusalem, the Yeshiva of the Jewish Idea, where he lived at the time and, according to Israel’s Shin Bet, where he convinced some of the Israeli army’s ultra-Orthodox troops to provide him with weapons and ammunition to be used for terrorist attacks against Palestinians.
Yosef walked away with just a slap on the wrist, thanks to the intervention of Rehavam Ze’evi, who upon Kahane’s 1988 departure from the Knesset took over as the legislative body’s primary proponent of ethnically cleansing the country of Palestinians. In 2000, while a government minister with a seat on the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, Ze’evi gave Yosef advance notice of the Shin Bet’s plan to arrest him and enough time to have most of the weapons he would have amassed carted off before the authorities arrived. Yosef is also a scion of the country’s premier rabbinical dynasty—the leaders of the Mizrahi ultra-Orthodox Shas party. Yosef is the grandson of former Chief Rabbi Ovadia Yosef and nephew of the current Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef, who have both ruled that under Jewish law non-Jews are forbidden from living in the Land of Israel, except as servants to Jews.
Kahane’s Racist Doctrine Now Peddled by Chabad Rabbi Ginsburgh
The religious stream that is most closely aligned with Kahanist doctrine, however, is probably the largest Jewish religious sect in the world today, the ultra-Orthodox Chabad movement. While Kahane still lived, Chabad served him in a vital supporting role, helping him to evade financial scrutiny by quietly channeling funds from the United States.
After Kahane’s death, top Chabad rabbi Yitzchak Ginsburgh, also an American immigrant to Israel, inherited Kahane’s position as the most unapologetically racist rabbi in the country. In 2010 Ginsburgh helped publish an influential and vicious religious tract authored by one of his leading disciples called The King’s Torah, which sanctions organ harvesting from non-Jews and infanticide (if a Jew suspects that the child will one day constitute a threat). Ginsburgh’s frequent tributes to Kahane’s memory, including repeated proclamations that “Kahane was right” have cemented the loyalty of third-generation Kahanists, including the latter’s namesake grandson, settler youth leader Meir Ettinger.
Ginsburgh’s base of power is in an Israeli settlement called Yitzhar in the occupied West Bank near the Palestinian city of Nablus, where he established a religious seminary and from which he incites his students to frequent acts of racist violence. One of the most notable occurred in 2015 when associates of the young Ettinger torched the home of the Palestinian Dawabshe family in the West Bank village of Duma, engulfing it in flames. The perpetrators took the time to graffiti Chabad’s slogan on the side of the house as the family inside burned to death.
Thirty years ago, even if Israeli rabbis thought like Kahane and Ginsburgh they would not dare to speak these sentiments out loud, much less publish and promote them. Under Netanyahu’s rule, however, such sentiments are routinely supported financially and politically by the institutions of the Israeli state. In 2019, Israel’s education minister presented Ginsburgh with the Torah Creativity award at an annual event sponsored by his ministry.
For all of its successes in the past three decades, the Kahanist movement has failed to meet two major benchmarks: producing a viable successor as charismatic as Kahane himself and transforming itself into a mass movement capable of competing in the Knesset with Israel’s largest secular right-wing political parties. The absence of a leader of his caliber has not stopped Kahane’s ideas from being adopted by a range of far-right politicians. The principles that Rabbi Meir Kahane popularized—that liberal democracy is an undesirable alien idea and that non-Jews must be driven down, and preferably out of Greater Israel altogether—have seeped deep into mainstream Israeli society. In the decades since his death, Kahane’s dedicated followers have dragged the country from the right to the far-right, and in the coming years they will drag it even further. In Israel of 2021, espousing racist hatred toward Palestinians and other non-Jews is not a mark of shame, but a badge of honor.
[David Sheen is an investigative journalist who has been reporting from Israel and Palestine for the past decade.]
 Robert Friedman, “The Sayings of Rabbi Kahane,” The New York Review of Books, February 13, 1986.
 David Sheen, “Decades After a Palestinian American Activist Was Assassinated in California, Two Suspects in His Killing Are Living Openly in Israel,” The Intercept, February 6, 2020.
 The list of killers and victims, with sources, has been compiled by the author and can be found here: https://merip.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/01/Sheen_Footnote_2-Kahanist_Killers_and_Victims_AuthorCompiled.pdf
 Robert Friedman, “The Brooklyn Avengers,” The New York Review, June 23, 1994.
 Ami Pedahzur and Arie Perliger, Jewish Terrorism in Israel (NY: Columbia University Press, 2011) pp. 89–90.
 “Netanyahu Aide in Leaked Recording: ‘Hate is What Unites Our Camp,’” The Times of Israel, February 29, 2020.
 Pedahzur and Perliger, Jewish Terrorism in Israel, p. 94.
 Robert Friedman, The False Prophet: Rabbi Meir Kahane, From FBI Informant to Knesset Member (Brooklyn: Lawrence Hill Books, 1990) pp. 226–227.
 Natan Odenheimer, “The Kabbalist Who Would be King of a New Jewish Monarchy in Israel,” The Forward, October 14, 2016.