Comparisons with Weimar

David Biale

  • The False Prophet. Rabbi Meir Kahane: From FBI Informant to Knesset Member by Robert Friedman
    Faber, 282 pp, £14.99, June 1990, ISBN 0 571 14842 5

The formation of a new Israeli government made up of the ultra-nationalist Right and the ultra-Orthodox is a propitious moment to reflect on the role of the radical Right in the history of Zionism. The state of Israel was created by left-wing elements, led by the social-democratic Labour Party. The Revisionists were the right wing of Zionism prior to 1948, but they were a small constellation in the Zionist firmament, a minority opposition in a largely socialist movement. Vladimir Jabotinsky, the leader of the Revisionists, articulated an anti-socialist, anti-liberal view of the world animated by Social Darwinism, militarism and Futurism. Jabotinsky’s party encompassed both conservative nationalist and radical elements. While Jabotinsky himself was cosmopolitan and often politically pragmatic, his followers, among the Stern group and the Irgun, were much more xenophobic and extreme.

For the first two decades of Israel’s existence, the radical Right was relegated to the political margin. But Israel’s success in the Six-Day War unleashed a mood of intoxication that invigorated the Right. From their point of view, the Six-Day War completed the process of national formation begun during the 1948 War of Independence. Far from being a war of self-defence, the 1967 campaign, as seen by the Right, liberated the national patrimony and secured the true historical boundaries of the Jewish state. At the same time, a messianic nationalist movement emerged out of the traditionally moderate Zionist Party. The conquest of Biblical Judaea and Samaria seemed to fulfil prophetic promises and to wed Biblical religion with modern Zionism. For the first time in the history of Zionism, religious elements set the nationalist agenda. Militants from the Gush Emunim (Bloc of the Faithful) settled in the newly-occupied territories and an ultra-nationalist alliance emerged between these religious messianists and the secular progeny of the Revisionists.

From the Right’s perspective, the 22 years since the Six-Day War have seen a constant struggle on the part of the rest of the world, often abetted by Israeli liberals, to deprive the Jews of rightful sovereignty over their whole land. They regard the withdrawal from Sinai and the failure of the Lebanese invasion as monumental setbacks in the drive for a Greater Israel. The current debate over the fate of the remaining territories occupied in 1967 is therefore, for the Right, less a debate about security than about the very essence of Israeli national identity. As with its earlier European analogues, especially in Germany, the rise of a politically potent radical Right in Israel is a product, on the one hand, of resentment at the perceived incompleteness of national unification and, on the other, of the fear that defeat is about to be snatched from the jaws of victory.

The period after the Six-Day War also produced an industrial revolution: Israel was turned from a partially developed country into one at the technological cutting-edge almost overnight. It was a process which left behind many of those who had come from under-developed Middle Eastern countries a decade or two before, and were now abruptly thrust into the world of the late 20th century. Socially and culturally dislocated, and treated with contempt by the reigning Labour Party, they gave their political support to the Right and, in the last election, to the ultra-Orthodox, who promised a return to their uprooted traditions. Thus integralist nationalism emerged as a mass movement not in the fragile early stages of state-building, but, ironically, at the height of Israel’s power.

The most extreme voice of this radical Right is that of Rabbi Meir Kahane, who immigrated to Israel from America in the early Seventies after a tumultuous career as an FBI informant and leader of the militant – and in some of its activities, terrorist – Jewish Defence League. A product of both the Revisionist movement and of religious Zionism, Kahane represents a one-man synthesis between the extreme nationalism of the secular Right and messianic Orthodoxy. It was a position he had already arrived at in the late Forties, thus prefiguring by nearly two decades the course that right-wing Jewish politics was to take after the Six-Day War.

It could be said that Kahane is Israel’s most important American Jewish immigrant since Golda Meir and, as such, he represents, in an extreme form, the tight interconnections between the increasingly nationalistic Orthodox communities in Israel and in America. Indeed, the rise of militant Jewish nationalism in America since the Sixties, of which the Jewish Defence League is the most radical manifestation, follows a strikingly parallel track with the rise of the radical Right in Israel. Events in Israel have, of course, had a direct influence on the American Jewish scene, but social forces in America – tensions with black nationalists in urban areas, for example – played an equally important role, as did the peculiarly American Jewish preoccupation with the Holocaust and with the struggle to free Soviet Jews.

Intensely hostile both to foreigners (blacks in America and Arabs in Israel) and to his Jewish opponents, wedded to violence as the cardinal political instrument and contemptuous of democracy, Kahane neatly fits the historical profile of the radical right-winger. His political style is deliberately provocative and outrageous, designed to infuriate respectable defenders of the present regime. He is a consummate and charismatic demagogue, shrewdly in tune with his audience and able to play on their deepest fears. He also shares with his radical right-wing counterparts elsewhere a certain marginality and deliberately anti-establishment élan. In 1988, practically all the forces in the Knesset combined to ban his party from the political arena, even as some of them endorsed elements of his programme. Like Le Pen in France, he makes a virtue of this excommunication, turning it into one more ‘proof’ of the hypocrisy and corruption of the establishment. In a recent book, he argues that the way the Israeli establishment has hounded him proves that Israel is not a democracy. Yet Kahane himself has no stake in democracy. Grounding his position in an idiosyncratic interpretation of Jewish sources, he contends that Judaism has nothing in common with democracy and, instead, demands a racially pure Jewish state.

Again like other radical politicians, both on the right and on the left, Kahane combines contempt for democracy with an appeal to the masses. He demands that Israel hold a referendum on the expulsion of the Arabs in lieu of the usual parliamentary debate. The alternative to such a referendum, he claims, is full-scale revolution. But then, Kahane himself is, above all, a revolutionary, dedicated to overthrowing the present Israeli establishment on the grounds of the very Zionist and Jewish principles that the establishment claims for itself. The programme of the moderate nationalists, he believes, can only be fulfilled by the most extreme means. This is what makes Kahane ideologically dangerous: he can claim that his policies only represent the logical extension of generally accepted nationalist principles – such as, in the case of Israel, the need for a Jewish majority.

The extent of Kahane’s appeal in Israel is hard to judge, especially since he can no longer stand for office. Before the 1988 elections, some polls claimed that he might win enough seats to lead the third-largest party in Israel. Polls also show that significant numbers of young Israelis approve of his radical ideas. More socially respectable voices, such as that of Rehavam Zevi, the leader of the Moledet Party which also advocates expulsion of the Arabs, have cashed in on his appeal. While the movement he heads remains both small and on the margin, his ideas and his style have made significant inroads as the political clout of the radical Right in general has increased.

The Israeli political establishment has consistently portrayed Kahane as an outsider, an American import with no roots in Israeli society – one is reminded of Germany’s initial treatment of Hitler as an Austrian interloper. Even the radical Right which shares Kahane’s ideas has managed to use this argument to make itself look respectable by contrast. Yet Kahane is not merely a bizarre American product, although he is that too. Perhaps the greatest strength of Friedman’s book is that Kahane is firmly placed in the history of the radical Zionist Right. Kahane’s father was born in Palestine and he was an active member of the American branch of the Revisionists (Jabotinsky once visited the Kahane home). The massacre of members of his father’s family by Arabs in 1938 was a family trauma that must have played its part in pushing the young Meir towards his violently anti-Arab stance. He was, for a time, a member of Betar, the militaristic Revisionist youth movement. When he moved to Israel, he was invited to join Begin’s Likud Party, but, characteristically, was disinclined to subordinate himself to a pre-existing political organisation. Had he joined forces with Begin, Kahane would no doubt be an important figure in one of today’s right-wing parties.

Friedman also shows how Kahane’s Jewish Defence League received both support and instruction from members of the Israeli radical Right in the early Seventies when the JDL launched its campaign to free Soviet Jews. Notable among these was Yitzhak Shamir, today Israel’s Prime Minister, but then recently retired from Mossad. Friedman suggests, but does not prove, that through Shamir and other retired operatives, Mossad used the JDL for its own purposes – in effect, turning the noisy but relatively harmless League into a deadly terrorist outfit. Even now, long after Kahane was ostracised by his former mentors, American prosecutors prove strangely unable to extradite JDL members living in Israel who have been implicated in crimes in the United States – crimes which include several murders. Kahane and his followers still apparently enjoy significant protection from certain figures within the Israeli establishment.

Much of Friedman’s account focuses on the personal side of Kahane’s career. And a sordid story it is. Kahane emerges as an unscrupulous con-artist, capable of manipulating and lying when it suits his purposes and of abandoning compatriots in the lurch. If Friedman is correct, Kahane pillaged JDL funds for his own personal benefit and repeatedly abused the loyalty of those closest to him. When comrades turned against him, he could prove vicious in the extreme. Kahane and his circle are revealed here as little better than violent thugs, a collection of misfits and psychopaths and a caricature of a true political movement. Indeed, there are fascinating links between the JDL and the American Jewish underworld which had strong ties to Israel during the 1948 war.

Most scandalous of all is the story of Kahane’s affair with a non-Jewish woman, Donna Estelle Evans, in the mid-Sixties. Evans committed suicide in 1966 after Kahane reneged on a promise to marry her. As an Orthodox rabbi who preached against intermarriage, Kahane found himself in a predicament. His response was bizarre. He established a JDL fund in Evans’s name that continued to exist into the Seventies. It may well be that Kahane’s present obsession with Arab men having sexual relations with Jewish women and his proposal of Nuremberg-style racial purity laws for Israel are at least in part a consequence of his guilt over the Evans tragedy.

The attention Friedman pays to Kahane’s personal weakness and lack of principle has the paradoxical effect of rendering him less threatening than Friedman intends. If the rabbi is known to be no more than an unscrupulous and hypocritical gangster, this must surely limit his political potential. Friedman’s account would have benefited from an analysis of the appeal that Kahane retains in Israel despite (or, perhaps, because) of his political excommunication. His eventual success or failure will have more to do with the constellation of social forces, including the resilience of Israeli democracy, than with his character. And this is precisely where there is cause for concern. Israel’s system of government is more or less totally discredited: according to one poll, only 14 per cent of the electorate approve of the present right-wing coalition government. Comparisons with Weimar Germany are not entirely specious. If some kind of crisis, political, military or economic, should further undermine the political establishment, then Kahane, having been banned by the system, might well be able to pose as the one untainted actor on the stage. Such a scenario might seem unlikely, but it would be as well to recall the history of radical right-wing movements elsewhere before dismissing it out of hand.

That Zionism as a national movement and Israel as a state are susceptible to the ideology of the radical Right says less about their particular character than it does about the nature of nationalism in general. Like all old nationalities that have only found political expression in a unified state in modern times, the Jews cannot be immune to the dangers and temptations of integralist nationalism. Like Europe between the wars, the Middle East as a whole may be heading towards a theocratic version of this kind of radical nationalism. Despite its different religion and the hostility of the countries around it, Israel is an inseparable part of the Middle East and it may find itself unintentionally imitating its Moslem neighbours. The career of Meir Kahane is a clear warning that the abyss lies close at hand.